AGM Sunday: The Three Temptations of the Church
Matthew 4: 1-11 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ March 1, 2020
There are evident ebbs and flows in church attendance throughout the year, aren’t there? Summer is a little slower than the fall and winter. The Sunday following Christmas Eve tends to be much lower than the previous Sundays in December. The Sunday following Easter is often met with a similar involvement pattern. And this Sunday, AGM Sunday, we also see a curious change with involvement. I’ve often wondered why this is the case, but it certainly seems to be a Sunday that is met with challenge for congregational engagement. As a curious pastor, I often ponder what the solution is to this growing trend. Some churches joke and say that the solution is to bolt the doors and not allow people to leave until after worship and the meeting concludes! Others dangle the carrot of a Shrove Tuesday pancake supper or sumptuous lunch after the meeting’s conclusion to encourage involvement. Yet, I am not sure that these solutions really touch the heart of the problem. I think the heart of the challenge before us is what I would like to call ‘the three temptations of the church’.
This morning’s text that Kathleen read for us invites us into this familiar world of temptation: Jesus’ three temptations. And yes, I just said “familiar” because I believe that dealing with these three forms of temptation are as human as breathing or complaining about our Vancouver Canucks. In the scripture story, having fasted for a full 40 days, the tempter challenges Jesus with three temptations: the temptation to attempt the miraculous; the temptation for a grand spectacle; and the temptation to gain political power. Firstly, the temptation for the miraculous: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” This first temptation is about seeking a theology that gives us the reward without the work. It promises us “the kingdom” without acknowledging the cross that comes before. It is about denying the pains of Good Friday that we each must experience in order to arrive at Easter’s resurrection. It is about our love of quick fixes and easy solutions and miracles without doing the work. Do you ever encounter this temptation? Do you yearn for ‘the easy way’? I know I do. It is very real for us each day.
The second temptation follows from the first. It is about the temptation to seek a grand spectacle. Taking Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple the tempter says: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Seeking spectacle is about looking to the miracle workers who we can idolize and worship: the celebrities, the experts, the icons who we our world has created and we are drawn to ‘follow’. It is that temptation to place the work, that is ours to do, in the hands of the expert. Our world seems more concerned with the plight of Harry and Meagan, with Justin Bieber’s latest escapade, with Jennifer Lopez’s newest workout, and with Taylor Swift’s latest release than we are with the neighbor next door or the person in need outside our grocery store. Who is important and who is not? In this world that idolizes the experts, do we hold fast to Jesus’ teaching that the last will be first? This is another challenging temptation. Do you ever encounter this temptation? I know I do.
The third temptation continues this theme as we are tempted to acquire power: political power and sheer control over others. Taking Jesus up to the highest mountain, the tempter showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world saying: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” So much of world history has been written with this quest for power over others. The tendency in this temptation is to view ‘the other’ from the perspective of the benefit they offer unto us. What benefit does this person offer to me? To my cause? We think of how they can help us rather than how we might be of care and service to them or with them. Do you ever encounter this temptation? I know I do.
And to each of these challenging temptations, Jesus denies the tempter. Perhaps he is drawing on his divine part? But, in his hunger he stays the course and denies each temptation faithfully. But make no mistake, they are there. They are there in this passage, and they will continue through Jesus’ entire ministry until his death. There will be moments of doubt and frustration with his disciples and he will be tempted. There will even be moments of doubt and temptation at Gethsemane as he hangs upon the cross. And, these temptations are part of our existence as well. If we are, as Paul puts it in his letters to the early church, members of Jesus’ body. If we are ‘the body of Christ’ alive as the church today, it is important for us to acknowledge the temptations and doubts that we inevitably have as well. Just as Jesus did, we also have ‘Three Temptations of the Church’.
This text occurs at the end of Jesus’ 40 day fast. To say that the church is hungry and famished as well is certainly an understatement. ‘Being the church’ today is a BIG challenge. Being the church has never been this difficult! We can all recall times when Sunday Schools were full to overflowing, when Sunday was a day reserved for worship and family, when we were building new churches each year. Today, like Jesus in this morning’s text, we are hungry from a time of fasting. Churches are closing and the ones that are open are struggling to continue exercising a faithful ministry. Here at Northwood, we have gone from 2 full time ministers, to 1.5, and now to one. Many churches today operate by sharing a minister between two or three pastoral charges and, in other cases, entirely by lay leadership. We are in a fasting time, and we are hungry!
The temptations for us as the church, I suspect, are ones which parallel Jesus’ story in Matthew 4. As Jesus living body here in 2020, we are subjected to the same temptations. The temptations of seeking the miraculous; the temptations of seeking spectacle, and the temptations of seeking power. The challenge of being the church is at an all-time high. And the temptation to not fully engage in the deep work of being the church is very seductive. Who among us is not tempted to give our work over to ‘an expert’, to do it for us? How tempting is it to get caught up in lamenting back to a time of Christendom when the Lord’s Prayer was taught in school and families came in droves to church. How tempting is it to not acknowledge the present realities as we consider our timeless call to be the living body of Christ.
And that is where you come in. The brave few who make up Northwood’s body. The even braver few that have come to wrestle and struggle with the temptations that take us away and the faith that guides us in being the church into this new year and beyond. And so, this second half of our reflection will continue a little later in the service as groups consider the temptations and the challenges of being the church as we further review our goals as a church. These goals, as you recall, were set in 2016 as part of the process in searching for a new minister. And the timeline of five years was given. We are now coming towards the conclusion of those five years. How are we doing? Where do we need to change? How shall we shape our ministry for the next five? We are hungry, and the temptations are before us, yet the call to be the faithful living body of Christ continues.
And so, may we acknowledge the hunger and fasting that we have been doing as a church. May we acknowledge the temptations that are present; and may we rise to the call to be Jesus’ faithful body here in this part of God’s beautiful world.