Why Jesus is not Like Evel Knievel

First Sunday in Lent

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Romans 10:8b-13

Luke 4:1-13

Sandro_Botticelli,_The_Temptation_of_Christ_(detail_5)
Part of Botticelli’s The Temptation of Christ

We are starting our Stump the Pastor Questions! The first question is, “What time was the crucifixion?” That may initially sound like a pretty insignificant question, but it actually is very important. In our last Feast of Faith adult class we talked about the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. At the end of our class we asked the question, “Why do we have four Gospels telling the same story about Jesus?” and then we talked about how the four Gospel accounts contradict each other in various ways. Some of the contradictions consist of the following:

  • According to Matthew, at Jesus’ baptism the voice from heaven says to Jesus, “You are my Son, the beloved…” but in Luke and Mark the voice says, “This is my Son, the beloved…”(Matthew 3:17 and Luke 3:22/Mark 1:11). In one account it seems like the voice is speaking to Jesus directly and in the others it seems like the voice is speaking to everyone present.
  • According to John, one of the first things Jesus does in his ministry is cleanse the Temple, chasing out the money changers, but according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke it is one of the last things Jesus does. (John 2:13-16 and Matthew 21:12-13/Mark 11:15-17)
  • According to John, Jesus was crucified on the day before Passover at the 6th hour (about noon) and according to Mark, Jesus was crucified on the day of Passover at the 3rd hour (about 9:00am)

The same thing happens in the Temptation of Jesus. The ordering of the devil’s tests is different between Matthew and Luke. Matthew lists them in the following order:

  1. Turn stones into bread.
  2. Throw yourself from the Temple and be caught by God’s angels.
  3. Worship the devil and receive all the kingdoms of the world.

 

Luke, however, lists them in this order:

  1. Turn stones into bread
  2. Worship the devil and receive all the kingdoms of the world.
  3. Throw yourself from the Temple and be caught by God’s angels.

 

When confronted with these apparent contradictions in the Gospels we are left with a few choices regarding how to understand them.

First, you can throw out the whole thing. You could decide that if every fact doesn’t line up, then someone must be lying and none of the story can be trusted. I do not think this is a good or valid approach.

Second, you can try to explain away the differences and harmonize the texts. For the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, some say that John and Mark were using different ways of telling time and when Mark says Jesus was crucified at the 3rd hour he means 9am, but John says 6th hour he is using a different way of telling time and means 6am which would give Jesus 3 hours before the crucifixion process is complete. Some people opt for the harmonization approach, but frankly it requires some serious flexibility in reading the texts. Most of the time, these explanations are far-fetched. It also doesn’t explain how in the 1700 years since the Bible took on its current form, no one thought it important enough to harmonize these ambiguities.

Third, you can let the texts say what they say. Each Gospel writer has a unique message to say about Jesus Christ and you cannot lump them all together in a single harmonized story. The details of the story are drawn out to make a point about who Jesus is and not to prove that he really exists and did what the church says he did- that was already a given. Mark, the first Gospel, portrays Jesus as a man on a mission and always on the move, and Jesus emphasizes his self-giving and suffering role as Messiah. Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ wisdom and instruction for how the church ought to get along with each other and those outside of the church. Luke remembers the importance of prayer to Jesus and how highly favored the poor and marginalized are in God’s kingdom. John remembers Jesus’ closeness with God the Father and his divine origin.

So what does Luke want us to know about Jesus in his telling of the temptation story? Luke and Matthew differ on the grand finale test from the devil. The last temptation is meant to stick with us as the most defining test that shows us what Jesus’ ministry is all about. Think of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back- at the end of the movie you get the big reveal- Darth Vader is Luke’s father! A few minutes later, the scene is wrapped up and the movie concludes. Roll credits. Think about how distracting or underwhelming that moment would have been if Darth Vader reveals that he is Luke’s father, Luke gets away and is reunited with his friends, and then they talk for five minutes about how to make lightsabers or how old the Millennium Falcon is. The grand finale is meant to be just that- Grand. In Matthew, Jesus’ grand finale is that he refuses to receive the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshiping the devil. In Luke, Jesus’ grand finale is that he refuses to put God to the test by leaping off of the Temple in Jerusalem in the hope that he will be caught by God’s angels.

The devil offers Jesus the easy way out. Make a huge leap of faith from the Temple roof and you will know for certain whether or not your mission from God will succeed. “If you are the Son of God…” the devil says, “jump. If you don’t, maybe you are too chicken and afraid that you aren’t really God’s Son.” The other test is to see if Jesus will make a spectacle of himself. If Jesus leaps from the Temple and is caught by God’s angels, then the people who see it will have no doubt that Jesus is the Son of God. That type of spectacle can raise an army or a church very quickly.

The devil gives Jesus what I like to think of as the “Evel Knievel pitch.” Evel Knievel was famous for making jumps with his motorcycle over all kinds of interesting obstacles- rows of cars, rows of buses, a shark tank, and the Grand Canyon to name a few. Death-defying stunts are exciting. Few people have the courage to undertake them and very few wind up unscathed. Knievel took his fair share of falls and almost died multiple times. If Jesus pulled off this Temple leap stunt, he would certainly be remembered as blessed as God’s own Son.

 

But Jesus refuses to leap off the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus is ready to go to Jerusalem, but he does not go there to dazzle the people into following him. He goes there to serve and to give his life for the sake of many. He travels to Jerusalem, the capital of God’s chosen people. He travels to the place where the Temple of God is- where God’s very presence is said to be. He goes there not to show off his power so that many might serve him, but he goes to give his own life on the cross so that he might serve many with the gifts of forgiveness and abundant life.

The testing of Jesus is not a lesson showing us how we can resist temptation just like Jesus did. The reality is that we, like the Israelites before us who were tempted in the wilderness do not trust that God will provide us with all that we need, we do worship other gods, and we do trust in spectacles of power rather than humble deeds of mercy. The lesson Luke shares with us, is that Jesus did for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He opened the way of everlasting life for us through humble service and the giving up of his entire life. Remembering that Jesus did not take the easy way out and rule by force or spectacle, we know that we can call on the name of Jesus and be saved from sin and death just as the Israelites were saved from slavery in Egypt.

We start and end our Lenten journey at the cross of Jesus. Luke wants us to remember what Jesus did in Jerusalem, but also what he did not do. He did not wow us into following him by doing Evel Knievel type stunts. Jesus’ ministry wasn’t all about what an amazing, powerful guy he was, but it was about the way he emptied himself in loving service to an undeserving people. Jesus did not leap from the Temple, but he was raised on a cross for us.

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