Donald Miller is an author who writes about Christian spirituality in our post-modern, post-Christendom, polarized culture. His breakout book, “Blue Like Jazz,” is a look at his own faith journey in the less than Christian culture of Portland, OR and his time at the less than Christian, perhaps even hedonistic, Reed College. Reed College is known for an anything goes culture and an official policy that allows drugs and alcohol openly on campus. Donald Miller tells of “coming out of the closet” as a Christian there and how people pushed him all the time about believing in a God that allowed bad things to happen to good people, didn’t seem to always answer prayer, allowed poverty, violence, hunger, disease, war, and any other horror that humanity could invent. He was pushed on how the Church just bilked good, hard working people out of their money and forced guilt for not following rules and going to Church on Sundays. When faced with those accusations, Donald admits that he struggled with those views on God and how God doesn’t seem to do what we think God should do. After all, wanting those things to end is not a bad thing.
But he realized something else in talking to people, Christian and non-Christian alike: we all seem to have an agenda with God. We all seem to have this idea who God is and what God should do and it shapes our relationship with God and with other people. Don says that his first image of God as a young person was that of God as a cosmic slot machine. We put our prayers, demands, wishes into God and want to pull the lever to get our answers and our reward. A transactional God if you will. We do A then God will do B. Very simple, neat clean, and predictable. Unfortunately, this viewpoint is more than prevalent and saturates our culture. One of my favorite artists, Janice Joplin, highlights this with her iconic song Mercedes Benz: “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz. My friends all drive Porsches; I must make amends. Worked hard all my lifetime, with no help from my friends. Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” (This will be sung.)
She then asks for a color tv and then simply a night on the town. She lowers her expectations with each verse but she hits on the crux of the human condition: we want what we want when we want it and we aren’t even to ashamed to ask God for these things with the presumption that God will fulfill our every whim. After all we’re good people, we pray, we give to our church, we teach Sunday School. Shouldn’t God give us something back in return or to use the verbiage from what is known as the prosperity gospel, if you do the right thing, believe correctly, and of course give enough money to their ministries God will bless you with whatever you ask. You will get a reward.
Only that doesn’t hold up for very long. Eventually that image of God will let you down. That image of God has more to do with ourselves and what we think we want and need than about what God is actually doing in the world. That image of God isn’t about unending grace, unconditional love and eternal life. That image of God is one that the world can control, manipulate and ultimately dismantle. But the good news is that this is not who God is: we don’t have a transactional God, we have a relational God. We have a God who doesn’t confuse relationship and love with rewards.
I think that this is point of this story that shows up in Luke 4 as well as in Matthew and Mark. I wonder if this passage is not about Jesus setting an example of resisting temptation, or about how we should be like Jesus, or that we will be tested like Jesus was tested. We can discuss all of those concepts and that would be fine. However, when we ask ourselves why was this story is included in the three synoptic gospels, I think the answer is relationship. The world operates on transactions and quid pro quo, and we often, even in our closest relationships operate on that premise as well. If the other person does something (or doesn’t do something) then we will react in kind. We think that if we do a good job, or ask nicely, we should get our Mercedes Benz.
Jesus refuses to even entertain that way of being and play that game, if you will. At every turn with the devil, Jesus points back to God and what God desires for us: deep and abiding relationship. We don’t live by bread alone, Jesus says; we are wired for connectivity. We worship and serve God, Jesus says; which means gathering as a community for worship and serving our neighbors. Don’t test God, Jesus says, don’t confuse God with an ATM, or a Magic 8 ball or think that God is about answers and rewards for good behavior. God is about relationship; being on the journey with us whether we are in the wilderness or in the lap of luxury, whether we behave or not; whether we deserve it or not. God knows that what we really need and God simply gives as pure gift: grace and mercy through Jesus Christ.
Jesus who reveals the promise of life, freedom and grace from God that only God can give us. Jesus who heals, feeds, weeps and loves all people so that God’s love can be known in the world. Possessions, power and yes, even food, are fleeting and temporary. They lead to a cavern so deep that we spend a lifetime trying to fill it with more and more, never satisfied. But Jesus, as God’s perfect gift, fills us with living water, fills us with God’s word and fills us with himself through bread and wine, gathering us as one people of God for the sake of the world so that the world is filled with love. This is what it is to be blessed. To be loved and to belong to the Creator of the heavens and the earth.
Just as Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” and led by the Spirit into the wilderness, God’s promise is that the Holy Spirit fills us and always stays with us everywhere we journey. We celebrated that Jesus is God’s promise of relationship and love forever with pouring water over Will Patrick this morning. Reality is that believing in God won’t make all of our problems go away or that we will get a reward; there will be cancer, depression, not enough money, not enough time, not enough power. The promise is that God fills us with the Holy Spirit to be with us no matter what, especially in our wilderness wandering. Reality is that we will experience earthly death. The promise is that God will transform our tears into abundant joy, our sorrow into extraordinary hope and our death into life forever with God. The promise is that we belong to God and with God, forever, no matter what. Amen.