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God with a Human Face by John C. Purdy


John C. Purdy is a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), which he served for 26 years as an editor of curriculum resource. He is also the author of Parables at Work (Westminster) and God with a Human Face (Westminster/Knox). God with a Human Face was published by Westminster/John Knox in l993 and is used by permission of the author, who also prepared the text for Religion Online.


Chapter 2: God Can Take the Heat(Mark 1:9 - 11; Luke 4:1-13)


A decisive battle of the Civil War took place in the heart of Robert E. Lee. After the firing on Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln offered to appoint Lee as commander of the Union armies. Lee decided that his first loyalty was to his home state, so he accepted instead the appointment as head of the state militia of Virginia While Lincoln searched for a general who could match wits and arms with Lee, the war was nearly lost for the Union. What if Lee had accepted Lincoln's offer? Quite possibly the struggle would have been quickly settled, secession defeated, and the culture of the Old South preserved. Today Robert E. Lee might be hailed as the savior of his people - in both South and North.

Jesus' appointment as savior of his people took place in the following way:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. "(Mark 1:9 - 11)

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread. "Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority, for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written,

'Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.
'"

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son o[ God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,

'He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,'
and
'On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'

Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' "When the devil hail finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

(Luke 4:1 - 13)

Many of us bring to this narrative vivid images of the Spirit as a bird and of the devil as a man with horns and a tail. Some may sympathize with the woman in the limerick:

There was an old maid from our region,
Who had no use for religion.
To the day that she died,
She always denied
The Father, the Son, and the Pigeon.

Others may find the figure of the devil equally ridiculous. They can't shake off the notion that he belongs with scarecrows, goblins, and white-sheeted ghosts.

But the biblical narrative does not say that the Spirit took the form of a dove, nor that the devil appeared to Jesus as a living being. The story says only that Jesus had a vision of the Spirit coming down "like a dove"; the devil is represented only by a voice. The question of whether the devil actually exists lies outside the scope of this study. Martin Luther, premier Protestant forebear, believed that indeed the devil exists. But Luther insisted that the devil cannot take corporeal shape, and he never said the devil was to be feared - only resisted! In "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," he taught us to sing:

The prince of darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

With those cautionary comments about doves and devils in mind, let us turn our attention to the story of Jesus' appointment and testing.

The Baptism

The story begins with a baptism. Jesus leaves his hometown and goes to the Jordan, where John baptizes him in that river. There is nothing about Jesus' baptism to distinguish it from yours and mine, except that apparently he was immersed, while many of us were sprinkled. But this ordinary event is the signal for extraordinary events to follow; the baptism is not the explosion, but rather the fuse.

Immediately after the baptism a remarkable vision is given to Jesus. There is a sudden rent in the dome of the heavens arching over his head - as though a melon had been sliced open with a knife. And through this rent, like a bird fluttering to earth, comes the Spirit of God. And like a bird alighting on its nest, the Spirit lights on Jesus.

There is nothing in our own experience to help us understand what this was like, nor is there anything comparable in literature or science. This may explain why the arts have had such a free hand in fashioning symbols for the Spirit - why there are so many stained glass windows with upside-down birds. In Jesus' vision the dove was an outward sign of an invisible occurrence: Henceforth Jesus would be the Spirit-filled man. In, with, and under the human spirit by which he was moved would be the Spirit of God.

The gift of the Spirit is not to be understood as bestowing some kind of magical power. If you have observed mourning doves in your backyard, you know that these creatures are hardly symbols of dominance. The descent of the dove signifies only that the Spirit has come down from God to anoint and equip Jesus as Savior.

For the human spirit, however noble it may sometimes be, is not equal to the task of salvation. We human beings cannot be saved by the best of our genius, courage, wit, heart, or sympathy. If Lee's refusal to accept the appointment as head of the Union armies was one pivotal moment in the Civil War, so was his decision to send Pickett's division across the fields of Gettysburg. After the failure of that charge, Lee went among his troops and confessed his culpability. His spirit had failed him and his cause.

In the preceding chapter, we heard that Jesus grew to be strong, filled with wisdom, and favored by God. But that, in itself, was not sufficient for the work to which he was called. The Spirit of God was needed.

"My Son, the Beloved"

When Jesus saw the Spirit descending on him, there was more. The vision was accompanied by a voice. Through the rent in the sky by which the Spirit came sounded these words: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." This was not so much a call as it was a certification. When you go to your doctor's office, you see on the wall a certification of her right to practice her specialty - evidence that she has earned the right to be called an internist or a neurosurgeon. The voice from heaven was Jesus' certification. He might now act on God's authority, as God's Son, in confidence that he had God's blessing. The voice was no license to act like God, to play at being God, any more than the certificate on your doctor's wall is an ironclad guarantee that you will be cured of cancer! But it is the doctor's validation to perform her work in the confidence that good things will happen.

The voice from heaven gives Jesus a similar confidence. Henceforth he knows his Father's voice. He can distinguish between that voice and the murmurings of the id, the ego, or the superego. The voice of conscience is notoriously unreliable: As his defense for killing Jews, Adolf Eichmann said that he was only carrying out his duty. Jesus may also know when it is God who speaks to him through scripture - and when it is the devil who is whispering to him in scriptural words.

For it is tormenting to the willing spirit to hear voices - to have urgings and impulses - and not to know from whence they come. The young person wonders, Am I obsessed with God's cause, or am I possessed and driven by personal ambition? I feel that there are things I ought to do, things that would benefit humankind. But is it only the siren song of success I hear? Or am I in tune with God?

After his baptismal experience, Jesus may trust his inner ear; he may know that the voices are not merely lust or hunger or the need for glory. He may listen for the true, insistent, familiar voice of the Father, prompting him as he enacts his role as savior.

Passing the Tests

The first prompting of the Spirit sends Jesus into the wilderness, where for forty days he is without food. And during that time, he is allowed to be tempted by the devil. Does the devil come to him only as a voice? Does he have a vision of the devil, comparable to that of the dove? We are not told, nor are we told all that transpires. We are privy only to the final three temptations.

A controversial film of 1988 was Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, based on a novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis. The film follows - with some fidelity - the biblical story of Jesus up to the crucifixion. There Jesus' ultimate temptation is revealed: He has a dream in which he is taken down from the cross, marries his sweetheart - Mary Magdalene - and enjoys a normal life, with children, and grandchildren.

Perhaps Jesus was tempted with the option of a normal life. Perhaps, like Goethe's Faust, he was tempted with adventure, beauty, economic power, endless excitement. The Gospel story seems to invite us to regard the final three temptations as a kind of final exam, covering all the other temptations that have been encountered in the course of the forty days.

We are told that Jesus was terribly hungry by the time these three final temptations were offered. Our physical needs are not, in themselves, temptations. Our hungers for food, sex, and shelter from the cold are not temptations. But they make us more vulnerable to temptation. C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters (1943) purport to be written by a demon in hell to his nephew on earth. In one letter Screwtape writes to Wormwood:

"I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years' work beginning to totter. If! had lost my head and begun to attempt a defence by argument I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. The Enemy presumably made the counter-suggestion (you know how one can never quite overhear what He says to them?) that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line for when I said 'Quite. In fact much too important to tackle at the end of a morning,' the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added 'Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind,' he was already halfway to the door." (pp. 12 - 13)

The devil is an expert counselor. Note the first temptation. Jesus is famished - likely not far from death. The psychic powers of humans are always at their weakest when physical powers are low. And the suggestion the devil makes is fiendish in its relevance: "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." And why not? What good is faith without food? How is one to be the savior of one's people if one cannot provide them with bread? And what does it mean to be the Son of the God who created the universe if one has no control over the forces of nature? Besides, to allow oneself to starve to death - when the means of securing life are at hand - is a form of suicide.

Jesus counters with a verse from scripture: "One does not live by bread alone." Jesus knows with whom he has to deal; he is not going to do anything the devil suggests, no matter how practical or therapeutic. So he says, in effect: I do not have to save my own life; to end my life or to continue it is not my choice to make.

The devil then shifts the grounds of the attack. Jesus is taken up on some high place, where the whole earth is spread out beneath him - where the various nations appear to him like multi-colored states on a map. The devil offers Jesus their kingship - with both its power and its glory. Such a prospect has lured other young men: Alexander, Napoleon. Any youth with great confidence in destiny and imagination enough to see the whole world may dream of being its exalted ruler. The reach for power by the young and strong is just as human as the reach for bread when one is famished.

Is it a bona fide offer? Is the devil offering Jesus something that is within his powers to give? Martin Luther thought so. According to a biographer: "Christ and the Devil were equally real to him. . . . Christ and Satan wage a cosmic war for mastery over church and world. .. . Satan's power is not unlimited; he must stay within specified bounds, but until doomsday they encompass the whole world" (Heiko Oberman, "Luther Against the Devil" Christian Century 107/3,Jan. 24, 1990, pp. 76, 79).

Note that Jesus does not challenge the right of the devil to make the offer, which has a dual hook - glory and authority. Not only is Jesus offered a shining place in the sun, but also he will have the power to do great good. He can be the world's Judge, who sets right what has been wrong, settles old scores, creates new systems of justice, pulls down the mighty from their thrones, and lifts up the wretched of the earth. The devil is a clever politician: He knows how to offer power in such a way that it does not appear so much as a grab for glory as a chance to do great good.

But the devil's asking price is too high: "If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." To this Jesus makes a simple reply, again quoting scripture: "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" Humans have the choice between God and idolatry. There is no Third World of the spirit, a neutral zone that offers refuge from both God and the devil. Who does not choose God choose false gods.

Then the devil shows that he is also a skilled theologian; he knows his Bible and how to quote it. He takes Jesus to the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem and says, in effect: You have been throwing scripture at me; here is some for you. And then he cites verses from the Bible which promise that God will send angels to rescue one who is in trouble. He challenges Jesus to test the validity of that promise by jumping off the roof.

Jesus counters scripture with scripture: "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' "Believing the truth of the Bible and demanding proofs of its veracity are two different things. A God whose promises have to be tested is not a very reliable Father.

And so the devil, having tried every test in his repertoire, packs up and goes away - until a better opportunity shall present itself.

Jesus has successfully passed every test. His appointment is complete. He is equipped, certified, and thoroughly tested. He has proven himself able to resist the temptations that lead to sin and its evil consequences: pride in human self-sufficiency, idolatry, doubt of God's promises.

During World War II, I worked one summer in a factory that made high-speed steel for aircraft. Bars of metal were heated red hot, and then hammered into yet smaller bars. These were heated again and then rolled into rods and strips. Similarly, by his wilderness experience Jesus was hammered and hardened for the work that lay ahead. The Beloved Son showed that he could take the heat.

When we pray in the Lord's Prayer, "Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one" (Matt. 6:13), we are not addressing ourselves to one who does not know what we are up against. God has been exposed to the heat of battle, the hammering of opposition, the very fires of hell. God will not turn away at the approach of the enemy, God will not back down in the face of evil. God can take the heat. At least one Jewish philosopher explains the Holocaust as God's turning his face away. Was this evil too much even for God? Surely God can take the heat even of the ovens of Auschwitz.

An Opportune Time

The story of Jesus' testing ends with the enigmatic statement, "[The devil] departed from him until an opportune time." The statement foretells a continuing presence of evil in this world. In Flannery O'Connor's story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," a family encounters evil in a deserted place. Father, mother, and three children are driving from Tennessee to Florida, with grandmother as a very unwilling passenger. Under the promptings of the old woman, the children bedevil the father into turning up a side road into lonely territory. A cat, smuggled on board by the old woman, escapes and startles the father, who drives the car into a deep ditch. Three men come along - escaped outlaws, led by the Misfit. At first the criminals plan only to take clothes and the car. But when the grandmother recognizes the Misfit and blurts out his name, the entire family is shot and killed. Before he shoots the grandmother, the Misfit explains his name: His various punishments at the hands of society by no means fit his crimes. She invokes the name of our Savior:

"Jesus!" the old lady cried. "You've got good blood! I know you wouldn't shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady."

Like the devil in the Gospel story, the Misfit is a student of scripture:

"Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead ... and He shouldn't have done it. He thown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can - by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness."

From such cruelty, infantile behavior, fecklessness, and downright stupidity surely God is tempted to turn away! But if the Gospel narrative is to be trusted, God does not turn away in the face of evil. God can take the heat. Yet when have you been sorely tempted to think that God's face has been turned away from you?

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