In Missouri, they think of themselves as plainspoken, stoic folks. They are called the Show-me state because they do not accept things on face value, instead demanding that you Show them. The story goes that a congressman gave a little speech in Philadelphia saying that “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockle-burs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”
That’s the legend anyway. As likely as not it had nothing to do with that but that’s how legends grow, a little ambiguity goes a long way.
The reputation hearkens back to a set of Midwestern values that I think sell better in the Midwest than they do in other places. It always made them seem a little lacking in the imagination department to me, a little literalist, by definition a little empiricist, demanding a demonstration, a presentation of everything instead of just considering the source from time to time, letting the voice of authority speak occasionally.
What would we do with Luke if we used the same tactic? Or Paul? Or John?
They cannot show us anymore. We have only frothy eloquence, especially from Luke. We have only the truly great story, dare I say the Greatest Story Ever Told, and the Holy Spirit moving amongst us to carry the gift of faith in Jesus Christ to the people.
I wonder if just looking in the mirror is enough to convince us of the efficacy of that plan, or do we still need to be shown. After al, none of us was there at the transfiguration, none of us was there in Gethsemane, none of Golgotha, and yet we believe. Nobody showed us anything except the Holy Spirit and yet we all made it through into the promised land, so to speak.
After all, looking in the mirror ought to show us a people who believe, who take the Good News for what it is, the love letter that God wrote to us, guiding the hands of authors and interpreters over the centuries, bringing us the freedom that comes with Christ so that we can live this life of ours to the fullest, not afraid of what will become of us once we die.
After all, looking in the mirror ought to show us the power of belief, the truth of Jesus words to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Take that Missouri.
That’s probably unfair to Missourians (is that what they’re called?). After all, we live in a world of testing and proof, we are all living post-enlightenment, so to speak, when the scientific method became paramount and the witness of faith fell into ill-repute and disuse.
We are taught to trust the evidence of our eyes and ears in schools and colleges. The only place an eyewitness account is still valuable in any sort of societally approved way is in the courtroom but since the whole court system relies on testimony and it is impossible to show someone committing a crime, that might not be the best example.
But think back to those chemistry labs and all of the classes back in the day. Remember when you could show them, the teachers? Every so often you actually could light the burner, heat the solution and demonstrate the reaction, it would turn color or foam up or explode on cue as you predicted and your reward for correctly demonstrating it was a good grade.
Showing someone was something to be sought out, it was a general good and you wanted to be able to do it because that was a power all in itself, the power to be the teacher for a second, to be right, to know the answer.
In this morning’s gospel, it seems like the Devil is testing Jesus, finding out if, as he asks again and again, “If you are the Son of God . . .” knowing full well that Jesus is the Son of God. Like I said, it seems like the Devil is testing Jesus, tempting Jesus to dance to the tune Satan is playing, to play the Devil’s game instead of God’s.
How blessed are we that Jesus is not so easily drawn into the devil’s game.
The game the devil is tempting Jesus with is the game of “Show-me” or proving again and again that he is the Son of God, the Messiah, the one who is as one with God on high.
Jesus is not here to play a game, Jesus is incarnate so that the sins of us all might be drawn into Him and carried away by His death so that we might be freed from their power. This is not a matter of proof, this is a matter of belief, Jesus faith in the mission of God to deliver all of the peoples of earth from the terror they all feel at the prospect of being no more.
The devil’s game is to draw out the majesty and the power of God, the righteous judge on high, the creator of the universe and the one who will sit on the judgement seat at the last and separate the sheep from the goats and all the rest.
The devil wants to see the big Greek ideal of what a God is supposed to be. Big white guy on big white throne in the big white clouds hurling big golden lightning bolts of righteous anger upon those who break God’s laws.
That God does not save, that God judges, righteously to be sure, but that is the God of perfect, pure justice.
Every temptation is to let go of the mission, let go of the plan. Each temptation is to grab ahold of the power and the might, change the stone, seize the creation, fly. Each temptation would, however, force Jesus to let slip the mortal flesh he had taken on, the incarnation which brought the purity of God so close to the broken humanity that you could literally reach out and touch it, stroke its beard, crucify it.
The incarnation is not just a part of the mission of God to save the creation from the power of sin and death, it is the focal point of the whole thing. It is the power of love made solid and walking into the river Jordan so that all of creation could see the Son of God cast His divine lot with His people as they sought forgiveness and grace.
The incarnation was not just some notion about how humans could be saved from their failings and saved from the burden of their fear. In human flesh the Lord could do that. The majestic God might just give all humanity a pass from the sting of death and the burden of punishment, but only the incarnate Christ could teach us what that freedom would mean, could teach us the way of peace and of hope so that all who heard this story, all who felt the hand of God upon them might not tremble in fear but sigh with the kind of peace only God can deliver.
To surrender the incarnation, to seize the righteous lightning again would be to leave us to perish, trembling at the thought that death would claim us and we would suffer judgment with no one to stand alongside us.
Believe it or not, there are still some people, claiming Christ as their savior, who still yearn for such a God, for such an outcome. Some folks really want the God who punishes to come back and to smite the unrighteous.
I don’t know exactly which verses in the Bible they are not reading to think that the point of Christ’s incarnation was to paint big green checkmarks on the righteous believers and big red exes on the condemned unbelievers, but I think I understand where they are coming from.
We all want to be that kid at the front of the class, turning on the burner, mixing the two beakers, demonstrating our knowledge, our mastery, our righteousness. The temptation to show off our own righteousness is such that we want not only others to see it, but to feel their own lack of it.
The temptation is to have God on your side and to walk as God’s Holy emissary of righteousness, all of your own beliefs confirmed, all of your own judgments affirmed.
It is the temptation, the same temptation that the devil offered Jesus when the Spirit led Him into the wilderness, the very same temptation.
Make this about right and wrong, about righteousness and apostasy. Make this a test and make the test really hard so that only some people will pass and then execute your righteous judgment against all who fail.
Make salvation, the will of God that all people should be saved, conditional, make it a test, make it something some people will fail.
That way some kids get to stand at the front of the class and be right and lord it over their classmates.
We want things to pass a test. Most of all we want that we have passed some kind of cosmic test. That is how we have learned to do things, how we have advanced as a society, one person or a small group embarking on a great leap forward, so to speak and all others hailing them for their greatness.
It’s the second temptation all over, isn’t it? I will make the entire world honor you if only you will worship me.
But remember, that’s the devil talking. <pause>
The mission of God is that all people might find their way back to God. If it were possible to be righteous enough then there would have been no need for Jesus to come and live among us but that is the temptation of Mankind to be sure.
So often have we encountered an obstacle; a vast ocean, seemingly impassible; the scourge of polio or cholera; the vault of heaven itself and passed right through it that it is only natural that we might be tempted to think that we can have it all, can stand at the head of God’s class and be righteous and cast aspersions on those less awesome than ourselves.
We have come so far that we have lost sight of how much farther God came to bring us past the obstacle we could not, can not cross: ourselves.
We have lost sight of God in all that we have accomplished, lost sight of how much more we have achieved because we could be so bold and trust in our savior that we have lost sight of the times when God carried us, sometimes dragged us along, always keeping faith because to do anything else would be to succumb to the temptation of the devil, to bring back the yawning, terrifying gulf between mankind and God, between heaven and the souls meant to dwell there.
But in this morning’s Gospel we find, as we always do, hope.
Jesus turns away three times the temptations to chuck it all and go back to being God-on-high and give up on God-with-us: Immanuel.
It is not about being right. Jesus is always right, that is in the very nature of God.
It is not about proof. Jesus needs none, that is in the very nature of God.
It is not about judgment. Judgment is merely the voicing of the truth and if Jesus is always right, the judgment is but an aspect of what it is to be God.
In the end it is about mercy.
Mercy is what God shows us in setting aside our sin and God’s righteous anger for the sake of Christ.
Mercy is what God shows us in offering the gate to heaven in the very flesh of the only Son of God, the living love of God opening to us what was once closed by sin.
Mercy is what Jesus holds onto in this morning’s Gospel. In the incarnation, the core of the mission of God, is the chance that we might not just be freed, but that we might know and live and be changed in how we go about it because we are free.
The temptation of the devil, the same temptation that Jesus brushes aside, throwing the “Show-me” back in the devil’s face, the same temptation we face over and over again, is to make it about who is better, who is more righteous, who is standing at the head of the class so we can know who is righteous and who is not, so we can separate ourselves the sheep and the goats.
The mercy is that Christ alone is righteous and has through the grace of God opted to stick to the mission, to live with us and love us and die for us and in so doing allow His righteousness to be cast over us like Elijah’s mantle so that we might know God and know God’s love for us.
Seek ye first, the song goes, the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.
Thanks be to God