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Luke 4:5–8: Righteousness
Good morning, church. Go with me, if you will, to Luke 4, and we’re going to be reading just a brief section about temptation and righteousness.
We’ve been in a series about what it means to be a Christian, and particularly the core practices of Christianity. Thus far we’ve talked about baptism and forgiveness, fasting and feasting, asking the question, what are we meant to be doing as Christians? Pursuing righteousness is a big piece of that. But what does righteousness look like? Would we recognize it if we saw it? Or would we crucify it, like we always seem to?
We’re going to go right into it. I cannot think of anything I would rather spend my time thinking and writing about than God’s righteousness, which through faith is imputed to us. Read with me if you will, Luke, chapter 4, and we’re going to start reading in v.5. And do something for me, if you will, let’s stand while we read. [Luke 4:5-8] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
This passage in Luke is one in which Satan is tempting Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, and Jesus answers him over and over again, quoting the same passage in the book of Deuteronomy. This Deuteronomy passage is one Jesus points to over and over again to speak about the core of the law: it’s about loving God with your whole self. This singular love of God, at it’s core, is righteousness, and it’s not something we’re fully capable of, but it is a gift God gives through faith.
I want to start, though, by understanding this temptation and what exactly is at stake here, which will help us understand the weight, meaning the value and worth of the righteousness of God. Righteousness just means goodness. So I guess what I’m trying to convince you of right now is that God is a good person, which, if you grew up in church, I guess probably sounds a bit strange. Most of us, if we believe in God, probably have just assumed that God is a good person. You know, if it were someone else, say Phil is out in the desert for forty days, and we hear the devil showed up personally to tempt him, we would probably be concerned.
Like, Oh man. Phil’s going down. He doesn’t have Deuteronomy memorized. He knows like half of that one psalm everyone always quotes, and that’s it. He hasn’t eaten anything for forty days? He’s definitely gonna eat that rock if it turns into bread. I would half expect him to eat the rock even if it didn’t turn into bread. We’d probably just forfeit the match, like when my kids play sports, and one team of fifth-graders has some kid who’s six feet tall with a beard, and they’re eighty points ahead. That’s what I would expect to happen with Phil being tempted after forty days.
But with Jesus, we look at this passage like, well of course he doesn’t eat the rock, he’s Jesus. Jesus doesn’t eat rocks, he has magical God powers. He could probably go forty more days without eating, still not eat the rock, and win an arm wrestling contest on top of the rock. And we think that way because we are constantly forgetting how low Jesus came, that Jesus emptied himself when he came to earth. We are constantly forgetting how low Jesus came. No throne, no powers, fully man, dependent upon the Spirit to move and work. All of the power Jesus ever received he gave away, and if you’re asking what power has to do with righteousness, you’re probably not understanding righteousness in the biblical sense.
You would make a mistake if you begin in your understanding of righteousness with anyone but the Lord. We always try to gauge our righteousness by the actions of the people around us—but the rest of us are just imitating Christ, and often poorly. We should look to God, himself, who doesn’t follow any rules—he is the author, he writes the law. Most of the time the Bible talks about the righteousness of God, in the same passage, it mentions God’s power and his judgement. God is a righteous judge, the Bible says, over and over again. He isn’t partial to those in power. He doesn’t take bribes, but judges the rich and the poor alike. If you’ve ever been at the mercy of a judge, as my wife and I are with our children, you understand the value of a righteous judge.
Righteousness, then, isn’t just doing the things God tells you to do, and being a good person isn’t just about following rules. For God, himself, again, he is the author of the law, so when we talk about God’s righteousness, we’re talking about an aspect of his will and character more than any rules he follows. He is the judge; he determines the law. God’s righteousness has everything to do with how he uses, or rather how he empties himself, of power, which is what’s on display in our text.
This may seem like a small thing, but in reality, the righteousness of God is one of our deepest longings, even if we wouldn’t understand or say it that way. We deeply long for God’s righteousness, and we long for our own. We desperately long to be good people, in other words. It’s beyond just being accepted. Acceptance is the shadow of the weighty reality of righteousness. Acceptance is like a lightbulb, where righteousness is the sun on your face. We desperately long to be in a community of the righteous: the people in authority over us, our families and friend, we desperately search for good people to bring into our orbit.
In fact, we’re so desperate to be righteous and to be among the righteous that we’re willing to pretend that we are good, and that the people around us are. We accept acceptance and make that our goal. We’re willing to put up a facade, even if the rest of the house behind it is crumbling. But are we looking for the right things? Again, do we even know what righteousness looks like?
I want you to think for a moment what’s offered here in this temptation. And remember, too, Jesus’s humanity. You have to remember that Jesus grew up in a poor family. In a conquered nation. Under a violent and oppressive empire. He was a tradesman, a laborer. He hadn’t eaten in forty days. To that man, the tempter offers bread and a throne.
If it were me being tempted with a throne, my mind would probably start thinking of just what injustices I might be able to correct, if only I had the power. Like the way we treat foster kids in America. Or the time I got a $1000 dollar water bill in the mail from the S&WB, and when I called to complain they sent me before a judge. In situations like that, a little power starts to sound nice. I don’t want to be king of the world, but maybe not paying $1000 for a substance that literally falls from the sky here would be nice. I would definitely take down a speeding camera or two, or all of them. With a sledge hammer, cathartically.
We tell ourselves, we wouldn’t do the same things other people do with power. And we wonder that so many people with power act so selfishly. We’d do good things. We wouldn’t cheat or hurt anyone. We wouldn’t be selfish with it. We would use it wisely and well for everyone. So we say. But what do we do?
Beyond kings, when I go online, I even see a lot of people talking about what they would do if they were God, even. One person said, if I had the ability to stop bad things from happening in the world, I would. If I had the ability to save people from hell, put an end to war and hunger, I would. We love to imagine ourselves having this incredible power to do whatever we see needs to be done in the world. We talk about what we would do if we were the parent, the boss, the politician. When we talk about it, and post about it, we usually look pretty good. Pretty righteous. But, then again, none of that is real. And when you look at the real, what we do actually have control over in real life—what do you see? We show in small ways every day our unrighteousness.
At this point in my life I know exactly what I would do with money and power. I am a parent now, and a pastor. And I’m making all the same mistakes I raged against when I was younger and my parents were making mistakes raising me. I’m constantly messing up. And money. The reason people are so selfish with money, is because it never quite seems to be enough. You always tell yourself, in theory, if you had money you would be generous, but then in reality, you aren’t, because it never seems like you have enough to be one of the generous ones. The ones who should be generous are the ones who have more than you do, without stopping to consider that we’ve had less at other times and we made it through.
So in this you can see the subtleness of the temptation of the enemy. To us, he may not promise a throne, he may just promise a little ease. Some play acted righteousness, perhaps. Or the theoretical kind, where we would act righteously if we were in any other position but the position we are actually in. Where we can espouse broad positions like pacifism, and yet wage war inside of our homes and in our own families, with our coworkers. We can say we accept everyone, and yet when everyone becomes someone specific, we find fault.
So if I stop thinking about theory, and I look only at my real life actions, if I had rule over a nation, it seems like I might be a tyrant. And given the wealth of a nation, I guess I might spend it on myself and my people, helping people I know and love, and leaving others wanting. I shudder to think what I would do in God’s place with the pain and hardship of the world. If I knew the truth of everything done in secret and had the power to visit whatever punishment I wanted on them, that’s a dark fiction. My point is, the tempter doesn’t need to offer me all of the kingdoms of the world to tempt me to abuse power. I do enough wickedness in the world with the little bit of power I have.
And Jesus has more reason than I do to want to revolt against the powers at be. Maybe I was extorted by a utility, but his family lived as refugees in another country fleeing from a king who was trying to kill them. He was made to pay more taxes than he actually owed to an empire which had already killed his cousin and would eventually kill him, for crimes neither of them committed, both times by rulers who just wanted to stay in power. They traded people’s lives for a seat, a throne, and don’t you think Jesus would have done a better job than Pilate or Herod?
But when Satan offers Jesus the ability to rule over the earth and bend it to his will, Jesus declines. When I realized I wanted to speak on the righteousness of God, I thought for days what passage I might use, and this is the moment that kept coming to mind over and over again. When offered power over every nation on earth, Jesus walks away and quotes a passage about God’s sufficiency, a passage revealing the core of the law of God, and through the law, the heart of God. This is Jesus completely rejecting the world and everything it has to offer. Jesus would rather sit at the feet of his father than on a throne. Think about how many wars have been fought, how many lives have been sacrificed for just one nation’s throne. And Jesus, arguably the only person who has ever really deserved to rule, declines, and not for the first time.
He had already given up a throne to live with us in the first place. Emptied himself, given up his inheritance, to live among his people—his love of the Father so singular, and his grasp on power so loose. We weren’t able to go up to heaven, so heaven, giving up all its power and glory, came to us. Righteousness at it’s core is that kind of emptying, that kind of giving up, valuing life together more than holding power alone. Over and over again we see our God give up his ability to rule in favor of sitting and eating a meal with his friends, and that’s why I’m saying he’s a good person.
We live our lives, so often, moving, striving, in the opposite direction. We work to get to the top of the class, the top of the corporate ladder, the top of our field, the top tier of society. We’re always working to move up, and rarely, if ever, do we come down. Down to the people who are beneath our class, to the tasks beneath our station. Down to the people we’ve always looked down on, down to the people who need someone to take care of them, like children and the elderly and the sick. Down into the humiliation of actually admitting our sin to the people around us. And yet the King of all creation spends his time at those tables. Because he’s righteous. He empties himself.
We’re constantly forgetting how low Jesus came. Even to us, and I’m glad for that. And if we are going to claim to follow Jesus, we probably should live like him, and learn to empty ourselves, too, of whatever we’ve been given, in order to live life together. It’s easy to look at the temptations of Jesus and think that this is something extraordinary and outside of our daily experience as people in the world. It’s not, though. Satan’s not creative. Our God is wildly creative, but not the enemy. At its core, this temptation is a temptation to use one’s power for oneself, and that temptation is as daily as it is subtle.
We all have power over something. I was thinking, for several reasons this week, of my first year in college, which was miserable. I had no friends, and that is unfortunately not an overstatement. Each of you in the room has the power to embrace or exclude each other, which is an enormous power. All it would take is humility enough to be willing to have some awkward conversations. Confidence enough to know you are a person worthy of love.
I would imagine most of us spend a considerable amount of time and effort trying to be good and look good by some sort of standard. In our social feeds and online profiles, we’re trying to make sure people maintain a high opinion of us. At work, we try to be good employees. In life, good friends. Better sons and daughters. Have good taste, and good clothes, and be good looking.
What would our lives look like if we spent all of that effort on actually pursuing righteousness? Conforming our lives to the law of the Lord, and through the law, his love of the Father and the people around him, his complete rejection of the world and everything it has to offer.
In Christ we are invited down, and we’re told righteousness looks like confession of guilt, admitting that you are, in fact, on an equal footing with all the prodigal sons of the world, because you, too, are a sinner in need of God’s grace. This is where righteousness will lead us, if we’ll allow it: a real admission of your real sins and real life together. Real righteousness, real goodness doesn’t look good. It looks really messy. Pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer lays out our daily choice fairly well when he writes, “Sin wants to be alone with people. It takes them away from the community. The more lonely people become, the more destructive the power of sin over them.”
I would invite you tonight, friends, to the table, into real community. In righteousness God emptied himself and made himself low so he could be with us. In imitating him, make yourself low, and follow your Savior on his way.