Challenging the Foxes in Life
By Pastor Daniel W. Brettell
In last week’s Gospel we saw how the devil attacked Jesus in his weakest moment. And I talked about how the devil comes after us in OUR weakest moments. This week’s Gospel, however, shows us how the devil also tries to take advantage of moments of strength. Now, that may seem a bit odd? Why would the devil try to take advantage of moments of strength?
Consider what’s happening in today’s Gospel. Jesus is absolutely in a position of power here. He’s spending his time performing cures and casting out demons—all signs pointing back to him as the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. He has followers all around him witnessing these signs; marveling at the signs. And then a group of Pharisees enter the scene.
Now, I want to caution you here in your reading of the Pharisees actions. As Christians reading the Gospels, we tend to go into automatic pilot when we think about the Pharisees. We tend to read or hear the term Pharisee and we immediately think “watch out, these are the bad guys.” But listen to this verse very carefully. “Get away from here,” they say, “for Herod wants to kill you.”
Does that sound like the words of people who are actively opposed to Jesus? The fact is; we might read and understand that warning in a couple of different ways—and in so doing come to very different conclusions depending upon how we read and understand them.
Is the warning one of genuine concern for Jesus’ safety? We know that there were several Pharisees who were secret disciples of Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea, for example; ultimately, he will go to Pilate and request Jesus’ body so that he might bury it in his family’s tomb. Nicodemus—another Pharisee—sits with Jesus and discusses the need to be “born again.” And in his Acts of the Apostles, Luke tells us that Pharisees were some of the earliest believers and followers of Jesus. Saul, who becomes Paul, is a Pharisee. And although his early record of persecuting Christians is certainly not a ringing endorsement of the Pharisees, his actions after his conversion are most certainly the primary reason for the spread of Christianity beyond the Middle East.
So, we could look at this interaction with the Pharisees as being a genuine and heartfelt warning for Jesus to be cautious and to get away from any territory where Herod might be able to go after him. But on the other hand the Pharisees might also be trying to direct Jesus to leave town and go elsewhere to some other territory where they might be able to effect greater control over him. It might be effort to distract him from his stated goal of going to Jerusalem.
Regardless of their reason for issuing this warning, it’s not what we need to focus on here. There is something much more subtle going on here. You see, Jesus knew how Herod operated. He knew how Herod’s family operated. It was Herod’s father—also called Herod—who, in an effort to kill Jesus as a baby had all the male babies of Bethlehem massacred. And it was Herod—this Herod about whom the Pharisees were warning—who had given in to marital pressure by having John the Baptist killed. Jesus knew that Herod was a ruthless, bloody, tyrant. Historically, we know even more about this guy. He was so ruthless that he ordered the murder of two of his sons. He definitely had no qualms about eliminating those whom he viewed as a threat to his power.
So, the Pharisees come to warn Jesus that Herod may be out to get him. And how does Jesus respond?
“Go and tell that fox,
‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow,
and the third day I complete my mission.
Nevertheless I must go on my way
today and tomorrow and the next day,
for it can’t be that a prophet perish outside of Jerusalem.'” (13:32-33).
These aren’t the words of someone who is intimidated by Herod’s power; these are the words of someone who understands his own power. They are also the words of someone who knows he is on a mission and refuses to be distracted or dissuaded from that mission.
However—and this is what we need to understand here—this interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees and indirectly between Jesus and Herod is one of subtle temptation that is coming at a moment of great power for Jesus. As I said, this is not the same situation as we found in last week’s Gospel. Jesus is not in a weakened condition. He is approaching the height of his power in his ministry. He has thousands of followers. Realistically, Herod could view him as a legitimate threat to his security.
And therein lies source of the devil’s temptation of Jesus. He approaches Jesus at a moment of great power; a moment of great dedication; he does this not directly but through the voices of the Pharisees. It’s the devil at work again—”You’re in danger! Abandon this ministry! Run to safety! Get out of this place! If you continue on this path, you will die!”
But Jesus was not about to be dissuaded from his path. AND he knew what following his path means. Earlier, in Luke’s 9th chapter, we’re told that Jesus had “set his face toward Jerusalem”—and we will follow that path with him throughout this Lenten season. Jesus is single-minded here. He is going to Jerusalem; he is going there to die. And that’s the power we find in this Gospel lesson. Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die; he is going there to die for our salvation. That’s the reason for the subtle temptation here.
“Get out of here,” they say. “For Herod wants to kill you!” Now, their hearts may be in the right place, but their minds are being controlled by the tempter. The last thing the devil wants is for Jesus to continue on the path on which he has been set by God. The devil failed to pull Jesus away in his weakness, so now the devil comes after Jesus in his moment of strength and tries a different strategy—”You’re doing so much good! You’re successful! You have all these people following you! But watch out; you’re not safe. If Herod gets to you, all this will come crashing down. If Herod succeeds in killing you all this will end!”
Put yourself in Jesus’ place. The devil is sowing the seeds of doubt.
When I first began Seminary, I had a professor who said to us, “You think you’re safe here? You think that because you made it to Seminary that somehow you’re safe from the devil’s wiles and temptations? You’re in more danger now than ever before in your lives. And the longer you stay here, the closer you get to ordination, the more danger you will be in, the greater the temptations from the devil and the forces of evil; because the devil has to tear you away from this place.”
I can say something very similar to each and every one of you here today. “Do you think you’re safe here? You think that because it’s Sunday and you’re in Church that somehow you’re safe from the all the devil’s temptations?” My brothers and sisters, we’re in more danger here than anyplace else; because if the devil can’t keep us away from here or pull us out of this place; well, then the devil has lost the battle. So, the devil has to try harder every single time we come together to worship. But he’ll do it in subtle ways, just as he did with Jesus.
You’ll be tested with doubts; you’ll be tried with temptations every single day of your life—and perhaps more so on Sundays. The devil has to keep you from worshiping the Lord your God. The devil has to keep you out of communion with your brothers and sisters. If he can do that, he has won the battle.
But here’s the Good News; here’s the news that the devil can’t stand to hear—YOU AREN’T IN THIS ALONE! Our God walks with us every step of the way. God knows how difficult it is for us to resist the power of the devil. God knows! He knows because Jesus, in all his humanity—in his weakness and in his strength—Jesus experienced the power of the Devil. And in his divinity, Jesus defeated the power of the devil. He set his face toward Jerusalem and never strayed from that path. He went on to Jerusalem and He—Jesus—God come down to earth—He died for our sins, and through the grace of God we are forgiven.
So, when you face the tempter—as you do every day—know that you are not alone. Know that Jesus walks beside you. Know that Jesus will give you his strength to resist the tempter’s power.
My brothers and sisters, during this Lenten Season, set your faces toward Easter and stay the course knowing that Jesus walks with you to protect and guide you.
Let us pray.
May the love of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus who took on our humanity so that we might be saved. Amen
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible
Copyright 2010 Daniel W. Brettell. Used by permission.