Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Saying Yes and Saying No

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Luke 4:1-13


There was a 6-year-old girl who loved life.  She loved school.  She loved her music lessons and soccer.  She loved everything she did, which is a wonderful blessing when you are six years old.  If you asked her, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  she would say, “On Mondays, I will be a firefighter. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I will be a teacher.  On Thursdays, I will be a ballerina and on Fridays, I will be a doctor.”  That is a great way to think when you are 6, but by the time she grows up, she will have learned that you have to make choices.  You have to say Yes to some things and No to other things.


There are many ways we could understand this story about Jesus in the wilderness. We could read it with the motto “Just Say No” in mind.  Every time the devil makes a suggestion, Jesus just says “No.”  I think that would be one way to read it.  If we read it that way and we took “Just say No” as our life motto, we could become negative people pretty quickly.  Just say no to drugs.  Just say no to card-playing or drinking or anything that might lead to dancing, because you know dancing is a slippery slope to other sins of the flesh, right?  Just say no to anything that makes you laugh or smile.  Just say no!  There are people who seem to have taken that as their life motto.  You can figure out who they are because there is so little fun, so little joy, in their lives.


We could read this story that way, but I’d rather not.  Today I want to consider it light of the idea of saying yes AND no. 


The devil offers Jesus three tests, three ideas to try on for size.    The first one is to turn a stone into bread.  Jesus is fasting, seeking God’s presence through that spiritual discipline.  The devil probably waits until Jesus is really hungry.  The test may be of Jesus willpower – will he turn a stone into bread to feed himself?  Matthew’s version of this story speaks of turning stones, plural, into bread, implying that Jesus might be feeding lots of people.


The second offer is that the devil will give all the kingdoms of the world to Jesus, if Jesus will worship him.  An interesting point here is that what the devil offers Jesus is what the New Testament says is now his.  In the letter to the Ephesians, it says that God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at his right hand and put him far above all rule and authority and power and dominion (Ephesians 1:21).  So part of the temptation is to claim it prematurely.


The third offer is to throw himself down from the top of the Temple.  Jesus has responded to the first tests by quoting scripture, so now the devil quotes scripture.  He quotes Psalm 91:11-12 where the righteous are promised God’s protection.  It says, “God will command the angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.”


You probably remember that this time in the wilderness comes right after Jesus’ baptism that moment when the heavens opened and the Spirit descended and God said, “You are my Beloved Son.”   His baptism is seen as the marker of his entry into public ministry, but before he could do anything else publicly, the Spirit led him into the wilderness.


And so, because of that timing, it seems to me that these temptations are more than just about meeting Jesus’ personal needs.  These temptations are about what kind of ministry he was going to have, what kind of Messiah he was going to be. 


Was he going to provide bread for the poor and be a compassionate, economic Savior? 


Was he going to be a political Messiah, ruling the world with justice, liberating Israel from the oppression of Rome?  “Son of God” was a political term.  The voice from heaven had just pronounced him Beloved Son.  Maybe that was what it meant.


And what about the idea of throwing himself from the temple?  Well, that could be a temptation to be spectacular, to show off his divinity.  Or if we delve a bit deeper, we remember that the scripture quotation is a promise to the righteous.  The Temple is the place where one presumes the most righteous people would be, the holy ones.  But in Jesus’ day, the priests and high priests, the religious authorities were colluding with Rome.  The religious system was as oppressive as the political one.  So, perhaps what the devil is suggesting is that Jesus should be a spiritual Messiah, a religious reformer who would restore faithfulness in Israel. [1]


Feeding hungry people is a good thing, but Jesus said No to it.  Liberating Israel and other subject nations from Rome’s domination – another good thing, but Jesus said No to it.  Reforming the church—that’s got to be good, right?  Again, Jesus said No. 


It may not be explicit in these few verses, but over the course of his gospel, Luke shows us that Jesus says No to these notions of Messiah because he is saying Yes to God’s will for him.   Over the years of his ministry, he will do many of these things.  He will feed hungry people.  He will perform spectacular miracles and healings.  He will challenge political and religious authorities.  But economic power, political power, personal charisma – these will not be the defining marks of Messiahship. 


Jesus says No to those good things in order to say Yes to God’s intentions for him, in order to say Yes to an understanding of strength and power very different from typical human understandings.  


The deepest temptation that Jesus faces is to compromise his baptismal identity, to be who he was not called to be, to be something less than, other than God’s Beloved Child.


None of us is Messiah.  So we might think that these temptations only relate to Jesus.  We are never in danger of turning stones into bread anyway, are we?  But surely we have the same deep temptation, to betray our baptismal identity, to be less than who we are called to be, made in God’s image, disciples of Jesus, joint heirs of the kingdom.


Every day, we make choices.  We say yes to some things and no to others.  C.S. Lewis describes it like this, “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.  And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a Heaven creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into on that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. . . .   Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”[2]


Sometimes we choose poorly.  We say Yes when we should say No.  Why is that?  Is it because we feel guilty for other things we have left undone, so we say yes in the hopes of making up for them? Is it because someone quotes conventional wisdom as if it is the Bible?  “You can sleep when you’re dead.”  “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop”.  Or maybe they quote actual Scripture, like Paul’s words “I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some.”  And we feel pressured and say Yes against our better judgment.  Maybe we say yes because we want to be the good friend, the faithful church member, the parent of successful children.  Maybe we say yes in order to play the roles that other people have for us, because we have not said yes to our true identity yet. But when we say an empathetic yes to our true identity, we know that we bear the image of God.  We have said yes to following Jesus and that yes takes precedence.


 On the other hand, sometimes we say No when we should say Yes.  Why is that?  Maybe the request would take us into uncharted territory.  We haven’t done that thing before and we are afraid of the unknown.  Maybe the request requires more time and energy than we have, because we have said yes to meaningless stuff.


One of the seven deadly sins is pride, thinking too highly of ourselves.  Theologian Justo Gonzalez points out another temptation that does not receive as much attention.  It is accepting the low opinion that others have of us, letting others define our roles, and not trusting the God who created us in God’s own image.  This is a false humility that may lead us to acquiesce to the status quo.


Gonzalez writes, “If an immigrant farm laborer is told that his greatest temptation is pride, when union organizers speak to him of defending his rights, he may well decide that the possibility of claiming such rights is temptation to pride, and thus decline to join the union.  If a woman is considering launching into a new career in a field where women are not numerous, and she is told that pride is at the root of sin, she may well decide to “stay in her place” and not trouble the waters.  In both cases, what appears to be humility may well be an unwillingness to take the risk and pay the price of a new future.”[3]


Sometimes we say No when we should say Yes because we don’t trust God’s definition of who we are.


Moses told the people to choose life.  How are you choosing life?  How do you choose death?  How are you trying to avoid choosing?


There's an old story of a rabbi living in a Russian city about two hundred years ago. The rabbi was troubled by temptations. He would often wander the streets late into the night pondering his dilemma. One evening he was so absorbed by his own despair that he accidentally entered a military compound off-limits to civilians.


The silence of the night was shattered by the bark of a soldier:

"Who are you and what are you doing here?"

"Excuse me?" replied the rabbi.

"I said, 'Who are you and what are you doing here?'"

"Say that again!"

"Who are you and what are you doing here?"


The rabbi paused in thought for a moment. Then that rabbi said to the soldier. "Son, I will pay you twice as much as you earn now if you will just ask me those same two questions every day."


Those two questions are good questions for Lent.  

Who are you? 

What are you doing here? 

May God grant us the wisdom and the courage to say Yes to all we are and all that God is calling us to be.  May God grant us the wisdom and the courage to say No to anything less than that.  Amen.


[1] Sharon Ringe in Feasting on the Word Year C, Volume 2, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, general editors,  (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009),  pp. 47-49.

[2] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity,(C.S. Lewis Pte. Ltd. 1952),  p. 92.

[3] Justo Gonzalez, Luke in the Belief Commentary Series, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010) , pp. 60-61.