Text Study for Luke 4:1-13 (Part One)

1 Lent C, 2022

I think I will incorporate at least one film into my Lenten discipline. Bruce Almighty stars Jim Carrey, Morgan Freeman, and Jennifer Anniston. The film is a comedic meditation on the purpose and use of power.

Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, a wannabe TV anchor whose career aspirations seem to be blocked at every turn. Bruce complains to God about the sorry state of his life. Bruce declares that if he were in charge, life would be so much better.

Freeman, as God, accepts the challenge. He gives Bruce a measure of Divine Power. Bruce runs across water, raises women’s skirts with a breath, and gets even with a gang that attacked him the day before. I wish that scene did not depend on racist stereotypes for some of its force, and that has simply to be acknowledged here. Nonetheless, in just over three minutes the film summarizes every adolescent revenge fantasy most of us have had.

Photo by Rodolfo Quiru00f3s on Pexels.com

Is that what power is for? In an instant, Bruce becomes no better than his tormentors. Do we have power simply to satisfy our selfish desires? Do we have power simply to rule over others and bask in that grab for glory? Do we have power simply to ensure our personal safety and survival? That is the case which the Diabolical One presents to Jesus in the Wilderness Testing.

We can certainly exercise power for self, sovereignty, and security. That exercise of power, Jesus declares, contradicts God’s intentions as witnessed in Book of Deuteronomy. The quotations from Deuteronomy come from another time of Wilderness Testing when Israel was faced with its own power problems.

I believe God does not wish for us to be powerless. God has not created us to be powerless. Even though the Christian faith has been used far too often by the powerful to valorize victimization, that is a perversion of the Divine purpose. God gives us great power, but its appropriate use is always for others and not merely for self (Yes, I’m thinking of Spiderman too).

I would argue that this understanding of power, power for others, is at the heart of authentic humanity and genuine human community. I don’t think that empathy, compassion, and altruism are essentially human emotional and/or social constructions. I believe that empathy, compassion, and altruism make us more fully human. And I believe that callousness, cruelty, and crass selfishness make us less human.

Current events present a case study in this regard. I’m thinking of the personal responses around the world to the actions of Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin. Put aside, for a moment, political perspectives and evaluations. Zelensky is using his power for the sake of others even if it means personal sacrifice. Putin is using his power for self-protection, self-aggrandizement, and self-deification. The world recognizes which set of behaviors is more fully human.

Bruce Nolan learns that the one thing power can’t get you is love. He has a real relationship with his girlfriend, Grace (played by Anniston). Her love for him is not connected to his power or position. It is unconditional and freely given – thus, Anniston’s character’s name. Bruce uses his power first to impress Grace, then to change her, and finally to control her. As a result, he nearly destroys their relationship and turns himself into a minor moral monster.

If you are the Son of God, what do you do with all that power? What’s it good for? This is one of the questions raised in the Wilderness Testing of Jesus. This could be the power to fulfill one’s every desire. This could be the power to rule the world. This could be the power to banish the fear of one’s own death. What’s not to like?

In fact, the Test is about taking the place of God. This is part of the genius, I think, of Bruce Almighty. Bruce takes God’s place, at God’s invitation. And it doesn’t go well. When Bruce says yes to every prayer request, the daily lottery payout drops to seventeen dollars per person. When Bruce changes the moon’s orbit to impress Grace, he unleashes wild weather events and sends astronomers into shock.

It’s hard to be God – especially if you want to be a selfish god.

Martin Luther sometimes reminds us that the First Commandment is the First Commandment because it is the First Commandment. He notes in the Large Catechism that all the other commandments refer to and rely on that First Commandment – “you shall have no other gods.” And a violation of any other commandment is a violation of the First Commandment.

In essence, the First Commandment declares that God is God, and I am not. And that’s the good news! That’s the first lesson Bruce Nolan learns in his sojourn as a divinity. When Bruce has made a complete mess of things, he kneels down and surrenders his will to God. It would be a modern recasting of the Evangelical “sinner’s prayer” except for one thing.

Bruce kneels down in the middle of a highway and in front of an oncoming truck.

In the next scene, Bruce finds himself in “heaven.” He asks how this could happen, just when he had seen the light. Seeing the light doesn’t work so well when it’s a pair of headlights bearing down on you. “You can’t kneel down in the middle of a highway,” God observes, “and expect to survive.”

Bruce wonders what God wants. God wants Bruce to pray. The first prayer is a generic wish list that could double as a Miss America speech. God asks Bruce what he really wants. What Bruce really wants is Grace. But this time, he wants what is best for Grace, what makes her happy, no matter how it affects him.

“Now that’s a prayer,” God responds.

It’s a movie. It’s a comedy. A happy ending is required. God sends Bruce back to life with this new understanding of the purpose of power. Bruce gets Grace, and she gets him. He uses his position and platform to lift up the needs of others rather than to satisfy himself. Everyone lives happily ever after.

If only it worked out that way in real life.

Using our power for the sake of others usually costs us something – sometimes everything. That’s how we know we’re using our power for others, when it doesn’t benefit us. Volodymyr Zelensky may well lose his life as the war in Ukraine unfolds. His family members may be captured, wounded, or killed. Hundreds are dying and thousand are being displaced. Zelensky may lose his official power and position. Ukraine may suffer military defeat.

The war in Ukraine isn’t a movie.

I am certain, however, that Zelensky will not lose his humanity. We can discuss the impact of doing violence on human beings, and that’s a problem here. But Zelensky is not using violence for himself. In fact, I think he is using his power for love. The world has watched him become more fully and deeply human in the process. Some of this is thanks to the advent of the “Tik-tok War” as he enacts his leadership on that social media platform. But what we see is more than performance. We’re watching a human being grow more and more into the image and likeness of God.

I know and celebrate that Volodymyr Zelensky is a Jew. I don’t intend that the previous paragraph should hijack him for Christian apologetic purposes or should turn him into an “unconscious” or “anonymous” Christian. I don’t believe that Jesus comes to make us “Christian.” I don’t believe that Jesus comes to increase the roster of his favorite religious “team.” Jesus comes to restore us to the full image and likeness of God in which we are created. Theological labels do not define or delimit that image and likeness.

I am also certain that Putin and all who support him and his purposes are descending deeper into their selfish, sub-human existence. We need only point to the most obvious manifestation here. Using the threat of a nuclear response as a way to stabilize his deteriorating position is a sign of his continuing descent into profound inhumanity. The fact that a certain part of the Christian community supports this descent is a horrific commentary on what happens when power trumps love.

“If you, then, will worship me,” the Diabolical One says, “it will all be yours.”

This is the promise of power used for self, of power over rather than for and with. This is the false promise the Diabolical One offers Jesus and which Jesus rejects as the deceit it truly is. Anyone or anything that promises rewards for worship of self is the crassest form of idolatry and the deepest rejection of the divine image and likeness within us.

The Good News, from our Christian perspective, is that Jesus comes as God’s power for the life of the world. This power cannot be exercised over others, because it then becomes a perversion of itself. This power can only be exercised for others, with others, and through others. This power can only be exercised through self-giving, self-sacrificing love. Thus, we begin our journey to and through the cross with this meditation on the nature of authentic power.

As we hear this Good News, we can then reflect on our own power, position, privilege, and property. Will we, for example, use our White privilege to further enrich ourselves and thus plunge more deeply into the inhumanity of White Supremacy? Or will we use that power, position, privilege, and property to work as allies and advocates in the cause of racial justice?

That’s just one example for reflection. There are no powerless Christians, since we are all filled with the Holy Spirit in our baptisms. The important question, always, is what are called to do with what we have been given?


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Sample Sermon — Ephesians 1:15-23

This week I’m sharing a sermon on this text I preached a few years ago. It’s dated, but you deserve to see some of my own work sometimes. I have taken out the specifics of the situation in which it was originally preached and updated some references and implications.

No Powerless Christians

The late, great Jimi Hendrix said it well. “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, then the world will know peace.” Today that sounds like just another hippy-dippy sixties bumper sticker slogan. In our time the love of power is the order of the day. The pursuit of power overwhelms all other projects.

Power is a major topic in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. The overall theme of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is that God pulls it all together in Jesus. In worship God pulls us to the center of all life, Jesus, our Lord and Savior. God does that by sending us the power of the Holy Spirit of Jesus. Today let’s talk about how that power works in our Christian journey.

Love of power was a way of life in ancient Ephesus. In Paul’s time, Ephesus was second only to Rome as a seat of imperial power. Ephesus was home to a rich and entitled elite who controlled the government, manipulated the markets, and ran the religious life of the city. When it came to power, the Ephesian Christians were on the outside looking in.

Many of us feel like little people in big systems. It’s easy to feel helpless and hopeless when all the power rests in the hands of others. Carried along by impersonal politics, mindless markets, faceless social forces—we know powerless.

So, it’s jarring to hear Paul’s prayer today. “I pray that…you may know,” Paul writes, “what is the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power for us who believe, according to the working of [God’s] great power.” Paul is so intent to make his point that he uses three different Greek terms for power in the space of fourteen words. There are no powerless Christians.

Paul longs that the Ephesians will know that this power is available to them for their daily use. The Holy Spirit longs for us to know this as well. There are no powerless Christians.

Paul draws it all together in verses twenty through twenty-three. Let’s take those verses step by step.

Step One: All Christian power is Resurrection Power. That’s where Paul begins, and where we must always begin. “God put this power to work in Christ,” Paul tells us, “when [God] raised [the Messiah] from the dead…” God’s love looks like a cross. And God’s power looks like resurrection.

Step Two: Jesus is now the rightful Ruler of all things in heaven and on earth. God “seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. Jesus the Messiah is Lord of heaven and earth, right now.

Step Three: Jesus exercises that rule in part through the Church. God “has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” The Spirit empowers us for loving service in Jesus’ name.

There are no powerless Christians.

Of course, there is power…and then there is power. There is “power over.” From this perspective, power is a scarce commodity available only to the privileged few. Power over is maintained by fear and violence. Power over treats everyone other than me as a means to my ends. Power over believes that power over is the primary goal of human existence.

And then there is power with/to/within. This power sees itself as multiplied when applied and is the property of everyone. It relies on connection rather than coercion. This power treats everyone other than me as ends in themselves. And this power believes that power is a means to an end. That end is human flourishing.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Brene Brown offers a good one-page summary that analyzes power in terms of how it is used. You can download that summary here: https://brenebrown.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Brene-Brown-on-Power-and-Leadership-10-26-20.pdf.

The witness of the gospels, and of the whole New Testament, is that the power of the Spirit is power with/to/within. Power with/to/within is the power of vulnerable love. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve,” Jesus says in Mark 10:45, “and to give his life, a ransom for many.” The Incarnate Christ did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped and hoarded but rather emptied himself for the sake of obedient service, including death on a cross — as we read in Philippians 2. The power of the Spirit is power with/to/within. If we exercise power over, that’s not Jesus power.

The parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25 can be framed in these terms. The question posed by the Lord is, “How did you use your power?” Did you use it to serve the least, the lost and the lonely without thought for yourself? Or did you use your power to pad your privilege? Do we use our power for others or for self? It’s not more complicated than that. If we use our power for others, that’s a sign that Christ lives in us and that we are responding to Christ in the other (see my post on Matthew 25).

Speaking of Matthew 25 — I was reminded by a podcast yesterday of Dolly Parton’s song, “Would you know him if you saw him?” Lyrics here: https://genius.com/Dolly-parton-would-you-know-him-if-you-saw-him-lyrics.

How do I use my political power in this representative democracy? How do I use my power to choose whether or not to mask up? How do I use my power to purchase ethically-sourced and cruelty free goods and services? How do I use my power to resist housing segregation and educational inequality when I think about buying a home? How do I use my power to be kind to my next door neighbors, no matter how irritating their Christmas lights are at two in the morning? How do I use my capacity to influence others in my life when it comes to issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.?

How many of us does it take to make real change in a system or culture? The research is still developing. But it may be that it takes as little as 3.5% of a population to bring about systemic change, especially if that 3.5% chooses to be visible. See https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190513-it-only-takes-35-of-people-to-change-the-world. The other end of the research spectrum says 25%. In any event, change does not require a majority. It takes brave people who use their power for the sake of others.

For fun and inspiration, listen to how Dolly Parton uses her power as power with/to/within. Brene Brown interviewed her on the most recent edition of “Unlocking Us.” It’s definitely worth the time. https://podcasts.google.com/feed/aHR0cHM6Ly9mZWVkcy5tZWdhcGhvbmUuZm0vdW5sb2NraW5nLXVz/episode/NDdjMjFjOWMtZmViNi0xMWVhLWIxZWYtZWI3ZjM5OTY5Njdk?hl=en&ved=2ahUKEwi22K7m347tAhXFF80KHaYPDQcQieUEegQIJRAF&ep=6

Church people use their power to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, visit the sick, advocate for the imprisoned and defend the persecuted. This is worth cheers and hallelujahs. This runs against cultural currents flowing in the opposite direction. This is the power of the Spirit at work among us to put all the powers of sin, death, and the devil under the feet of Jesus the Messiah. This is Jesus, the strong man, binding Satan and plundering his household. This is real power.

Church people also use their power to defend their privilege, sustain racism, concentrate wealth, maintain abusive systems and hide from the realities of the world. We need to call out such abuses of power over in our own faith communities and in the conduct of other believers.

There are no powerless Christians. The power of the Spirit is power with/to/within. With Paul I pray that “with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints…” This is the hope to which God has called us—to make the power of love conquer the love of power. This is the work of the Holy Spirit among us and in us and through us. This is how God is pulling it all together in Jesus.

The world cannot see this power among us. The world is blinded by the love of power. That’s why it takes the vision of an enlightened heart. That’s why this is about the hope to which God has called us.

There are no powerless Christians. Of course, there is no power unless you plug in. The Spirit equips us to see where the power is. It is in God’s Word of law and gospel. It is in our worship. It is in our welcoming and loving community. Let’s pray…

For a list of refences and resources for this week’s texts, please see my November 16 post.