In Oxford, England during the year of 1938 the great theologian Karl Barth gave a speech entitled Trouble and Promise in the Struggle of the Church in Germany. In that lecture he spelled out how the Nazi party had offered the Evangelical Church in Germany what seemed like the deal of a lifetime. It was one of those deals that seem too good to be true. The church was offered a favored position in the new state and assured that they would be able to evangelize the 80 to 90 percent of the German people who were not in the church. The only catch was that the church had to recognize that the Nazi party coming to power was divine revelation. And that the church had to put its work, teaching and care under the service of the state, namely the leader of the state. Barth went on to point out how some in the church grasped this offer as if it was from God and others shunned it. He also pointed out that while this trial was out in the open in the German church that a similar but hidden temptation faces every church in every nation. We are able to have favored status among men if we just serve men rather than God.
Jesus faced a very similar set of temptations in Matthew 4. Jesus faced three different temptations; the first was a benefit to his physical appetite, the second was a benefit of personal gain and the third was a benefit of power and glory. Today we will examine the third of these three temptations and how that same temptation still faces us today. Not only does that temptation face us, but there is a very real trouble and promise within that temptation that faces the church in America today.
All too often we as a church seem to be more interested in what God can do for us rather than what we can do for God. We expect God to bless us as a church and a nation. “If we are faithful to God then God will bless us” is our mantra. It’s a mantra that we do not give much thought or the ramifications of what we are truly saying. We have this expectation of God blessing us but our expectation, while we may verbally deny it, is that God will bless us in material ways. We do not think about what we are saying to the non-Christians of our nation nor do we think about what we are saying to the rest of the Christian church in the world when we hold this mantra. Just as a bit of background, the United States has the largest national population of Christians. Yet we only have a little over 11% of the world’s Christian population. And on top of that, the world’s Christian population, which is the largest religion in the world, still only represents less than 1/3 of the world’s total population. So we as American Christians, who are the most visible Christians in the world, need to be very careful about what we say and how we say it.
The United States currently holds the prestigious position of being the preeminent superpower of the world. We are also the overall richest country in the world. Our Gross Domestic Product, which is a measure of the size of our economy is almost double that of the next closest country. We do a very good job of defining status by how much stuff we own. Watch any amount of TV or listen to the radio; both of them make huge amounts of money from advertising, advertising that is designed to get you to buy more stuff. I know that I am particularly susceptible to their wares. Whenever I travel I have a phone, laptop computer, personal game system and an mp3 player that I must bring with me. However did I travel without them? When I was growing up it was rare to ever see a Mercedes or a BMW driving down the street. These rich status symbols meant something. Today it is rare to drive anywhere without seeing multiples of each. While we are not all rich by American standards, most of us are not lacking any real necessity by the world’s standards. In a certain sense, yes God has blessed us as a nation. Yet what does it say to the other nations of the world when we claim to be faithful and therefore blessed? The Christians in Darfur face trials and tribulations that we in America will never even fully understand let alone face. Are they less faithful than us because they are not similarly blessed as we are?
As the richest church in the richest country we have both a position of prestige and power as well as a position of great responsibility. The trouble that faces the church in America today is working hard to maintain and even expand its favored status within our own nation. At times the church does a better job of reflecting the values found in our own country rather than the values found in our Bible. We want to do what is right in the eyes of men rather than what is right in the eyes of God. We are even starting to change some of our core beliefs to better fit into the culture. We fail to speak out regarding politics so that we do not lose our tax exempt status. We would rather save money by not paying taxes than speak to an important issue that is being decided in our political system. Just because the government wants us to keep our faith private does not mean that God wants us to do the same. The trouble is that we come across as greedily wanting to save our own lifestyles rather than our and others eternal lives. While I cannot speak for everyone else, we would all do well to check and see if that particular greedy shoe fits.
However not all is lost. We have been given a position of great wealth and influence which we have a duty to use well. There is a great opportunity for us to do an even greater good than we have already done so far. Churches all across this nation are making a choice to spend their resources on making the world a better place. Now in what is a global recession we have the opportunity to do an even greater good. We have the money and the influence to make tangible changes to problems such as world hunger, the African AIDS epidemic and human rights violations. We should be leading the way in doing these things no matter how unpopular they make us and no matter what they cost us. If we do any less, we are the ones that are less faithful.