Today’s message features Coca-Cola, Jesus, a tempter and some personal narrative, all seen through the lens of the classic Queen and David Bowie song Under Pressure. If you’re listening to the message just pause at the 9:11 mark, scroll down to the video below, and then fire up the audio file to hear the rest. For those that prefer to read it’s all laid out in order. Enjoy!
Pressure, Pushing down on me
Pressing down on you, no man ask for
Those lyrics are the first three lines of the classic song Under Pressure, a 1981 collaboration between the supergroup Queen and David Bowie. If you don’t recognize the lyrics you may recall the infamous baseline that’s repeated over and over throughout the song, ding-ding-ding-diddle-ing-ding. Sound familiar? You may also recall that David Bowie died earlier this year at the age of 69, what a poetic muse he was. RIP David, you are missed.
Soooo, pressure. Have you ever felt under pressure? What a silly thing to ask, of course you have. We all have, it happens all the time. There are deadlines at work, calories to count, kids to raise, taxes to pay. Those taxes are coming up soon. Being under pressure is a staple of our culture, an unfortunate side effect of our fast-paced lives.
I’ve felt under pressure of late too. My grandmother died last week, she was one special, amazing lady; someone that’s meant a ton to me for several decades. I was asked to write and deliver the homily for her memorial service, to capture the essence of a woman loved by so many. And then to share that essence in front of sixty people, friends and family, all saddened by her loss. No pressure? No, pressure.
I just got back from her memorial service and funeral in Baltimore, two days ago. And started writing this sermon yesterday morning, sitting at a local Panera for inspiration. Funerals don’t tend to come at opportune times. Under pressure? Yeah, a bit.
And then after the sermon this morning is done its back to writing a twenty-five page seminary paper. This particular paper is a requirement for all seminarians, and is submitted to both seminary faculty and synod committees. The paper is read by a dozen people, and used to determine if you’re fit to earn a Master’s in Divinity degree. And fit to be ordained clergy. So when was this twenty-five page paper due? Six days ago! Uh oh. Thank goodness the professors that this paper goes to offered an extension, showing some good old fashioned Lutheran grace. If they hadn’t, well, I’d be in a tough spot.
Pressure, Pushing down on me
Pressing down on you, no man ask for
I can hear that baseline, that ding-ding-ding-diddle-ing-ding, bouncing around in my cranium. It’s been stuck there for a couple days now. It might not go away until that seminary paper gets written.
Jesus, too, knew of pressure. His pressure was on a somewhat grander scale. For Jesus much more was at stake than the work deadlines we face. And definitely much more was at stake than my need to polish off a seminary paper. The gospel reading today finds Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. Tempted by the great tempter.
But before these temptations began Jesus fasted for forty days. Imagine how hungry he must have been. And then, while still fasting, the tempter came, saying “If you are the Son of God, make these stones into bread.” Fill your stomach. Let’s see some power. Jesus defers, taking a question about food and answering it with something so much more. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word from the mouth of God,” Jesus replies. Jesus is looking at the big picture, thinking with more than his stomach. Jesus faithfully remembers that he is totally dependent on God. Current score: Jesus 1, tempter zero.
Next the tempter tries another approach. “If you are the Son of God,” the tempter says, “throw yourself from the top of the temple.” Surely God will protect you, the tempter suggests. Jesus refuses to jump, but not because of a lack of faith in God. Jesus quotes scripture, saying, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Put another way, what kind of faith insists God must do one miracle after another? Not the faith of Jesus. Updated score: Jesus 2, tempter zero.
The tempter tries one last time, taking Jesus to a mountain, showing him the world, offering it to him. “All of this I will give to you, if you just fall down, worship me,” the tempter says. It’s an all-out bribe: give your allegiance away, and all this shall be yours. Jesus responds, with verve, saying, “Away tempter! For it is written: worship only the Lord your God.” Final Score: Jesus 3, tempter zero.
The devil, it seems, has been shut out. And then the tempter left. Suddenly angels appeared in their place. The tides had turned.
Blessing, Pressure, Ministry
I always found where the story of Jesus being tempted is located in scripture kind of curious, and perhaps a bit telling. Right before today’s gospel reading, in Matthew chapter three, we have the story of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist. Once baptized, the Spirit of God descended on Jesus, like a dove. Then a voice came from the heavens saying, “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Here we have a direct word from God the Father, approving of his Son, sending the Spirit to descend on Jesus. That sounds kind of epic. It sounds like something big is about to happen.
Directly after Jesus is tempted in chapter four we see his ministry begin. At that point, he calls the first batch of disciples, asking them to leave their boats, leave their nets, and follow him. Follow me, Jesus says, and I will make you fishers of people. And then Jesus gets busy healing the sick, drawing huge crowds. He then launches into the Sermon on the Mount, teaching the multitudes the blessings of the Beatitudes. Teaching them the Lord’s Prayer. That too, sounds kind of epic. Like something big is happening.
But between these two epic positives, of God sending his Spirit to dwell with his Son, and the ministry of Jesus beginning and quickly hitting full stride, we have wilderness, we have temptation. We have Jesus, under pressure. You could sum up Matthew chapters three, four and five with three words: Blessing, Pressure, Ministry. We’re all blessed, of course, but maybe effective ministry requires some time in the wilderness. Maybe it comes with some temptation to stray from God’s call on our lives. Maybe our faith is best formed when we’ve spent some time, for lack of better words, under pressure.
David Lose, president of the Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia, sums up the meaning of these temptations nicely, saying:
“Faith doesn’t do away with the hardships of this life, but rather gives us the courage to stand amid them. Not simply surviving, but actually flourishing in, and through Jesus, the one who was tempted as we are and knows our struggles first hand.”
Perhaps it is the temptations, the challenges, the times under pressure, that define us, that stretch us, that grow us, that give us experiences that mold us as the people of faith we are to become.
The Value of Pressure
This song, Queen’s Under Pressure, was recently used in a Coca-Cola commercial to show the various pressures teenagers face these days. I’d like to show you this commercial, not to help sell soda – Coca-Cola does that themselves just fine – but to illustrate what can come when we find ourselves under pressure.
Isn’t that a great commercial? It makes me smile from the inside out. In the video clip we’re shown many stories, I’ll highlight just a few.
We watch as a young man puts on some aftershave and looks into the mirror. He appears nervous. What is he preparing for?
We see a soccer match, and a teen getting dragged to the ground by his shirt. The whistle blows, a red card is given for the flagrant foul that took him down. Has he been injured? Can he recover from being wronged?
We watch another young man, practicing a high-dive, stretch, then lose his balance, limbs flailing as he inelegantly hits the water. He clenches his fist, furious with himself. Will he ever master this dive?
We then see a mother and daughter fighting in the car, their voices raised. The daughter angrily opens the car door and walks away. Will the two reconcile? At the time we don’t know.
As you consider some of these challenges do you see yourself in some of them? Do these challenges remind you of your own?
About half-way through the video clip our questions are answered.
That nervous boy? Well, he was preparing to ask a girl out on a date. He does, she says yes, the two walk on the beach, together, smiling, hand in hand.
How about that soccer match? The boy we saw dragged to the ground recovers. We watch as he shoots and scores the game winning goal. His teammates rush to embrace him.
And that boy who screwed up on the high-dive? He must have kept practicing, because the next thing we see he nails that dive, in perfect form, entering the water with nary a splash.
How about the mother and daughter fighting in the car? We see them run toward each other, and embrace in a hug. Their disagreement is now in the past. Reconciliation has begun.
The takeaway from all these mini-stories is that being under pressure, and how we respond to it, is part of how we learn, how we grow, and can become a central part of our story. Maybe you see yourself in some of this side of the story too, coming through a time of being under pressure, becoming stronger for it.
As we move through Lent we are asked to reflect on the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness, and in a way to make his journey into our own. We know the basic story of the Lenten journey: of ashes, of wilderness, of crowds and Palm Sunday, of death, of mourning, of resurrection.
But what we may not always get is the value of wilderness, of being tempted to take another path, of being under pressure, and what we do with all that. The ministry of Jesus, after all, only began after a time of temptation. Just as resurrection follows death, ministry without moments of temptation, moments in the wilderness, moments spent under pressure, ministry without these things would be incomplete. Our walk as a people of faith, too, would be incomplete.
As I reflect back on this past week spent preparing a gut-wrenching funeral homily, crafting a sermon with the clock ticking, and then trying to finish up an important seminary essay, a few times I’ve thought to myself, well, screw it. It’s too much, it’d be so much easier to throw in the towel; there must be some easier, better paying gig out there. And there are, believe me.
But then I remember the value of this wilderness, that it happens for all of us at times, and that, no matter where we are in it, understanding, embracing and growing from our own wilderness is all part of God’s plan. That’s what the Wednesday Lenten series Pastor Steve and I lead is all about, talking about how God can use worry warts, wanderers and weepers just like us. And yes, that’s a soft plug for the series, come on out, we’d love to see you there.
As you depart from this place consider where you’re at on this Lenten journey. Are you struggling with temptation? Wandering in the wilderness? Feeling under pressure? God can use this. Or are you riding high, your sense of call strong, your sense of purpose great? God also can use this. And no matter where you find yourselves, please know, with all certainty: God can use you.
Our tale today ends as it began, with lyrics from the song Under Pressure. Now this is a secular song, so I ask you to listen to it a little differently than you maybe have before. Lately when I hear the last few lines of Under Pressure I find myself reflecting on Christ’s love, our journey though the wilderness, our promise of a brighter future, our purpose as a people of faith. And when you hear the word love, replace that with the word Christ, see where that leads you. Listen for these things, see if you hear them too.
‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word
And love dares you to care, for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way, of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is ourselves