App-ing Toward Holiness – Rev. Henry Brinton
App-ing Toward Holiness
February 17, 2013
Walk across the campus of Fairfax High School or George Mason University, and you won’t see students looking at each other. You’ll see them looking at their phones. Various forms of communication are going on constantly, through text messages, emails, and Facebook status updates.
But communication is just the beginning. You can use your phone these days to edit a digital photograph. To keep track of your running. To play games. To diagnose an illness.
You can even use your phone to pretend to drink a beer. Although why you’d want to pretend to drink a beer, I have no idea.
All you need is an app.
An app is an application — a specialized program on your smartphone. Apps run the gamut from games to business programs, allowing you to play Angry Birds or keep your appointments.
There’s an app for almost anything. Over 500,000 of them, in fact.
Some apps promise to make us better people. According to The Atlantic magazine (June 2012), apps are now available to transform us into “thinner, richer, all-around-better versions of ourselves.” If you want to lose weight, become wealthy, or break a bad habit, all you need to do is download on app.
The key is behavior modification, via smartphone technology. An app called “Lose It” lets you share your weight-loss data with others, giving you the social support you need for success.
But maybe you want to save money. A behavior change company called “Urge” offers an app that reminds you to hold off on impulse purchases so that you can maintain your budget.
What if you want to watch television less or say “thank you” more? An app called “Habit Maker, Habit Breaker” lets you choose the behavior you would like to target, whether it’s controlling your time in front of the tube or expressing your appreciation.
The slogan of this app: “Change your habits, change your life.”
Jesus certainly understood the connection between personal habits and quality of life. That’s why he watched his behavior closely during his forty days in the desert. He made a set of choices that can teach us new habits and change our lives for the better. Although Jesus didn’t write a program for our smartphones, he did give guidelines for resisting temptation.
Jesus knew that if we change our habits, we will change our lives. If we apply his teachings, we’ll be app-ing toward holiness.
Here’s a habit to get into: Trust God, Not Yourself. Luke tells us that Jesus was tempted for forty days by the devil, and during that period Jesus ate nothing. He fasted for some the same length of time that Moses did, which we heard about in last week’s Scripture lesson. When those days were over, Jesus “was famished” (Luke 4:2).
The devil says to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread” (v. 3). Notice that the devil is making a reasonable request here: Jesus is, in fact, the Son of God. He certainly has the power to turn stones into bread. He is famished, and a loaf of bread would give him energy to serve God. In addition, the idea of bread in the wilderness has a nice ring to it, since that is what God provided to the people of Israel through the gift of manna.
But Jesus says no, because he is in the habit of trusting God, not himself. If he performs this miracle, he will be serving his own needs instead of allowing the Lord to provide. And so he responds to the devil by quoting a line from the book of Deuteronomy, the same verse that reminds the Israelites that God gave them bread in the wilderness: “One does not live by bread alone” (Luke 4:4; Deuteronomy 8:3). Instead, we are to live by trusting what God says and does.
Last August, there was talk about Olympic athletes praising God for their gold medals. Gabby Douglas, who won gold in women’s gymnastics, thanked God by saying, “I give all the glory to God. It’s kind of a win-win situation. The glory goes up to him and the blessings fall down on me.” Many were inspired by her performance and her willingness to trust God instead of herself. This past week, the Virginia State Senate gave her a commendation.
But how about when a faithful Christian does not win a medal? Runner Lolo Jones, who speaks frequently of her faith in Christ, spent four years training for the 100-meter hurdles. But even though she ran an outstanding race, she came in fourth and failed to medal.
Lolo Jones was devastated, but did not lose her faith. She says she has never “prayed to win a gold medal at [the] Olympics and never will.” She says that the Lord is her shepherd and she “shall not want.”
When we trust God instead of ourselves, we are thankful in both success and failure. Whether we win medals or not, we can be grateful for God’s gifts of life, talent, strength, and the love of family members and friends. If we apply ourselves to trusting God, we shall not want. That’s true even if we don’t get what we want.
Here’s another application, from Jesus to us: Serve Only God. In the second temptation, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. The tempter says, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours” (vv. 5-7). This sounds reasonable — think of all the good Jesus could do if he had authority over the kingdoms of the world. With a single command, he could eliminate poverty, disease, hunger, injustice, violence, and abuse.
But there’s a catch: Jesus must worship the devil, compromising with the power of evil. For Jesus, such a price is too high, even if great good can be accomplished in the world. Jesus quotes the book of Deuteronomy once again, saying, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Luke 4:8, Deuteronomy 6:13, 10:20).
This app is a tough one for us, because we are asked to make compromises every day. Do we work overtime to make money for our family, or go home at a normal hour to spend time with our family? Do we push for better environmental standards, even when being green will hinder certain industries? Do we save money by buying products manufactured in countries where workers are exploited? I love to get a good deal in a discount store, even when I know it has been manufactured overseas, in conditions that are beneath our American standards.
These are tough choices, and none of them breaks down into good versus evil, God versus the devil. But what Jesus is asking us to do is serve God instead of ourselves, putting God’s interests instead of our own success. Jesus could have had great earthly success if he had worshiped the devil, but instead he chose to focus on serving God.
We can do the same, by turning to God in prayer when we are confronted by a choice between overtime and family time. We take seriously our role as stewards of God’s creation when we take stands on the economy and the environment, knowing that God wants us both to use and to preserve the resources of the earth. We should think hard about what it means to love our foreign neighbors as ourselves, before we purchase a particular item.
If we apply ourselves to serving only God, we will find a faithful path through these challenges.
Finally, Jesus challenges us to apply a new standard to ourselves: Do Not Put God to the Test. In his last temptation, the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem and invites him to throw himself down, trusting the promise of the Book of Psalms, “His angels … will bear you up” (Luke 4:9-11, Psalm 91:11-12). After hearing Jesus use Scripture in his previous responses, the devil is clever enough to use God’s Word as part of his own temptation.
Think about this: Even the words of Scripture can be used to tempt us to go against God. That’s why we, in the Presbyterian Church, don’t tend to go around throwing verses of Scripture at each other. We study the Bible together, and ask the Holy Spirit to guide us into proper understandings. We’ve seen the words of Scripture used improperly in the past, to keep slaves obedient to their masters and to trap women in subordinate roles.
Across the church, we are discussing what the Bible says to us about homosexuality, and we need the guidance of the Spirit to come to a proper understanding. We know that the words of the Bible, by themselves, can be terribly misused. They can hurt people, as well as help them.
Jesus knows that the devil can use Scripture for his purposes. So he goes back to Scripture himself, to the book of Deuteronomy, to find the words, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Luke 4:12, Deuteronomy 6:16). Jesus trusts the power of God to save him, but he is not going to tell God when and how to do it. Even at the end of his life, Jesus does not ask God to rush in and rescue him from the cross. He continues to trust in God, and because he does, God raises him from death to life everlasting.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we have all put God to the test. Pastor Charles Rush says it starts in the third grade, when we get a pop quiz on the multiplication tables. We say, “God, if Marcy Fogelman’s paper can come into view during this test, I promise I will not curse for a whole week.”
From there, it just escalates, “Dear God, if I can just get Robin Hittman alone at this party, I will be nice to my sisters for a whole week.”
“O God, let those guys emerge from behind the conference room doors with a job offer. I’ll go to church for a month straight.”
In all of these cases we are bargaining with God, making promises in exchange for particular types of help. Unfortunately, this is a form of testing God, which Jesus refuses to do. If we avoid this temptation, we’ll move closer to God and find a sense of peace … a sense of peace in his will, not ours. Looking at the entire temptation story, it becomes clear that all of Jesus’ choices enable him to remain close to God and his divine agenda.
Trusting God, serving God, and not putting God to the test. These are the apps that Jesus uses in his own time of trial, and they are habits that he recommends we apply to our own struggles.
Some of us may even need to get our smartphone use under control. “Temptation has gone virtual,” reports pollster David Kinnman. “Nearly half of Americans admit to being tempted to use too much media and one in nine admits to expressing their anger digitally.”
If we change our habits, we can change our lives. That’s true in our use of smartphones, and true in our Christian lives as well. Amen.
Freedman, David H. “The Perfected Self.” The Atlantic, June 2012, 42-52.
Beaty, Katelyn. “Where Was God When Lolo Jones Placed Fourth?” Her.meneutics, August 9, 2012, http://blog.christianitytoday.com.
Rush, Charles. “Bargaining With God.” Christ Church Website, March 21, 2004, http://www.christchurchsummit.org.
Blake, John. “Americans reveal their 3 favorite sins,” CNN Belief Blog, February 8, 2013, http://religion.blogs.cnn.com.