Sermon on Luke 4:1-13 for 1st Lent C, February 17, 2013
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “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.” Jesus answered him, “It is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.'”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,’
‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”
Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
What Jesus Gave Up for Lent
We have recently been reminded that Jesus asked us to consider “the lilies of the field,” as an alternative to worry. The first thing to notice in this text is that there are no lilies. The setting is the wilderness. It’s barren. There are no “green pastures” nor “quiet waters” either.
The second thing to notice is that it’s lonely out there. You are on your own in the wilderness; there is not even a child with a Happy Meal of “five loaves and two fishes”. Its just you out there.
The role of “forty”
And as long as we are noticing things about wilderness, we might as well consider the role of numbers out there. Forty seems to be the one to keep in mind. Jesus spends forty days out there. That’s one day for each of the forty years his nation, Israel spent in their wilderness-time, as they journeyed from Egyptian slavery to the Promised Land; the time of the great exodus.
That time was a time of testing for the Israelites, we remember, when conditions were harsh, and the final outcome of reaching the destination was anything but certain.
Forty is also, probably not coincidently, the number of years in one generation, according to customary reckoning. If you spend forty years in the wilderness, you’ve pretty much been there your entire life.
Wilderness is lonely and barren, but it’s not a boring place. There is action in the wilderness. It is a battle scene. There are no other people around, but remember, it was the Spirit that led Jesus out there, and the diabolical devil is there as well. They have opposite agendas for Jesus. It’s a contest. There will be winners and losers. Nobody returns from wilderness unscathed nor unchanged.
And one more thing to notice about wilderness: we have all been there, we will all be there again, and at least in some senses, we are always there. That’s part of the point of the “forty” number; it’s an allusion to the length of one generation; a lifetime. Though there are specific times when it is particularly difficult, in which we are more aware of being out there, nevertheless, the fact is that we are always living in wilderness, at least in some sense.
In what sense? In the sense that we are always involved in a spiritual struggle between trust and despair. In the sense that we must face our demons individually. And in the sense that it is not apparent to us where the resources we need are going to come from. We can see plenty of stones; but precious little bread.
So how do we handle living in wilderness? We look to Jesus, of course; which is why Luke wrote this down for us.
Bread from Stones
So, the first temptation goes like this:
“The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
Jesus has been fasting, he is famished, and bread is a good thing. This is not a temptation to do something bad per se. This is a temptation to link our faith to outcomes. We all have lots of needs, from personal health issues to relationship issues, to the well-being of those whom we love, to the uncertain future, we all have needs.
And we all pray. We all ask God to help us with those concerns. We pray for good outcomes. Did not Jesus himself teach us to pray to our heavenly father, “Give us each day our daily bread”? Yes of course.
But the point is this: there is no “if – then” condition that we bring to our prayers. “If you are the Son of God, then prove it” the devil, in effect, says. “If you are God, you will produce this happy outcome – heal, reconcile, vouchsafe, or whatever.”
Rather, Jesus models for us the life of faith that does not make faith itself conditional on happy outcomes.
Those who come to Bible Study on Thursday have just heard that Paul conceives of the entire Christian life, the life of faith, as a time of exodus. In other words, a time of wilderness, complete with present conditions of suffering that test our faith. And yet, hope is possible, even in the wilderness, that God’s future will be accomplished.
“…we also boast [celebrate] in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…. ” (Rom. 5:3-5)
We are people of hope; God is working out God’s purposes and will finally accomplish good. But between now and then, our lot may include sufferings, as Paul says. Jesus marks the way through this wilderness. We do not make our faith conditional on today’s happy outcomes. We don’t live by daily bread alone.
All the Kingdoms: Control
The second temptation starts with a look at all the kingdoms of the world. The devil says to Jesus:
“If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
“All the kingdoms”: let’s not think about England, Germany, Italy and France. Think about the Roman Empire and all the other historic empires: the Babylonian, the Assyrian, the Egyptian. These were not democracies. They were all about control by force. Think: Stalin.
How many lives have been made miserable by control-issues?! How many relationships ruined, how many groups of people have been made toxic and destructive?
From committees to whole organizations, from non-profits to churches and businesses – when there are people who have got to be in control, to have it their way or no way, it ruins it. The project goes from nobel – a marriage, a team, a cause, to ignoble; from a kingdom of God project, to the opposite.
God is in charge, and we are not. None of us is wise enough to know how to run our own lives, let alone running the lives of others. We are not always right. We do not have or understand all the facts. We couldn’t possibly foresee all the possible outcomes.
People of faith are called to let God be God. To accept the things we cannot change, to bend in the wind, as the lilies of the field do, instead of huffing and puffing back at it.
If worship means anything, it means acknowledging that God is God, and I am not. So, Jesus shows us the response to the control-temptation:
“‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
The third temptation in wilderness comes from the top of the temple, where the devil says to Jesus,
“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,”
This is the temptation to fox-hole faith. “God, get me out of this one, and then I’ll believe; then I’ll trust you.” This is especially poignant for situations we have gotten ourselves into.
We want God to magically fix relationships that we have helped poison with hostile words, bitterness, and failure to forgive. We want God to take away years of bad diets, make up for years without exercise, and to make the anxiety-control capacity in our brains like the ones in the brains of those who have prayed and meditated for decades.
But that kind of last-second intervention would make a mockery out of real life. God does not force us to be good. God does not make us live well. Rather, God graciously invites us to make use of the means of grace: daily prayer, scripture, meditation, silence, public worship, and the sacraments.
God invites us to live grateful, responsible, disciplined lives, walking lightly on our planet, being good stewards of our bodies, nurturing relationships, doing justice, and loving and accept ing love in return.
This is how the life of faith is lived, as Jesus showed us, daily entrusting ourselves to our heavenly Father. Quite the opposite of rushing to God like a stranger in a self-inflicted crisis. We refuse, as Jesus taught us to refuse, saying,
“you shall not put the Lord our God to the test”
Well, Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness came to an end, and the devil, Luke tells us, let him be,
“until an opportune time”
The opportune time came when the devil goads Judas into the control-temptation. On the night of the Last Supper, he leaves to betray Jesus.
That evening does not end well for Jesus. He prays to have “the cup pass” from him, but he gets a “no” for answer. Jesus suffers that night. The stones do not become bread; the Roman lash comes down on him, what – forty times?
Jesus demonstrates the life of trust, not only when the temptation passes uneventfully; Jesus trusts God completely, and ultimately, right up to the point of death.
Trust in God is not at all a fairy-tale trust in magical deliverance. Trust means the assurance that God is with us in the entire journey, through suffering, and with us still, to the very end.
And we live lives of trust not as hopeless people, but as those who are content to let God be God; putting our finite, mortal lives in God’s good hands, every day.