Sermon on Luke 4:1-13 for the First Sunday in Lent, year C, Feb. 14, 2016
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.
Why tell the story of Jesus’ temptations? I used to think it was to show that Jesus was perfectly sinless, because he was both human and divine. But that is a really odd way to try to prove divinity, when you think about it.
I think there is a far greater reason for telling a story about Jesus being tempted by the devil. To isolate three temptations is to identify the core of the Jesus project. These are exactly the three issues that could put it all at risk of failure. These are the central issues faced by every community that sets out to follow the Jesus path.
Setting: Wilderness (of course)
So the setting is important: the setting is wilderness. That is, in the biblical story, the supreme place of challenge to the community. The Hebrew Bible has a long narrative of 40 years of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness before reaching the promised land. It was a time of constant testing. The temptation to loose heart and return to Egypt was constant and strong. There were hostile enemies, there were food and water shortages, and there were rocks and sand and endless sun; and no guarantee of reaching the destination, beyond a promise of an invisible God.
So the setting is the circumstance of challenges to faithfulness. I am sure that Luke’s community, the small band of Jesus followers in the first century of our era felt many times that they were in the wilderness of challenge to faith. The emperor cult was growing; showing disloyalty to Caesar, who was proclaimed the son of God on every dinari coin in your pocket could cost you your life.
But this community of Jesus-followers had something precious that made it worth it. It was the Spirit. They had an experience of God’s present Spirit, that was transformative. God’s Spirit, the risen Christ’s Spirit, had opened their eyes to radical new possibilities.
They had come to understand that the God who alone exists is good, and God is for them, and God is present, by God’s Spirit, luring them in each moment to goodness, beauty, and truth.
They had come to the radically transformed view that all people were made in God’s image, that all were both precious and equal. So their community had slaves and citizens sitting together at a common table. Men and women, Greeks and Jews, learning, worshiping, and serving together. All of this was a work of the Spirit – what else could account for it?
So the temptation story has to be told as a Spirit-directed story, and it is. It begins,
“Full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit in the desert.”
By the way, what had just happened at the Jordan? Jesus had been baptized and had seen a vision of the Spirit descending on him.
The community telling this story knows that the temptation to the kind of unfaithfulness to the central core of the Jesus-path is both an experience of harsh wilderness and an experience of the present Spirit.
And the only way to tell this story is to make the temptation to unfaithfulness come from the most diabolical source; the devil. Why? Because the risk is profound: get any one of these three wrong, and the whole thing collapses.
1. Stone to Bread
So what are these core values at risk in this temptation scene? The first one is this:
“He ate nothing during that (40 day) period. When it was over, he was hungry. The devil said to him, ‘if you are God’s son, tell the stone to become bread.”
Bread is legitimate. And the need is real, not imagined. In fact, the need is acute after those 40 days of fasting. But life is more than food. As necessary as it is to have to care about food, clothing and shelter, as right as it is to make sure the bills are paid, the roof does not leak, and the car is running, nevertheless, this community knows that life is not only about material values.
This community lives by the spiritual truth that Jesus, in the story, tells the devil:
“It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.”
“Bread” alone will never answer the question, “why am I here?” What is my purpose in life? Why do I feel moved by sunsets and the ocean? By music and literature? Why do I sense a connection with birds and whales? What accounts for my sense that my life is grounded; that I am cared for? That it will be OK?
Bread alone will never give the answers. Bread alone cannot even account for my interest in the questions. Life is so much deeper than bread alone. That is what this community knows. And we believe following Jesus is the path to that deeper way of living. The life of the Spirit.
2. Power and Glory
The second temptation in the story is the one that most clearly shows that this is a vision story. The devil leads Jesus “up”, cryptically,
“and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.”
Kingdoms are all about power and glory – at least for the people who run them. This story makes it clear: if power and glory are the goal, then the worship of the devil has already begun.
The devil says to Jesus,
“ If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
If that is what you want, power and glory, you are already worshiping the devil.
But the community that calls Jesus “king” lives by an entirely alternative vision of the good.
“Blessed”, Jesus said, “are the poor”
“Blessed are the meek,”
“Blessed are those” whose “hunger and thirst” is not for power and glory, but “for justice.”
This community welcomes the power-less and the glory-less; the widows, the orphans and the strangers; lepers, and foreigners, the ostracized and the marginalized, the very kinds of people Jesus spent his life among.
What does it mean to
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”,
as Jesus said in response to the devil? It means we refuse to bow to the gods of power and glory, but embrace the God of all creation, the creator of every creature, and to love them all the way God does: unconditionally. That is what is at the core of this community.
3. The God Issue
The climactic temptation is the third event, (because in all folklore, the third is the climax) is this:
“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”
In other words, make the focus of your spiritual life, a god who is there to serve yourself. Make god the god of the personal bailout, the butler god, the rescue god.
After all, doesn’t scripture say, as the devil well knows,
“it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
There is a fine line – but a profoundly important distinction to make – between the butler god who is there to fix all of life’s problems, and the God who grounds our lives, enabling us to say, “All is well.”
Because the god of all fixes does not exist. Evil does exist. People suffer.
Ask the people starving in Syria today, or the ones in the basement bomb shelters in Aleppo, or the ones in those shabby overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean.
Ask the families of the people who did not get the miracle reprieve from cancer; the ones who did not make it through the operation. The accident victims.
As the Jewish writer, Elie Wiesel said, after surviving the holocaust,
“The Omni-god died in the hangman’s noose in Auschwitz”
– meaning the omnipotent butler god who comes to the rescue.
That is not what this community believes. Rather we believe in the God Jesus worshiped. The God who is present in the wilderness with his people as they endure everything life throws at them.
We believe in the God who is Emmanuel, God with us, in every painful moment, loving us, suffering with us. We believe in the crucified God who knows what human death tastes like.
And so yes, we believe our lives are grounded and supported. That in spite of it all, there is a goodness that surrounds us. We believe that just as God was there, by the Spirit, in Jesus’ wilderness, so he is in ours.
And we will be able to say, when it is over
“All is well, all is well, all manner of things will be well.”
– Remembering that the one who first penned those words, Julian of Norwich, was living through the horrors of the plague, in a time of civil war, and an illness that nearly killed her.
This community that follows Jesus no more depends for its faith on a magic rescue than its founder, Jesus got. But he was able to trust, all the way to the end, all the way to the cross, and from it to say
“Father, forgive them, Into your hands I commit my spirit.”
Naming My Wilderness
How do you name your wilderness? Where is there the greatest temptation for you to remain faithful? Where is the pain in your life?
Listen, wherever it is; God meets you there. God is with you there. God is there bringing goodness, even in the midst of tragedy; bringing hope that you are not alone, and that no suffering is meaningless nor final.
This community of Jesus-followers, this Spirit-directed, Spirit-infused community lives by these values: bread alone is never enough for people who were created as spiritual beings.
Power and glory are diabolical aims; we are a community of, and for, the power-less and the glory-less.
And the God who is for us, is not a butler. God is the ground of our being, the light by which we see goodness, truth and beauty, our Source and our Destination, our confidence and our hope.