First Sunday in Lent
So far, things have been going pretty well for Jesus. He’s just been baptized by John the Baptizer, and there was a tremendous confirmation of his divine sonship at his Baptism; the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” But now, that same Holy Spirit has also sent Jesus out into the wilderness. And we know from the rest of the Scriptures, that spending time in the wilderness is almost never a pleasant thing. We know this also from our own personal experiences, for many of us have spent time unwillingly or unwittingly in the waste-lands and deserts of life. But as unpleasant as the deserts and waste-lands of life may be, they are also sacred and holy places, because it is in those places that we learn that we have no recourse at all but to trust in God, and to trust in God fully. The Israelites of old learned this in their 40 years of desert wanderings; we, hopefully, have also learned it from our own aimless wanderings, and we will be reminded of it again from our passage this morning.
40 years is a long time to spend in the desert, but so also is 40 days. From the very beginning of this passage, it is clear that it is God who has sent Jesus into the wilderness to endure all that he endured there. And that can be hard to swallow, sometimes. Our Psalm this morning is all about God’s watchfulness and care over our lives, it is about how God protects us in every way imaginable. It makes for peace in a troubled heart. And yet, it is often God who sends us into the wilderness to learn those important lessons of life, as difficult as they may be. But it is also God’s intent that when we go into the wilderness that we will also emerge from that experience stronger and more mature spiritually, and with a more powerful and deeper understanding of God’s involvement in our lives.
And so Jesus enters the wilderness in the fullness of his humanity, and while he is there, he is assaulted by the powers of darkness. In a bit of a terrifying way, Luke seems to imply that the entire 40 days represented a continuous onslaught by the devil; that there was no rest, that there was no let-up in the intensity of the temptations. And this is completely understandable to me. Jesus is about to begin his earthly ministry. He is about to establish the kingdom and reign of God on this earth. And that is absolutely terrifying to the devil. It is the avowed mission of the devil to destroy the works of God. And now that God has come to the earth to establish his reign and kingdom here, the powers of darkness have come on high alert. Jesus must be stopped, and there is no better time to stop him than before he actually begins his ministry. The devil made a whopping attempt to destroy Jesus at his birth, but the Wise Men helped to mess that one up. It is obvious that the devil is relentless and tireless in all efforts to destroy that which is good and holy and sacred.
And so Jesus is hungry. He has not eaten during his time in the wilderness; he has been fasting, and we must assume that he has also been praying. The two always go hand in hand. His prayers at this stage of his life must have been focused on the shape that his earthly ministry would take, because all three of the temptations that he endures, challenge him to subtly, but destructively alter the course of ministry that has been set before him.
So you’re hungry? Been a long time out here, huh? Looks like you’ve lost weight, probably not feeling all that great either, am I right? It’s time to put an end to this foolishness. You aren’t going to be much of a savior if you die of starvation out here in the wilderness. You’re the Son of God, you’ve got the power of the Almighty at your finger tips, you must be famished, take and eat, this is my gift to you! Who’s gonna know if you cut your fast a little short, anyway?
And we might find ourselves agreeing with the complete reasonableness of this offer. It makes sense. Temptation is never ridiculous, or out of place, or unattractive. It always seems to be right and proper. But to give in to this temptation would be to misuse the power of the miraculous. Jesus has come to this earth to rescue bleeding and dying humanity, not to serve himself. And so Jesus replies, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.”‘ And in those words there lives a powerful miracle. Jesus only quotes the first half of the verse. And in only quoting the first half of the verse, he forces the devil to provide the rest. The verse comes from Deuteronomy 8:3. This is how it reads: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” If the devil had a heart, that must have been exceedingly painful, because the devil has long ago forfeited the opportunity to be nourished by the word of God. The devil is starved for the word of God.
Not to be outdone however, the devil goes high-tech, and shows Jesus in an instant all of the kingdoms of the world. Want this? Think of the power and the authority you could have! You could rule the world! Let’s face it. You’re going to be popular; nobody’s denying that, but your whole ministry is going to be limited to an area of about 30 square miles in a back-water country, running from Nazareth to Jerusalem. Think of the possibilities! Think of the influence you could have if you ruled the whole world. Think of the impact you could have. You could still do all of the good things you want to do, but you could do them on a global scale. How good is that? All this stuff is mine anyway, but I’m happy to give it to you. All you need to do is shift your allegiance; worship me, and you can carry out your ministry to the whole world. You can be the king of the world.
These are lies, of course, but they are subtle lies and they are attractive lies to someone who is so compromised by hunger and weakness, and who knows in his heart that he wants his ministry to impact the whole world. And yet Jesus responds once again by quoting from the Scriptures. This time it is from Deuteronomy 6:13, which reads: “The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear.” Again, this is an opportunity for worship and service that the devil has lost forever, and it reminds the devil of what once might have been, but is now a joy that will never again be experienced. The devil has lost forever the opportunity to serve God, and to worship God.
Ever the relentless one, though, the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. Hey Jesus…the world is looking for and yearning for a great and visible display of God’s power. Your people are sorely oppressed by the Romans. They need to know that God is real. Jump! Prove that you are the Son of God! Your Scriptures say that God will take care of you, what a way to begin your ministry, to have all of the people see you floating gently down to the ground borne aloft by angels. They’ll think that you came from heaven! Everybody wants something spectacular from God, and you can provide that. Will you deny the truth of your own Scriptures?
But again, Jesus turns to the Scriptures, once again from Deuteronomy. This time from chapter 6, verse 16. “Do not put the Lord God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.”
And for now, that puts an end to the temptations. Even in his severely compromised condition, Jesus has prevailed. But let us not miss this: he has prevailed not by his own strength, but by the power of the word of God. And in the face of our own temptations, our only recourse is steady reliance on God’s word. We are not strong enough to resist temptation on our own, nor will we ever be exempt from the tantalizing power of temptation. Being firmly committed to God and to God’s way does not keep us from the struggle. Remember, that when Jesus encountered these temptations he is described to us as being full of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it seems as though that those who are most engaged in God’s work, or about to be engaged in God’s work, face the most opposition from the forces of evil. And that is because God’s work destroys the work of the devil. If the devil can tempt God’s saints, or thwart their work, or keep them from God’s work, the devil can prevail for a time.
Keep this in mind: no self-respecting devil would ever approach us with offers of personal, domestic, or social ruin. A real temptation is never an invitation to suffer, or to experience loss, but rather to better ourselves and to achieve glory and power. Only Jesus offers us the opportunity to suffer and to experience loss. When the serpent in Eden approached Eve, it did not say to her, do you want to be like the devil? Do you want to lose every opportunity to enjoy a relationship with God for an eternity? No! What he asked her, is how would you like to be like God? How would you like to have wisdom and knowledge and understanding and power? Temptation is always attractive. It is never dark or dingy, or repulsive. But hidden carefully in the fine print is an invitation to death and destruction and ruin.
Our passage ends rather ominously. “When the devil had finished every test, he departed until an opportune time.” I’ll be back. The power of temptation is relentless. It will dog us until the day that we die. And yet we have before us a powerful example of how we can prevail and how we can emerge triumphant.