a sermon on Luke 4:1-13 for the First Sunday in Lent
preached on February 17, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
It’s time again for Lent—that forty-day period when we are supposed to eat fish on Fridays, give up chocolate, alcohol, or Facebook, and generally reflect on how we are sinful and miserable human beings. As with so many things, we can blame it all on Jesus—he was the first, after all, to take a forty-day journey in the wilderness, and his story of temptation is clearly what Lent is all about, right? Since he suffered for forty days, we should too!
But I think our text from Luke this morning suggests that our Lenten journey should look a little different from Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness. Jesus had just been baptized in the Jordan River, and he went to the wilderness led by the Spirit and yet to be tempted by the devil. His vision of temptation along the way was not of beef or chicken on Fridays, rich candy bars, wine and beer, or social networking sites—no, these temptations rattled at the core of his humanity.
First, after forty days without food, the devil suggested to the famished Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus had spent his entire time in the wilderness fasting completely, eating nothing—far more than just giving up chocolate or limiting ourselves to fish on Fridays during Lent! Giving up things that aren’t all that good for us to begin with for the 40 days of Lent isn’t really what this is all about! Although the devil tried to take advantage of Jesus’ hunger, Jesus didn’t take the bait. “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
But for Jesus, this was about more than food, and so it should be for us. We are not what we eat—no, we can be better measured by what we consume from the world around us, by the people who influence us, by the natural resources we use and abuse, by the relationships that enrich our lives, and by the faith that sustains us as we go along the journey together. Jesus knew this, and so he somehow battled through his hunger to avoid this real temptation upon him to fill himself with something that would not truly satisfy him.
But the devil was not done with Jesus. He next took Jesus on a quick but complete tour of the kingdoms of the world and offered them to him: “I will give their glory and all this authority to you, 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.” Now Jesus had to be outraged right away—he surely knew that all the world belongs to God, and the devil had no authority whatsoever to give these kingdoms to anyone, especially Jesus, who already had such authority! But this temptation was about more than the power itself—this was about how to use and abuse that power, about shifting allegiance to a different way of thinking and working in the world and misusing the gifts of power in our lives. Jesus didn’t fall for the devil’s tricks, though. Again, he responded with words from scripture: “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Jesus would not give in so easily to the powers of evil in the world in order to gain some temporary power and glory, for his call was to challenge this evil and make it clear that the greatest power comes in weakness and the greatest glory from giving it all away.
While this temptation may not seem to be something of our world—surely the devil doesn’t dangle power and honor and glory before us all the time!—all too often we do look to take the easy way to power and glory. We look for the quickest path to achieve our goals, even if it means cutting some corners or hurting some people along the way. We are constantly tempted to bow to powers other than God to get what we want. And we even seek to build up honor and glory for ourselves, focusing on establishing ourselves and our ways and ideas with power and privilege rather than seeking to join in what God is doing around us.
But Jesus’ third temptation takes all this testing to a new level for Jesus and for us. The devil suggested that Jesus should throw himself down off the pinnacle of the temple and see what would happen. He even quoted a bit of the psalm that preceded our gospel reading this morning:
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.
As the devil saw it, if these promises are so real and good and important, if God really is present, Jesus should have checked out it just to be sure, and all would be well. But Jesus knew otherwise. He too could quote the words of Psalm 91, but he didn’t need to test them at that moment in order to trust them. As Bruce Benson puts it in a brief reflection on this temptation (from the February 21, 2010, edition of Sing for Joy), Jesus was tempted more than anything “to forget that trusting God with one’s life is not the same thing as being reckless with one’s life, that throwing himself off a high wall would be an act of foolishness and not of faith.” And so Jesus responded to this temptation to misuse scripture with another quote from scripture: “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Now we surely don’t put God to the test! We surely don’t make little deals with God that if only such-and-so will happen, we will be more faithful or stop doing something we shouldn’t be doing anyway. We surely don’t ask God to prove God’s goodness before trusting God in our lives. We surely don’t get frustrated and angry when God doesn’t answer our prayers as we wish and so fails our test. But you know it is true—so often we do exactly this. We expect God to respond to our prayers on our timetable. We suggest that the bad things that happen in our world or in our lives are simply part of “God’s plan” and so will just be okay if we can only suffer through the immediate pain and move on in life. And we even try to “prove” what we believe by twisting around events around us instead of trusting that God is really at work beyond our knowledge and comprehension.
The level of faith and confidence in God’s presence that Jesus demonstrated in response to this temptation—and all these temptations—is something that will constantly evade us. Unlike Jesus, we will always fall short in responding to the real temptations around us. We will never be sustained completely by the right things, and we will always be hungry for something more. We will never be able to completely give up our thirst for power and trust that God’s power is enough for us. And we will always be looking for better proof that God is at work in our lives and our world.
Yet Jesus struggled with these same things. These temptations during those forty days in the wilderness and countless other times during Jesus’ life remind us that God knows the depth of the trials and temptations that we face. And just as he overcame those temptations, we can find a new and different way through them, slowly but surely, day by day, not because we become better people but because God’s new life in Jesus Christ takes deeper and fuller root in us and in our world each and every day. Lent is the gift of time to do just that—to clean out our closets of the dusty old things that get in the way of all that can be new, to cultivate new practices that help us to set aside faith in our own ways and instead trust God’s grace, to make our way through the temptations of our world trusting the presence of God all along the way.
So may we find God amidst all that we give up and all that we take up in these Lenten days so that we can walk the road of uncertainty and temptation with confidence as we seek the way to new life along the road of the cross and look for the hope of the resurrection in our midst through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.