A sermon on Luke 4:1-13
This past Wednesday, we entered into the season of Lent; the time the church has set aside for penitence, reflection, fasting and prayer. It seems only right that we begin our Sundays in Lent with this story about Jesus’ temptation. This is a season when many of us put ourselves face to face with temptation – giving up things we love like chocolate, wine, perhaps whining. We do this to practice discipline (and sometimes to lose weight or give up bad habits), and, in doing so, we enter into prayer and build our relationship to God. Jesus’ temptation was far more formidable than chocolate – the devil tempted him with some of the more difficult things that we wrestle with every day. The need for self-reliance, the desire for power, the easy way out. But at the bottom of all of these temptations, and most of the temptations we face in life is the question, “Do you trust God?” That is what the devil is asking Jesus. Do you trust that God will provide for you? Do you trust that the path God is leading you down is the right path? Do you trust God with your life?
These are the same questions the devil asks us. Do you trust God? Or do you trust yourself?
Jesus had just spent 40 days in the wilderness. He had not eaten, and was very hungry. It is reasonable to imagine that he had not slept all that well either – sleeping out in the open, weather and animals keeping him awake. And here comes the devil, doubt and temptation personified, to offer Jesus a solution to his problems. You are hungry, Jesus, and you have the power to fix this on your own. Use your power for yourself, just this one time. Be fed. Fill yourself with what you have created by yourself. God might not give you the bread your stomach so strongly desires, Jesus. Fix it.
We are hungry. We are hungry for connection, for community, for meaning: we are hungry for love. The media and product peddlers take on the role of temptation and doubt personified. They tell us that we are not attractive enough, but there are pills and diets and surgeries and clothes to fix that. They tell us we are not complete, but there are cars and furniture and kitchen sets to fix that. They tell us we are not truly loved until we have extravagant presents to prove it. We are unsure of who we are and where we belong, we are told that the products we buy can help us define who we are, and along the way provide us with a community who is into the same stuff. We will find connection through our things. And we are surrounded by it, this message. It is in our ears and faces all the time. We absorb it through our pores. We doubt our worth and fall prey to the belief that we have the power to sate our own hunger. We fall into the cycle of spending our time to earn money to buy things to fill our hunger but it never lasts. And so we do it again, and again.
Jesus knows about this cycle. He knows that, on his own, he can do nothing, that it is only through God that he can act for good. Jesus knows that life is about so much more than that bread. He knows that he cannot fill himself on his own. He is hungry, he is weak, he is tired. I would imagine he is salivating at the thought of a meal. But he is also grounded in the Word of God, in scripture and prayer. He is grounded in faith in God and the knowledge that God can and will provide so much more than the things of this world, so much more than Jesus’ own power and abilities can bring him. It is his grounding in the word of God and trust in God’s promises that allows him to put aside his hunger and reply with words from scripture, “The human shall not live by bread alone, but by the word of God.”
By what are we living? The word of the world, or the word of God? Where do we put our trust?
The devil sees that this tack will not work. What else can he offer Jesus? What else might throw Jesus off track? An offer of power, perhaps? The devil offers all of the kingdoms in the world. Just the fact that the devil was able to show this to Jesus hints at the devil’s power. The devil claims that the kingdoms of the world have been given to him – is the devil lying, or does the devil control the major cities of the world? If the devil does have this power, this could make Jesus become the messiah the people of Israel were expecting – a mighty king, a political leader, come to free God’s people. This would be a very different king than the road Jesus is currently on. His power would be more visible, more worldly, would be seen in a way that those around him could understand. Moreover, it would be a power that he could understand, that he could control. Not only is the devil offering Jesus power and control, he is offering him it in a way that makes sense in this world. The power Jesus has, the role he plays in the world is almost never understood by those around him, not until after his death. All he has to do is pledge loyalty to the devil — in return he will recieve power, control and a different destiny.
Power. Control. Understanding. Recognition. We really like those words. Who doesn’t, at one time or another, daydream of being in charge of a kingdom, be it having control of your household for five minutes or having control of the world. We love control, and we really, really hate to admit that we aren’t in charge of much of anything. Most of us want to be recognized for what we do, to be seen as the one who just did that awesome thing. But we have a God who doesn’t show us the end of the story but lets us work it out. We have a God who asks us to do our good deeds on the down low. We have a God who asks us to pledge our loyalty to him and only him, in return for things that are hard to see, hard to explain, and often unrecognized by our world as being awesome. The world tells us the opposite – power is visible, control is ours, and we deserve to be recognized for what we have done. What are we willing to trade for some recognition, some power, some control? What are we willing to give up to God?
Jesus is still hungry, still exhausted, and can likely see some positive outcomes of the devil’s offer. After all, he is fully human as well as fully God. But he knows his call, he knows who he is created to be. Once again, the strength of his faith comes through. His grounding in God and knowledge of his path takes over and he is able to say, “Get behind me Satan: for it is written, you shall worship the Lord your God and no other.”
But the devil is not done. There is one more thing. And, really, it’s kind of bratty. Satan must be annoyed that Jesus keeps pushing him back with scripture, so he comes with some of his own. And through that, he manages to ask Jesus if he really trusts that God will protect him. “Jesus, God has said he will protect you. Do you really think he will? If you do, if you really believe in God, put his love to the test.” Or, the flip side of this question, “If you believe what God has told you about who you are, put who you are to the test.”
Most of us know this is a bad move in a relationship. It is rarely, if ever, a good idea to say, “If you really loved me, you’d…” Or to act out to see what your beloved’s response is. And yet… how often do we put God’s love to the test? How often do we act out hoping for some response from God, for some lightening bolt from the sky. How often do we put God to the test by questioning who we are, by questioning if we are loved?
You are loved. I am loved. We are loved. By God. The proof in this lies in our lives, our community and in stories of God’s love passed down through the generations and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jesus had the stories, he had the community, he was rooted in God’s love for him. He didn’t need to throw himself off a building to prove it. He knew.
The devil is done with him… for now. The scripture here tells us that the devil will come back – at an appropriate time. Not even Jesus could escape temptation. But he could face it down, he could push it back – and so can we. With Jesus’ help.
But, why? Why should we push back temptation? Usually temptation has something fun on the other end of the line. True. Usually it does. Just like a fish sees a tasty worm at the end of the line but misses the hook. Giving in to temptation usually does have some fun, but it almost always comes with pain, loss, grief, embarrassment, and more.
Jesus was able to push back temptation because he was deeply grounded in the word of God. Not just the words of God, though his knowledge of scripture and his ability to quote it certainly helped him in this situation. He was grounded in the word of God, the word that was there at the beginning, the word that lived inside of Jesus Christ and the word that lives among us today. As the Apostle Paul writes, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” We have the word in our midst! We have scripture, we have ritual, we have community, we have the Holy Spirit, we have the unending, always forgiving, never fading love of God. When the devil asks us, “Do you trust God?” We can look at all that we have been given, all that is around us, all that God has entrusted to us and respond with a mighty, resounding Yes.