Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where 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.
3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And 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. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
9Then 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,10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. (NRSV)
Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is a watershed experience for him. It defines his character and ministry. Surviving the temptation leads Jesus to say things like: “Blessed are the poor…Love your neighbor…Love your enemies…My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it…Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them…[and] Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing…”
If the season of Lent follows Jesus to his Passion, the story of Jesus’ temptation is our starting block. It challenges us to confess the uncomfortable truth that many things we’ve learned to regard as signs of blessedness are exactly the things about which Jesus says, “Woe to you.” In the wilderness, Jesus does more than reject for himself material wealth, geopolitical power, and fame (in that order). He declares that the very things the Caesars and Herods of the world uphold as signs of greatness and divine blessing actually hinder us from engaging in the kingdom of God.
Still, whether it’s a pastor asking his congregation for $65 million dollars for that private jet he needs for ministry, or whether it’s xenophobic and even overtly threatening rhetoric from a “Christian” pulpit, or whether it’s simply a worship leader trying to rock a hipster vibe by wearing slashed jeans and speaking into his TED Talk headset, the attitudes of excess as blessing, of a violence-friendly church, and of celebrity worship are all alive and well today.
These things do speak to us. They tempt us, seduce us. And when they convince us that we’re entitled to them, we no longer hear the sinister voice underneath not only offering self-serving creature comforts, but demanding from us in return all the spiritual gifts and the energies we were given to use to love God by loving and caring for each other and the Creation.
One thing to learn from the story of Jesus’ temptation is that temptation hits us hardest when we’re least prepared to resist.
Jesus has fasted for days and days. His body is weak; his mind is vulnerable. When depleted, a human being becomes open to virtually any suggestion. The same is true when our collective minds are weakened by fear. That’s why, for untold centuries, human beings have tortured each other for revenge, information, and, when we’re at our absolute worst, some kind of hideous satisfaction. And starvation is one of the most common techniques used by psychopaths and governments.
Sapped by hunger, albeit a self-imposed hunger, Jesus hears and sees what’s possible for him. He knows what can make him comfortable, mighty, and popular. He can make people flock to his side, and even be willing to lie and kill for him. In fact, driven by fear, and starving for security, Peter falls prey to that very temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane. He draws a sword and tries to kill for Jesus. But Jesus makes it clear that to kill for him is to deny him and abandon him.
Jesus expects more from his followers. Even when it seems impossible – or we just can’t do it – Jesus still calls us to aim for the same spiritual focus that he demonstrates in the wilderness.
But how do we do that? Especially when we’re famished, and physically and mentally vulnerable?
It struck me this week that even if Jesus has been fasting, he has clearly stayed on a steady diet of scripture. So, when tempted to live a life guided by devilish appetites, Jesus slips into his spiritual pantry and comes out regurgitating the Torah.
When urged to turn rock into bread – a temptation to reduce the Creation to a commodity, mere resources to be exploited for human gain – Jesus says, “One does not live by bread alone.” We’re more than our wants, and even more than our needs, he says. We are beloved children of God.
The second temptation is for Jesus to reach not just for political power, but for domination. To rule the world, all Jesus had to do is sell his soul to The Author of Lies, and everything will be under his feet. But that will make him just another Caesar or Herod, just another pawn on the devil’s chessboard.
“Worship the Lord your God,” says Jesus, “and serve only him.” The strength and influence that matter come from all-in devotion to God alone.
Maybe Old Scratch has never found himself down 2-0. So, he cherry picks a line from Psalm 91, a song about God never letting anything bad happen to God’s faithful ones. That pipe dream has never been part of anyone’s faith experience – ever. Nor is the poet encouraging anyone to jump off of a building. He’s reminding the people that, come what may, be it bitter suffering or blessed peace, God is faithfully present and can be trusted to redeem even the most painful experiences.
Trust God in all things, says Jesus, but “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Scripture provides what the five food groups cannot – resources for living a life according to Jesus’ foundational prayer: “Not my will but yours be done.” Now, of course human beings need food, shelter, and clothing for our bodies. Of course we need structures for our communities and people to lead them. But eventually and inevitably, human things, human systems change, or even fall apart and get replaced by new things, new arrangements. The story of Jesus’ temptation tells us that the constant in the Creation is God. All of scripture feeds us the same nourishing promise.
God is not only in the beginning, but before the beginning, and beyond the end.
God is in Abram’s and Sarai’s search for home and belonging.
God is in Joseph’s sojourn in Egypt and the Hebrews’ wandering in the wilderness.
God is in the choice of David as king and in the poetry he writes.
God is in every devastating exile and in every blessed return.
God is in the birth of Mary’s child in Bethlehem and in the young man’s temptations.
God is in the midst of that confusing Thursday night, that horrific Friday, that desolate Saturday, and that altogether new Sunday morning.
When weakened by hunger, fear, or grief, human beings often misconstrue temptation as a call to think and act selfishly. So, even now, God is calling us into the scriptures to strengthen our hearts and minds so that when we face temptation, we have the spiritual reserves to follow Jesus who is leading in the ways of God’s will – ways of peace and self-emptying love.
“When the devil had finished every test,” says Luke, “he departed from [Jesus] until an opportune time.”
Facing temptation is a way of life for us. And when we face it, especially on those dismal, famished, Gethsemane nights, come what may, God is there.
And remember, after trying to kill for Jesus, Peter denies his Lord in the most straightforward way: “I do not know him!” Nonetheless, Peter is one rock Jesus did turn into bread.