Some of you may remember my sermon a few months ago were I told a story about a friend from Alaska who was ‘over the top’ in following Jesus. If you recall, Keith read the scripture about giving all that you have away and following Jesus. So, he left all his possessions in his car and walked away from it all naked in January in Alaska. Keith lived, of course, because I have another Keith story to tell you.
We were back up in Alaska to complete some of the requirements to become pastors when we had dinner with Keith’s family. Now, he believes that the reason for scripture is so we can model our life after Jesus. I can agree with that, up to a point. He takes it to an extreme, if you couldn’t guess. Keith had just finished a wilderness experience of prayer and fasting. He had decided to do a fast in the wilderness because Jesus did a fast in the wilderness. So, here he was at his dinner table, talking about his experience, the hunger, the visions he had, and how he had faced up to the temptations that had been put before him. And as Keith finished his story, he says, “And on the 38th day, I came off of the mountain.” “What do you mean, 38 days? Jesus was in the wilderness for 40.” “Oh, I didn’t want to upstage Jesus, so I only planned on being out for 38 days.” I sat there, shaking my head thinking, “Man, I think you missed the point.”
So, what is the point of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness? Now, I’ve heard people say that Jesus couldn’t really be tempted–he was God, after all. But we cannot forget that besides being fully divine, he was also fully human. I have to believe that because of his humanity, he could be tempted, he was capable of giving into these temptations and that he faced true trials, both in the wilderness and during his ministry. For me, this is one of the reasons he is my Savior, and not just some 33 year experiment that God decided to try. But it is from Jesus that we learn what it means to be fully human and live into God’s divine will for us and his creation.
First, Luke assures us that that Jesus is not alone and separated from God’s love as the Holy Spirit fills him and is with him at both the beginning and the ending of this time. I had to include Mark’s short reading of this experience because of how the Spirit drove or thrust Jesus into the wilderness. I recently heard a quote about the Holy Spirit that went something like this, “Don’t expect the Holy Spirit to show up and sit quietly in back row.” Where the Spirit it, there is movement and action. I can picture the Spirit getting behind Jesus and shoving him into the wilderness.
So, I see this time for Jesus as a time of sorting after his experience of his baptism. It’s not like a vision quest in some cultures where one goes out to find one’s identity and name. His identity was found in his baptism. What did that experience that happened in his baptism mean for his future? It’s apt that this time of reflection, fasting and prayer happens in the wilderness, a place where both Moses and Elijah began their ministries as people of God. And it is here that he begins that process of discernment of what it means for him to be the Beloved, the Son of God. How will he live into God’s will?
And it’s also apt that this is where the temptations come in. Again, I’ve heard people discount this story because they don’t believe there is a devil. Whether you do or not, take the temptations that Jesus faced seriously. If we are able to trivialize what happened to Jesus, we might be tempted to trivialize the temptations we face. Temptations and trials were part of Jesus’ every day life, and they are a part of our real daily lives. They are not theoretical, hypothetical, nor are they imaginary. So whether you see them coming from some outside force or a character with horns or from somewhere deep in the psyche, they are to be taken seriously for the damage they can cause, even if they appear good.
And that is what the devil tempts Jesus with. From the outside, the temptation don’t appear all that bad. The devil doesn’t tempt Jesus to do obviously bad things. And these temptations are not the kind of temptations for something desirable but not good for him. The devil didn’t tell Jesus to make the rock into an angel food cake with sprinkles and cherry on top, but just bread to satisfy his hunger. These temptations are placed before Jesus to see whether even good things can pull him away from following God’s will.
First, turn a stone into a loaf of bread. Jesus is famished. But by implication, if he can do that, he can feed everyone. Why not alleviate the hunger of Israel? And changing the rocks to bread also has a political implication. The Roman Caesars would have wagons full of bread go through the streets of the larger cities handing out bread to the poor. I remember reading in my history books of one Caesar saying that to keep the poor from uprising was to keep them fed and entertained. The one who kept them fed had the keys to empire.
Second, you can rule all the kingdoms of the world if you just worship me. Remember that most of the known world in Luke’s day was under the heavy-handed control of the Roman Empire. The Roman peace came and was enforced with violence and oppression. Wouldn’t a regime change with Jesus on the throne be for the world’s good?
And with the third temptation, Jesus is whisked away to the top the temple by the devil where he quotes scripture that God will protect the righteous. Isn’t the temple is the place where the most righteous–the priests–carry out their work? But, again, weren’t they just working hand-in-hand with the political leaders at the detriment of the people, especially the poorest? “Throw yourself down and show the world your righteousness! This will prove you are the Son of God and they will all see it! They will truly know you are the Son of God!”
Do you see what each of these ‘good’ temptations are attempting to do? They are attempting to put Jesus at the center of things, play into his ego, and elevate the self. And Jesus says no to each and every one. No, bread is not enough to define my mission and who I follow. No, I cannot worship you, for worship belongs only to God. And No, I will not test God. Where the temptations attempted to put the focus on Jesus, Jesus puts the focus on God and God’s will. And we see how this plays out in his life and ministry. Though he refused to turn stones into bread, he feeds the hungry in the feeding of the 5000. He does this not so people believe in him, but in the one who sent him. He refused political power, but preached about God’s kingdom of love and grace that can be experienced now and cannot be crushed by the world’s powers. Though he refused to jump off the temple to see if God would send angels to catch him, he goes to the cross to show the world that God’s will for life is greater than any power that may attempt to control or destroy it.
So, what’s the point of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness for us? We take temptation seriously. We do not downplay them; we do not try to justify them. I don’t know how many times I have read in a Dear Abby column the long list of reasons someone is having an affair. Justifying temptations won’t take away the pain and damage that happen when we succumb to our pride, our greed, our lust, our power, and even our self-deprecation.
But mostly we take seriously the temptations in our lives because we take even more serious the new identity we find in our baptism: Beloved Child of God. God now claims us as we claim God. The Holy Spirit guides us everyday as we learn to walk in God’s will. We are transformed from people with individual wants and desires to disciples eagerly praying and discerning God’s will. Our questions change from “God, what is your will for me?” and “What will the church do for me?” From one way, those look like good questions, but do you see who they are about? (point at self) The questions change to “God, what is your will?” and “God, what is your Spirit up to?” Those questions are about God and keeping God in the center of everything. When we step out of the way, when we stop learning to depend upon ourselves, we learn to depend on God, and we will find that is when God will truly use us.
Now, we will still mess up and get in God’s way, and I share that from experience, even when I thought I was doing good. But I also believe that the strength of God must be taken seriously in our lives, that God’s strength to resist temptation is not imaginary and the resources of God are not hypothetical theological dreams. God does empower us with the Holy Spirit, the divine Word living inside and with us so that we can resist and overcome the real temptations in our lives and truly live into and follow the Divine will. I’ve learned to ask a simple question, “How is God glorified in this?” If I can’t see how, usually my will, my wants, and my desires have gotten in the way of God’s will.
Friends, the Lenten journey is a time to be intentional and receptive to the grace and love of God, but also to a time to receptive to discerning God’s will. It takes time, it takes prayer, and it may even take a little fasting to learn to get ourselves out of God’s way. But along the way, we will encounter a faithful God who leads us not only into the wilderness but also through the wilderness. Amen.