Thursday, June 10, 2004

Jesus' Temptation and Ours: A sermon for a midweek Lenten service, March 10, 2004

The story in this gospel reading is one we know well. Luke writes the wondrous story of Jesus’ baptism, how the Father spoke from Heaven, and the Holy Spirit descended from Heaven in a bodily form of a dove. And then -- after Luke interrupts for almost half a chapter to tell the story of Jesus’ genealogy -- he continues to tell us a story perhaps as wondrous, that of Jesus spending 40 days praying and fasting in the wilderness.

We think of wilderness, and we think of trees and forests and a whole lot of things like that, but that’s almost certainly not what kind of wilderness Jesus saw when he walked out lonely into the wilderness to face the tempter. It was a place out in the desert, dry and hot during the day, dry and cold at night, with nothing to shade him from the blazing sun, no place to rest at night except the dry dirt, and no pillow except a stone. And the heat wasn’t all that was bad about this place, because it was filled with animals: snakes, scorpions, and probably insects as well. A nasty place. A place you wouldn’t want to go for an hour, and Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights there. 40 days. Over a month. Longer than the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

And maybe it would have been tolerable if he had been alone, but he was not, because the text tells us that he was there, and tempted by the devil. So in the midst of ravaging hunger and having to deal with insects, Satan was there.

Satan, of course, does not look like the red creature we see in cartoons, who carries a pitchfork. If only he did look like that! We could easily identify him. But St. Paul tells us that Satan can even appear as an angel of light, meaning that he can appear good, he might appear kindly, he might even appear to have our best intentions in mind.

There may have been numerous temptations Jesus endured those 40 days. We simply don’t know if there were more. But we do know of 3. Theologians sometimes speculate as to what ways Jesus was tempted, and I think that sometimes we think that God cannot understand our temptations. After all, we live in a world very different from Bible times. But God’s law is there to show us our sin, and the root of all our sins -- the lying, the taking what is not ours, the evil thoughts, the hatreds, all the sins we do every day -- the root of all those is that we do not trust God. We do not trust that God will be God, that he will watch over us, that he will care for us, that he will provide all that we need.

And that lack of trust is ultimately where Satan tempts Jesus. To trust in himself, to trust in Satan, to trust in anything else but his heavenly Father.

And so Satan attacks Jesus, just as he attacks us. And the first temptation recorded is one aimed at Jesus’ hunger. Was Jesus hungry? You bet he was. It’s easy to forget that Jesus is fully God, but that he is also fully man. And any man or woman who has gone 40 days without eating will be hungry, almost out of their mind with hunger. And Jesus was no different from us. He was hungry. And the evil one came to him. The evil one tempts this man, dazed with lack of food, taunting him. IF you are the son of God, he teases him, command that these stones become bread. Could Jesus have done it? Of course. Several times in the gospels, we are told how he fed thousands of people, multiplying bread, just as he feeds the whole world even now, and just as he feeds his people with his own body and blood in the Lord’s supper every Sunday. But Satan tempts Jesus to wonder if God his heavenly father really cared for him, really took notice of his needs, really would give what he needed. Just as we are tempted to wonder, to doubt that God will provide for us in hard times, to believe that God really does not care for us.

In the second temptation, Satan takes Jesus into a high mountain, and shows him all the kingdoms of the world, and the liar promises to give all of this to Jesus if he will but fall down and worship Satan. Again, this is a first commandment temptation, a temptation to worship someone, anyone, but the true God who is our father, and who created and sustains us and all of creation. And while we may not be explicitly tempted to worship Satan himself (though there are those sad individuals who have done so) we are constantly tempted to put our trust, our love, indeed our worship into something or someone else but God. And so Jesus was tempted with us in this.

And finally, Satan takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple, probably the highest spot in Jerusalem, tempting him this time with the thought that God might not really care for him. “Throw yourself down,” he taunts him, “if you really are the son of God. Because if you really are the son of God, God will care for you,” and then he quotes scripture at him. And we are tempted to, in dark moments, in times of trial, in times of temptation, to wonder, “Am I really a child of God? Does he really care for me?,” and there are always lying prophets -- sometimes in books, sometimes on TV, or wherever -- who will even quote the Bible to us, and they appear so holy, so good. But they tempt us to take our eyes off of God, to put our trust in someone else.

And in all of these temptations, Jesus answers with God’s word. Jesus could have told the lying Satan to just go away, to just leave him alone. But when we answer with God’s word, we are putting our trust in God, not leaning on our own devices to foil the devil. Because even in turning away from sin, we can sin, if we do it or try to do it in our own strength. So we -- along with our Savior -- are invited to hear his word, to trust his kind word to us, and even to use his word as a tool to fend off the temptations of Satan. Because in our temptations, Satan can and will lie to us. But God will never lie to us, never mislead us, never steer us wrong.

So in these 40 days of Lent, when we ponder the temptations our Savior went through, we ponder also our own sin, and the temptations which dog us through life, and we realize that our temptations are not unusual or unique. Because Jesus went through those temptations as well, the temptation to trust in someone else besides God. And he went through that temptation without sin, trusting in his heavenly father. And we take comfort from Jesus’ temptation, knowing that even when we have given into temptation, we may return quickly to our heavenly father, trusting him to be God, the God who forgives our sins, and makes us new. May God grant that trust to us, even tonight.

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