It begins when he’s hungry. Not "I skipped lunch because I was too busy," or "I’d love to lose a few pounds" hungry. Not even, scouts, "I’ve been on a campout and I didn’t plan as well as I should have," hungry. Forty days. Can you even begin to imagine the gnawings in one’s stomach, even more in one’s spirit? As chapter 4 begins Jesus is led – the Spirit leads him to be tempted – into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tested by the devil, diabolos in Greek, the slanderer, the accuser. It’s translated from the Hebrew ha-satan, from which our word Satan comes, not as the proper name of the devil but meaning the tempter, the adversary. We don’t need a red guy with horns and a pitchfork- that’s too easy, and gives us someone to blame. The church has always struggled with a way to articulate the sin which is within us, our failings and misplaced motivations, and the evil we feel in the world, in anger and violence and mistrust, which is much bigger than us. Much of the bible envisions the world as the battleground between the forces of good and the forces of evil, humanity caught in this cosmic struggle.
In the heart of Jesus’ hunger, he hears a voice. IF – I love imagining the tone of voice here – IF you are the Son of God, make this stone bread. I bet you’re hungry. One scholar claims that this can be understood as a temptation to use His powers for himself, to perform a popular sign to satisfy the people, or as an expression of his independence from God.1 Who are you going to be? Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8: one does not live by bread alone.
All three of these temptations are about power and authority. The second one drills in deeper on this question. It is interesting that the devil claims this world, says he has power over it, and will give it to Jesus if he bows down. Jesus stands firm: I will worship ONLY God, echoing the first commandment. Same with the third temptation, though the devil picks up his game. He’s noticed Jesus quoting scripture, so the devil quotes psalm 91, which we just read, ‘on their hands they will bear you up.’ Throw yourself down, Jesus, and you will surely be protected. We know this question hung over Jesus throughout his life, and you can feel this one, as we begin Lent and the church moves towards Jesus’ suffering and death we know comes. Be free from it, Jesus. Take care of yourself. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6: You will not put your God to the test. Even those tests, those bargains we make, are often about us. God IF you heal him I’ll pray every day. IF you keep my marriage together I’ll never have another drink. IF you let me make the team, get into college, get this job I’ll serve you faithfully from here on out, God, I promise.
Fred Craddock writes in an interesting way about temptation in this text: "We are not tempted to do what we cannot do but what is within our power."2 Jesus didn’t need the devil’s help. God’s power surely can turn stones to bread or save him from jumping off the top of the temple. But temptations are far more subtle and insidious things, for things that feel JUST beyond our grasp, and the motivations underneath. If we cut that corner at work, we’ll get ahead just a little, and no one would be hurt. If we look over the shoulder of someone on that test, I mean, we know the material anyway. We aren’t tempted to do huge things beyond our power. Maybe some of us are tempted to be radicalized online and join an international terrorist network. Create a massive financial scam like Bernie Madoff some years back, swindling people out of millions. Or is it about small things, when other people aren’t looking. Leaving a little bit early. Dropping trash on the ground. I don’t know anyone who is tempted to run off and have an affair with a famous person. But I do know people who head off on work trips where there is too much of the wrong kind of fun to be had to begin with. I also think that there are real temptations around things that are often really good things. How often do we see people begin initiatives to help the poor, maybe people around the world, and then get caught up in scandal? Financial impropriety that began small. Doing good things can quickly become a source of pride for us all, a source of attention and affirmation, even when we’re trying to do really good things, that blind us to the bigger picture, all of us, blind us to what exactly God might be calling us to do.
I wonder if you were with Jesus for those forty days, what would tempt you? We so often reach for things we feel like we don’t have. We do so because we desire, we crave, we have decided that whatever we have and whoever we are is not enough. We spend so much exhausting energy trying to be someone else, at the front of the class, to get the promotion, to be powerful, or seem powerful, to be strong, to be rich, smart or thin. To be whatever combination of all of those things we are confident we want to be. To be more. Part of that is the necessary result of all of the images with which we are bombarded, all of the beautiful people selling us things, all of the shiny images smiling at us at every turn. Some of that is, too, a deeper spiritual dis-ease that is never satisfied. We make decisions we KNOW aren’t wise because we desire, because that temptation gets right at the heart of something we perceive as a weakness about ourselves.
All of which makes it so important that, like Jesus, we do our best to be grounded in who God has created and called us to be. To be as aware as we can possibly be of why we do what we do, of what drives us, what excites us, what makes us furious. Awareness of all of those things helps us lean even more into who God would have us be. Temptation doesn’t go away, but leaning into call through careful discernment is the antidote. New Testament Scholar Leander Keck writes: "Although the temptation story does not offer ethical instructions that cover every eventuality, it does describe the perennial…challenges that Christians face: the temptations to forget one’s baptismal identity, to attempt to use one’s religion for personal gain, to try to be successful rather than faithful, to be dazzled by the riches of the world, to make compromises where one is called to stand firm, and to avoid the path of sacrifice and suffering….Christian ethics does not come prepackaged. The call is not to adherence to a list of rules and regulations, but to faithfulness to the call and purposes of God."3
Today is the First Sunday in the season of Lent. Lent began this past Wednesday on Ash Wednesday, and covers forty days, excluding Sundays, to Easter. It is the time we are called to listen, maybe even more carefully than we do the rest of the year, for who God is calling us to be. Some of that must involve wrestling with our own demons, the things which tempt us. But in it all – in it ALL – you must listen for God’s mighty claim upon you. Not the you you think the world wants you to be. You, created and loved and claimed, in your heart of hearts. God calls to YOU. Just as you are, to come and follow.
Listen carefully this Lent, friends. God is surely at work. All praise be to God. Amen.
1. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 99.
2. Fred Craddock, Interpretation: Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p. 56.
3. NIB, 101.