Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Greatest Temptation: Sermon on Luke 4:1-13

Sometimes, you just have to let someone else say the words for you. As a friend from cyber-space put it this week, “Water baptized on the outside; Holy Spirit filled on the inside. Jesus says, ‘Bring it on.’”[1] Which is a very nice summary of the gospel passage we’ve read this morning.

All over the world, in Christian faith communities, some version of this story is read every year on the first Sunday in Lent. Lent is officially the time during which we join Jesus in his wilderness testing, in preparation for the great celebration of Easter. Lent, in my own mind, is the time when we give in to at least one of our hungers: our hunger for a real experience of God, an encounter. If we look to Jesus, we will see very quickly that a desire for a real experience of God is always a very loud invitation to the universe and the powers of evil, to “bring it on.”

First things first. We will be reading primarily from the gospel of Luke, not just in Lent, but all year long, so know this: you need to be on the lookout for the Holy Spirit. In fact, Luke is pretty much the most explicitly Spirit-saturated of all the gospels, and it starts before Jesus is born, before he’s even a twinkle in the angel Gabriel’s eye. According to Luke, John the Baptist, the one who will be Ed McMahon to Jesus’ Johnny Carson, will be filled with the Holy Spirit [Luke 1:15]. Gabriel answers Mary’s question, “How will this be?” by saying, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you…” [1:35]. When a pregnant-with-Jesus Mary visits a pregnant-with-John Elizabeth, the child “leaps in [Elizabeth’s] womb. And Elizabeth [is] filled with the Holy Spirit” [1:41]. All this Spirit-presence, and Jesus isn’t even born yet!

As an adult, John heralds Jesus’ first public appearance with a warning: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” [3:16]. And then the Holy Spirit baptizes Jesus in a spectacular display, complete with an appearance as a dove and a voice booming from the clouds: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” [3:22].

As if it knows the reader will be breathless at this point, a little overwhelmed by so much Spirit, the text takes a brief pause, goes on a kind of holiday by virtue of a genealogy. No Spirit, no drama, just a nice long list of begats [3:23-38]. By the end of it, we’re kind of hoping for something exciting to happen again.

If we wanted excitement, we’re in luck, because we have arrived at Jesus’ “bring it on.” We have a battle of wits between Jesus and the devil that would make a video-game aficionado proud. But before that happens, a word from the number “40.” Those of you who hang around churches for a while will start recognizing the prevalence of this number in the stories we read in the Bible. Jesus was in the wilderness, without benefit of food, for forty days. The people of Israel were in the wilderness forty years, during which time Moses spent forty days in the presence of God receiving the commandments. Elijah awaited God’s word for forty days on Mount Horeb, and if we want to reach even further back into ancient Hebrew history: it rained forty days and forty nights as Noah and his family and the animals looked out the windows of the ark. And there are more… these are just the highlights.

I’m sure you get it by now. Forty is one of those Bible numbers. It is significant. Forty, in scripture, is the length it time it takes to do something momentous, something game-changing. At the end of forty, it is complete, the world is washed clean, you are ready, you have changed your mind or been tempted enough, or even, in the case of the Israelites in the wilderness, enough of you have died so that God can do something useful with the rest of you. Forty is a number of completion, of 180 degree turnarounds. “Forty” is long enough for the big stuff to take place.

And so, back to the big stuff. Jesus is in the wilderness where, for the entire length of time, the whole forty days, he is being tempted by the devil. The Greek word used for “devil” here is diabolou. It means, literally, one who throws stuff around. One who messes things up, brings chaos... that’s what the tempter does. [2]

Jesus withstands temptation for forty days until, apparently, the devil pulls out three temptations that are so notable, they have been recorded here, for us.

The first temptation is a no-brainer, if we think about it for half a second. Jesus has been without food for forty days: anyone who wanted to compel him to do much of anything would probably settle on food as the most obvious enticement. Only, let’s be clear: Jesus isn’t being tempted by food per se. The devil doesn’t show him a 5-course gourmet dinner and say, You can have these if you give me something or do something for me. Instead, the one who throws things around throws down the gauntlet: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus isn’t being tempted by food. He’s tempted to do a trick to persuade the devil of his identity. Given the Spirit-soaked nature of Jesus… the dare is just shocking. It’s offensive, like asking the creator of the universe to do a card trick.

Jesus isn’t playing. There are more important things than bread. “One does not live by bread alone,” he says. Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy. He’s just quoted half the verse, though. “One does not live by bread alone,” it begins, and then continues, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” [Deut. 8:3]. Jesus tells the tempter that what matters, what gives life, is the very breath of God. The Holy Spirit.

The devil escalates things. He leads Jesus to a place where he can instantly see “all the kingdoms of the world.” This is all mine, he says. And it can be all yours. All you have to do is worship me. I have all the power. I have all the authority. I can give it to you if you give me some respect.

This is such a rookie move on the devil’s part. As if Jesus would fall for that line—that anyone besides God has all power and authority and can dispense it at will. Jesus comes back at him with more Deuteronomy: “It is written, ‘worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’” [Deut. 6:13]. The devil, so far, is getting nowhere with Jesus. Jesus knows too well, both who the devil is and who he, himself is.

Finally, the devil takes Jesus to the Temple, an important site in Luke’s gospel. The whole gospel begins at the Temple with the story of Zechariah, and then circles back and returns to the Temple again and again. There’s good reason for that. The Temple is the holiest of all places for Jesus, for all good Jews of his day. It is the place where the shekhina, the very presence of God—God’s Holy Spirit—is believed to dwell. And the devil seems to be catching on to something that motivates Jesus, what makes him tick. The devil is not a total idiot. He embellishes the next temptation by mirroring back to Jesus the same kinds of words Jesus has been saying, like someone who’s taken a basic course in effective communication. He invites Jesus to jump from the highest point of the temple, if he is the Son of God, for “It is written,” the devil says, repeating the same words with which Jesus rebuffed his two earlier attempts. “It is written,” and the devil quotes those wonderful comforting words we read this morning from Psalm 91, about how God will care for the faithful [4:10-11]. Now the devil is throwing scripture around, a clever move on his part. But he is no match for Jesus. Jesus answers, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” [4:12] And just like that, the devil is dismissed… until he tries again, later, which we know he will. Because he is the devil, after all.

The devil is no match for Jesus. That’s not to say the temptations aren’t real, aren’t tempting insofar as they go. But Jesus has something powerful in his favor. He knows who he is. Now, I don’t necessarily mean by that that he knows he is the Son of God in any different sense than anyone in this room is a son or daughter of God. Whether he is fully aware of his unique relationship with God at this point, I couldn’t say. But he knows he is a Son of God, he knows the reality of an experience of the Spirit. He knows that he is fully God’s, and that God has set him on a path he must walk. The greatest temptation for Jesus isn’t food or power or even testing the hand-eye coordination of hosts of angels. The greatest temptation is for him to walk away from who he was meant to be.

In his book Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell talks about a personal crisis in which he came close to walking away from his life. He was ready to walk because he was so overwhelmed with the many roles he had taken on, the many things he had said “yes” to when he should have said “no.” Finally a therapist told him his issue was a simple one. Bell says,

I was anticipating something quite profound and enlightening as I got out my pen.

[The therapist] said this: “Sin.”

And then he said, in what has become a pivotal moment in my journey, “Your job is the relentless pursuit of who God made you to be. And anything else you do is sin and you need to repent of it.” [3]

Our job is the relentless pursuit of who God made us to be. Anything else is sin. And we need to repent of it.

Jesus’ job, and he understood it well, was the relentless pursuit of who he was meant to be. We could fit, maybe, 200 theologians in this sanctuary, and they could tell us 200 different definitions of who they think Jesus was meant to be. But that doesn’t matter. What mattered was who Jesus believed God meant him to be. And that meant saying yes to some things—to people’s requests for food, for healing, for teaching, for forgiveness—and it meant saying no to certain other things—such as demands that he be this or that kind of messiah, patriot, leader, or Son of God.

Our job is the relentless pursuit of who God made us to be. Anything else is sin. And we need to repent of it. This statement, this deep truth, has a way of putting everything into perspective. And we will be tempted away from this pursuit, I can guarantee it. Whether we call it “the devil” or “the power of evil” or even something as benign-sounding as “life in this world,” I guarantee you the universe will resist our efforts to be who we were meant to be and to be in communion with God. If nothing else, it’s inconvenient for lots of people if we suddenly realize that we need to stop doing some of the things we’ve been doing, and start doing other things. People don’t like it when we start saying “no.” I read this week that “saying no is a more difficult spiritual practice than tithing, praying on a cold stone floor, or visiting a prisoner on death row.”[4] But as we learn from Jesus’ three firm “no’s”, it’s an essential practice if we intend on engaging in that relentless pursuit of God’s plan for us.

It is Lent, and our hunger for God is every bit as real as our hunger for bread. What matters, what gives life, is the very breath of God. The Holy Spirit. That same Spirit is as available to us now as to Jesus then. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to fervently, relentlessly breathe in and out that Spirit, to walk with confidence into the wilderness of discovering who and what God meant us to be, and to encounter Jesus along the way. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Wesley White, “Luke 4:1-13,” Kairos CoMotion Lectionary Dialogue, .
[2] Thanks to the Rev. Viktoria Berlik for this insight.
[3] Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 114-115.
[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009), 125.

'Toon courtesy of ReverendFun.


Fran said...

"Our job is the relentless pursuit of who God made us to be. Anything else is sin. And we need to repent of it. This statement, this deep truth, has a way of putting everything into perspective."

Oh my, this will be on my heart today, transforming the way I heard the Gospel today and how I live it.

Thank you- thank you.

Sophia said...

What Fran said! Such a powerful thing to focus on for Lent and always...

Dan Odell said...

Very beautiful, thank you, great sermon.