by Pastor Cherie Johnson
In today’s Scripture passage, Jesus is being tempted in the desert. It is a very familiar story to many. It is in all three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. As all three are similar, we can tend to combine them into a single story in our heads. Yet, each one has subtle differences, emphasizing different things. With Luke, it is the Holy Spirit.
Today’s passage comes from Luke. Just before this, Jesus is baptized. We hear the public announcement by God that Jesus is God’s son, and Jesus received the Holy Spirit. One last thing happens before Jesus begins his public ministry. A time of testing.
Luke 4:1-13 (NIV)
1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”
5 The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
8 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
9 The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. 10 For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully;
11 they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’
12 Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
13 When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit… was led by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Luke 4:1a).
Have you ever gone off alone for some personal spiritual time? You feel God’s presence. Maybe, you go into a wilderness type area. There are lots of opportunities around here to do this. You might be awed by God’s mighty creation. You might be inspired by study. Even a stark place can have beauty as you contemplate the blue of the sky, watching a hawk soar on an updraft, looking at the intricate details of what plant life does to survive in such a harsh environment. One time, I sat under a shelter in such a place, reading the Psalms. I would read a Psalm and look over the landscape and marvel at the glory of God. They were perfect moments.
That is not what happened when Jesus went out into the wilderness. I’m sure it was an intensely spiritual time, but it was a time of tempting. The word could also be translated as “testing.” A time of questioning, of making sure. Ultimately, Jesus has a decision to make.
A couple of years ago, I picked up this form called, “Make a Decision.” It is more than a simple “Pro & Con” list. It takes into account those things our brains go through as we try to make a big decision. At least I know it’s the process my brain goes through.
First, we name the Dilemma. We determine its importance. Is it trivial, non-lethal, worthwhile, weighty, or life changing? I think with Jesus, we can presume “Life changing.” Next, is the indecisiveness level. This can be harder with an important decision. We have wishy, washy, neutral, partisan, mind made up. We describe the best case scenario, with a checkbox as to whether it’s a “Pipe Dream.” Then, there is the worst case scenario with a box for “Apocalypse.” This makes so much sense. I don’t know why I haven’t used one of these forms before, but I digress. The form goes on with “Gut feeling” and a very logical pluses and minuses column. There is an intuitive conclusion and rational conclusion. Finally, there is the decision, with its own check box if it is only the decision for today.
Jesus needed to make a lasting decision, and he went out to the wilderness, out to the desert, to live out this process I described, for forty days. Both the location and amount of time are significant. When new things, when big things happen in the Bible, they often start in the desert or the wilderness.
Abraham was called out into the desert by God. He was told “go to a land I will show you.” When the Israelites were rescued from slavery in Egypt, they were brought through the Red Sea into the desert. There they spent forty years learning how to follow and fully trust God. They weren’t allowed to go into the promise land until they could do this. You notice this number forty. It is symbolic, one implying trial and testing.
Closer to Jesus time, John the Baptist was calling people into the desert and baptizing them in the Jordan River. He was inviting them to remember what had made them a people, remember their special relationship with God. It is a great privilege, but there are responsibilities. By calling people to repentance, he reminded them of those responsibilities. Jesus goes out there and is baptized himself, a ritual cleansing in preparation for what happens next. Jesus hears the words from God. Can you imagine it?
“As Jesus was praying, heaven opened up and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.’”
Up to now, things were said about Jesus and who he was or would be. He probably heard the stories his whole life about the Angel Gabriel, by his mother, Mary, his cousin Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna at his dedication when he was a baby, even John the Baptist. Now, God was saying it to him! He felt the Spirit of God on him!
Jesus has this extraordinary experience, and he has to decide how he’s going to do it, what he’s going to be. He is out there in this temptation/testing time for the whole forty days. We only hear about the last three tests. They are very significant in answering the questions of what it means to be God’s Son, and what kind of Messiah Jesus was going to be.
Often we picture Satan at Jesus’ elbow as he presents Jesus with these scenarios, but what if we thought of them as thoughts running through Jesus head? They may be much more like our own experience when we have a dilemma, and the mental gymnastics we go through as illustrated by my “Make a Decision” form.
Jesus has been fasting in the desert for forty days. He was hungry. Surely, it would be okay to turn a stone into bread. If Jesus is destined to become ruler of the whole world, why not avoid all the pain of torture and death and become the ruler right now. Certainly, he would do a better job than the Romans or even the leaders of today. As he is the Messiah, what is wrong with displaying his power? That would get the whole world’s attention. They all sound so reasonable.
They’re the same kind of whisperings we hear in the Garden being whispered to Eve in Genesis, but she did not have the benefit of the Holy Spirit being with her or the awareness that something or someone evil might be trying to manipulate and trick her. She had no reason to have her guard up. Jesus certainly did have his guard up, and he was ready, with the power of the Holy Spirit.
Another thing all these temptations do with focus on the self, what I need, what I want, what I can do. As opposed to relying on God.
Jesus does not argue about these temptations. He answers them with Scripture. It’s best not to argue with temptation. You think about it long enough, and the rationalizations make the temptations too good to resist. It’s good to have an answer. Many people are not good at memorizing things, so Scripture may not work. Martin Luther would respond with a blanket statement of, “I have been baptized,” Meaning that sin, temptations, have no power over me, only the power I give them. I have been redeemed. As Heinrich Schiller said, “Christ has left the devil… [or the temptations] … only whatever power our unbelief allows him.”
But Jesus responds with Scripture. They are interesting choices from the book of Deuteronomy where the Israelites were wandering in the desert. The Israelites were faced with the same kinds of dilemmas and failed, in the ways we often do. Meanwhile, Jesus succeeds, showing the kind of Messiah he will be, the representative of Israel in their mission to the world. Instead of using power for his own self-interest, he embraced the path of humility and service that is dependent on God.
And that is our task during the Lenten season, to let go of our obsession with self and remember who we are and whose we are.
How can we with confidence and clarity claim our identity with God? We already talked about one, not arguing with temptation, but we need resources. Scripture is best, things like, “I am complete in Christ” (Colossians 2:10). “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11: 28). “Fear not, for I am with you” (Isaiah 41: 10).
But we also need to understand the context because it can be easy to twist Scripture just say what we want it to say. We were talking about Jeremiah 29: 11 last week, that lovely passage of God saying, “For I know the plans I have for you… Plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” But its meaning and understanding of its importance is not complete if you don’t understand that God was warning of terrible things to come but a promise but the suffering would end.
If we’re not memorizers, we can be in conversation with God by reading our Bibles, through devotionals, studies, and our prayers. Songs and hymns can be quite helpful. Often they are inspired by Bible passages or otherwise talk about God, God’s nature, what God expects from us, and so on. The music can help us memorize Scripture by using multiple parts of our brains.
Recently, I had a very difficult decision to make, and even after, being sure that I had made the right one. The song “Love the Lord” from our Worship & Song book popped up in my head, “I will love the Lord with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my mind, and with all my strength. With all my heart, with all my soul, with all my mind, with all my strength…” It’s saved me, Scripture in song.
Another way is with groups: small groups, growth groups, fellowship groups, whatever you want to call them. We are studying about Wesleyan “Class Meetings” in our Sunday evening group. A place where you can talk about things with other followers of Jesus, supporting each other in a positive way.
Another traditional way to confirm our identity as followers of Jesus is through the creeds like the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed. If you will turn to page 881 in your hymnal, please join me in saying the Apostles Creed together.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord;
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
the third day he rose from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
The forty days of Lent is very much to honor these forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness. It was a time when Jesus claimed who he was in God. Lent can be a time when we do that too. Sundays we pause to remember and celebrate the freedom that Jesus achieved for us with His resurrection. By better knowing who we were created to be, perhaps we can grow to appreciate it even more.
Will you pray with me? Lord, give us the strength not to give up: to reach for your word, to remember who you are calling each of us to be and to do, and, with your help, to persevere through whatever tests may come.