1st Sunday in Lent
Texts: Luke 4:1-13;
Deut. 26:1-11; Rom. 10:8b-13
A WIN-WIN SCENARIO
Here’s my main point right up front: the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is more about the responses Jesus gives to the temptations than to the temptations themselves. (1) It’s not that these particular three temptations are unimportant; we shall see that they are. It’s more that focusing on the temptations alone gets us in trouble. If it’s just a matter of you or I wrestling with these temptations, we will lose. It’s because Jesus in his responses to them wins that we are also able to be come victors over temptation, too.
I think that we see this main point the best right in the first temptation. Jesus has been in the wilderness forty days fasting and is starving. You’d think that he’d do anything to have something to eat, to satisfy his need. It’s a legitimate need, right? But not when we would do anything to get it, especially when it comes from the desire of the tempter, Satan. Even in this situation of seemingly dire human need, Jesus remains committed to catching God’s desire — not the desire of another creature that Satan represents. Jesus tells him that ‘one doesn’t live by bread alone.’ If we finish that quote from Deut. 8:3, it’s: ‘one doesn’t live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.’ Ever since the beginning, humankind has had the choice of catching our desires from each other or from our Creator. We get in trouble when we aren’t listening to God and catching God’s desires for our lives. We generally fall into some addiction or another — not necessary a physical addiction but spiritual ones.
And this is where physical addictions can help us to see our main point for today. When a person is addicted to alcohol or drugs, what is generally the result when the only focus is on the temptation that that substance provides. If it is purely a matter of my will-power winning out over the temptation that substance provides, can I win? No. That’s why the Twelve Step programs work. The First Step is the first part of our main point today: we are lost if we focus only on the temptation. We are powerless to beat it. And then what are the Second and Third Steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous way of life? I recognized a Higher Power than myself and opened my life to that Higher Power. Jesus’ responses to temptation all revolved around catching his desire from God and from God alone. It’s only when we are opening our lives to catch the Spirit of God’s desire that we are able to beat a life of fighting temptation.
Are you struggling to get out of a rut in your life? What are your addictions? And here I’m not just talking about physical addictions but about spiritual ones. The big one of our age is consumerism, the race to keep up with the Joneses on all the things we can accumulate in our lives. The key to breaking any such addiction is not our own will-power to break it. The key is to let go with our fascination for the temptation itself and begin to listen to God’s Word, God’s Spirit, God’s desire for our lives. What is it that God wants you and I to do with our lives? Focus on that and the temptation moves further and further into the background.
Is it really that easy? We know it’s not. Because focusing on God’s Word, on God’s desire, on opening our lives to God’s Spirit, has never been an easy task. The Bible is our main guide, but the Bible remains a difficult text to read and understand.
Last week, we wrestled with the Transfiguration story, and the fact that God seems to be telling us to listen to Jesus over even such huge biblical figures as Moses and Elijah. There’s something we need to see about who Jesus is and what Jesus shows us about God that provides the key. By the end of last week’s sermon, the implication is that there’s something even crucial about the pivotal story of the Hebrew Scriptures, namely, the Passover. If we truly read the God of Jesus as behind the slaughter of Egyptian children, then I’m not sure we are hearing the true God correctly.
I deal with this issue more in my newsletter column for March. But let me tell you another quick follow-up story from last week’s Transfiguration story. In one of my interim assignments, I had a Thursday morning Bible study with folks off the street in the central city. Many of them suffered from mental illness. So in Luke’s story of the Transfiguration, followed immediately by Jesus casting out demons from a boy who hears voices, we have two stories of people hearing voices, a common problem for people with mental illness. So they asked me a question I had never considered before, that went something like this: ‘The first story is about the disciples and Jesus hearing God’s voice. The second story is about a boy hearing the voices of demons. How do you tell the difference? How does one know if the voices are from God or demons?’ Wow! I was stunned. But after a few moments of reflection, I hope my answer was from the Spirit. I told them, “If the voice asks you to harm yourself or anyone else, then it’s not from God. God never asks us to harm people. God never uses force.”
The second temptation of Jesus is about this, I think. The powers of Satan, the powers of all this world’s kingdoms, are based on force. They are based on the ability to punish wrong-doing. We tend to think God is like this, that God’s power is based on the ability to punish wrong-doing. But I believe that in Jesus Christ God is saying to us, “No! That’s not who I am. That’s your kingdoms and the power of Satan. My power is based wholly and completely on love and so never forces itself. My power is based not on the ability to punish wrong-doing. Wrong-doing ultimately brings its own punishment. No, my power is based on the ability to forgive wrong-doing.”
So what about the third temptation and Jesus’ response? In a world where we follow God’s desire to live according to love and forgiveness, we are surely to meet resistance. We are surely to meet suffering. To think that just because we may be doing what God wants us to do, we should find smooth sailing, as if God’s angels were protecting us from harm, is to fall to this third temptation. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prays one last time that God’s way might somehow avoid the cup of suffering. But, ultimately, Jesus prays that God’s will be done.
Is this what we are doing this summer as we plan to travel to a place of suffering from physical poverty? We do go in order to help relieve such suffering. But we don’t go expecting God’s angels to shield us from such suffering. In a world where the power of Satan’s force continues to work, we can expect resistance to God’s way of love.
So how can we make our way through a path of suffering? Once again, because Jesus did. Because Jesus follows God’s desire, he ultimately does the things the devil’s temptations represent, but he does them as God’s way and not Satan’s. Though he refused to turn stones to bread, he does miraculously feed the hungry with five loaves and two fishes. Though he refused human political power based on force, the proclamation of God’s empire of justice based on love and forgiveness is the very focus of his whole ministry. And though he refused to jump off the temple to see if angel’s would catch him and not let him be harmed, he goes to the cross in confidence that God’s desire for life will trump the world’s power to execute punishment. Game, set, and match to Jesus! Because he wins, we win, too. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, February 21, 2010
1. Lori Brandt Hale, her “Theological Perspective” on this text in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, page 46.