Lent 1C Sermon (2004)

1st Sunday in Lent
Texts: Luke 4:1-13;
Deut. 26:1-11; Rom. 10:8b-13


When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Hmm. When do you suppose that opportune time was for the devil to test Jesus again? I imagine there were temptations all along the way in Jesus’ ministry. One of them came in the story that immediately follows this story of temptation. Early in the Epiphany season we read what comes next in Luke’s Gospel: it is the story of Jesus reading from the prophet Isaiah in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth. All his neighbors are waiting in anticipation that he will do great things for them and put them on the map. Once again it is a temptation that Jesus avoids. He is about fulfilling the Good News proclaimed by Isaiah, Good News to the poor, the sick, the oppressed. He is about Good News to the marginalized everywhere, not just bringing easy answers to his hometown folks.

But the most opportune time for Satan to test Jesus will undoubtedly come as he faces and endures the Passion. I’ve heard that one of the more intriguing aspects of Mel Gibson’s movie — I haven’t seen it yet but have been reading loads about it, trying to decide whether to go — one of the more intriguing aspects is the Satan figure who is present throughout the movie, representing temptation for Jesus to go another way.

I’d like to attempt two things this morning. One is to see if we can see these three temptations in the Judean wilderness reappear in new but parallel forms during Jesus’ passion. Second, we will then take a couple minutes to see if we can see these temptations in our own lives, especially in the common life we have of sharing in this ministry together.

First, the Passion. Gibson’s movie opens with Jesus’ time of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:39-46). I think we can find a parallel here with the first temptation of this morning’s Gospel, that Jesus end his fast by turning stones into bread. Luke’s Garden of Gethsemane scene is the one where Jesus is even sweating blood. He is in agony that there might be an easier way to accomplish God’s will for the salvation of a world in so much turmoil and suffering. Isn’t this like the first temptation, taking the easy way out of agony and suffering? Jesus is “famished,” and Satan tempts him to find an easy way out of his suffering.

Luke gives us a signal, I think, that this is a time of temptation. Jesus’ disciples are about to take the easy way out by running away. While Jesus is praying, however, they’re sleeping through it. Jesus comes in his anguish and says to his disciples, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial” (Luke 22:46). Jesus uses, in fact, the exact same words as he did in teaching them the Lord’s Prayer: “…do not bring us to the time of trial” (Luke 11:4b) — our version being, “Lead us not into temptation.” Luke begins his Passion story with prayer that Jesus not succumb to this opportune time for the devil’s testing — “Lead us not into temptation.”

We can see the second temptation, I think, immediately following in Jesus’ arrest. The temptation is to use what the powers of this world always use to fight off violence, namely another counter-violence:

When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. (Luke 22:49-51)

Isn’t this the age-old powers of the nations, the powers of Satan who rules them? The nations are ruled by the satanic powers of vengeance and hatred against one’s enemies. Rome keeps the peace through military might, brutally suppressing all rebellion.

In fact, seeing the Roman oppression in light of satanic power — in other words, that Rome is actually ruled by Satan — is a key to being able to see why Jesus has taught something entirely new: love your enemies; don’t retaliate; live under the reign of God’s forgiveness, forgiving also those who sin against you. Enemies like the Romans aren’t our true enemy, in the first place. Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing. They are under Satan’s rule. And so are we when we try to strike out against our perceived enemies. So Jesus’ faces, through his disciples’ retaliation, the temptation to behave as the nations have always behaved. Satan is testing him to go against what he has been proclaiming about the new reality of God’s reign. A disciple cuts off the ear of a servant in the arrest mob. Jesus heals the man, and “No more of this!” is his firm response.

Or maybe the second temptation in this morning story — the temptation to play the same satanic games of power as the rest of the world — comes with three opportunities before the powers of this world: Caiaphas and the temple authorities, Herod, and Pilate. Only in Luke’s Gospel do we also get a trial before Herod. Jesus has three opportunities to relent and compromise with these representatives of Satan’s rule. Caiaphas and Herod knew exactly what was involved with such compromise. It was the fine line they walked in being allowed to rule as Jews under Roman authority. They cannot understand Jesus’ unwillingness to compromise. They do not understand such compromise as Jesus does, namely, as a giving in to the devil’s testing to worship his rule instead of God’s rule.

Luke’s Gospel is also the one which even gives us a clear glimpse of how the satanic power works: After Herod sends Jesus back to Pilate for the final sentencing, Luke tells us, “That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies” (Luke 23:12). Do you see? That’s the power of our unholy communions that I’ve talked about, namely, that we human beings come together in peace at the expense of finding a common enemy, a scapegoat. Herod and Pilate had been enemies but now can be friends through their scapegoat Jesus — who, in turn, is the “Lamb of God” who has come to take away this sin of the world powers. Instead of succumbing to this temptation, Jesus’ willingness to become their victim will be the key to exposing it.

Finally, the third temptation of this morning’s story. I think this comes in the Passion story when Jesus is on the cross (Luke 23:32-47). “And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!'” (Luke 23:35). The soldiers join in, as well, and even one of the criminals who hung beside him. Basically, they are tempting Jesus, as did Satan at the pinnacle of the Temple, to use his powers as Messiah to come down from the cross and count on God’s angels to make him safe.

But I think there is more to this temptation then testing God’s protection as a chosen one. There is the temptation to not follow through with God’s call to the end. Even hanging on the cross, Jesus has the last enemy yet to face, death itself. Because our human powers under Satan ultimately lead to death, Jesus has come to show us God’s power of life even in the face of death.

A friend (1) shared with a number of us what he found to be the most moving moment in Mel Gibson’s movie. Jesus is beaten and scourged almost beyond recognition and is laboring under his cross on the way to Golgotha. Mary, beside herself with grief and horror at what is happening to her son, rushes to Jesus’ side at one of the times he stumbles. Even in the face of such suffering, Jesus has the presence of mind to proclaim to her through the prophet Isaiah, “Mother, behold, I am making all things new.” (2) Isn’t that incredible? I think that really captures what we are talking about here. Jesus had to go all the way through his submission to our powers of death, so that on Easter morning his rising could reveal to us God’s power of life. On Easter morning, the dawn brought the first day of a new creation, or a creation renewed. God’s reign of unconditional love and life can begin to make everything new through the Holy Spirit and those who believe in Jesus’ resurrection. A test of God’s protection for his Messiah isn’t the point of Jesus’ coming. The point is that we are saved from the satanic powers of sin and death only by Jesus’ going all the way through death to new life. “Behold, I am making all things new!”

But love is never creative in a forceful way, so the satanic powers have not come to end yet. We still face those same temptations as Jesus. Let’s just take a couple minutes to try to recognize them. The first temptation, that of taking an easy way out of suffering, is about what we just said: love is never creative in a forceful, magical way. It doesn’t take shortcuts. And it doesn’t attend to just one’s own needs. Where can we see this temptation in our ministry? Isn’t it always a temptation in our ministries, for example, to turn in ourselves and only attend to our own needs, our own suffering? As a pastor, I fall just as easily to this temptation. We can have the lottery fantasy even at church. Didn’t our sister church here in Kenosha, St. John’s Lutheran, face that temptation? One of its member actually won the lottery and gave a substantial amount to help fix the church up. We wish for those kinds of quick solutions to our problems of maintaining a ministry. We court the wealthy visitors to join and ease our financial crunch. We lose sight and fall to the temptation that Jesus faced in his hometown to take care of just his own people. We forget the ministry of the prophet Isaiah to proclaim Good News to the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. In other words, precisely what the ministry of our Urban Outreach Center seeks to be.

Even if we do take up the ministry of the Outreach Center with gusto, there is still the temptation to take shortcuts. We can, for example, only give them bread — in other words, only seek to take care of their physical needs. Jesus’ response to the devil reminds us that we do not live by bread alone. Jesus comes to make all things new, including our spirits.

Where do we fact that second temptation in our ministry? This is probably the easiest and the hardest to see at the same time. If we worship God in Jesus Christ, if we become disciples of Jesus, then it should be easy to see the new things God is doing. But the devil is constantly showing us the alluring powers of this world, the powers of the nations, and so we are constantly giving in to peace through military force and the attractions of wealth, aren’t we? The list of how the church has done this through the ages is too long to begin recounting here. The point is to let Jesus keep our focus on God and to the new things that are happening through God’s power of love and life in this world.

But that’s also ultimately the third temptation, the temptation to settle for something less by not seeing things through to the end. Once again, for love there are no shortcuts. The powers of this world lead to suffering and death. The way to God’s power of life is the way through suffering and death.

But there also is something different about this temptation from the way in which Jesus experienced it. For he went through it on the way to Easter. We face it only after Easter has already dawned the beginning of a new day. God’s raising of Jesus has already let loose the power of compassion and life in this world through the Holy Spirit. So for us, this third temptation is the temptation to not trust this power already in the world. As long as there is suffering and death still in the world, the way will still be through them. But we face them with God’s Easter power already working with us, constantly inviting us to join in what the Holy Spirit is doing in this world, with or without us.

We are extended that invitation once again this morning as our Risen Lord comes to us — even as we begin this more sober season of the Lenten journey to the cross — our Risen Lord comes to feed us with that power of compassion and life that we might go out to serve once again this week. And we pray once again this morning as he taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, and the glory, forever and ever.” Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Grace Lutheran,
Kenosha, WI, February 29, 2004


1. Michael Hardin, at his PreachingPeace.org website, “Does Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ Preach the Gospel?”: http://preachingpeace.org/teaching-resources/articles/26-articles-ebooks/articles-ebooks-by-michael-hardin/95-does-mel-gibson-s-the-passion-of-the-christ-preach-the-gospel.html

2. cf., Isa. 42:9; 43:19; 65:17; condensed into these exact words in Rev. 21:5.

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