(Preached at Duke Memorial UMC in Durham, NC on 2/17/2013)
Luke 4.1-13: Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for is has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
“What strikes you most about this passage?” my professor inquired of the class. We had just read through Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness by the devil, and Dr. Kavin Rowe wanted to hear some of our thoughts. My classmates and I tried diligently to impress our professor with exegetical insights within the texts: “Well Dr. Rowe, the 40 days in the wilderness clearly connects with the Israelites 40 years of wandering through the wilderness before entering the Holy Land.” “Actually, the 40 days of Jesus’ fasting reflects Moses’ 40 days of fasting on Mt Sinai and Elijah’s 40 day fast before discovering God in the sound of sheer silence.” “The temptation has a Christological focus demonstrating for us, the readers, Jesus’ humanity in his need for food, and his divinity with being able to resist the temptations by the devil.” This went on for some time, and my professor sat that thoughtfully nodding his head along with some of our comments until he decided to end this unspoken competition. “What I find most interesting,” he said, “is that the devil knows scripture better than we do.”
The temptation narrative has been the traditional scripture reading for the first Sunday of Lent because it helps to connect with our forty-day journey from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. In it we learn about the man Jesus from Nazareth before he begins his public ministry throughout Galilee. Filled with the Holy Spirit Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil, ate nothing for forty days and was famished. It is no wonder then that the devil’s first temptation is for Jesus to demonstrate his power over creation by turning a stone into a loaf of bread. But Jesus, ever the biblical scholar, quotes Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone.” Obviously frustrated, the devil then immediately showed Jesus all of the kingdoms of the world and tempted him with the power to rule over all things if only Jesus will worship the devil. But Jesus, demonstrating his biblical literacy again, quotes Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” And then the devil brings Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem and decides to beat Jesus at his own game: Throw yourself down from here Jesus, if you really are the Son of God, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you, and On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” The devil has finally played his trump card; he uses Psalm 91 to tempt Jesus for the third and final time. You can almost see here the smile begin to form on Jesus’ face, the devil has got him cornered, he is sitting on the precipice of the temple while he Jesus replies assuredly, “it is written, ‘Do not put your Lord to the test.’” And the devil departed from him until an opportune time.
Temptation is complex, and has rested at the center of our liturgical observance of Lent for centuries. Today people tend to give up “temptations” throughout their Lenten fast in order to focus more on God. Over at the Divinity School, I like to call this practice “Lenten Olympics.” It is not uncommon to hear subtle braggings throughout the halls of Duke: “This year I’m giving up sweets,” some will say, but because they’re in seminary they always add a theological counterpart, “and every time I want to eat candy or a cupcake I will pray instead.” “Sweets? That’s easy. I’m going to give up eating meat in order to honor the glory of God’s creation.” “Meat? I’m giving up television so that my focus can remain on the Word of God” And for as much as I love my peers in the Divinity School, I out-did all of them last year: I gave up four F’s: Facebook, Fast food, Fermented Drinks, and Facial Hair (which meant that I shaved every morning for forty days). What’s worse is that everyone knew what I had given up because it became part of most of my conversations. As people would compare their sacrifices and temptations I was there waiting for the right moment to outshine them with the ultimate sacrifice of my tender and clean shaven face.
Isn’t it amazing how often we can so easily turn the gospel around to be more about our own selfishness than the good news of Jesus Christ?
Ever since last Lent I’ve thought a lot about temptation, and what it means to turn our priorities around to enter into a penitential attitude toward God during these forty days. Lent used to be a time of preparation for believers, a time of prayer, penance, repentance, self-denial, and catechesis. It used to be the annual period where new converts were taught about the kingdom of God, and the body of Christ as the church before they entered through baptism. Today, lent is often celebrated as a time to go on that diet we’ve been planning, or a competition of our own self-righteousness.
The things that I have given up in the past were not even real temptations. I am not tempted to play on Facebook, or grow a beard. We are not tempted by sweets, or television, or meat. Temptations are not often obvious in our lives, but this story about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness helps to describe the continual challenges of the Christian life: forgetting our baptismal identity, the desire to be successful rather than faithful, the thought that we can get through our lives without our hope, faith, and prayers in Jesus Christ.
Real temptation is never an offer to fall, but instead to rise. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent did not ask, “Do you wish to be as the devil?” but instead, “Do you want to be like God?” The truest forms of temptation are indications of strength, not weakness. We are not tempted to do what we cannot do, but what is within our power, the greater our strength, the greater the temptation.
As I mentioned last week, the focus of my work at Duke Memorial is with our members who can no longer attend services, and those who would like regular pastoral visits. In addition to this ministry I am also completing my CPE (clinical pastoral education) requirement for ordination in the UMC. I spend most of my Mondays at Duke University Hospital learning about death, grief, and suffering. Additionally I spend a twenty-four hour period once a month as the on-call chaplain at the hospital. I am paged for every death, for the people who would like a visit from the chaplain, and a handful of other reasons. I recently received a page while I was at the hospital regarding the death of a patient. When I entered the waiting room to find the grieving family, I instead discovered one solitary woman who was weeping in the corner. After introducing myself and learning about what happened, we talked about the woman’s mother who just died after a prolonged battle with cancer. We talked about the mother’s faith, and how important the bible was to her, about the marriage that resulted in the one daughter who now was alone at the hospital. And as the tears started to flow again she looked right into my eyes and slowly shook me to my core: “I have watched my mother suffer horribly for the last few years. I took her to her radiation and chemotherapy appointments, I watched her body slowly disintegrate, I watched the look of life slowly disappear from her eyes. I knew that she was eventually going to die, but I never really believed it, I always thought that she would just live forever.”
Throughout my experiences both with this church and the hospital, I have discovered that one of our greatest temptations is to believe that we can escape death. Truly I tell you, everyone in this room will one day die. It does not matter if you are young or old, wealthy or poor, happy or sad, death is real and inescapable.
We are so often tempted to believe that death isn’t real. But it is.
On Wednesday night I sat in this sanctuary with a handful of people as we gathered together for worship. Besides Good Friday, Ash Wednesday is the one day in the Christian year that we most intimately confront our own deaths. The sign of Jesus’ death were drawn onto our foreheads with ashes as we were reminded that we are dust, and to the dust we shall return. Perhaps the entire season of lent is the best time to confront our own finitude and remember that this, that life itself, is the greatest gift of God.
Now I am not encouraging us to spend the next 6 weeks thinking about death every chance we get. But I encourage us to remember that God has breathed the breath of life into each and every once of us. When we remember that life is a precious gift, we when do not fall to the temptation of thinking death isn’t real, we can live our lives more fully.
Temptation is real and often strikes us when we least suspect it. Jesus was led into the wilderness in order to be tempted, but we can be tempted at any moment in our lives. Over the next few weeks Duke Memorial will be inviting us to observe Lent as a congregation by walking with Jesus through scripture. This is incredibly appropriate because Jesus overcame temptation by drawing upon scripture.
Though filled with hunger after a forty day fast Jesus remembered scripture: we do not live by bread alone. There are things conveyed to us in life through the grace of God that provide more nourishment than we can imagine. Though he came to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and turn the world upside down Jesus remembered scripture: we are called to worship the Lord our God and serve only him. And even though the devil brought Jesus to Jerusalem and used scripture against Jesus in order to put God’s promises to the test regarding his death, Jesus remembered scripture, and resisted.
What the devil never knew was that Jesus would eventually face death in Jerusalem, and when he did he would still choose not his own deliverance, but would faithfully mount the hard wood of the cross on our behalf.
As we make our way through this Lenten season I want to remind us that being committed to the way of God does not exempt us from struggles in the world. Those who are most engaged in the ways of God seem to experience most intensely the oppositions of evil and the temptations of the devil.
Over the next six weeks, if you feel tempted to forget your identity in Christ I encourage you to remember your baptism, consider the water the was poured over you in order to bring you into the body of Christ.
If you feel tempted to be successful rather than faithful, I encourage you to remember that the Lord only requires two things of us: To love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
If you feel tempted to believe that you can make if through this life without your hope, faith, and prayers in God I encourage you to remember that God became flesh in Jesus Christ, suffered on earth and died on the cross for you and me.
And if you feel tempted to believe that you can escape death, I encourage you to remember that death is real, but it is not the end.