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 it 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.
It is a long standing tradition in the church to begin the forty days of Lent with Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. We, in a sense, mirror the journey Jesus faced with our own attempts at wrestling with temptation while abstaining from certain items, behaviors, and practices.
It’s not the easiest section of the church calendar.
The hymns are all a little too on the nose, the sermons call to question all of our wandering hearts, and even the scriptures reject our desire to look at anything but the cross.
We, then, can do lots of things as a church during this particular liturgical season, but at some point or another we will all raise the question we’ve had since the very beginning of the church: “Who, exactly, is this Jesus?”
It was just a few weeks ago that we were worshipping the baby born King in the manger, with little angels and shepherds wandering around the sanctuary. It’s easy to worship that Jesus because in infancy there isn’t much for us to come to grips with. We can confess the wonder of the incarnation, but we’re not entirely sure what that has to do with you or me.
But then, here in Lent, it’s like the Spirit wants to smack us over the head with the truth of the Truth incarnate.
And we start with Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness.
This vignette in the strange new world of the Bible tells us exactly who this Jesus is, and who he will be.
Oddly enough, it offers us a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos – it helps us see that the story of Christ will end just as it begins.
Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan and then he is led by the spirit into the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.
“Hey JC!” The devil begins, “If you are who you say you are, I’m gonna need to see some ID. No pockets in your robe? That’s fine. I’ll take your word for it, if you really are the Word. But, let me tell you, you look awful. I’m sure you’re hungry. Not a lot to eat out here in the wilderness. Why don’t you rustle up some bread from these stones. Who knows? That little parlor trick could come in handy down the road… what could be more holy than having mercy on the hungry and filling their bellies?”
And Jesus says, “It is written, we cannot and shall not live by bread alone.”
“So you know your scriptures!” The Devil says, “I’m impressed! And, frankly, I’m with you Son of Man. You can’t just give hungry people food for nothing. They’ll become dependent. No handouts in the Kingdom of God! But how about this? Would you like a little taste of power? And I mean, real power. Political power. Here’s the deal – I’ll give you the keys to the kingdoms here on earth, all of them. The only thing you have to do, and it’s really nothing when you think about it, I just need you to bow down and worship me.”
And Jesus says, “It is written, we shall only worship one God.”
“Okay, okay,” the Devil continues, “Don’t be such a buzzkill. So you won’t show compassion to the needy, even yourself, and you won’t go ahead and make the world a better place through political machinations. That’s fine with me. For what it’s worth, I can play the scripture game too, you know. So I’ll give you one more chance. Why don’t you leap from the top of the temple, give the people a sign of God’s power and might, for, doesn’t it say in the Psalms, ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ Just think about the kind of faith people will finally have if you show them one big miracle!”
And Jesus says, “It is written, you shall not put the Lord you God to the test.”
And then the devil leaves only to return at an opportune time.
That’s rather an ominous ending to a passage of scripture. But, no spoilers. Let stick with what we’ve got for now.
As I said at the beginning, we often use this story to give a little encouragement in resisting our own temptations. This is the time for someone like me to make a big pitch to people like you about whatever bad habit you need to drop. The time has come to shape up or ship out.
And, clearly, we’ve got plenty to work on. There are far too many people who fall asleep hungry at night, far too many children to have no bright hope for tomorrow, far too many communities that are falling prey to the devastating powers of loneliness.
But, if that’s all this story is supposed to do, if it merely exists as a weapon to wield against sleepy and dozing congregations about being better, then Jesus certainly could’ve been a little clear about what we should or shouldn’t be going.
Put another way: If Jesus’ temptations are really about our temptations, then it would’ve been better for him to have more lines in this passage than the devil.
Scripture is always primarily about God and only secondarily about us.
But we are vain and selfish little creatures and we assume everything is always about us, and only ever about us.
Jesus’ temptations are exactly that – Jesus’ temptations.
This isn’t a story about how we deal with our own temptations. It’s actually a story about how Jesus deals with the world – how Jesus deals with us.
Notice: the things the devil offers to the Lord, they’re all objectively good things – bread, political power, miracles.
And yet, Jesus refused them. And he even used scripture to defend his refusals!
Perhaps if the devil offered Jesus an unending buffet at the golden corral, or the nuclear codes, or David Copperfield’s assortment of illusions, we could sympathize with Jesus’ dismissals. But the devil offered Jesus possibilities for transformation and Jesus said, “No, thank you.”
But here’s the real kicker, the truly wild part of this story: by the end of the Gospel Jesus will, in fact, do all of the things that the devil suggests.
Instead of turning some rocks into a nice loaf of sourdough, Jesus will feed the 5,000 with nothing more than a few slices of day old bread a handful of fresh fish.
Instead of getting caught up in all the political procedures to Make Jerusalem Great Again, Jesus reigns from the arms of the cross and eventually ascends to the right hand of the father as King of kings and Lord of lords.
Instead of pulling off a primetime Law Vegas magic special, Jesus dies, and refuses to stay dead.
For a long, long, time we’ve understood Jesus and the Devil to be figures on opposite ends of the spectrum – one good and the other bad. It even slips into out culture whenever you see a figure with an angel whispering in one ear and a red figure with a bifurcated tail whispering in the other.
And yet, at least according to this moment in scripture, the difference between the devil and Jesus isn’t the temptations themselves, but in the methods upon which those acts of power come to fruition.
And, though it might pain us to admit, the devil has some pretty decent suggestions for the Messiah – Why starve yourself Lord, when you can easily set a meal here in the wilderness? Why let these fools destroy themselves when I can give you control over everything and everyone? Why let the world continue in fear and doubt when you can prove your worth right now?
The devil, frighteningly, sounds a lot like, well, us. The devil’s ideas are some that we regularly discuss and champion.
What our community needs is another food pantry! What we need to do is make sure that we have Christians running for political offices! If only God would show us a miracle, then everyone would finally get in line and the world will finally be a better place.
But Jesus, for as much as Jesus is like us, Jesus is completely unlike us. For, in his non-answer answers he declares to the devil, and therefore to all of us, that power as we understand it doesn’t actually transform much of anything.
We can create a feeding program, but sooner or later we will introduce requirements for those who receive the food.
We can get Christians elected into the government, but at some point they will be more concerned with maintaining their power than pointing to the one from whom all things move and have their being.
We can witness miracle after miracle after miracle, but we will never be quite satisfied with what we receive.
We’ve convinced ourselves, since that fateful day with a certain fruit in a certain tree, that it’s up to us to make things come out right in the end. That, by amassing power, we can make the world a better place.
In the early days of the church, we got so cozy with the powers and the principalities that individuals were forced to be baptized in order to becomes citizens in the empire.
In the Middle Ages, the church required more and more of the resources of God’s people in order to get their loved ones out of purgatory all while cathedrals got bigger, as did the waistlines of the clergy.
And even today, our lust for power (political, theological, economic), has led to violence, familiar strife, and ecclesial schisms.
We believe, more than anything else, that if we just had a little more control, if we just won one more debate, if we could just get everyone else to be like us, that it would finally turn out for the best.
But it never does.
If we could’ve fixed the world with our goodness, we would’ve done it by now.
Or, conversely, some of the most horrific moments of history were done in the name of progress.
The devil wants to give Jesus a short cut straight to the ends that Jesus will, inevitably, bring about in his own life, death, and resurrection.
The devil wants Jesus to do what we want Jesus to do.
Or, perhaps better put: The devil wants Jesus to do what WE want to do.
But here’s the Good News, the really Good News, Jesus rejects the temptations of the devil, and our own, and instead does for us what we would not, and could not, do for ourselves.
Even at the very end, with his arms stretched out not he cross, we still tempt the Lord just as the devil did: “If you really are who you say you are, save yourself!”
And, at the end, Jesus doesn’t bother with quotes from the scriptures, nor does he provide us with a plan on how to make the world a better place, he simply dies.
Instead of saving himself, Jesus saves us. Amen.