Lessons – Deut 26:1-11; Psalm 91; Romans 10:5-13; St. Luke 4:1-13
On Ash Wednesday we began the fast and entered into a symbolic 40 days of uniting ourselves with Christ during His time in the wilderness. While these 40 days are symbolic for us they were not for Him. We still have to go to work or school and raise our families and vote for American Idol but it would be a real mistake to turn this period of Jesus’ life into an allegory.
Jesus accepted unimaginable suffering for us on the cross but His sufferings did not start there. He faced discouragement when His disciples didn’t understand Him. He would know the pain of betrayal. He would sweat blood wrestling with the call to drink from the cup that His Father had given him. All of these were actual events and He them for our benefit. This story of His temptations in the wilderness fits in so well with all of the other portrayals of Jesus’ suffering on our behalf that it should be taken as an actual event and His temptations were real.
“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Jesus had been fasting in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights and Satan tempted Him to eat. But what would be so wrong with that? There is not commandment that says “Thou shalt fast 41 days and nights.” It is particularly interesting that many translations of this passage include the idea that the fast was finished or completed when the devil came to him. So again, why would it be wrong to eat?
The first problem that Satan’s temptation presents, and it occurs in two of the three temptations, is that of sewing doubt. Twice he will say to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God….” That approach is so dubious. It is not a frontal attack, it subtle and sows seeds of doubt. Remember how he used this same approach in the garden? This is from Genesis 3.
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
4“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5“For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
First he sows doubt, which if unchallenged, it leads to denial. It is heartbreaking to watch this process. A little voice starts that challenge. “Man if you really were a Christian you would be more loving or patient or have more faith or fill-in-the-blank.” If that voice goes unchallenged it grows like a cancer to “Maybe I’m not really a Christian” and then to “I’m just not feeling it any more” and then to “Maybe I’ll try another path.” I have had those conversations in my den and tried to get folks to appreciate that they were engaged in a spiritual battle and not a loss of emotions but I have not always been successful. That is why I said it is a heartbreaking process to watch.
Behind the question “if you are…” is an implication that Jesus was under a burden to prove that He was. Notice that in neither case does Jesus take the bait. And why should He? To whom was He burdened to prove that He was the Son of God? Certainly not to Satan. Heaven had just spoken at His baptism “This is my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Case settled.
As Christians we need to be just as certain of our sonship or daughterhood in God. We just read in Romans about such assurance. You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. If Satan wants you to prove that you are a Christian, tell him to go ask your Owner. Don’t take that bait of doubt.
But as far as Jesus actually eating after a long fast of course there is nothing inherently wrong with that. The real issue here was not about bread per se but about who would be in control of Jesus’ life. Would it be His appetites that dictate His life or would the Spirit lead him? Jesus resisted the option to be led by His appetites and declared, “Man does not live by bread alone, and other Gospels add, but by every world that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
When I was a kid I went with my parents to tour a small coliseum in Italy were gladiators fought and battles were reenacted. The Romans were so advanced that they even had ways of flooding the grounds of the coliseum to reenact famous naval battles. As the guide was showing us around he pointed out what was called “the vomitorium.” When I asked what that was for he explained that while the people watched the fights they would gore themselves and then they would come to the vomitorium, tickle the back of their throats with a feather, expel the food and go back to their seats and start eating all over again. Even as a kid it was difficult for me to imagine a culture that was so debased as to think that was entertainment. This of course was years before Jerry Springer and Reality TV. I say that only partly jokingly. Look at the constant appeals to our lower appetites through the culture. There is so little that challenges us to expand our minds much less our spirits. To test what I just said I stopped writing the sermon and went to the TV guide to look what was being offered on the TV channel Arts and Entertainment. That sounds highbrow no? Back to back episodes of Dog the Bounty Hunter and Parking Wars. Is there anything remotely with artsy or entertaining about watching people get arrested or argue over a parking ticket?
The answer is not a pendulum swing to some form of religious fundamentalism because the focus here is also about appetites, only in this case spending all of your time not giving into them. And since our appetites are God given they cannot be suppressed that way.
There was a wonderful piece on the news last week of a group of Afghan kids that joined an American orchestra to play Vivaldi at Carnegie Hall. They interviewed a young Afghan pianist named Milad who explained that when the Taliban were in control all secular music was outlawed, He said that you could be killed for having a musical instrument so he learned to play the piano by drawing a keyboard on a piece of paper and practicing on it. Suppression does not work.
Jesus set the example of us in how to deal with our appetites when he said that we are to live, “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” It is as we live under the authority of God’s Word that we find the proper balance to live our lives. John Paul II said, “Temptation is nothing else but directing toward evil everything which man can and ought to put to good use.” (Prayer and Devotions from Pope John Paul II, Chicago:Regnery Gateway, 1984). Our appetites themselves therefore are not bad, they just need to be under authority, which in turn keeps them in perspective.
This very season of Lent is designed to address our appetites and get our priorities back on track. The invitation to observe a holy Lent that we read on Ash Wednesday, mentions a number of important things that help us towards that end. It speaks of prayer, reading and meditating of God’s holy word. It also mentions fasting and self-denial. These disciplines put our appetites in check and do not allow them to rule us.
In the next temptation Satan took Jesus up to a mountain and had Him observe the kingdoms of the world. What is interesting about this temptation is that Satan promised to give to Jesus that which Jesus would inevitably be given by God. Once Jesus went through the passion and resurrection and ascended to the right hand of God, He would be given such authority that at his very Name every knee will bow in heaven and on earth (Phil 2). So Satan was offering Jesus His inheritance, that which was rightfully His to have. What made it a temptation was that the timing was wrong.
I’m sure you saw last week’s news of all of the problems with the Carnival Cruise ship Triumph. It advertised itself as the ultimate in relaxation and adventure and I suppose they got at least the second part correct. It sounds like it was quite the adventure. 5 days with no electricity, one woman reported standing in line for 5 hours just to get a sandwich, and the toilets were so stopped up that sewages was coming down state room walls. It struck me what an allegory this story would make for what really happens with Satan’s promises. You are promised the trip of the lifetime. Food and drink 24 hours a day, all you want, any kind you want. There will be music, live entertainment, and a staff to wait on your every need. You will be the center of attraction. Instead you get a cold sandwich, sweltering heat and flowing sewage.
Just as Jesus knew Satan’s promises could not be trusted, we should not be deceived by the promises of the world. I knew a woman who had a magnet on her refrigerator that said, “You can never be too rich or too thin.” She aspired at both of them and she achieved them. I was at her deathbed when she died and she one of the most hateful people I have ever known. Jesus says, “Come unto Me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”
Notice that Satan’s temptation to Jesus was to miss all of the suffering. He wanted Him to act like many Christians and jump from Christmas to Easter with nothing in between. But if Jesus had done that, how would we receive the propitiation for our sins? Jesus had to go through the cross to get the crown. The time for Him to be glorified was to come but this was not the time. He accepted God’s timing and as in all things we should follow our Master here as well.
In the last temptation Jesus and Satan went from the wilderness into Jerusalem to the pinnacle of the temple. This would have been the side of the temple that was next to a deep valley and a fall from there would have meant death. “If you are the Son of God throw yourself down for it is written, ‘he will command his angels concerning you…’”
It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that Satan took that verse out of context? Those of you who have been with me awhile will know the answer to this question. What are the three most important rules of biblical interpretation? Context, context, context. It is true that you can prove anything from the Bible if you will take it out of context but you cannot prove anything from the Bible if you keep it in context. So context, context, context.
There is indeed a verse that promises the protection of the angels but it is not offered as an insurance policy against our own stupidity. That was Jesus’ comeback and why He said we are not to put God to the test.
What does it mean to put God to the test? One way is when we ignore God’s truth, do things our own way, and then expect Him to support and bless what we are doing. We do this as a nation. Somehow we think that even though we abort some 3,500 babies a day that as long as we end our speeches with “God bless America” that we are going to be okay? We do this as a Church. In order to keep up with the culture we bless and consecrate what the Scriptures clearly state we should not bless or consecrate and then we scratch our heads about the losses and divisions among us. We do this as families. We ignore what God teaches us about giving to Him our first fruits and not going into debt but expect him to do a miracle in our finances. We do this as individuals. We ignore our wedding vows and when our lives come crashing down around our ears we wonder why God is not helping us.
Here is an important detail about this temptation. If Jesus did not know the Bible, then He would not have known that Satan had taken the verse out of context. St. Paul said, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” But is it for most of us? The living Word, Jesus, certainly is but how well do we know the written Word of God? We have to know God’s will before we can obey it and as any policeman will be happy to remind you, ignorance of the law is no excuse. If we are not regularly reading the Scripture in order to know God’s will for our lives, then we are almost assured of putting the Lord to the test.
I want to point out one last thing about this passage today. It was the Spirit that put Jesus in the wilderness where He was tempted. It was not for punishment nor was in an accident. It was a part of the plan. And it was because the He was full of the Spirit that He was able to pass the test. It is in that light that we can pray for this to be a Spirit led and Spirit filled Lent for us and that by His grace we will pass the test as a part of God’s plan for our lives. Because of His mercy, I’m sure we will.