Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Grace in the Wilderness of Temptation” (Luke 4:1-13)
March 10, 2019
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Every year on the First Sunday of Lent the gospel passage is an account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Today I am preaching on how the specific temptations Jesus faced parallel temptations we all face—and how God meets us in the wilderness of temptation with grace. This will include several insights from a gem of a book about Jesus’ wilderness temptation entitled In the Name of Jesus (1989) by the brilliant late Catholic priest and theologian, Henri Nouwen.
Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness immediately followed his anointing as the Messiah at his baptism in the Jordan River. It was part of God’s plan as scripture tells us Jesus “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” Every single one of those forty days Jesus was tempted by the devil, but the specific temptations recorded in scripture took place at the end of these forty days when Jesus was most vulnerable (Luke 4:1-2).
It is often in the aftermath of a major event in our lives—like a graduation or a wedding, or the birth of a child or a job promotion—or after a powerful experience of God in your life—that you are especially vulnerable to temptation. There is truth to the idea that after some kind of “mountaintop” experience with God you need to return to the valley of real life. We certainly acknowledge this liturgically as the gospel passage every year on the Last Sunday of Epiphany is the mountaintop experience of Jesus’ Transfiguration, followed the very next Sunday with his temptation in the wilderness of the valley. This is no coincidence.
Similarly, Luke writes that Jesus was “famished”—strong word, not just “hungry” but “famished”— when the devil tempted him in three specific ways: the temptation to turn stones to bread, the temptation of power, and the temptation to put God to the test. The devil waited until Jesus has had his “mountaintop” experience, until Jesus was alone, until Jesus was “famished” before breaking out these “big” temptations. Think about the big temptations in your life for a moment—does any of this sound familiar to your own experience?
The first thing the devil tempted Jesus with was to meet his own needs, specifically his immediate need for food, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread” and “Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, One does not live by bread alone’” (Luke 4:3-4). Jesus cites scripture in response to this first temptation, as he will again with the other temptations. Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, stands on scripture, the written word of God, specifically a passage from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy in which Moses reminded Israel of God’s provision of manna when they, just like Jesus, were famished in the wilderness:
He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deuteronomy 8:3).
Of course this begs the question, where are you hungry in your life—not just hungry, where are you famished in your life? If you try to fill that hunger by your own power or in a way that you know is wrong, if you try metaphorically to turn stones into bread, you will find yourself in trouble. Only God can fill the places in your life where you are famished—as the brilliant Church Father Augustine wrote in the of the fourth century in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds it rest in you” (Oxford World’s Classics edition, 3).
Another way to view this first temptation of turning stones into bread is what Henri Nouwen described in his book In the Name of Jesus as “the temptation to be relevant.” Listen to this:
Beneath all the great accomplishments of our time there is a deep current of despair. While efficiency and control are the great aspirations of our society, the loneliness, isolation, lack of friendship and intimacy, broken relationships, boredom, feelings of emptiness and depression, and a deep sense of uselessness fill the hearts of millions of people in our success-oriented world (33).
Nouwen was right thirty years ago, and he is right today. Beware the temptation to fill the areas in your life where you are famished, in your own power in ways you know are wrong, all under the guise of being “relevant.”
Then Jesus faced the second temptation, as Luke wrote:
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 will give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours” (Luke 4:5-7).
Jesus responded to this temptation by again appealing to scripture: “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord you God, and serve only him’” (Luke 4:8). This scripture also comes from Deuteronomy, when the Lord through Moses warned Israel about the dangers of idolatry as they prepared to enter the Promised Land: “The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear” (Deuteronomy 6:13).
In short, Jesus was tempted with power—not just a little power, but with power over “all the kingdoms of the world.” Think about that. What would you do if you were tempted with that? The temptation to power is particularly wicked because as human beings we love to be in charge, or at least under the illusion that we are in charge. The temptation to power is insidious because there is truth to the maxim, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And yet, in his incarnation Jesus had “emptied himself” and set aside his power in order to become not just a human being but a servant (Philippians 2:7), a servant who would eventually give his life “as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)—and not even authority over “all the kingdoms of the world” could deviate him from that.
In your life where are you tempted with power, with the idea that if you were in charge you could make everything better? This temptation can be so enticing that you may find yourself willing to cut “just a few” moral corners , to tell “just a few” white lies, or jettison “just a few” of your beliefs in order to gain that power. Again Henri Nouwen cuts right to the chase:
What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the heard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life… The long painful history of the church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love (77).
Jesus chose love over power. Jesus did not come to wield power over the world; he came to love the world. Although we may tempted by power, thankfully Jesus was not. I know in my own life every time I chose power over love, even when I “was right,” I later regretted it, later wished I had chosen love over power instead.
So the devil tempted Jesus again:
Then the devil took 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’” (Luke 4:9-11).
In this third temptation the devil throws a particularly wicked curveball because he incorporates scripture, the same word of God written, to which Jesus had appealed. The devil was right in that the psalmist indeed wrote about how God commands angels to watch over us and bear us up so that we “will not dash (our) foot against a stone”—that comes straight from Psalm 91:11-12. But the devil misused the scripture here and tragically history is replete with examples of scripture being misused to justify things that in the overall context of scripture are completely unjustifiable: slavery, bigamy, misogyny, racism, sexism…just to name a few.
And yet, thankfully, Jesus would not yield as he again appealed again to scripture, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Luke 4:12). Again, Jesus appealed to Deuteronomy, when the Lord had warned Israel, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah” (Deuteronomy 6:16). It was at Massah when the Israelites tested God by demanding Moses to give them water to drink as they, just like Jesus, were in the wilderness.
At God’s command Moses struck the rock and water poured out to quench their thirst, but the problem was the underlying premise behind their request as scripture tells us, “Moses called the place Massah (which means “test”) and Meribah (which means “quarrel”) because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:1-7). Again, think about your life for a moment…is there a situation in which you are tempted to test God, a situation in which like the Israelites you are asking “Is the Lord among us or not?”
The devil tempted Jesus to test God by doing something spectacular, by throwing himself from the pinnacle of the temple so that the angels would catch him. But as Henri Nouwen observes, “Jesus refused to be a stunt man. He did not come to prove himself” (55). Jesus overcame the temptation to put God to the test.
Luke ends his account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness with the ominous words, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from (Jesus) until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13)—and that most “opportune time” arrived during Holy Week. On Palm Sunday as the crowds chanted, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” it would have been the seemingly perfect time for Jesus to turn stones into bread, but he didn’t. Instead, in response to those complaining about the chanting crowds Jesus simply said, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out” (Luke 19:40).
During his betrayal and arrest it would have been the seemingly perfect time for Jesus to choose power over love, but he didn’t. Instead, he chose love over power, as he always did. And during his suffering on the cross it would have been the seemingly perfect time for Jesus to do something spectacular and prove himself, but he didn’t. Instead, the only thing Jesus chose to prove was that he loved the world unconditionally, including you, as scripture tells us, “God proved his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Roman 5:8).
Jesus taught us to pray, “lead us not into temptation” because he knew hard that temptation could be, and that often we cannot or do not overcome it. Instead Jesus, the only one who as ever lived who could, and did, overcome every temptation, offers grace to us when we find ourselves particularly vulnerable to temptation— after a mountaintop experience, or isolated and famished in the wilderness.
Scripture assures us, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have on who in every respect has been (tempted) as we are, yet without sin”—and tells us what to do when we are in the wilderness of temptation, “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).
Be encouraged….for God offers grace in the wilderness of temptation.