Lent 1C 2019

Lent 1C 2019

Tests: Deuteronomy 26:1-11

          Psalm 91: 1-2, 9-16

          Romans 10:8b-13

          Luke 4: 1-13

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.”  Luke 4: 1

The wilderness, what does that image conger up for you? A barren, dry land?  The Sarah Desert perhaps? Maybe the long, flat, rugged Texas Panhandle or Alaska’s frozen tundra?  Do you see the wilderness as a land of uncertainty and possibly danger; a land where your very life is possibly at stake?  

The wilderness plays a vital role in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.  Israel was a wilderness people. They were well acquainted with the wilderness from their 40 years of wandering around in it.  I think it fair to say that they weren’t terribly fond of the wilderness. They were always on the move, never knowing what would come at them.  They left Egypt, a land of ripe fruits and meats, but also a land of oppression.

For a time, they wanted to go back to Egypt.  Even oppression was better than having to face their wilderness journey.  Or so they thought. At least they knew the conditions and the rules of the game.  There was an amount of certainty in their lot in Egypt. If they did what Pharaoh wanted, didn’t get too uppity or cause too many problems, they had a chance of being ignored at best.  Going back to Egypt was dancing with the devil that they knew versus facing the devil that they didn’t know.

As much as Israel didn’t like the wilderness, their travels in it became for them a foundational story.  It formed them in crucial ways. It was a place of danger and uncertainty. It was a place of risk, but it was also a place of revelation.  God revealed himself in the wilderness. God asked them to enter the wilderness and to base their journey on faith, not certainty.

In the New Testament we know that John the Baptist entered the wilderness and that it was into the wilderness that the crowds went to listen to him.  And today we hear of Jesus’ wilderness experience, of Jesus entering into a time of prayer, fasting, and severe tempting.

One of the core teachings of the Church is that Jesus was fully tempted as we are, but did not sin.  In order to enter our world fully and completely Jesus had to experience what we do, and goodness knows we experience temptation.

There are several aspects to this story that I want to point our attention to.  First, it was after Jesus’ baptism that the temptations started. Baptism didn’t protect Jesus from temptation.  It was after the heavens opened and the voice from heaven proclaims Jesus as God’s son that the temptations begin.  

We are told that Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit and that it was the Spirit that led Jesus during that time.  The text does not say that the Spirit led him into the wilderness, like some divine GPS system; the text says that while Jesus was in the wilderness the Spirit guided him; it never departed from him.  That is an important distinction.

Another aspect to the story that is often glossed over is that the temptations lasted the full forty days.  The three temptations were not just three short moments in that 40 day time. The temptations went on and on for the entire time he was there.

At Jesus’ most vulnerable, when he is the most tired, the most hungry, the devil suggests something very reasonable.  And truth be told, most temptations sound reasonable. They aren’t usually some grand, outrageous thought; they usually crop up as a reasonable human need, and so it was with Jesus.  

“Look,” says the devil, “You haven’t eaten in 40 days.  You are really hungry. You don’t have to wait to get back home and before you eat, you can eat right here.  Here are some stones; you could make them into a loaf of bread. It will stave off your hunger as you travel back home.”  

But Jesus, knowing God’s will for him, knowing the correct use of the power that has been given to him, refuses.  He has just had 40 days where it was God’s word that sustained him, and he knows that it will continue to sustain him.  

Next the devil shows him all the kingdoms of the world.  It was not an unusual belief at that time that the world was governed by the devil, governed by those hostile to God’s kingdom.  The devil is saying to Jesus, “You can bring about whatever kingdom you want, you can fashion it in any ways that you want to. You want a just kingdom? You can have it, now.  You want people fed and clothed and safe, it’s done! All you have to do is worship me and then everything will be yours, you don’t have to wait for God.”

What a temptation!  Bring about something good, help a great number of people and do it more quickly! But the catch is we have to look the other way, we have to make an alliance that is unholy or hurts someone or something else.  Remember the old adage “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”? That pretty well sums up this temptation.

But Jesus knows, and we need to know too, that it is only God that is to be worshipped and that it is only God that can create God’s kingdom. And even when we think it is taking too long and we don’t understand why it isn’t happening now, we need to be reminded that it will be done in God’s time, not ours.  If Jesus was to give into the temptation he would be distorting his relationship with God and with those he was called to serve. That is what sin is, a distortion of our relationship with God and our neighbor.

The last temptation, for the time being anyway, is for Jesus to do something out of foolishness, not out of faith.  The devil tells him that if he really believes that God will protect him, he could throw himself off the temple, that holy place, and God will surely not let him die.  The devil tells Jesus that God will save him from his foolishness and unwise decisions. The devil even quotes scripture, Psalm 91, to prove his point.

Jesus, the living embodiment of the Word of God, recognizes that to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple was not an act of faith at all.  That little trick smacked more of distrust than of faithful response.

Here scripture is used to tempt Jesus.  It just goes to show that from the beginning scripture was used as a weapon, as something that could be manipulated and proof-texted to try and get others to do what actually perverts the meaning and message of God.  It is very easy to misuse scripture for one’s own gain and to appear pious and faithful in doing so, however, that is nothing more than a power grab.

Part of temptation is that wants are presented as needs, falsehoods presented as truth, and distrust presented as faith.  And so this is a story not just about the temptations, but about faithful responses to them. Jesus is modeling for us a way to deal with the temptations that enter into our lives.  

Because we see Jesus entering his own wilderness, we know that we can enter ours. This story tells us that in entering our own wilderness, no matter what we face, no matter how hard what we are going through is at the time, the Holy Spirit, God’s gift to us, will remain with us.  We are never left alone in our wilderness times. Never.

We tend to forget that the wilderness for Israel and for us is not just a place of wandering and wondering, and disorientation.  The wilderness is also a place of revelation, of God appearing and God’s presence and will being made known. It is a place of uncertainty, but that is why we are given the gift of faith; that is why, just like Jesus, we are promised the presence of the Holy Spirit.

It is very tempting to grab whatever power we find when we are feeling helpless.  We grab for control wherever we can find it. Jesus was successful in resisting temptation at his lowest points precisely because he didn’t rely solely on himself or his own control; he relied on God and God’s promises.  The same promises made to Jesus have been made to us.

The tests for Jesus surrounded his relationship with God, whether he could be tempted to do the wrong things for perfectly reasonable reasons. To know that Jesus has experienced wilderness and knows what temptation is like, gives us hope to face our own.

Lent is the time that we are invited to enter our wilderness, to look squarely at what tempts us and why, to renew our relationship with God and each other and to recommit ourselves to the One who never leaves us.  


Robin Whittington