© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
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”,
“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.
Do you believe in the devil? That’s a very different question than do you believe in God? Believing in God is still, at least partly, acceptable in our world. But if you espouse a belief in the devil, well, some folks might think you’re crazy.
Despite that, the popular image is still around. We speak of the devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, trying to convince us to choose the bad or the good. We say things like “the devil made me do it.” When I was kid that was even a popular thing to see on tee shirts thanks to the comedian Flip Wilson and his character Geraldine, who was always trying to resist temptation and always failing and always saying: “The devil made me do it.”
And so we giggle and pass the buck to an imaginary little red man with horns and a pitchfork because that is so much easier than seriously considering what might be at stake when we are tempted.
According to Scripture, temptations and their consequences are very real, nothing to joke about. They are so real that Jesus himself taught us to pray: “Lead us not into temptation.” And that makes the story we heard today especially strange because according to the story, the polar opposite happened to Jesus. Jesus was led into temptation by the Holy Spirit. Isn’t that odd?
So why would the Spirit of God lead Jesus into temptation. A clue is found in the Greek word translated here as “temptation.” Remember that translations are often editorial choices. And this word can just as easily be translated as “test.” And to say that Jesus was led into a “time of testing” as opposed to a “time of temptation” implies that there was a goal or purpose to this test that might have been worthwhile.
So, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness in order to be tested. The wilderness refers to an arid region in southern Israel between the fertile lands near the Mediterranean and the sands of the Sahara. There is life there, but it hard to see and it is very isolated. It’s not the kind of place any of us would naturally seek out. Maybe Jesus wouldn’t have either, except the spirit led him there. And I wonder if the physical setting wasn’t a big part of the test. Isolation forces us into interior places we would not go on our own.
Years ago, a friend and I drove from Los Angeles to Phoenix. Somewhere in the beautiful, snow-capped Arizona mountains, I became acutely aware of just how far out in the boondocks we were. We had not passed another car for a very long time. All the radio stations had disappeared. Suddenly we crested one of those mountaintops, and there before us was the road down the mountain and across the valley - a straight and seemingly endless line to the horizon. There was no sign of life: no humans or animals or telephone polls or electrical wires. I had never experienced such isolation, and so I asked my friend to stop so we could get out. We goofed around for a while and threw snowballs and yelled at the top of our lungs, just because we could. But then we got quiet. And once we stopped making noise, I experienced the most profound silence of my life. There seemed to be a weight to it, pushing me down toward the earth. And frankly, it really frightened me. We were just out there in the midst of all of that nothing, exposed and unprotected. After a while, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I insisted that we get back in the truck and drive, quickly, toward civilization.
I’m better with silence now, just not too much of it. I find that when there is too much of it, then all of these interior voices that I try so hard to ignore suddenly have room to speak. My doubts and fears and questions all swirl to the surface in a demand for my attention. And I wonder if that wasn’t part of the test for Jesus. Maybe in the silence of the wilderness, Jesus confronted those ideas that the noise of his world, and the business of his life, usually helped him to avoid.
And maybe it was in that quietness and in his swirling thoughts, that the devil appeared. Now don’t get caught in the trap of trying to imagine a little red man with horns. The devil is far too crafty for that. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright suggests that what was really going on here was “a string of natural ideas in Jesus’s own head. (They were) plausible, attractive, and made… a lot of sense.” And that is true to my own experience of temptation. I have never seen the devil, but I have been bedeviled by my thoughts. And those thoughts are often plausible and attractive and make a lot of sense. That’s what makes them so tempting. They often appear to be justified and logical; that is until we get underneath them and understand our motivations and what fears are being played upon.
So the devil came to Jesus with three very natural human desires. The first was the temptation to satisfy his hunger. After 40 days of fasting, Jesus must have been famished. And so, it was a most natural instinct to look at a stone and perhaps hallucinate what it would be like as a loaf of bread. And the voice in his head said, “If you are God’s Son, then turn that stone into a chewy focaccia.” And Jesus struggled to understand his own motives and the fears that underlay them and finally muttered: “One does not live by bread alone.”
The next temptation was about his need for excitement and the stroking of his ego. Jesus was shown all the glittering kingdoms of the world, with their wealth and power. And Jesus wrestled with his priorities. And Jesus, remembering all the things his blessed mother had taught him, finally shouted into the wind: “Worship God only.”
And then the devil quoted the Bible. And we should all make a note of that. The devil whispered, “It is written that the angels of God will protect you. So throw yourself off the pinnacle of the Temple and let Gabriel catch you.” And that was the temptation to prove who he really was to all the doubters. But Jesus clutched his head and groaned: “Don’t put God to the test.” And with that, we are told, Jesus passed his test. And in passing the test, Jesus gained what he did not have before: the essential skills needed to face the biggest test of his life or any life.
All of these temptations – in fact, all temptation is really only about one thing: Distrust. Distrust. The devil was sowing seeds of distrust. “You better do this yourself, Jesus. You better look out for number one because no one else is going to do it. You better grab the brass ring. You better use everything you’ve got to get all you want.”
And if all temptations are really the temptation of distrust, then Jesus’s tests and temptations are mine as well: to see faith as a weakness, to see trust as dependence, and to insist on taking charge of everything. Instead of grabbing hold of God, we grasp for the illusions of control. Jesus was about to have no control over what the forces of religion and politics were about to do to him. But he still had his trust in God. No one could take that from him.
And that is, at least in part, what these 40 days of Lent are about. We quiet down and pause to remember that our own illusions of control are just that: illusions. In Lent, we are called to plce our trust wholly upon the Lord. This is the way of the Cross – the cruciform life, and we all walk it whether we want to or not. But here’s the thing that Jesus found out, and here’s the thing we all find out: deserts and temptations and crosses and tombs are never ever how our stories end. The God we trust sees to that.
Thanks be to God. Amen.