A Sermon about Lent, the Wilderness, and an Invitation to be Human
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.
As Jesus emerges from the baptism waters, the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove and a voice from heaven proclaims, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” The Beloved wades ashore. With the muddy, yet holy, river water dripping from his beard, the Spirit that fills Jesus, leads him. She doesn’t lead him to a baptism party or a place of protection as we might expect. Instead the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness.
There the Beloved spends 40 days in the scorching desert heat without a single bite to eat. After he becomes exhausted and ravenously famished, Jesus comes face-to-face with the devil who seizes upon his weakness and begins to tempt him.
“Since you’re the Son of God, there’s no reason for you to hunger. Just tell this stone to turn into a loaf of bread. It’s that easy to satisfy your craving.” It’s interesting that both Jesus and the devil know exactly who Jesus is, God’s beloved Son, and the devil hankers to see what kind of beloved child Jesus is going to be.
Will he decide that it’s utterly inappropriate for someone loved by God to have desires go unmet? Will he use his power to satisfy his own longings? Will he exploit creation rather than have his cravings go unfulfilled?
In this moment, Jesus must decide whether having desires that go unmet is something he, as God’s child, can avoid or if it’s a necessary part of being human. He must decide whether or not he’ll ultimately trust God to provide whatever he truly needs.
We know this temptation well, don’t we? What do we do when we long for something we can’t have? Do we take it anyway? How often do we exploit creation for our pleasure, comfort, and convenience? Every single day. As God’s beloveds, do we wonder deep down if us not having what someone else has is an unfair injustice, or do we continue to trust God even when we don’t have what we want?
One reason that so many Christians give up something, or fast, during Lent is to gain control of our insatiable hunger. When we find ourselves craving chocolate, the ease of single use plastic, or a scroll through social media, we ask ourselves, “What is it I really hunger for in this moment? What is the deep yearning underneath the surface craving?
When the devil tempts Jesus to satisfy his hunger by turning a stone into bread, Jesus quotes ancient Scripture from Deuteronomy. “One does not live on bread alone.” In the end, Jesus, chooses hunger over self-gratification. He decides to lean into God when desires go unmet. God’s beloved child discovers that there can be learning in longing.
After Jesus rebuffs the devil’s first temptation, the tempter shifts gears to entice Jesus’ ego. He shows God’s Son all of the kingdoms of the world and says to him, “All of these kingdoms and all of their glory, I’ll give to you. They’ve been handed over to me to give to whomever I want. If you’ll worship me, then it will be all yours.” The devil promises Jesus fame, power, and prestige if only God’s beloved will worship him.
Once again Jesus has to ask himself some big questions. Does being God’s child inherently make anyone deserving of acclaim and adoration, or is our worth found in something else? Can the faithful trust that we are beloved and worthy even when our good deeds go unnoticed?
Of course, being tempted by the ego is human nature, so these are questions we must also ask ourselves. Everyday the news is filled with stories of people who sell their souls to a devil in exchange for positions of power, popularity, or prestige. We are all tempted to want our good works to be noticed and to receive some sort of praise or reward for them.
It’s interesting to me that, in this story, the devil even has the authority to give away of the kingdoms of the world. This must mean that God temporarily gives the devil this power- for the purpose of temptation. God must know that Jesus needs to be tempted in this particular way.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he will encounter fickle crowds who heap praise on him as long as he performs miracles. He’ll also collide with sinister crowds who want to trick him into failure, throw him in jail, and hurl him off cliffs.
As people who know the story, we are well aware that Jesus will eventually be lifted up, but, before he’s lifted into heaven to be next to God, Jesus will be lifted up onto a cross. High on the cross, Jesus will be shamed, mocked, beaten, and murdered.
Just like the first, Jesus withstands the second temptation. Once again he does so by recalling Scripture from Deuteronomy. “Worship the Lord your God and serve only God.”
In a last ditch effort, the devil tempts Jesus a third time, this time appealing to the human desire for safety. For this temptation, the devil leads Jesus out of the wilderness and into Jerusalem, the center of Jewish identity and worship.
The devil whisks Jesus up to the pinnacle of the Temple and says, “Since you’re the Son of God, jump. Throw yourself into the air.” Aware that Jesus keeps quoting Scripture, the tempter seeks to beat him at his own game. “Your scriptures say, ‘He will put His heavenly messengers in charge of You, to keep You safe in every way.’ and, ‘They will hold You up in their hands so that You do not smash Your foot against a stone.’”
You see, even the devil can quote the Bible. Taken out of context, even Holy Scripture can be used to cause harm. That’s why it’s so important to seek to know the heart of God as well as the teachings of scripture. It’s the Spirit of God who guides us to not misuse Scripture, and it’s the Spirit who helps us recognize when others weaponize God’s Word.
While each of the temptations hone in on natural human weaknesses, this one, perhaps, is the most personal because it targets the deepest human fears. It is natural to desire security, to know that we and our loved ones are safe. It is human instinct to want to be safe from pain, sickness, and grief. Even death. Healthy people don’t want to suffer.
This particular temptation will surface again for Jesus. As the Beloved hangs bleeding, writhing on the cross, crowds, soldiers, and even a criminal hanging next to him will all challenge Jesus. “If you are the Son of God, save yourself.” Jesus must decide early on if he thinks his life should be exempt from pain or if he accepts that humans simply can’t escape it. Will Jesus trust that God will remain present with God’s beloved during suffering and love him through it?
When Jesus withstands this temptation, the scripture he quotes is, “You will not test the Lord, the one True God.” Interestingly, this temptation isn’t just for Jesus. This time the devil also tempts God. No one, including God, wants to watch those they love suffer.
Just before the temptation story in Luke’s gospel, Luke includes a genealogy of Jesus, and Luke’s genealogy is the only one that goes all the way back to Adam. In Luke, Jesus isn’t only like a new King David or a new Moses. Jesus is also a new Adam, creating a new humanity.
Because of this, we can hold this temptation story next to another one, the story of Adam and Eve’s temptation. One takes place in a garden and the other in a wilderness. One involves a talking serpent and the other the devil. Both tempters misconstrue God’s own words to lead God’s beloveds astray. While there are both similarities and differences in the stories, they both essentially ask the same questions: Do you want to be like God? Do you want to know all that God knows?
Both stories force the beloveds being tempted to decide: do they want to try to be like God themselves, or will they put their trust in God and settle for being human? Now we know that Jesus is someone who is both God and human, but, in this story, he chooses to accept all of limitations, uncertainty, and vulnerability that comes with being human.
Because of this, we can view the temptations as invitations, invitations to be human. Interestingly, this is the same invitation offered to us at Lent. We don’t have to be like God, so we don’t have to be perfect and never mess up. We don’t have to know all of the answers. We don’t have to be able to see how everything is going to work out. We don’t have to always be strong or right.
In fact, when we do put these expectations on ourselves, it never works out very well either for us or for the people around us. It’s freeing to allow ourselves to be human because that’s what we were created to be.
While embracing the limitations of being human is freeing, it doesn’t mean life will be a bed of roses. Even beloveds will hunger for things we can’t have and struggle to trust God to provide what we need. Even beloveds will crave power and praise and battle the ego to live humbly and faithfully trusting that God notices whether or not anybody else ever does. Even beloveds will bleed. We’re going to get hurt and get sick. We are going to experience heartache and pain. None of us will live forever.
As we live into our humanity, the Spirit who fills us will guide us. The God who claims us as God’s children will love us each step of the way. Jesus, who knows what it means to be human, will redeem us always making us new. This Lent, you are invited into the wilderness. Like Jesus, you are invited to discover how to live as God’s beloved child.