Text: Luke 4:1-3
Our Gospel text for today is the story of the temptations of Jesus. It’s a rich narrative full of timely lessons for citizens of 21st century America. But I cannot recall this story without my mind drifting back to my years in our Southern Baptist church in small-town South Carolina. I can still feel the hard, maple pew beneath me on a warm summer Sunday evening as I joined my voice with the congregation in singing that old hymn, “Yield Not to Temptation.” Since many of you did not grow up in that tradition and may not know it, a demonstration might be helpful. No, unlike Nancy, I am not going to sing for you. Hit it, Larry.
Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin;
Each victory will help you some other to win.
Fight manfully onward, dark passions subdue;
Look ever to Jesus, he’ll carry you through.
Shun evil companions, bad language disdain;
God’s name hold in reverence, don’t take it in vain;
Be thoughtful and honest, kindhearted and true;
Look ever to Jesus, He’ll carry you through.
Those of you who know this hymn will immediately recognize that we’ve omitted the refrain and the final stanza, but you get the idea. I haven’t sung that hymn in many decades for reasons that should be obvious. But I have to admit the first line comes to mind periodically – especially when someone opens a new box of something chocolate!
On this first Sunday of Lent, we start with Jesus out in the wilderness for forty days. He hasn’t eaten anything since he arrived, an amazing feat in itself. Just as he’s about to wrap up his vision quest, the devil steps up the pressure on him to be something other than what Jesus has just discerned he was called to be. Some of us have a sense of what this is like. You spend time in reflection and believe you’ve arrived at clarity about important decisions. Then as soon as you step back into the real world, an obstacle to doing what you had decided you should do appears right in front of you.
In this case, the devil is really slick, even using Hebrew scripture Jesus knew well to convince him to betray his core purpose. But Jesus is also sharp and quotes scripture right back. The first temptation seems simple: make a loaf of bread. Later in the gospels we will see Jesus producing enough bread to feed five thousand people, so he obviously doesn’t object to bread-making. But that’s not the issue here. The temptation is to meet his own needs rather than rely on God to provide the essentials. As a good Jew, Jesus recalls that his ancestors wandered not for forty days but forty years in the wilderness. For them, God was the source of the manna from heaven that kept them alive. So by quoting a verse from Deuteronomy, Jesus ignores his hunger and rejects the invitation to sever his reliance on God.
The second temptation is the gain of power by compromising his allegiance to God. With all the kingdoms of the world in view, the devil urges, “Worship me and it will all be yours.” But Jesus comes right back with another verse from Deuteronomy: “Worship God and serve God only.” The devil seems to get the message and quits pursuing that one.
But since most things in scripture come in threes, there is one more temptation. The devil takes Jesus to Jerusalem and urges him to throw himself from the top of the temple. Since Jesus has fended off the first two invitations with scripture, the devil addresses him with a quote from the Psalms: “God will command the angels concerning you, to protect you and they will bear you up so you will not dash your foot against a stone.” This request is cast as an opportunity to prove Jesus’ identity. “IF you are the Son of God…” The temptation is to prove himself and to put God’s promises to the test. Later in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus will have another chance to ask God to save him. He declines to do so even then. Here in the wilderness, he says simply, “Don’t test God.” He refuses to demand that God save his life, and the devil departs for the time being.
Some have suggested that the temptation story reflects the kinds of struggles Jesus experienced during his three-year ministry, supposing that that each temptation in the wilderness symbolizes challenges that are to come. Although John’s gospel doesn’t include the temptation story itself as the others do, John does show clearly the temptations Jesus resisted. After he fed the 5,000, the crowd seeks Jesus out and asks him to make bread for them again. (John 6:26, 30-31) When some Greeks seek him, John describes Jesus’ conversation with himself about whether he should ask God to be delivered from his approaching execution. Also in John, Jesus’ brothers urge him to go to Judea to show the whole world the tricks he can perform. (John 7:5-7) The wilderness temptations did come around again and again, albeit in different forms.
Now if I asked you to raise your hand if you believe this “interesting” encounter between Jesus and the devil literally happened, my hunch is that at least some of you – maybe a large number – would keep your hands in your laps. If I’m correct, does that mean the story of the temptations of Jesus lacks merit? Does it mean it’s not a story we should share and process with the young people among us? Does it mean we can just write it off as another fanciful tale in our bible? Not at all – at least, not if we are wise. Although I’m not going to encourage you to fight manfully onward subduing your dark passions, it is true that we are all tempted to do things that aren’t good for us or for others. To be alive is to be tempted as Jesus was by the lure of power and control that will allow us to satisfy our own needs and impress others. We may not seek to own all the kingdoms of the world, but gaining more than we have and more than we need, typically at some expense to others, has dangerous appeal.
The challenge we face in assimilating a fantastical story like this one is similar to the dilemma we progressive Christians encounter when we get to the season of Lent. Last fall when I was away on a study leave, I spent a lot of time thinking about this season. I read the daily lectionary passages in my room at Saint Mary’s Abbey in England in preparation for writing meditations for this Lent. While taking notes, I imagined your responses to some of the texts. As I read again the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus they portray, I pictured you and remembered the awkwardness I feel in the Pullen air during Lent. Because many of us have rejected the traditional theory of “substitutionary atonement” that says God sent Jesus to die on the cross to save us from our sins, this is an awkward time for us. Let me say quickly, however, that if the traditional understanding of what Jesus did on the cross has meaning for you, hold on to it. Just be sure what you believe about Jesus’ death isn’t inconsistent with his life. Marcus Borg recommends that if your theory of the cross completely contradicts everything Jesus stood for and taught, you might want to re-think it.
But for those among us who struggle with the whole thing – from the bloody execution on a cross to the rising from the dead – I have a few suggestions for this Lenten season. In fact, I offer these ideas for all of us in the coming weeks.
First, as with the story of the temptations of Jesus, factual truth is not a necessary ingredient of “meaning.” So as we accompany this rabbi as he sets his face toward Jerusalem and certain death, look for the meaning behind the incidents that occur and the people he encounters. What do they tell us of self-giving? Of friendship? Of sacrifice? Of fear? Of love? Have you ever felt good at the beginning of the week and everything went downhill after that? Jesus went from a parade in his honor to an execution in five days. Have you ever felt betrayed by people you thought were your friends? Peter, beloved disciple, denied that he even knew who Jesus was. Have you ever done things for others and then found them to be ungrateful? The crowd Jesus had fed and healed chose to save the criminal Barabbas and let Jesus die. Have you ever felt that all you worked for was lost? The disciples left everything to follow Jesus and then the authorities killed him. Holy Saturday was a pretty tough day for them. Need desperately to find a way to believe that life and love can emerge from death and destruction? The Good Friday to Easter story is your map. So find yourself in the stories.
Second, use Lent as a time for reflection and prayer using whatever is helpful to you. If you didn’t receive a copy of our Lenten meditations last Sunday, pick one up in the foyer when you leave today or you can hear an audio podcast of them on our website each day. If they are helpful, use them. If not, find another guide to use this Lent. Or simply commit yourself to some time each day for quiet reflection. Take a walk, listen to meditative music, sit in silence, or look at the sky. Whatever it takes to calm your soul and open it to the sacred all around you, do it daily – or as many days as you can – for the next six weeks.
Third, join us on Wednesday nights in Lent for our series on a theology of the cross. Lent is hard for many of us because we’ve rejected its traditional meaning and haven’t replaced it with anything we can articulate even to ourselves. Beginning this Wednesday evening, thoughtful Pullenites will share what they believe about the crucifixion and resurrection, and I can assure you they will all be different. Come and listen. You don’t have to agree with any of them, but in the listening you’re likely to become more clear about what’s in your own mind and heart.
And fourth, I want to say a word about our aversion to the cross because it is a symbol of violence and bloodshed. It is indeed that. But it is a product of our privilege as citizens of the First World that we can simply refuse to talk about the blood, the violence, and the physical sacrifice at the core of the crucifixion story, and thereby erase it from our minds. People in Syria and Palestine and Mali and Libya and Egypt and even Chicago are not so lucky. Oppressed people all over the world for all of time have been forced by their circumstances to come face-to-face with all manner of crucifixions.
Because of centuries of oppression, the poor in El Salvador understand themselves to be a “crucified people.” Crucifixion is part of the identity of the poor in that nation. In the past, I have spoken about participating in communion while standing in Chalatenango next to the graves of two of the Maryknoll sisters who were raped and killed by Salvadoran government soldiers we funded. “This is my body broken for you” takes on new meaning in the company of women’s bodies that were literally broken because of their devotion to justice for the poor. So we can sanitize our story-telling and our rituals to suit our privileged tastes. But for many of God’s children around the world, Jesus’ willingness to be crucified rather than stop feeding and healing and preaching “good news for the poor” is a very powerful image they know first-hand. At some point during Lent, read the Good Friday story from their location and not your own.
Alan Culpepper suggests that in the story of the temptations, Jesus faithfully resists the urge to do less than or other than he was called to do. “Faced with pressing decisions regarding his identity and vocation,” he says, “Jesus allowed himself to be led by the Spirit.” Lent is a time to make a space in our lives where we can reflect on our own identity and vocation. The old hymn is right that “evil companions” and “bad language” aren’t good for us. Yet the decisions we are called upon to make these days are much more complex than this. And many of these important questions come to us when we’re not rested, nor energized, nor feeling especially inspired. They land in our laps when we’re tired, stressed, and distracted by the pressures of life. Sometimes they come in the middle of grief or illness or other hardship. If we’re lucky, immediate decisions aren’t required in those moments and we can postpone them until we can regroup or gather our wits about us, as my mother used to say. But sometimes we’re not so lucky. If we aren’t and the hard questions come when we’re least equipped to deal with them, the temptation is to gut react – to operate on instinct.
So what I wonder is this: How we can develop instincts that help us withstand the call of power and control so we can operate instead from a loving, centered place – even when we’re stressed? How can love and compassion become our “gut reaction?” I don’t have a magic answer to this question, but I do believe we can find clues by watching Jesus in the wilderness. The writer of Luke offers us a hint in the first line of our text: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness…” Full of the Spirit, he was. Then there’s the fact that he responded to the devil’s taunts with his faith convictions: I live by more than my physical needs. I worship only God. I trust rather than test God. Then Jesus leaves the wilderness determined to follow his call to a ministry of compassion and justice even if it leads him to a cross.
Lent can be a time for us to practice doing what Jesus did – to “look ever to Jesus” as the old hymn says. It invites us to step away from our daily lives, if just for a few moments each day, to open ourselves to the Holy. It also provides a space for us to clarify our faith commitments so that we can go back into our lives more certain of our calling. In all its manifestations, the temptation for Jesus was to be less than he was called to be. This is our temptation as well. May this Lent – this holy time – be for us a season when we can dig deep, plant and nurture life-giving seeds, and emerge more clear about who we were created to be. The world desperately needs us to be our best, most loving selves. Every one of us. Every single one of us.