“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.” (Luke 4:1-2a)
Here we are, back in the wilderness with Jesus, and all you seasoned church-goers know what that means. It means we’ve reached the first Sunday in Lent.
Lent – the season of the church year that I feel least comfortable with. Even the word ‘Lent’ seems alien to me, as indeed it probably should, as it’s a variation on the word to ‘lengthen’, indicating that we’ve hit that time of year when the days are beginning to lengthen, which they are not – not in this hemisphere of the world, at any rate!
Of course, Lent is not supposed to be something we get too comfortable with, is it? It’s generally understood as being that time when we give things up.
I can never think of giving things up for Lent without remembering our dearly beloved and belated sister, Grace Reppion-Brooke, who, even in her late eighties would solemnly dedicate herself each Lent to giving up sex for the full forty days! Whatever else she gave up, dear Grace never relinquished her sense of humour!
In truth, I don’t know how many in our community do give things up for Lent, but when we do, they tend to be relatively small things.
I’m not meaning to trivialise anyone’s Lenten efforts, but I’ve never heard of anybody actually giving up all forms of food for the full forty days of Lent, which would be the obvious thing to attempt if we were really trying to model ourselves on Jesus in the wilderness. Instead, those of us who do give things up tend to give up particular forms of food, such as chocolate, or coffee, or even alcohol.
I would not want to minimise the effort required to give up any one of those things for the full period of Lent. Personally, I feel I’m doing pretty well if I can get through a day without any of them. Even so, to equate Jesus’ forty-day struggle with the devil in the wilderness to a month without chocolate is quite possibly missing the point.
I suspect that most of us in Holy Trinity who take Lent seriously treat it more as a time of quiet reflection, where perhaps we do a moral inventory of ourselves, and take time to reflect upon our weaknesses – those habits and tendencies that we struggle with, that might be holding us back from fulfilling God’s purpose for us.
In preparation for my own Lenten journey in this regard, I decided this year to work through a book by Brene Brown on the subject of shame.
For those who aren’t familiar with her work, Brene Brown is probably the world’s leading expert on shame, and the book I read was based on hundreds of interviews she’d done over seven years of research on the subject. Indeed, the book was almost eleven hours in length, and it felt like a Lenten discipline just to read it.
In the book I read, Brown goes to great lengths to distinguish shame from guilt, humiliation and embarrassment – each of which she sees as distinct phenomena. Brown believes that shaming people never helps anyone, whereas recognising guilt can, conversely, be very productive.
The difference, according to Brown, is that experiencing shame is saying to yourself, ‘I’m hopeless’ – a recognition that leads only to despair – whereas recognising guilt is saying, ‘I did something hopeless’, which can easily be followed by ‘I can do better!’
I found Brown’s distinction to be helpful, and I thought it might be a good basis from which to approach our Lenten disciplines. Even so, when I refocused on today’s passage – the story of Jesus wrestling with temptation in the wilderness – this all seemed to be about as relevant as the discipline of giving up chocolate.
In as much as the forty days of Lent are obviously historically connected to this forty- day period where Jesus wanders in the wilderness and overcomes the devil, the problem we have when we try to take lessons for ourselves from this is that the gospel writers do not present Jesus here as our model.
This passage is not designed to teach us how to deal with your demons. On the contrary, these wilderness temptations are very Jesus-specific, and I’m not convinced that they are recorded in order to tell us anything about ourselves, though they do tell us something about Jesus, and quite possibly something about Israel.
The connection with Israel – the historic people of God – is unmistakable in these stories. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness for forty days. The Israelites struggled through the wilderness for forty years. In both cases, they were periods of testing.
Do not harden your hearts as you did … in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested me;
they tried me, though they had seen what I did. For forty years I was angry with that generation;
I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.’ (Psalm 95:8-10)
Those forty years in the wilderness were remembered as a time of testing, and there’s no doubt that the Gospel writer expects us to make the connection between Israel’s forty years in the wilderness and Jesus’ forty days. Not only are the two realities connected by location and by the number ‘forty’, but the Old Testament quotes that are given in our Gospel narrative are all taken from the book of Deuteronomy – the final book of Moses, emerging out of that wilderness wandering.
Indeed, if there is any model in the Gospel story as to how we overcome temptation, it’s WWMD – ‘what would Moses do?’ The temptations that Jesus encounters are the temptations Moses and his people encountered, and the Scriptures used by both Jesus and the devil are verses taken from the last book of Moses.
As I’ve said, Lent is not a season I feel comfortable with, and this 40-days-in-the- wilderness story is not a narrative that I feel comfortable with either. Jesus’ temptation story is not my story. These struggles are not my struggles. They are Jesus’ struggles and perhaps they are also the struggles of the people of ancient Israel, but what has that got to do with me?
Perhaps, in answering this question, it might be helpful to consider exactly what form these temptations took for the ancient people of God.
Those of us who know our Hebrew Bibles will not have too much trouble making the connection with the first temptation – the struggle for food.
The first thing we are told about Jesus’ experience in the desert is that He was hungry – indeed, that after forty days without food “He was famished” (Luke 4:2). The ancient Israelites struggled with the issue of hunger in their wilderness wandering too. Indeed, in Exodus 16 we read them complaining to Moses:
“If only the Lord had killed us back in Egypt. … There we sat around pots filled with meat and ate all the bread we wanted. But now you have brought us into this wilderness to starve us all to death.” (Exodus 16:3)
The response, you may remember, is that God miraculously provides the people with manna from Heaven – some strange sort of flaky bread that formed on the ground – and when they complained that there was no meat to go with the bread, God sent them quails that were apparently very easy to catch and make a meal of.
This is the greater context of both Jesus’ struggle with hunger and of the devil’s first temptation – that Jesus might turn the stones into bread. Jesus’ response – that a person ‘does not live by bread alone’ might not seem to be directly related to the story of Israel, the manna and the quails, but He’s actually quoting Deuteronomy 8:3:
“He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
The temptation Jesus faces here is simply to trust that God will provide. Jesus faces this temptation – a test that his people had failed to pass – and He deals with it.
The second temptation Jesus faces involves the taking of power over the world, and it might seem, at first glance, that it’s a shame Jesus didn’t accept this devil’s offer. After all, would not Jesus have made the perfect ruler of the world?
The proviso though is that Jesus ‘bow down’ to the devil in order to take power, which is exactly what politicians always seem to do whenever they take power.
It is remarkable, I think, how many politicians with (what seem to be) noble ideals somehow lose all of those ideals once they take office. It seems that the very process of adopting institutional authority destroys the person who takes it.
We are familiar with Lord Acton’s dictum – that “all power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” – and we know from the Gospel accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus that He was constantly dodging the expectations of His followers who were always waiting for him to make a grab for political power.
Jesus says, “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Whatever power Jesus is going to wield is not going to require Him to bow down to the devil in order to get it.
Of course, when we look at the history of the people of Israel, we see that they got just as caught up in the political power-struggles of their day as did their neighbours. The history of the people of ancient Israel is filled with violence and corruption and political intrigue, and, combined with their failure to trust in the provision of the Almighty, the final result could only be death and conquest and exile.
This is the story of the greater Biblical drama. Israel’s lust for power and lack of trust in their creator led them into captivity where they waited for God to send someone to set things right again – someone who would succeed where they had failed.
This is the Jesus we see here in Luke chapter four, struggling with the devil in the wilderness. It’s not Jesus, our model – showing us how to deal with temptation. It’s Jesus, our representative –get things right on behalf of the people of God so that we can get the process of the redemption of the world back on track.
A quick word about the final temptation, where Jesus is encouraged to throw Himself from the pinnacle of the temple, trusting that God will make sure He doesn’t get hurt. This is such an odd temptation, as it seems to run in direct opposition to the first one.
In the first temptation, the devil tells Jesus to take care of Himself instead of trusting that God will provide. This time He’s challenged not to take care of Himself but to leave it to God, which also seems to be a problem. How do we make sense of this?
I think there can be a fine line between genuine faith – that God will provide for our needs – and fatuous optimism – that whatever we do, God will always be there to look after us. That seems to be the way Jesus interprets this temptation – that He’s being asked to presume upon the grace of God, presuming upon His special status.
Jesus’ response is again from the book of Deuteronomy (6:16), though I won’t bother tracing the way the Israelites presumed upon their special status as God’s chosen people, as I’m all too familiar with the way this operates in the church!
You don’t have to be an expert in church history or even to have visited a session of the Sydney Synod to have seen religious presumption and arrogance at work. We assume that we have all the answers, and we consider ourselves to be the special people of God, chosen to bring God’s sacred message to the world, and so we assume our positions of moral authority from which we make our proclamations, and we expect the rest of the world to take us seriously.
In many ways these terrible child-abuse scandals that we, the church, are now being forced to face up to, are the consequence of our presumption. We put the Lord to the test, blithely assuming that all would be well and that we – God’s special people – would be divinely protected. We haven’t been.
And so perhaps there is something of a model for us in these temptations of Jesus – not so much for us as individuals, struggling with our addictions to alcohol and chocolate, but for us as the people of God in 21st century Sydney, struggling to be relevant and authentic witnesses to the grace of God in the cross of Christ.
The temptations Jesus faced were uniquely His, and yet they mirrored the historic struggles of the people of God of old and, in many ways, they mirror the struggles we face as the church of God in the 21st century.
We want to make an impact. We want to change the world. Like the people of God of old, we want to see God’s Kingdom come. Let us take time this Lent to reflect on the way Jesus did that – the way He inaugurated that Kingdom – not through political power and violence, and not through arrogant proclamations given from on high, but with humility and trust, and with a constant willingness to go the way of suffering.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 10th of March, 2019.