Today is the first Sunday of Lent, a time when we turn our hearts and minds toward a period of reflection. In the church, the period of Lent lasts for forty days, which doesn’t include Sundays, leading up to our celebration of Easter which will be March 27th this year. The first text of the Lenten season is always the temptation of Christ which gives us an opportunity to reflect on our own experiences of temptation, as well as our own sinful nature.
While the story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness is one we have heard many times and are quite familiar with, it seems to have something new to teach us each year. This year of course, we are reading in the gospel of Luke. As with the other gospels, in Luke Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit out into the wilderness immediately following his baptism in the river Jordan.
Jesus has been baptized by John, he has witnessed the Holy Spirit descending on him in the bodily form of a dove, and he has heard a voice from the heavens. God has spoken and declared that Jesus is God’s beloved Son, and that God is pleased with him. The moment of baptism is the moment Jesus is anointed to begin his ministry, but before he does that he needs to determine what his ministry will be. That is what the time in the wilderness is all about.
Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness during this season of self discovery. The period of forty days is meant to evoke a remembrance of the Israelite’s period of wandering in the desert, forty years. It is also the reason that our own season of Lent lasts forty days, a reflection of this time Jesus spent in the wilderness. The wilderness itself is a common place for struggle as well as for growth and insight. Both of which will be a part of Jesus’ experience, and both of which may play a part in our own individual Lenten journeys.
The author of Luke tell us that for forty days Jesus was in the wilderness and was tempted by the devil. We will see that all of the temptations that Jesus faced hold a personal draw to him as an individual, and are also significant to his upcoming role as the Messiah. During this time Jesus not only is learning what kind of man he is, he is learning what kind of Messiah he will be.
The first temptation seems pretty straightforward. Jesus fasted during the whole forty days and at the end of the period of fasting he was very hungry. The devil spots a weakness and sees a chance for attack, inviting Jesus to turn stones into bread. The personal temptation is clear, Jesus is hungry and this little miracle would assuage his hunger. The big picture Messiah temptation is also clear, for if Jesus can turn a few stones into bread for himself, than he can turn every rock in Israel into bread and no one would ever go hungry again.
Jesus determines that this is not a proper use of his power and authority. He also seems to determine that though feeding the people would be a blessing, that is not the reason he has been sent as the Messiah. To turn the devil away he quotes scripture, “One does not live by bread alone.”
At the root of this temptation we find the devil presenting wants as needs. This is a very real temptation that most of us face every day. Think of the way media, advertising, peer pressure, and the sheer world we live in are always presenting wants as needs. When you really try to separate the two in your life it can be very confusing. Do I want a second car or do I need one? Do I want a new TV or do I need one? Do I want another pair of shoes or do I need them? I may want those things but I probably don’t need them.
So what exactly are my needs? It can be hard to define in our American culture. That is why I find travel outside the western world to be so helpful in getting perspective. Only after visiting Africa did I realize that I wanted things like a big home, TV, and electricity. By contrast I discovered that the only thing I really needed was clean water.
The devil is presenting wants as needs. How often do you face this in your own life? In what way are the things you supposedly need, really just things you want? It is a good question to reflect on during the season of Lent.
For Jesus’ second temptation, the devil shows him all the kingdoms of the world. The devil promises to give them over to Jesus, if Jesus will but submit to the devil one time. The personal temptation for Jesus is to have all that power. The Messiah temptation is to bring about the kingdom of God by ruling the kingdoms of man. Again, Jesus refutes the devil with scripture, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”
Here we find that the devil is presenting lies as truth. The devil claims to have control over the kingdoms of the world, but he does not. It is tricky because in the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire was oppressing what would have been the known world. It would certainly seem as if the devil was in control. Just as it may seem at times that the devil is in control of our world. But he is not. He wasn’t in the time of Christ and he is not now. The devil is presenting lies as truth.
One doesn’t have to look far in the world today to find folks presenting lies as truth. It is all over the presidential campaign on every side. We hear it in campaign promises that cannot be kept like building a giant wall between the US and Mexico, like exporting all illegal immigrants, and like free college education for every person. The ideas may be good ones, but they are not promises that can really be kept. They are lies being presented as truth. The same is true in the things candidates say about each other, about immigrants, about refugees, and even about their own pasts. They are offering us lies being presented as truth.
Like Jesus, we are often tempted to believe lies that are presented as truth. More often than not, they are things that we want to believe. This Lenten season, a good practice for us would be to really look for truth in our world. This is a great time to study all the facts, and to weed out lies on both sides of the political campaigns. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
For the third temptation, the devil takes Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple. This time the devil quotes scripture about God’s promise to protect God’s people. You may recognize this from our Psalm reading for this morning. The temptation for Jesus is to prove that he is the Son of God, to himself and to others. He is tempted to prove his beloved status as declared at his baptism. The temptation to the role of Messiah is to win the people over with amazing signs and wonders. Nothing will catch people’s attention like legions of angels catching Jesus in the temple square. Again, though, Jesus is able to reject the temptation, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
In this last one, the devil is encouraging Jesus to do just that, to test God. The temptation here is the belief that God must earn our faith. God must do something for us, and only then will we believe in God. Just like the others, this is a very real temptation in our own lives. We see this in our natural desire to bargain with God. If you do this for me, than I will believe in you forever. If you heal my friend of cancer, I will be a better Christian. If you make my child a believer, than I will devote my life to your service. If you prove yourself to me God, then I will believe in you.
Must God earn our faith through signs and wonders, or is it something we are simply able to offer as a matter of obedience to the divine? This is another good question for the season of Lent.
The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is a wonderful start for our own Lenten journey. For forty days Jesus was tested. It was a time of reflection and a time of spiritual growth. When it was over, the devil left him until another opportunity should present itself.
We too, are entering a forty day period of reflection and growth. Like Jesus we will face many temptations to turn away from God during this time. We will face wants being presented as needs, we will face lies being presented as truth, and we will face the desire to ask God to earn our faith through signs and wonders. The season of Lent is a time to be intentional about our actions. It is a time to fully reflect on the ways our world tries to lead us astray and to return to the Lord over and over again. May God give us courage and strength, as we too face temptations in the wilderness of our world. Amen.