Texts: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13
The Church takes its cue from these gospel stories, setting aside this season of Lent as a time for Christians to be prepared as Jesus was. In a culture that somewhat undervalues the spiritual and the mystical in favor of the concrete and observable, we have lost some of our appreciation for the spiritual disciplines of Lent. If we fast at all, usually it is to give up small things that are relatively easy to do without, like chocolate or caffeine.
The long fast makes Jesus’ body weak, and it is in this weakened state that he faces his greatest challenges. The three temptations set before are emblematic of the temptations we face in our own lives, and his responses to those temptations are principles for us to follow as we face those temptations ourselves. It’s important to note that what the devil offers isn’t always necessarily evil, like bread. Jesus has been fasting for forty days; he’s famished, he’s weak. He needs food to survive. So, the devil simply invites him to take care of himself. “Have some food,” he says, “keep your strength up.” Isn’t that something God’s Son should do—take care of himself so he can take care of others? It’s kind of like when, on an airplane, they tell you to put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others; because if you pass out, you can’t help anybody else.
Jesus refuses to eat because his fast is an intentional discipline. He knows this fast won’t kill him, that he doesn’t need to eat right this moment. After the fast, there will be time enough for eating. To break his fast before the appointed time would be to allow his physical cravings to distract him from his deepest hunger for God.
We all face this temptation everyday—there are so many things that crowd our awareness and demand our attention that we easily forget to attend to our spiritual health along with our physical, financial, emotional and social wellbeing. Responsibilities at work, commitments at home, notifications on our devices all clamor for our time and our attention. The devil offers Jesus a chance to dull his hunger with bread, to fill his own belly instead of waiting on God to fill his soul. Sometimes fasting shows us how quickly and easily we turn to material things like food or money or other luxuries to fill ourselves and stave off the feeling of emptiness or insufficiency instead of turning to God to relieve our distress. Living with this emptiness teaches us not to be afraid of it. Going without helps us learn to see that God is with us in the emptiness and the hunger just as much as in the times of plenty and to trust God to see us through.
Jesus’ second temptation may seem like a no-brainer: as God’s Son, why would he worship anyone else? But look what the devil is offering: complete authority over all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus here has the opportunity to completely rid the world of suffering and evil, to unite every people of every nation and language in one shining, glorious kingdom free of sin and death. He could do exactly what God has sent him to do and avoid all the unpleasantness that is about to follow. He’s not just standing on principle when he refuses.
Our picture of worship is often based around the rituals that accompany it: singing praises, offering prayers, kneeling in humility. It’s hard to picture Jesus kneeling before the devil, isn’t it? But worship is not about singing or praying or kneeling—those are all things we do for ourselves to help us focus on what we worship. Worship itself is fundamentally about putting the object of our worship at the center of our lives, making that thing the organizing principle upon which we base all of our thoughts and reasoning and decisions.
The devil isn’t asking for anything so overt as Jesus to kneel before him and call him “Lord;” he merely wants Jesus to admit that he actually has the power to grant this authority, to believe him when he says that the world is his to give. In other words, he wants Jesus to admit that he is right.
We come here on Sunday and hear Jesus say things like “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies,” and “give without the expectation of being paid back,” and we say, “Yeah! That sounds pretty good!” and then we go out on Monday and live life like we always have. We repay evil for evil; we hate those who hate us; we expect a good return on our investments. Our economy turns on debt and interest, and our criminal justice system is designed for retribution, not restoration. The world doesn’t work the way Jesus says, and so every day we are forced to choose: who will we worship—God, or the Ruler of this age?
With his response, Jesus affirms that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Ps 24.1); it is not the devil’s to give. In other words, playing by the rules of the world—economically, politically, socially—might get us ahead in the short run, but ultimately the only way to see heaven on earth is to worship God and God alone; to follow God’s path to salvation—not our own or anyone else’s. We cannot set aside our Christian principles in order to gain worldly power, success or even safety, because to do so is to worship the devil as the true ruler of the world. Instead, we are called to faithfully follow and bear witness to the way of Christ and trust in God and God’s kingdom to sustain us. This is what God taught the Israelites the wilderness, and it is what Jesus’ time of fasting and temptation prepared him for in his own ministry.
In his third temptation, the devil, knowing that Jesus can quote scripture, quotes it back: “You have this promise in scripture, let’s test it out. Have God give you a sign of God’s faithfulness.” Jesus doesn’t need a sign, though, because his sign is already in the scriptures themselves: throughout history, God has already cared for and sustained God’s people; God has always been working for healing and reconciliation. The signs are right there in the story of God’s people.
But this temptation is not just about refusing to test God. It is also about presuming to tell God how to act, to coerce God into doing something for us by trying to entrap God in a technicality. It’s about bargaining with God; “If I do this, you have to do that.” It’s about believing that we have God figured out.
It’s also a foreshadowing of what will happen at the end of this story. The devil doesn’t give up that easily, and we are told he is biding his time, waiting for the opportune moment. When Jesus does eventually get to Jerusalem, he faces this temptation again. Three times he is tempted: “He saved others; if he is the Messiah, let him save himself!” (22.35) “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (22.37) “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (22.39)
In the wilderness, during this last temptation, it becomes clear that the life to which God is calling Jesus is going to get him killed. There is no escaping it. And yet, he continues to trust in that calling, to trust that God’s way is the only way. Coming to peace with this truth may be part of what prepares him for his ministry.
In each of these temptations, we see Jesus trust God above all else, even when he knows it will cost him his life. We, too, are called to trust that God does, in fact, know what God is doing; that God is the one who satisfies our needs and who is the only thing worth of our worship. The signs of God’s faithfulness are all around us; although there are many things in the world that distract us from those signs, they are there for us to see and hear, to taste and eat.
During the season of Lent, we are invited to follow Jesus into the wilderness, and to face these questions of trust alongside him. Lent is a time of preparation for us as much as the 40 days in the wilderness were for him. It is an opportunity for us to set aside, for a time, our physical needs—through fasting, prayer, generosity, or some other spiritual practice—and focus on our deepest hunger: our hunger for God. In the wilderness, Jesus found that God was the only one who could see him through what was to come. It is good for us, also, to take time to learn to trust that God will provide for us, too.