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The First Sunday of Lent
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:9-16; Romans 10:4-13; Luke 4:1-13
It is an abrupt and dramatic beginning to this episode in the ministry of Jesus. In order to understand it, we need to be attentive to the context surrounding it, particularly the previous passage. In Luke 3:21-22, we are told of the baptism of Jesus, followed by a list of his ancestors, leading to this passage.
The baptism of Jesus marks his ascending to the role as Messiah, King, and High Priest. It was an anointing, a commissioning, an establishment of rule. The baptism of Jesus, confirmed by the voice of the Father and the descent of the Holy Spirit unto Christ, launches the Kingdom of God through the work of Christ into the world. And therefore, it is appropriate that it is followed by the testing of Jesus through temptation. While Jesus was by nature already worthy of rule, that worthiness was to be demonstrated to the world, not by grasping power, but by abdicating it.
What great hero does not have their temptation, their struggle, their challenge to overcome? Both in history and in literature, this is a pattern that repeats down the ages. So much so that it was immortalized by Joseph Campbell in his description of the “Hero’s Journey”: A person begins their journey, their transformation begins, they face struggles, have a death and rebirth (whether literal or figurative), are transformed, and return home. This is Luke Skywalker, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, Jane Eyre, Paul Atreides, and so many others. The transformation of the hero is confirmed by their persistence through temptation and struggle.
Prepared by fasting and reliance on God, Jesus faces Satan, the Adversary, fallen angel and ruler of the world. He is offered first that which is our most basic human need, our most animalistic impulse: Hunger. Make these stones bread if you’re hungry! Jesus says “man does not live by bread alone.”
He doesn’t need to perform a miracle to eat. He is not a slave to his bodily needs, and he is not going to use his power just to satisfy his hunger. He refuses, in other words, to be enslaved to his need to possess anything, including food. All possessions can be lost and taken away, all the things that we think we need to live and be happy. All of it. And if it were, what would you have left? What would you honestly say? Jesus says, I would have God.
It then moves from this simple thing, without any real buildup, to the temptation of power. “See,” Satan says, “I rule the world. Would you like it? All you must do is worship me.” There is a lot I could say here, about the state of the world, about those who wage war, those who seek power even in our own society. How many of the people we laud or support in power have, effectively, sold themselves to evil for power? We should not assume that a declaration of good intentions means people actually are.
“You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.” Don’t let this slip by. If you worship and serve only the Lord, you most assuredly will have opportunities to reject power and influence that you might otherwise have taken. The temptation to power is great, and yet to follow the Lord Jesus Christ who is humility embodied is to reject worldly power. We have lost this, we have missed it, and the Church today has too often brokered with power, thinking it could use it and stay clean. But it can’t, and it never could. To pretend otherwise is a clever distortion of the Scriptures, which utterly reject the pursuit of power for personal gain. You either worship God through rejecting the selfish pursuit of power, or you worship someone else.
And then we come to the temple, to the top, where he is told to cast himself forth so that his divine favor may be proved by the protection of angels. And Jesus says no, because it would be tempting God. What is the temptation here? Prestige. Show off your importance, the devil says. Impress us all by how much God loves you. I imagine here, though, Jesus looking at the devil quizzically, as if to say “how could you so utterly misunderstand the point?” That might prove God’s love, but not as much as what would come: the resurrection of Christ, achieved through death, and being placed at the Father’s right hand. That is a demonstration of love that achieves something, not just for Jesus, but for all people.
This may be one of the most difficult for us to reject. How often have we said “prove you love me God, by giving me X!” I think this is often why I am uncomfortable when people who just had something really good happen go “I’m so blessed!” I want to ask, were you not before? Is God’s love something so feeble and bland that material possessions are what prove it? Have you considered that the thing you were just given might be a form of testing, a temptation, even something that might keep you from the love of God?
God proved his love already. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that all who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” The very fact of the existence of Jesus, the Divine Word self-lowering to become human, his temptations, his suffering sacrifice, his victory over death. That is the demonstration of God’s love.
The trial thus ends. The temptations are conquered, and who among us would have passed on the offer of possessions, power, and prestige? But that isn’t the point of the story. The point is that we, who do struggle with our desires for these things, our selfish impulses that make us hate other people, that cause us to divide like those Paul addresses in Romans 10. These things divide us, but despite our failures, God in Jesus Christ, truly human, gutted the power of these desires over us by saying “no.” He was able to achieve victory over sin and death not by grasping these things, but by rejecting them.
So the lesson for us is, as we are tempted to pursue these things for our own selfish gain, is to do as Christ did. To hold a possession…and let it go; to face power…but rest in our weakness; to see a path to prestige…and embrace humility. The work of Christ was for us to achieve our salvation, but that does not mean that we then live however we want. The life and work of Jesus Christ achieved our salvation, so that we too could break the patterns of selfish ambition and violent division. He who is the king established us as a kingdom, so that the world looks on as it rages and knows we are the one people that it cannot crush, and that refuses to play by its rules. Because while the world rages, even though we die, we know God will raise all to life again, and no victory of war or wealth or reputation can ever take that from us or gain it for itself.
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