Good morning, Friends!
Christmas has been over for a long time now. Valentine’s Day is history, today we changed our clocks, St. Patrick’s Day is next week. What’s left?
Easter, of course! Easter is just six weeks away. It’s the biggest holiday of the whole Christian year.
Many churches celebrate the Easter season each year, which is called Lent. The word “Lent” comes from the ancient English word lencten, which means “springtime”. Lent starts this week, and it always takes place during the spring of the year.
Easter is what the church calls a movable feast. That means that the date of Easter changes every year. Have you ever noticed that? It’s based on the Jewish holiday of Passover, because Jesus was executed just before the Passover feast.
Do you remember what Passover celebrates? It celebrates the freedom of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. God set the whole nation free, all at once.
God also delivered them from being recaptured and re-enslaved. God completely destroyed the army that had been sent to re-enslave them. God said, “The enemies you see today, you will never see again.”
In a way, it’s a kind of a parallel. At Passover, God set people free from physical slavery. They didn’t have to live their whole lives as slaves any more, and they didn’t have to die as slaves. At Easter, Jesus set people free from slavery to sin and death. Both holidays are about freedom.
Passover is a big deal. The people of Israel had to spend forty years re-learning how to be a free people, how to follow God every day and how to get along with each other. They had a lot of adventures along the way, and they made a lot of mistakes. But eventually, they made it home again, back to the Promised Land, and they always remembered Passover, down to this very day.
Passover actually isn’t a calendar date — it’s based on the moon. If you want to get technical, Passover (or Easter) is the first Sabbath after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Easter can happen any time between March 22nd and April 25th. This year Easter’s going to be on April 21st, so that’s almost as late as it can ever be.
Long story short – a couple of thousand years ago, Christians started getting ready for Easter by creating the season of Lent, which is six weeks or 40 days before the holiday.
This morning’s Scripture reading is a traditional one for the beginning of Lent. Lots of other Christian churches, all around the world, will all be hearing this same reading that we’re going to be reading today.
Jesus had just been immersed in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. It was an echo of the experience of crossing the Red Sea. This is what happened next.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
The devil said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”
The devil led Jesus up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
The devil led Jesus to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, o that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
When the devil had finished all this tempting, the devil left Jesus until an opportune time.– Luke 4:1-13
When Jesus went out into the wilderness, he was led there by the Holy Spirit. It was a time of listening and reflection for him. It was a time for him to be immersed in the Spirit and to be immersed in the presence of God. It was also a time for Jesus to be challenged, for him to see the dark side of power clearly, and to understand what twisting the religious impulse could lead to.
So, Jesus went into the wilderness, led by the Holy Spirit, and he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. I’ll bet he was pretty hungry afterwards.
Some Christians still fast during Lent. They’re sharing and experiencing the fast that Jesus did. Most people can’t go without food for 40 days, but even when I was a boy, many devout people gave up eating meat for Lent. Some people wanted to make it an even more personal experience, so they gave up some favorite food – a lot of people gave up chocolate, or smoking, or alcohol.
It also means that Jesus was echoing the “wilderness experience” of the people of Israel, who wandered for 40 years in the same wilderness. Any time you see that number 40 in the Bible, it’s a signal that something important is going on.
So Jesus fasted. And he prayed. He looked for vision. He waited, for the voice of God. He searched himself. And in addition to whatever moments of exaltation Jesus experienced, and aside from the beauty of the desert scenery, and the presence of God, Jesus also experienced temptation.
In this morning’s Scripture, it says that Jesus was tempted by the devil. I know some people take that literally. They take very seriously the idea that the devil, Satan, goes around tempting people, trying to break them down and destroy them.
What I want to talk about this morning, though is the actual content of Jesus’ temptations.
First, Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread. That temptation was partly aimed at Jesus’ own personal hunger. But I think it was also aimed at Jesus’ deeper desire, to feed the hungry.
Every place Jesus went, later in life, he was surrounded by hungry people. The poor and the hungry are always with us. And Jesus did feed them. He fed thousands of people at one time, with nothing more to start with than a few loaves of bread and some dried fish.
But the point of doing that, was not to impress people. The point was to draw people to God. The temptation, was for Jesus to turn the power that he had, into a sideshow attraction. It was to twist a very real power away from its real purpose.
That’s what temptation is. It’s very seldom a temptation to do evil. It’s to twist good.
“People do not live by bread alone. . .” That’s the truth. We need more than food and water. We need more than clothing and shelter. We need the Word of God. We go out into the wilderness to learn that.
We could lose our cars and our cell phones. We’d survive. We could lose all our fast food, and go back to grits and beans and greens for a while, like our grandparents did. We’d be all right. But we would still need the living Word, the word that brings life. We cannot live without God.
The point isn’t that Jesus wants anyone to go hungry. Jesus fed people, many times. And he told us to feed people, too. He told a story where he said, “Whenever you fed the hungry and gave the thirsty something to drink, even if it’s the least and lowest person you meet, you did it to Me. . .” (Matthew 25:31-46)
So, Jesus doesn’t want anyone hungry or starving. But people are hungry for more than just food. People are thirsty for more than just water.
People are hungry for the living bread, and they’re thirsty for the living water of Christ. In another place, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, for they will be filled. . .”
Maybe that’s one of the things Jesus learned, out there in the desert.
The temptation was for Jesus to misuse the power he had for his own glory. He could have turned stones into bread, and everyone would have said, “Look! Wow! He’s a miracle man!” They’d give up trying to grow their own food, and just bring Jesus piles of rocks all the time.
The point is that we need God to feed us, all the time. It’s right there in the Lord’s Prayer, where it says, “Give us this day our daily bread. . .”
Jesus once said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to Me shall not hunger, whoever believes in Me shall not thirst. . .” (John 6:35)
Physical hunger is important. It tells us we’re missing things we need to live. But spiritual hunger goes even deeper. We can have all the food in the world, and still be starving inside.
We are hungry, we are starving, not just for words out of a book, but for the living Word, the real Word, that only God can give. We don’t want fake food. We want the real thing. We won’t put up with a substitute. There’s an ancient Christian prayer that says, “You have made us, Lord, for yourself; and our hearts are restless, until they rest in You. . .”
The second temptation was different. The devil led Jesus up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
Look at what’s going on here. Again, the temptation was to twist something good, something that really existed, to a wrongful purpose.
Jesus had authority and power. He had those things, all along. But he refused to let his authority and power be twisted.
Over and over again, later in the gospels, Jesus rejected the kind of kingship which he was tempted with in the desert. He refused to be made king. He taught that in order to be the greatest, we have to become the least. He said that whoever would save their own life, must lose it. He said, “My kingdom is not of this world. . .”
In our world, power and authority often come in the form of money. Money talks. And it walks. And it gets up on the table and tap-dances. It makes things happen. And Jesus said, “You can’t worship both God and money. It has to be one, or the other. Choose. . .”
The tempter said, “You can have it all. All you need to do, is just worship me. . .” The temptation was for Jesus to become someone other than who he was, to be someone other than who God had called Jesus to be. The temptation was for Jesus deliberately to misunderstand God, and to misunderstand himself.
He was not going to be someone who craved power over other people. He was not going to be someone who beat them into believing in him. He didn’t come to force people into faith. He invited people to walk with him, and learn from him.
In another place, Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. . .” (Matthew 11:28-30)
That is the complete opposite of what Jesus was tempted to do in the desert. He was tempted to be a strong man, a ruler, a war leader. One time, Jesus was asked by his disciples, after a group of people had rejected him, whether Jesus wanted them to call down fire and brimstone from heaven to destroy them.
That’s a misunderstanding of God’s love, if ever there was one. Fire and brimstone don’t come from heaven! Jesus answered, “You don’t know what kind of spirit that is. God sent me, not to destroy people’s lives, but to save them. . .” (Luke 9:54-55)
Over and over, the lesson Jesus learned in the desert in today’s gospel, is the same lesson he taught to his friends. Jesus never wanted to rule people with violence. He wanted to rule over their hearts, instead.
In the third temptation in this morning’s story, the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem, and carried him up to the tippy-top of high tower of the Temple, and said, “Go on. Jump. I dare you. You’re such hot stuff. God cares so much about you. Jump!”
That’s one temptation I’ve ever tried. Maybe I don’t think God loves me that much. I don’t jump off temples. I don’t walk on water. I don’t even go too far out on a limb.
I’m not scared of heights, but if I go up on a really tall ladder, I wear a safety belt. And I check it before I climb. As one of my favorite older relatives used to say, “God never told nobody he had to be stupid!”
Actually, what Jesus said was, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God…”
That’s an interesting thought. Can God really be tempted, or tested? Jesus didn’t say that if he jumped, that God couldn’t save him. Presumably, if God can move mountains, if God can calm tempests, God could catch one person. That’s not the point, though. Jesus said that it was wrong to test God.
The difference between testing and trusting is kind of a subtle difference, but it’s one we’re all familiar with. It’s the difference between a child trusting their parents for everything good that they need, and a smart-aleck kid seeing just how far they can push Mom or Dad before they get angry. We all know the difference. And it’s about attitude and intention as much as anything else.
Jesus refused to test God. He just wanted to trust God.
Jesus trusted God to lead him. He trusted God to give him the right words to say, to teach people and reach out to them. Jesus trusted in God’s love, when he prayed for God to heal them, and forgive them.
Jesus never used God to get what he wanted. Instead, Jesus let God use him, so that what God wanted could come true.
Part of the reason for today’s story is to show that Jesus was tempted, too. He was the Son of God, but he was also very human. Jesus was probably tempted more times than these. As it says, “When the devil had finished all this tempting, the devil left Jesus until an opportune time. . .”
So, maybe there were more times that Jesus was tempted, that we don’t know about. Maybe even Jesus had to struggle with temptation, time and again.
What today’s story shows, is that Jesus overcame all the temptations that were thrown at him, even when he was hungry and tired and weak. He did it. And he shows us how.
Every time Jesus was tempted, he went back and found something good that God said. And he took his stand on that. God doesn’t try to trip us up. God wants to help us. And just like in today’s story, God takes us back to the most basic lessons of all.
The message of Christ is that every one of you is truly a beloved child of God. Every one of you is known, and loved. Jesus said that even the hairs of your head are numbered.
And God calls every one of us to a health, and a strength, and a life, and a joy, and a peace, that most of us have hardly even imagined.
God knows every trial that the world throws at us, as we do our best to trust and be faithful. And God calls us beyond each test, to something we can hardly even dream of.
In your tests every day – and I only know about some of them – I would ask you to hold on to that call, to that infinite promise, in your hearts.
I would invite you to discover, not just what it means to tough it out every day, but to discover the joy of faithfulness, and the freedom of simply being the person God wants you to be.
I would ask you to remember, that in every trial, that Jesus has gone before us, that God’s own Spirit is beside us, and that beyond every trial, God is waiting for us, with open arms.