There's a story that's only tangentially related to today's Gospel lesson. But I've decided to tell it anyway.
It's about a sheriff who had a vacancy on his staff. A guy in the community who wasn't exactly the brightest bulb in the pack wanted to interview and the sheriff didn't feel that he could fairly refuse to give the fellow an opportunity. So, the sheriff sat down to ask him a few questions. "What's 1 and 1?" the sheriff asked. "11," the guy replied. That wasn't the answer the sheriff was looking for, of course, but he could understand how the guy came up with it. "OK," the sheriff went on, "what are the two days of the week that begin with the letter T?" Without hesitation, the guy answered, "Today and tomorrow." Again, wrong answer, but understandable. The sheriff asked a third question: "Who killed Abraham Lincoln?" The interviewee didn't say anything for a long while. He was stumped. "I tell you what," the sheriff said. "You go home and think about that." The man left his interview and out on the sidewalk, ran into some friends. "How did the interview go?" they asked. "Great!" he answered. "It's my first day on the job and I'm already working a homicide case!"
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is really experiencing His first day on the job as the Son of God. As our lesson begins, He has just come from being baptized, where God the Father triumphantly declared Him to be the Son--the very presence of God--and the Messiah, when the Holy Spirit drives Him into the wilderness--the desert--to be tempted by the devil. In between the account of Jesus' baptism and our lesson, the gospel writer Luke inserts a genealogy that culminates with the designation of Jesus as "the Son of God."
But already during His first day as the Messiah, we find Jesus in a contest to decide whether, as God's Son, He will be faithful to the Father’s will or will go another way.
Each day of our lives, we confront the same choices Jesus faced in the wilderness: whether we’ll follow God’s will for our lives or we’ll walk away from God.
Like Jesus, we face temptations.
Interestingly, the words used in the Greek of the New Testament--peirazo or ekpeirazo--can be equally well translated as test or temptation. Like the two sides of a single coin, every temptation that comes from the devil, the world, or our sinful selves is also a test from God.
There were three major temptations that came to Jesus during His forty days in the wilderness. Each was similar to the temptations that God's people confronted in the wilderness between Egypt and the promised land during the days of Moses some 1500 years before the birth of Jesus.
Each of Jesus' temptations also reflects the major temptations that you and I face as we move through our daily lives.
The first temptation the devil sets before Jesus: Knowing that Jesus was hungry, the devil said, “Turn a stone into bread.” Out in the Old Testament wilderness, the Hebrew people had doubted that God would provide for them when they were hungry. Jesus has no such doubts. Quoting from the Old Testament, he tells the devil, “One does not live by bread alone.”
A famous third century saint, Augustine, prayed, “O Lord, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” Temptation can lead us to try to feed our hunger for the comfort and peace only God can give with other things. Jesus refused to make that mistake. That’s why He told the devil, quoting the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, “One does not live by bread alone.” We must instead rely on God alone for life!
In the second temptation, the devil challenged Jesus to worship him. If Jesus would worship him, he said, Jesus could have all the kingdoms of the world.
Truth be told, we all want to reign over our own little kingdoms. Jesus, in fact, had come into the world to take the very kingdoms that the devil offered Him in the wilderness.
But Jesus came to take them through a cross and an empty tomb, not through bowing down to evil and separating you and me from God and life forever. Jesus came to save us from sin and death. And He couldn’t do that if He only looked out for Himself.
So Jesus hung tough, telling the devil, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Turn on the television news on any given day and you see the consequences of a world caving into the temptation to put other things—especially themselves—above God.
The path to true joy is the one commended by Saint Paul in the New Testament book of Philippians:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God…humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.True living comes only to those who let God have first place in their lives.
The third temptation from the devil took place on the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, where he told Jesus to jump. The devil did a little proof-texting from the Psalms to try to convince Jesus that it was okay. (You know what proof-texting is: It's taking an isolated piece of Scripture, without taking the witness of the whole Bible into account, in order to prove something you believe or want to believe is true.) Jesus could jump, the devil said, because, in Psalm 91, God promises that his angels will spare Him harm.
But Jesus quoted Old Testament words in which God warns us not to put God to the test. It’s one thing to be pushed from great heights; it’s another to throw ourselves from them and then expect God to rescind the law of gravity to protect us from the consequences of our own stupidity.
A Lutheran pastor friend of mine once bemoaned the size of his mortgage. With a sigh he said, “My life would be so much easier if I just remembered what Saint Paul says in the Bible, ‘Owe no one anything.”
In today’s world, of course, it’s tough to own a home and not have a mortgage. But I know people who pile up massive mountains of debt and then say cheerily that they’re sure God will take care of their finances.
That’s like jumping from a building and expecting God to catch us. People make the same mistake with all sorts of sins. They like to sow their wild oats and then count on God to bring a crop failure. Jesus knew that to depend on God and His grace is not the same as expecting God to wink at our sin.
So, what does Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the wilderness teach us? Three main things, I think.
The first is captured in an incident that supposedly happened a few years ago at an Oregon middle school. Some girls there thought it was fun to put on lipstick in the rest rooms and then press their lips against the mirrors, leaving little kisses all over them. This went on for several weeks when the principal called together groups of girls in one of the rest rooms. There, she explained that the lip prints caused the custodian major problems. She then asked the custodian, who was with them, to show the girls what she meant. So, he dipped a long-handled brush into a toilet and scrubbed the lip prints away.
Temptation makes sin look attractive. But if we could just understand that when we cave into sin, we're kissing filth, we might not surrender to it so easily. Jesus knew that caving into sin would lead to an ugly alienation from God. We need to know that too.
The second thing that Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness tell us is that being tempted isn’t the same thing as sinning. Even Jesus was tempted and because He walked away from sin, going through cross and grave, He won life for us. The New Testament book of Hebrews tells us that, in Jesus, we have an advocate, “who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”
When you young people are tempted to go against the directions of your parents, when you older folks are tempted to fudge a little when working on your TurboTax, when any of us are tempted to berate someone, remember these temptations to violate God’s law of love for Him and love for neighbor aren’t sins unless we wimp out and cave into the temptations.
And thank God, when we do sin, because of Jesus Christ, the truly repentant can receive forgiveness and the power to resist temptation in the future.
The third and most important lesson we can learn from Jesus’ being tempted in the wilderness is this: At every turn, Jesus was able to resist the devil by knowing what God says in His Word, the Bible.
Jesus knew not just what the words of the Bible said. He also knew what the words of the Bible were about. That was because He spent time in God’s Word every day. It was His bread and water! As Martin Luther wrote in A Mighty Fortress is Our God, the Christian has the confidence that as the devil tempts us, “one little word”--one word from God--”subdues him.”
Fiery coach Greg Schiano has taken the Rutgers University football program from nowhere to being contenders every year. He’s tough and competitive. He’s also a deeply committed Christian. In an interview with Sports Spectrum magazine a few years ago, he said, “When I’m doing well [as a Christian and a person], it’s getting in the Word in the morning and constant prayer. When I’m not doing well, it’s ‘I’m too busy to get in the Word’ in the morning, and I go to bed at night and I haven’t talked to God all day.”
If you and I are intent on having a meaningful life and to be prepared to resist the temptation to walk away from God, the only Giver of life, we need to make our relationship with Jesus Christ our number one priority. God first; no exceptions. It only seems fair when you think about it: God has put us first, so reciprocating seems the appropriate response. When we’re focused on the God we meet in Jesus Christ, we’re empowered to live life as it’s meant to be lived!
This Lenten season, as we consider the spiritual discipline of prayer during our midweek services, I ask you to allow a daily time with God’s Word to inform your praying.
When we, like Jesus, get to know our Father and lean on His Word, we build a tower of faith in Christ and an ability to really live life that no one and nothing can tear down!