Lent I: Temptation
I wanted to begin today by thanking everyone who could join us this past week for our Ash Wednesday Service. It’s a helpful time to get us into the spirit of Lent—for self-reflection and preparation as we begin the 40 day journey we will embark on together until our Easter Celebration. This being the first Sunday of Lent, I wanted to announce that this begins the first part of a mini Lenten sermon series I am calling WDJD. Now, that might seem like a strange title for a sermon series, but I was thinking back to those bracelets that we used to wear as kids, perhaps some of us even as adults, does anyone remember these? The WWJD or “what would Jesus do” bracelets?
When I was younger, our church would provide us with these bracelets, with the letters WWJD emblazoned on the front. They were meant to encourage us throughout our day to try and imagine what Jesus might do if he were in our shoes. If we were confronted by a difficult situation—all we had to ask was "what would Jesus do?" If we really wanted to relax instead of finishing our homework—what would Jesus do? Perhaps someone was making us angry and we wanted to use that bad word—but what would Jesus do? Now I really think this was probably just a good way to guilt trip our young Christian children into behaving when their parents weren’t around, but despite my skepticism, the message at its heart is trying to be a good one.
The interesting thing I find about the phrase "what would Jesus do", is the fact that, in reality, we have four Gospel accounts of Jesus in our Bible. With so much material, we don’t really need to imagine what Jesus would do because we know what Jesus did for many years of his life. Therefore this series isn’t entitled WWJD, or what would Jesus do, but WDJD, “what did Jesus do”. That’s right, for the next five weeks, we will be looking at the practical, at 5 important moments in Jesus’ life and ministry and seeing how his actions speak directly into our lives. Some of the stories are the most well-known of Christ’s life and other’s take a little bit more digging, but they are all so worthwhile.
Our first part then begins with the very inspiration of our Lenten practice—with Christ’s temptation in the wilderness for 40 days. We do not know all of the details or Jesus’ reasoning for his desert exclusion, besides that he was full of the Holy Spirit and was led into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil. We are told that he fasted for these 40 days and was famished (as one would be going without food for that long).
The role of the devil is interesting here. He is only mentioned a dozen or so times through our biblical texts but I am sure just by saying that word that I’ve conjured an image of a red, sinister man, with pointed tail and pitchfork. Our images of diabolou, as it is said in Greek, have been many and varied through the history of the Christian tradition. Although most often depicted as a figure of a man, the devil has been portrayed as many things, as evil and plague and sickness and death. We owe quite of bit of our imagery to famous paintings from the past and in particular, Dante Alighieri's depictions from Inferno, the first part of the Divine Comedy. We will come back to this image, but I want to invite you to try and forget everything you imagine when you hear this word devil.
When we think of temptation, we may think of the small voice in our head or our desire to do something bad. The challenge then becomes, in our own lives, to resist this temptation and hopefully live in a way that is pleasing to God. But if we really look at our story here, Christ’s temptation in the wilderness is not so much about him doing bad things, the temptations function more as tests to see how Christ will respond. They
come to us in three parts and I’m indebted to New Testament scholar Sharon Ringe for this analysis.
The first, is the challenge to turn a stone into bread. The temptation of hunger must have been strong, but Christ knew that to turn that stone would not only misuse his ability, but it would call him to take up the mantle of Moses, to assume an identity that he was not meant to take. Feeding the hungry, although a vital part of Jesus’ mission, could not solely define what he would go on to do.
The second challenge, perhaps the most audacious of them all, is Satan’s invitation to be ruler of all the earthly kingdoms, if Christ would only worship him. We must remember that the people of the time were under heavy Roman occupation and were hoping, waiting for a savior to come as the next Jewish monarch, the next king of Israel. Here we see the temptation for power. For Christ, the temptation to give the people what they truly wanted, the next warrior king, the next Messiah. Jesus’ reply is simple “Worship the Lord your God”. His reply is to not only to put trust in God, but that to buy into the game of human politics would lead to nowhere—that ultimately God is in control. He was destined for greater things.
Christ’s final test takes place at the temple of Jerusalem, the pinnacle of the holy of holies. This is where Christ will do his greatest ministry and where the church will eventually begin. Jesus has an opportune moment to prove his divinity, to show all of Jerusalem that truly, he is the Son of God and has appeared as the true High Priest. Yet what is Christ’s reply? “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” And he sends the devil away. Christ’s way was not through coercion, not dramatic scenes of grandeur, but through humble sacrifice.
The opportune time that the last verse speaks of is when we later see Jesus beginning the events that would start the passion. These temptations are recounted in the later chapters and we see something amazing, as Sharon Ringe points out “Though Jesus refused to turn stones into bread, he does feed the hungry. Though he refused political power, the proclamation of God’s empire of justice and peace is the focus of his preaching and teaching. Though he refused to jump off the temple to see if God would send angels to catch him, he goes to the cross in confidence that God’s will for life will trump the world’s decision to execute him.” He prevails, every time.
Perhaps you’ve read this story before and thought about the strangeness of it, perhaps you’ve wondered why God allowed Jesus to be tempted by the devil in the fist place. But what happens when we shift our focus to, instead of what Jesus didn’t do, to what Jesus would then go on to do. What if we turn inward to our own lives and our ability to recognize evil for what it is and instead of focusing on the temptation, focus on what God enables us to do.
I’ll be honest this morning, I’m not buying into this devil character as being someone who can force you to do evil or has some malevolent cause to destroy the world—we have enough of that within ourselves. All you have to do is look around. We fight wars over resources, power, and status. We kill and destroy for all of those things that Jesus had at his fingertips…and yet…he persevered. We forget that as much as Jesus was divine, he was also human, and had the capacity for evil just as all human’s do. And that’s what makes his story so worthwhile, that is why we look to Christ as our guide, that is why we are able to work against evil and do all we can to inspire goodness in this world. Because Christ calls us to.
As we continue through our Lenten Season, let us remember not only Christ as the Son of God, but also as Jesus the human—a man who was tempted, someone who got angry and sad, even someone who had doubts. Let’s remember that within his humanity and because of his humanity, he was able to change the world…and so can we. We are not alone and Christ’s model stands as the foundation from which we are called to live out God’s call in our lives. Confronting the evil within our hearts and minds is not always easy, but with Christ by our side, we can overcome all things.