This was one of those weeks that preachers love to hate… It is wonderful when the spirit strikes but it sure would be nice if it didn’t wait until Saturday night.
I thought I was finished with this sermon on Thursday but on Saturday it was broken open, maybe even shattered, by a sudden insight and inspiration. I went to bed thinking I had it under control and ready to go but on Sunday morning the revelation continued. I was still struggling to put all the pieces together when I delivered it at the 8 am service. It went a little more smoothly at the 10:30 service but was still evolving.
This text is a further refinement of the recording of the sermon I delivered at the 10:30 service on February 14th, the first Sunday in Lent 2016 at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin.
It is built on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.
You can find those readings here.
“After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil” (Luke 4:1).
“Full of the Holy Spirit.” Just imagine how full he was! He goes to the river Jordan where he is baptized. And the Holy Spirit descends upon him in bodily form like a dove; and he hears these words,
“You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).
If that’s not enough to fill you with the Holy Spirit I don’t know what is! So here is, glowing, absolutely glowing with the Holy Spirit and he walks into the wilderness where the devil is waiting for him. Now this probably presents somewhat of a problem for the devil. You can’t have the Son of God, the Beloved, the one with whom God is well pleased wandering around so full of himself. And so the devil steps in to try and take care of this difficulty.
Luke tells us that Jesus is out there for 40 days being tempted by the devil but then Luke says,
He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished (Luke 4:2).
He hasn’t eaten for forty days and then the devil shows up to tempt them with these three questions. So he’s vulnerable. He’s tired, hungry. He’s famished. If you are looking to attack someone then that’s the time to do it. Right? So the devil shows up and says,
‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread’ (Luke 4:3).
And Jesus says
‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone” ’ (Luke 4:4).
And the devil has to move on to plan B…
It seems in this first exchange there is a temptation and there is a response tells the devil that this line of attack isn’t going to work.
What is the temptation? It’s hard to figure that out. Is the devil saying “Display your magical powers. Subvert the laws of nature and change the stone into bread?” Is the devil saying, “Feed yourself. I know you’re famished. You are hungry. If you are the Son of God you can do it. God wouldn’t want you to suffer… Take care of yourself. Just wave your hands and meet your own needs…”
I think we find our answer about the temptation in Jesus’s response.
“It is written ‘One does not live by bread alone…’” (Luke 4:4).
That’s what we hear, but it’s almost like Jesus is speaking in shorthand. Jesus has only quoted half of a verse from the book of Deuteronomy here. His listeners, Luke’s audience would have know how to complete that sentence…
“One does not live by bread alone, but from every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3).
So how does this shed light on the devil’s temptation? Think about this for a minute…
Jesus has been to the river Jordan and he’s received this “word,” “You are my Son the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
In that moment his identity, and his vocation, his “belovedness” is established… And the devil, and the word devil, by the way, means “the slanderer” or “false accuser,” is trying to undermine that sense, that understanding, that identity that Jesus has received in that word.
So he says, “prove it!” “Prove it”? The devil knows who Jesus is! The devil doesn’t need any proof! What the devil is doing, what the slanderer, the accuser is doing in this moment, is trying to sow some doubt. “If you really are… prove it to yourself… that you are the Son of God.”
Jesus responds, “I don’t need to do that because I am fed, I live on the word of God which I just received in my baptism. My identity is secure. I know that I am beloved.
So the devil tries again… Oh, okay don’t really believe it huh? Not willing to change this stone to bread…” still trying to sow that doubt… “because I tell you what. Let me give you something more concrete… Worship me and I will give you all of this, authority over all the world.”
Jesus response to him
“It is written, ’Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’” (Luke 4:8).
Again, Jesus answers with a quote from the book of Deuteronomy. This time it’s from chapter 6 where Moses is speaking to the people of Israel, giving them God’s instructions. He tells them “once you arrive in the promised land, the land of Cana, remember who brought you and don’t go after other gods, the gods of the people who live there. But worship only the Lord your God.
Jesus recognizes what’s happening. The devil is asking him to redefine himself, not as God, not as God’s beloved, but as the slanderer’s, the accuser’s, as one who belongs to the devil. Jesus declines.
One more time the devil attempts to tempt Jesus. He takes him to the highest tower on the Temple and says, “Throw yourself off. If you are who you say you are… prove it prove it to me and prove it to yourself.”
Once again Jesus quotes the book of Deuteronomy chapter 6.
“It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Luke 4:12).
Jesus is speaking in shorthand again. This is only half the verse and while the rest of the story might not come immediately to mind for us today, it certainly would have for Jesus’ followers or Luke’s audience. The full line from Deuteronomy reads:
“Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah” (Deuteronomy 6:16).
“Massah”? Jesus’ followers and Luke’s audience would have known this reference right away. This time we are directed to the book of Exodus. Moses is leading the people in the wilderness and they are ready to stone him because there is no water. He strikes the rock with his staff, water comes out and,
“He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not’” (Exodus 17:7)?
There in the desert, in the wilderness, the people of Israel were asking, “are we really beloved of God? Is God really here with us in the wilderness?”
Jesus’s response to the devil is saying, “don’t put the Lord your God to the test in the wilderness by demanding evidence that he is there with you and that you are beloved.”
Well the devil apparently understands the Old Testament Scriptures, the Scriptures of the people of Israel, because this response does him in, and he leaves until an opportune time.
Jesus makes his way into the wilderness full of the Holy Spirit and he survives this time in the wilderness, these temptations, this trial, by refusing to let go of the word that he received in his baptism, by refusing to let go of his identity, by refusing to relinquish the truth that he is the Beloved, the Son of God with whom God is well pleased. He goes into the wilderness “full of the Holy Spirit.” Luke tells us that he comes out of the wilderness
“…filled with the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14).
During that trial, his time of testing and temptation in the wilderness, by claiming his identity and refusing to let it go, Jesus grows.
Every year on the first Sunday of Lent we hear this story of Jesus in the wilderness. In this season we are called to a time of self reflection and examination. Lent is a time when we are asked to look within ourselves for the places, the times, and the ways in which we distance ourselves from the God who loves us, and from the God with whom we long to be in relationship. Every year during this season we are asked to do this difficult work so that when we arrive at Easter we might start again, setting aside some of the barriers that are of our own making and, come even closer to the God who loves us.
The wilderness is a dangerous place because when you’re in the wilderness the slanderer, the accuser is always close at hand, ready to try and steal away from you what you know, the word given you at your baptism.
A couple of weeks ago, when we celebrated the feast of the Baptism of our Lord we rejoiced in the fact that we participate in Jesus’s baptism and that the words spoken to him are also spoken to us. When mother Dorota and I, at the peace, walked up and down the aisles with those branches and splashed water on people and said, “You are beloved. You are beloved,” everyone in this room was glowing, full of the Holy Spirit. That truth and that identity is something that fills us up and can light the whole world.
Here in the wilderness, when we’re examining the places where we’ve fallen short, the accuser will be standing there on our shoulder whispering, “Really? Prove it! Prove it!” The accuser will be trying to sow doubt, trying to get us to relax our grip on that truth, in that identity, in that word; trying to steal it away from us… But maybe… maybe stealing is the wrong verb. That word on which we live, that feeds us in the wilderness can’t be taken from us unless we open our hands and let it go. So maybe the accuser, the slanderer is trying to trick us into giving it away! Here in the wilderness we need to remember who we are whose we are.
Last week I stood in this place and I invited us to add one practice to the practices suggested in the Invitation to the Observance of Holy Lent found in our Ash Wednesday liturgy. I suggested that this might be a good season for us all to listen, to work really hard to quiet the internal noise, to separate ourselves from the noise around us, and to sit quietly, attentively, patiently waiting for what God has to say to us. That is the way to be with Jesus in the wilderness; vulnerable, open, and ready to hear. But we need to make sure that we remember who we are in case the accuser starts to whisper his little nothings in our ear.
So here’s a way to safeguard yourself, to prepare yourself for that listening. Whether you’re sitting in the perfect chair with the speakers positioned exactly right so you can hear the music that God is playing… Whether you’re sitting somewhere else trying to quiet the noise… Do this first.
Take a deep breath in, and while you breathe in pray, “I am a beloved child of God.” Then as you let that breath out, let your body relax. Feel the tension drain from your shoulders and your neck. Feel yourself sink into that truth; “I am a beloved child of God.” Feel yourself relaxing into the embrace of the God who loves you.
Any time in this season when we’re doing this holy work, this work of self reflection and examination, when the accuser rears his ugly head and begins to whisper in our ear that we are unworthy, that we are unlovable, take that deep breath again. Claim the word, the identity, given to you at your baptism. Cling to it. Because if we can do that we will come out on the other side of this wilderness, into the light of Easter, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, having grown in the love of God.