Last Wednesday began the season of Lent for the church. On that night at the Ash Wednesday worship I spoke about the exercises we need to engage in this Lenten time. I mentioned the notion of fitness we all need to embark upon at the following levels, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. During this year’s time of Lent, I am going to invite us to consider what exercising these parts of lives means, and what it means to be fit. On this first Sunday of Lent, I would like to spend some time considering spiritual fitness. This gospel passage seems relevant to the conversation of spiritual exercise and application.
When we look in the NRSV version of the Gospel of Luke passage today, the title of the reading is the Temptation of Jesus. This is an appropriate title for this week’s Gospel reading. The devil tempted Jesus to go for “domestic security;” to stave off hunger with a little bread; secure the glory of political leadership, perhaps even while securing the borders; and demonstrate trust in God with a stunt at the Jerusalem temple. The problem, though, is that the word “temptation” makes it sound like Jesus is being prompted to do something inherently evil. And yet, there’s nothing wrong with seeking bread when you’re starving, or serving as leader of a people, or trusting God to take care of you in a life or death situation.
Probably a better title for this episode, then, is “The Testing of Jesus.” The Greek word can mean either — tempt or test — but for today’s consideration, I believe test is a better word because of the following: The encounter that pitted Jesus against the devil was a sort of “cosmic spiritual assessment” to check out his competence for God’s call. This time in the wilderness was a measuring stick to the spiritual ability of Jesus.
Clearly, Jesus had the credentials: He had been declared God’s son. And Jesus had the authority: this passage tells us he was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. But these credentials can be viewed as words. These things have been stated in Holy Scriptures, but what is backing up these words. Where are the actions of Jesus to back up these words? Is he following God’s call? Was he living most fully into his identity as God’s chosen Son? The encounter in the wilderness was a test. A test to see if Jesus was spiritually ready to get on with his ministry.
The scene was set along with the timeline: forty days in the wilderness. Forty, the same number of days that Noah and his family waited out the flood. Forty, the number of days Moses fasted on Mt Sinai as he wrote down the words of God’s covenant. Forty the number of days given to Ninevah to repent and change their spiritual lives. Forty, the number of years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, tested by God in preparation for their arrival in the Promised Land. Forty, the number of days of this season of Lent as we journey with Jesus toward the cross. Whether Forty years or forty days… Forty has a specific meaning: a time of waiting; fasting; preparing; testing. And in the case of Jesus , it all occurred in the wilderness.
Jesus had not stumbled into the wilderness accidentally, as if he’s lost due to faulty Mapquest directions or GPS, or something led his astray. With the words of the Gospel of Luke, we get the sense that the Holy Spirit “was leading him” there. Intentionally. On purpose! The Holy Spirit, in all her wisdom, led Jesus to this place for the preparation for ministry.
In this scene there were two major characters: Diabolos, otherwise known as the Devil, and Jesus, otherwise known as the Christ.
And with this exchange that happens between Jesus and the devil, we can recognize their knowledge of scripture and the holy word that had been passed down orally over the years. Their debate was located squarely within statements we can today find in the written Bible. And so the testing began.
The First question was essentially: Will Jesus perform a miracle on his own behalf? “Since you are the Son of God,” the Devil said, “command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” He might have gone on: “You’re hungry. You haven’t eaten in more than a month. You’re the Christ, for heaven’s sake, why not just do a little miracle here, and get on with it?” Jesus responded with a quote from Deuteronomy, recounting the Israelites who grumbled about their lack of food in the wilderness. His hunger placed him squarely in solidarity with all the starving people of the world, even as he affirmed his trust in God’s divine and spiritual provision. —”One does not live by bread alone.”
The second question in this spiritual dialogue and exchange took on a larger view beyond Jesus as an individual: Will Jesus take on the rule of the imperial world, and all the power and glory that goes with it? In the Devil’s election proposal there is no need for search committees, or fund-raising, or primaries, or voting machines. “MINE is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,” says the Devil. “And I offer it to you if you will worship me.” Jesus responded again, right out of the Scriptures, quoting another section of the book of Deuteronomy “You shall worship the Lord your God and serve only God.” Worldly power and authority may belong to the accuser, but Jesus’ allegiance belonged to God, whose power and authority were manifested in reversals: lifting up the lowly, bringing the mighty down from their thrones… bringing good news to the poor.
The first question, then, was personal — make enough bread for one. The second was political — worship the Devil in exchange for world dominion. The third question, or the third test combines these in a publicity stunt that should prove to everybody that Jesus has God on his side.
This time, the Devil quotes from Psalm 91, this is the one that begins — ” You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, Who abide in God’s shadow for life, Say to the Lord: “My refuge, My rock in whom I trust!” The Devil uses this passage to encourage Jesus to jump off the Jerusalem Temple and let God’s angels catch him. The question implicit in the test is this: Will Jesus trust God to save him? Jesus wastes no time turning down the challenge, and quotes, again, from Deuteronomy: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
And there, in the contest of dueling Bible verses, the Devil was defeated. For now, at least. The spiritual testing was done, and the ministry of Jesus therefore began. Wherever Christ was in his ministry, the challenges continued to be placed before him. He faced a variety of situations and confrontations. It seems as though the challenges in his ministry were just rather similar to what he faced in the wilderness.
I believe that this can be true for us as well. Whatever spiritually tests us in the wilderness may well turn up again: back home, in the market, in the stores or on the highway. In school or at work. Whatever it is or whoever it is that seeks to derail the reign of God, that seeks to turn Christ or any of us away from our calling as children of God, whatever keeps us from living fully into God’s loving desire for us… whatever or whoever that is, never lets up. Diabolos might leave Jesus alone for now, but it is only for now. He will return at an opportune time.
Have we ever noticed how the challenges to our faith and spiritual lives may seemingly come at different perspectives but bring to us familiar and similar challenges and struggles. It is a spiritual question with a twist, and another thing for us to ponder A different way to make a decision to what is the right answer in the eyes of god to walk faithfully.
And the answer may not always remain the same. Just because the right answer on the first question of a multiple-choice exam is “C,” does not mean we should write “C” for every other question down the line. The right answer to the test in the wilderness doesn’t mean it is the right answer later in our lives and faith walk when life is routine.
During his wilderness test, Jesus refused to turn a stone into bread. It was not the time for that miracle. However, it will not be long before Jesus performs something like that miracle when he feeds 5000 in the wilderness with five loaves and a couple of fish. Or when he performed an even more important miracle, when he is made known to the travelers to Emmaus in the breaking of bread. The time for a mighty act comes, and that mighty act is used not only to satisfy his own hunger, but to feed 5000 hungry others, to reveal himself for who he really is.
He turned down the offer of power to rule the kingdoms of the world. However, he later uses the power God gives him— power over hunger, over sickness, over corruption and injustice, over sin, over death. A different sort of power, directed at a different kingdom.
Jesus did not in the wilderness prove his trust in God by throwing himself down from the heights of the Jerusalem Temple. However, it was not long before he commended his own spirit to God from the heights of a Roman cross.
A wilderness test is something we may encounter with some regularity. And when it does, scripture points to us to trust in the leading of the spirit, the empowerment of the spirit, the fullness of the spirit to help us discern its lessons.
It is not about bread, it is about God.
It is not about the top-down world’s power; it is about the upside-down power of God.
It is not about avoiding death, but about living into the fullness of life.
Spiritually, there are the tests of the wilderness. The tests of Lent. The tests of our ministries. The tests of our lives. The tests that Jesus — in, with and through the power of the spirit—empowers us to meet. May it ever be so. Amen.