Strength for Each Moment
And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’”
And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’”
And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:1-13 ESV)
Why did Jesus go into the wilderness after his baptism? Our text tells us that he was led by the Spirit and that he was tempted by the Devil and that might make it seem like that was the purpose of the Holy Spirit when perhaps it was a consequence, an opportunity, or simply life and the Devil had a go. If we make a link between the people of Israel in the wilderness for 40 years and Jesus – both a second Adam and a second Israel – in the wilderness for 40 days then the time in the wilderness is one of learning, maybe even testing – think in terms of refining or purifying in getting closer to God, in hearing his Word, in learning to trust it in the way he lives each day. I mean what do you do in a wilderness if temptations are things that happen to you, if temptations are something that distracts you from what you’re supposed to be doing? So what was Jesus doing in the wilderness?
I can’t answer that question from the inside of Jesus’ head. We’d all like to know what he thought, what he experienced, and how he processed his baptism and the voice from above, “you are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). What sort of Son will he be?
We all have that question! What sort of son or daughter, wife or husband, employee or employer, citizen or ruler, congregational member or church worker will I be? Whom do I serve? The answer involves two people – ourselves and others – but how do we get the balance right? How do we get the boundaries right? What is right? Who says so?
Again, I can’t tell you what was going on inside of Jesus in the mystery of what he did those 40 days but the encounter with the Devil who never lets a chance go by, it seems, can give us a window into life in this world. Fancy the Devil getting in the way of the Jesus and his ‘God time’ – remember it’s the Holy Spirit who leads Jesus into the wilderness for this alone time with God, this learning time – and here is the Devil right in the midst. Is nothing sacred? In this world, it would seem ‘no’ to the Devil who attempts to pollute, defile, desecrate, shame, humiliate any moment if he can.
If Jesus is in the wilderness to draw closer to God, to mediate and ‘eat’ God’s Word, and to learn how to walk with God – yes, I know that sounds mysterious – then the Devil will target what sort of Son of God Jesus will be. We are used to hearing in English three times from the Devil “If you are the Son of God …” and if we hear this as the Devil doubting Jesus’ divinity then we are mishearing. The Greek word here allows for the translation ‘since’ – “Since you are the Son of God …” but if you want to stick with ‘if’ then imagine the Devil’s irony or sarcasm.
I think it is very clear from the New Testament that the Devil or the demons don’t doubt Jesus’ divinity. The demonic world was the only group that understood who Jesus truly was on Earth. The real temptation, I think, is more along the lines of “Jesus, you don’t have to travel in the wilderness for 40 days or 3 years or even to the cross” – just do this one thing and I’ll give in. Since you are the Son of God turn the stones into bread – you’re hungry – who’s going to know? Since you are the Son of God – here to fight me – I’ll give in and hand everything over to you only worship me just once. Since you are the Son of God, use your powers and jump from the temple top and be a Superman and the crowds will follow you.
Two things to note here. Firstly, that each temptation seems to stand alone offering a prize until it is resisted and then another comes offering a greater prize. And secondly, that the Devil learns how to tempt us by tempting again and again, looking for the way through our armour.
Jesus counters the temptations with what he has in the wilderness – the Word of God. But the Devil learns and uses the Word of God back at Jesus! It is the oldest temptation ever – from the Garden – “did God really say?” (Genesis 3:1) – and now you have squabbles over Bible passages and interpretations and the temptations have become trickier.
The Bible, we believe, is God’s Word. That is true but at every moment we need to decide how the passage I am reading, hearing, studying, meditating on is God’s Word for me. Is it something for me to know? Is it something for me to do? Is it something for me to trust? Is it something for me to teach? And so on. Wolves in sheep’s clothing and cults use Scripture for their own ends and people are then prey, victims, tasty morsels to be used and abused. That is trouble enough but a more insidious trouble comes when we ourselves, our sinful flesh, our selfish desires rationalise, minimise, or relativise God’s Word so we can do what we really want to do.
Temptations are personal to us. They shift and morph as we grow or as our circumstances change. Temptations remind us that there are boundaries over which we shouldn’t cross. And followers of Jesus wrestle with temptations because discipleship is always one of choosing our behaviour in this or that moment – whether we follow Jesus and how we follow Jesus – and it is clearer when the Bible speaks and less so when the Bible is more muted. Last Sunday at Jesus’ transfiguration, his disciples were told by the voice in the cloud to ‘listen to Jesus’ and that is the key to living. Listening to Jesus, the Word made flesh, who now comes to us in words, water, bread and wine.
We should not imagine that the temptations for Jesus were easy to reject. If we find them hard, he, in his humanity, found them the same. And the last verse of our Gospel today is both victorious as it is ominous. “And when the Devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13). That is why I’ve said that the Devil never lets a chance go by. Nor does the world to mock us for our trusting Jesus. Nor does our sinful flesh which often craves to have Jesus around but as our genie or butler. And the only way we can keep journeying in our wilderness is to stay close to God’s Word – eat and drink it, read and remember it – and trust that we do so correctly because our starting point is standing under the cross and trusting that God forgives me and that gives us the glasses and the confidence to read all of the Bible. Then we hear a consistent message – our sin and God’s grace – we watch Jesus’ obedience unto death even death on a cross – and we find his love motivates us how we live in service and sacrifice and love. We hear Jesus both absolve ‘I do not condemn you’ and challenge ‘go and sin no more’ (John 8:11) and we apply this to ourselves. We know our weaknesses, fears, and doubts and Jesus knows them too and he helps us by drawing us to himself in words and meal and promising to be with us always.
- Luke 4:1 - 13