Bethany Lutheran Church - Ishpeming Michigan
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil,” and we say, “Wait a minute; the Spirit is not supposed to do that.” When we pray for the Spirit to guide us, we don’t have in mind being guided into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. For us, to hear that is kind of disconcerting, but perhaps not so much to early Jewish Christians who would have first heard and read this text. The lectionary skipped over these verses back in January but this story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness comes right after his baptism when he was first declared, “My son, the beloved.” According to Jewish literature of the time, following such a declaration, temptation was the logical next step. Before assuming his duties, to be proved worthy, a newly anointed king had to be tested or tempted and…is there a difference?
In confirmation classes I always tell kids that the difference between testing and tempting is that with a test, the goal is for you to pass. With temptation on the other hand, the goal is for you to fail. So in this case, the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. The Spirit is involved so you could say that it is God’s will that Jesus be tested and that he pass the test. But…the devil tempts, and the goal of the devil is for Jesus to fail in being who he is supposed to be.
From the Spirit’s perspective, from God’s perspective, Jesus, of course, passes all the tests. He’s Jesus after all. From the devil’s perspective, his effort at temptation fails because Jesus, of course, does not give in to temptation. He is Jesus after all. What we also know though, is that we don’t always do so well as we face testing and tempting. We’re not Jesus after all.
That however becomes part of our temptation as we think about this story. We’re tempted to say that Jesus is Jesus and we’re not so we can’t be expected to resist temptation like he did. We’re tempted to think that unlike us, this is child’s play for Jesus because, after all, he’s Jesus. We want to let ourselves off the hook. But remember this is fully human Jesus we’re talking about here, Jesus emptied of his divine nature, Jesus dependent on the same kinds of resources that are also available to us. Perhaps we’re not so different after all.
In this case Jesus’ primary resources are prayer and scripture. It’s not stated directly in this story, but I would assume that as Jesus fasted in the wilderness and as he was tested or tempted, whatever it was, he would have prayed. He is frequently described as engaging in times of prayer, so it would seem to follow. In this story though, Jesus’ primary resource was the word of God, scripture, the Bible, which for him was the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament.
When tempted, he knew the Bible well enough that he could disarm the devil saying, “It is written…” and then quoting the appropriate verse. It’s always interesting to note that the devil also knew scripture and tried to trap Jesus with it, taking verses out of context, but Jesus knew better. There’s no divine power at work here though; this is human Jesus, grounded in prayer and scripture, using resources available to anyone so it’s best to avoid the temptation of saying Jesus is Jesus and we’re not so this has nothing to do with us.
The devil comes to Jesus when he is most vulnerable; he’s weak, he’s tired, he’s hungry which are all examples of times when we’ll do most anything to get some relief. Underlying all the temptations presented to Jesus though, is the idea that it’s no big deal, it’s not going to hurt anything. What harm is there in turning a few stones into bread and easing your hunger? What harm is there in putting on a show by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple? Do that and live and you’ll have all kinds of people following you. What harm is there in accepting a gift of all the kingdoms of the world? Wouldn’t that make it easier to establish the Kingdom of God? It’s no big deal is a clever tactic, especially when you’re vulnerable.
We’re not Jesus. We’re at the beginning of a forty day Lenten journey; some people give up something for Lent as a very modest fast but we’re not likely to undertake a rigorous forty day fast in the wilderness or anywhere else. We’re still vulnerable, although not in weakness and hunger like Jesus. We’re vulnerable more in our comfort. Our vulnerability is different than that of Jesus, but the tempter or the devil, whatever we choose to call the source of temptation, uses the same “it’s no big deal” tactic on us.
The tempting voice we hear says, it’s no big deal; it won’t hurt anything, plus…you’re Lutheran right? Isn’t Lutheranism all about God’s grace? (my guess is that the devil knows theology as well as he knows the Bible) Isn’t Lutheranism all about God’s grace? That means you can do anything and you’ll still be forgiven. God is always ready to forgive you and give you another chance, right? He does it over and over again in the Old Testament with people who are disobedient over and over again. Then, in the New Testament you’ve got the undeserved forgiveness at the heart of the parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s pretty clear isn’t it?
The tempter is right. That is Lutheran theology. It’s not just Lutheran theology it’s biblical theology. We can do anything and by the grace of God, forgiveness is available; the door is never closed from God’s side, there’s always another chance, at least that’s what I believe. The tempter is clever, trapping us in our own theology, until we remember and call on our resources of resistance, and in a way, we have more than Jesus did because we have him and his story, especially the story of the cross.
We hold up the cross and say to the devil, “You’re right, but look at this; look at this and see what my free gift of grace cost Jesus. You’re right, the gift is free for me, but it wasn’t for him and I don’t want to cheapen what he did for me with your ‘no big deal’ temptation because it was and is a big deal.” At that point, I’m pretty sure the devil leaves in failure, just as he did with Jesus especially because he doesn’t want to look at the cross.
At our best, that’s what we do. We draw on our resources, including prayer and scripture, including Jesus himself along with all the fathers of the church, all the faithful theologians and teachers, people like Martin Luther who through the ages who have helped to unpack for us what our faith means. At our best, that’s what we do. But then there are those other times when “it’s no big deal” catches us because, it’s true, we’re not Jesus.
At that point we’re thankful that the theology quoted by the tempter is correct. We do believe in a God whose grace and forgiveness is greater than we can imagine. That’s not to say that our sin isn’t a big deal; it is a big deal. But God’s grace and forgiveness is a bigger deal.
Every year we get this story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness on the First Sunday in Lent. It’s not there to encourage us to compare ourselves to Jesus in our ability to resist temptation. We’ll never come out on the favorable side of such a comparison. It’s a story though that reminds us of the reality of temptation, the reality of the forces of evil, whatever we choose to call them, forces that are part of our existence.
The honesty of Lent also encourages us to admit that we fail in our efforts to resist. But with this story about Jesus we’re also reminded of the resources we have available to us to help us resist, especially to resist the temptation of “it’s no big deal.” If there is a goal during Lent, it is that we find ways, that we find spiritual disciplines that help us make better use of those resources, especially prayer and scripture, and that in so doing, we draw closer to the God in whom we trust for forgiveness when we fail.
It’s a humbling process, because even at our best, even having the same resources that were available to Jesus and more, we still fail; we still sin and it is a big deal. But we turn to the cross and know that it points us to a bigger deal that reveals to us that despite our failure, the ultimate victory over evil and temptation has been won. The devil, the tempter still has his moments, but the victory has been won, and it is a big deal.
Rev. Warren Geier