Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Our Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, February 14, 2016: To Be Tempted and Empowered, Luke 4:1-13
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. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying 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 protect you”,
“On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
To Be Tempted and Empowered: Luke 4:1-13
Some stories are so important that they appear in more than one Gospel. This story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness is one of them. Three different Gospel writers, the authors of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all thought this story was so important that they included it at the beginning of each of their Gospels. I can see why. It is a very compelling story. The thing is, the writers don't tell the story just because it's interesting. They share it because it tells us something important about Jesus and his ministry. Let's take few moments together to learn a little more about Jesus from this story. Let's see how Jesus responded when he was tempted and begin to ask ourselves, how are we tempted and how can we be empowered to act as Jesus did?
This story comes right after Jesus' baptism. The Holy Spirit had come down on him in the shape of the dove and led him into the wilderness. I wonder if Jesus remembered the stories of his people as he walked away from the Jordan. Throughout Jewish history, people have struggled in the wilderness, and have also encountered God there. He knew the stories of people who struggled, and often failed, to trust God as they wandered 40 years in the wilderness. I bet he remembered these stories as he, too was tempted.
Jesus seemed to follow in the footsteps of his ancestor Moses who is said to have spent forty days on a mountain with no food. Luke tells us that Jesus didn't eat at all during his time away. Luke doesn't tell us is why he didn't eat. Was he fasting? Was it a time of drought and he could find no food? Was he too worried to eat? The answer is not obvious, and his reason for not eating may not actually be the more important part of this story. What seems to actually be more important to Luke is how Jesus responds to not eating. You see, Jesus was very, very hungry. And Jesus had some company out there in the wilderness... some unfriendly company that was trying to take advantage of his vulnerabilities. The devil, a walking, talking manifestation of temptation hiding in the guise of reason, knew that hungry people can make some terrible decisions. He knew that a hungry Jesus could be tempted. So, he asked him a question.
The devil, hoping to goad him into action by both questioning his identity and by offering him something that he truly needed, said to Jesus, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Friend, look. You're wasting away. You haven't eaten in days. You deserve this. You need this. If you have the power that you say you have... if that voice that spoke to you when you were baptized is true... If all those stories you family tells about prophets and angels and stars actually happened, you can actually do something about those pains in your belly. Make yourself a little something to eat. This is a good thing. God helps those who help themselves, right?
Jesus said no. Even as his stomach ached and his ribs poked through his shirt, he said no. He simply stated, "One does not live by bread alone." He is not the Son of God so that he can fill his own belly. That's not what this power is for. It should be noted that he's not choosing not to make bread because he feels like he needs to suffer. Instead, he is very clear that he isn't going to use his power foolishly or for his own gain. His power is not oriented towards himself. His power is other-oriented. Even though he is hungry, now is not the time to use his authority. It is for something greater.
The devil, realizing that hunger wasn't a powerful enough temptation, tried to use this "other-orientation" to tempt Jesus away from his mission. The devil offered Jesus a chance to be the most powerful human on earth. Think of all the good he could do if he was in charge? Then, the devil says, you can make all of the decisions and make sure everyone is cared for. You know that God's reign needs building. Jesus, why not gain a place of authority and make sure everyone builds God's mission as you see fit? The devil said look at all these kingdoms in the world. I will give them to you, and all the authority you need to rule them. I can do that, you know. All you have to do is worship me. Imagine all the good that you could do if you were just in charge of everything! Jesus, having lived under the tyranny of Rome and having watched the pettiness of local politicians, probably had dreamed of having a just and loving ruler for his people. He probably knew that he could do better than tyranny. But, to become ruler this way was to do so at great cost. He said no. He could not worship evil, even if it meant that later he could do good.
The devil, frustrated after 40 days of high quality temptation that have gone nowhere, has one last offer for Jesus. Taking Jesus up to Jerusalem, to the very top of the temple, the devil said, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here." The devil quoted scripture, reminding Jesus that the writers of the Psalms said that God loves God's people and will protect them. If Jesus is the Son of God... if God is calling him to a special mission, God would surely send angels to catch him before he crashed into the stones below. Such a dangerous spectacle would help Jesus prove to himself that God was indeed the one who spoke to him at his baptism. Jesus, when you feel the angels lift you up, you can know for sure that this mission you are undertaking wasn't simply madness. You could prove that God is leading you and that God will protect you.This will get dangerous. You need to be sure. Why not jump?
Jesus said, no. He realized that just because the devil knows how to use scripture to justify a terrible idea doesn't mean that Jesus has to, quite literally, fall for it. Some scriptures simply carry more weight than others, and act as the guides for our interpretation. In this case, Jesus knows the guiding scripture. He said do not put the Lord your God to the test. More importantly, with this last interaction, we can now see that Jesus finally knows that he can fulfill the mission that God is calling him to, even though it will be dangerous. He knows that saving himself from the danger isn't really the point. That is not what his authority is for. The devil leaves and Jesus is ready to begin his public ministry. It doesn't exactly seem like the most auspicious beginning. He is hungry. He has no followers, He is aware that his life is going to get increasingly dangerous. And, yet, he is empowered to begin. He is still full of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will always guide him.
I don't know about all the other tests that the devil put him through while they were out in the wilderness, but these last three tests seem to have something in common. They all seem to be related to how Jesus will use the power that the Holy Spirit had born in him. Even when it seems like him using his authority might not be the worst thing in the world, like when he's invited to feed himself or become a more just ruler of the earth, there is still a strong sense that his special authority is not really for him. It is for others. Or, more specifically, it is to be utilized in service to others and also to be utilized differently than the earthly authority that the devil has been offering him. You'll remember that later in his story, Jesus will have no problem making sure that hungry people are fed even when he once would not feed himself. He would later feed people because they needed food, not because he hoped that doing so would make them beholden to him. The devil was looking for someone to be beholden to him. You will also remember that Jesus will one day become a leader, first of a few followers, then of many thousands. But his leadership was based in healing and teaching, not the tyranny and intimidation of the empire.The devil is interested in tyranny and unchecked power. Jesus isn't. You will also remember, later in his life, he will return to Jerusalem and he will be encouraged to save himself from the cross. But, he will not. He would not use his authority for self-preservation. That is not what his authority is for. He will use his authority to remain loyal to his mission, even if that means he could die. His authority is to be used to show people a different way, not to save himself.
Scholar Fred Craddock once wrote, "The stronger you are, the more capable you are, the more opportunity you have, the more power and influence you have, the greater will be your temptation." When we see Jesus being tested, we are seeing him at both his most vulnerable and seeing him leaning into his new found strength, learning how to make the choice to follow the Divine path ahead of him. None of these tests would mean anything if he wasn't able to actually succumb to the temptation. But, he doesn't. His love for us prevails. His love for God prevails and will continue to prevail, even unto death. He will only use his authority to serve another. When we are tempted, are we willing to make the same kinds of hard choices? And, knowing that Christ chose us in the midst of the greatest temptations in his life, how can we continue to choose him, and choose to serve with him? These are some of the questions that this story asks of us. That's why the Gospel writers shared this story, because of these questions. Given that they haven't all been answered in 2,000 years, I don't think I can settle these questions today. I do hope you'll keep them in mind as we continue through this season of Lent. This journey begins today with Christ's temptation and goes through his resurrection. Remember, though,this story hasn't ended yet. There are many tests ahead. Let's pray that we, too, can be filled with the Holy Spirit and make decisions more like Christ's.
Fred. Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Ruth Anne Reese: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2769
Fred. B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4291
Scott Schauf: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1574
Arland J. Hultgren: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=508
Kathryn Matthews: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_february_14_2016
Sermon Brainwave Podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=725
Fred B. Craddock, "Tempted To Do Good" in The Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.