Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”
The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.
We are at the very beginning. Or maybe it’s nearly the end. Is that right? Is that it? The beginning… of the end…of the beginning. It sounds confusing—that a mere handful of weeks after our Christian calendar began on the first Sunday of Advent, here we are again marking time in an expectant way. The shadow of the Cross lengthening out across our days, even as the clock offers us more hours of daylight and the first fresh breezes of spring bring robins to our gardens. We are here in the days of dust, having just been reminded anew that from dust we came and to dust we shall return. With the question lingering…hanging heavy all around us—how might we grow with God in the days between dust to dust? How will the ashes change us? Here— at the beginning of the end of the beginning.
For many, the season of Lent is a season of sacrifice and denial. Friends you may know—and perhaps even yourself—may decide to give up something, so that the feeling of denial and sacrifice will become ever more real. What would it be for you? If you were choosing to do this? Would it be sweets? Coffee? Shopping? Or “giving up” a hobby that you enjoy or something that you spend a lot of time on? There are so many things we can think of that we could “give up”.
I remember, when I was a teenager, that I had some friends who were very devout in their faith, and who regularly observed the practice of “giving up” something for Lent. Although this was part of my faith in a tertiary way, for them, it was a very big part of their tradition, and they would think about it intently. They would agonize over what they were going to give up, and if they slipped and accidentally had something sweet, or drank a soda, or ate pepperoni pizza on a Friday, they would be so upset. It was a big deal— “oh no! I had cookies at lunch!” or “uh-oh, I just ordered soda with dinner!” and they would be honestly dismayed by it.
I have questions about this….ones that I’ve always had but would never have asked my friends then. What end did that deprivation serve? Did it really make them identify with the sufferings and temptations of Jesus in the Wilderness? Or did it actually, and inadvertently, make them more focused on themselves?
What if the real temptation that we face isn’t so much a temptation *toward* something, such as sweets or coffee or any of the myriad things we might be inclined to give up. No, what if the real temptation is temptation *away* from God?
With respect for the faith and traditions of my childhood friends—and I do understand the lesson their pastors were trying to teach— I feel the same now as I did then: a chocolate bar is not what is going to come between you and your Savior.
But there ARE things that could. Real, actual, true temptations that every one of us can be enticed by and that could very easily come between us and God.
This is what the true lesson of this passage is, is it not? This passage appears in three of the four Gospels, so it’s clear that the writers of the canon wanted people to know this story and seek its truth. In this passage, we see the devil tempting the hungry and tired Jesus with the three things he might be likely to desire most in his time of searching—bread, authority, and safety. He is hungry. He’s had nothing to eat; and the devil cajoles him to make bread out of stones. He is weak, there alone in the Wilderness; and the devil tempts him with power over all the kingdoms of the land. He is dwelling in humanity; and the devil chides him with doubt that he is even the Son of God.
And what does Jesus say? That one does not live on bread alone…but, as we have heard, on every word from God. That we should serve only God. That we should not test Him in any way. Despite all the devil offers, Jesus knows not to fall prey to the trappings of self-reliance. Heknows the Truth. To be reliant on God for life, glory, and identity. He knows to find himself in God’s story, and not his own.
But we are certainly not Jesus, so how do WE get there? To that same place of trust? With a heart of commitment and strength? How do we do that?
In the Wilderness, Jesus was tempted by food, influence, and security. And although the details differ, aren’t we tempted by the same? Maybe it’s not stones into bread…but are we not tempted by influence? By the ability to have others see our viewpoint and agree with our opinions? And maybe we aren’t surveying the kingdoms of Jerusalem from above, being promised power over all. But are we not tempted by security? By needing to have plans and safety nets in place for all we do. By hesitating to step out on faith when we can’t clearly see the outcome? And yes, maybe no one is suggesting we physically hurl ourselves from a lofty Temple to prove that God loves us and will save us, but aren’t we prone to deny God in the face of adversity, preferring instead to rely on our own wit and wisdom?
We are tempted every day. By a million things that would draw us away from God. The simple temptations of sweets and coffee pale in comparison to the heavy weight of the temptation of influence, power, security…THESE are the things that divide our attention and shift our focus from God. THESE are the things that pull us away from our identity in Christ and our relationship with God. THESE are the real thorns of temptation…the ones we can’t see, but live every day.
We do have the power to resist temptation, but only when we find our story in God’s story. We do have the power to resist temptation, but only when we rely completely on His grace and mercy. God will meet us in the Wilderness, just as He did at Sinai AND on the stones upon which Jesus trod.
But where do we find that power? That resistance? That strength? Resisting all those things sounds just so….so….hard.
We find it in relying on the Holy Spirit. In recalling the Author of our story. In remembering our baptism. We began our Lenten journey with the Cross upon our foreheads, reminding us that it is from but dust that we came, and to dust we will return. And this morning, we find ourselves celebrating baptism—with the Cross upon our foreheads reminding us that we are each God’s beloved child. All of the love and life that we need to stand strong over the temptations of the world are given to us in those three words, “God’s beloved child.” So that when we lose confidence in our ability to remain steadfast; when our faith becomes unbalanced in favor of our own abilities over God’s…then we can come here and be reminded of who we really are. Because we are not who the world says we are. We are who GOD says we are. The baptisms this morning speak that so clearly; helping us to recall our own blessing, the one that will restore our identity and renew our confidence when the thorns of temptation try to take hold.
The Lenten journey is rightly one of sacrifice and resisting temptation. But it is not an empty goal. It is not intended to be suffering for the sake of suffering or denial for the sake of denial. It is a tangible way to remain focused on the Cross—on all of God’s love and grace and mercy poured out for us beneath those awful thorns. “Let today be the day you give up who you’ve been for who you can become.”
It is quite natural that we, in our mere humanity, would give in to our insecurity that leads us to mistrust God. That is an easy temptation to succumb to. Even “the church” does it in its unyielding attempts to stay relevant in an increasingly secular world. It is natural that we should bend under the prickly thorns of doubt. And when we are here—at the beginning…of the end…of the beginning….when we see the shadows lengthening and the air beginning to drip heavily of abandonment and suspicion….it is here that our insecurity and mistrust feels ever more cloying. Here. In the Wilderness. How will the ashes change us? What truth do the thorns hold? Amen.