Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
This week I was talking with a linguist who works on metaphors. We got talking about today’s Gospel and she asked me to explain the metaphor of this passage. She asked me, why does the Devil tempt Jesus physically? If this is a Spiritual test, why then does he demand bread, why does he offer kingdoms and why does he suggest that Jesus throw himself off the temple. These are physical temptations, what do they signify?
It is a fantastic question and one worthy of our puzzling today. But before I get to these physical temptations, let’s take note of where Jesus is in this part of Luke’s Gospel and where we are today.
At this point Jesus has just been baptised by John. The voice of God has declared him his Son. And the Spirit has descended upon him like a dove. Jesus has not yet begun his healing ministries. He has not yet his preaching, he hasn’t gathered his disciples around him. Jesus is called into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit.
Why does the Holy Spirit call Jesus into the wilderness for forty days? It seems that this is part of his preparation for ministry. For us, this forty days of Lent that we entered on Wednesday may be understood as a period of our preparation.
During Lent we prepare ourselves to experience Easter, to celebrate our new life in Christ. For us, these liturgical seasons are a spiraling process. We have experienced Lent before, we have been in this season, we have known Easter—some of us from childhood, experiencing Lent and Easter every year. But this is a different Lent, we are at a different point in our lives than we were last year. We are in a different place as a community. And what we are preparing for is different this year. New life for us in this season, will be unique. The Easter experience that we look forward to will be built on the other Easters before. This spiraling, is a deepening, a growing in faith. This time is time for us to prepare, like Jesus for new ministries. We are called by the Spirit into our own wilderness, just the wilderness that we need—as individuals and as Nativity. In this wilderness we will prepare for the next phase of God’s work.
Jesus suffered three temptations. In Luke’s Gospel, the devil first asked him to turn a stone into bread. Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'” There are several important things that we learn from this response. First—Jesus is confirming the Hebrew bible. He is not making up his answer, he is giving the answer that we know from the prophets before Jesus. He is referring to the same God. Second, Jesus doesn’t let his physical hunger rule his actions. So even though he has been fasting and undoubtedly would have liked some bread, this is not what he acts upon. And third, Jesus points to the truth—as a human being, we can’t solve all our problems ourselves, bread is not the only thing we need, we need faith, we need God—guiding, motivating, loving us and hoping for us.
For us these lessons are important. As we prepare for the next phase of our ministry, we need to remember that we are being called by God. Our desires or our hungers should not be our primary motivation. And our sustenance will not be those things that we make or do ourselves, we will need God and our faith to build us up into the future. If we ask God, “what are we being prepared for?” rather than asking what would I like to have right now, we will get a very different answer a different perspective on what we are becoming.
I think this temptation is important for us as we contemplate what Nativity is becoming. As we came through our stewardship campaign and realized that we have enough budget to sustain our worship, I don’t want us to stop asking who are we called to be as a community of faith. The question is not do we have enough “bread” to meet our needs, but rather what is it that we really need to do God’s work here. And individually, if we ask who are we called to be, how are we called to serve, then our prayers for our own needs change.
In the second temptation, the devil shows Jesus the kingdoms and offers them to him if he agrees to worship him. I notice in this temptation that the devil says that he has authority over all the kingdoms and they are his to give. And maybe this points us to similar themes as the first temptation—the kingdoms are made by humans. All of these realms, and the power to rule them comes from human beings. The authority of Cesar, the rule of Herod. All of these powers aren’t what Jesus wants. 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him,'" takes on two meanings—one that Jesus is pointing out that the “authority” over the kingdoms is not what he wants, this is human power, not divine power. But second that his attention will not be diverted from God’s will. He is following God’s direction, preparing for what God wants him to be and do, and he won’t be side tracked by a desire for kingdoms or power over other human institutions.
Here at Nativity, we might compare this temptation to our need to grow in size or stature as a congregation or our individual desires to have power or status in society. We are reminded to worship only God, and ask again what the Kingdom of God looks like and what our role is in building up that Kingdom. It is about sharing God’s love, God’s emancipatory work for all of God’s people. Not about our power or status.
And then we get to the third temptation. Jesus is taken up to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. He is brought to the place where he will ultimately suffer and die as one of us. The devil tells him to throw himself off the temple and have the angels protect him. But Jesus responds: “It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" In this answer, I hear Jesus saying, “my God is not a ‘vending machine’”. I don’t ask God for signs of power. God is not going to interfere with gravity, or save me from myself. God is working on God’s plan and we are called to participate. God’s love is there for us always, God’s guidance and support are always there for us. But God doesn’t dispense miracles without our participation.
For me, this temptation speaks to a deep question of prayer. Often I pray for other people, praying that they might be made healthy or that they would get through some hard circumstance. And I need to remember that this is not a test of God’s power. Really, what I need to pray for is that the person I care about will be given whatever they need to fulfill God’s work in them. Maybe this is a person who is now going to be bedridden for a period of time, and instead of praying from them to get up and be better, I should pray for them to hear God’s call—asking how God wants them to live fully in their infirmity. What is our ministry, what does health and reconciliation look like? These are questions that change for us individually and as a community. Instead of waiting for a vending machine miracle from God, we need to feel God’s true power in our lives and discern God’s best hopes and dreams for us, God’s children.
So I come to the conclusion that the physical temptations that the devil offers Jesus are metaphors for the human desires that get in the way of our walk with God. If this is what Jesus teaches in his period of wilderness preparation, then maybe this is what we need to learn in this Lenten season. Let’s use this period to ask God for sustenance—more than bread alone, the faith that will sustain us into New Life. Let us pray that we might be part of bringing the Kingdom of God here, not that we would be given power over the nations here on earth. And finally, let us pray for those things God wants for us, not asking for miracles on demand, but instead asking for what is best for us in God’s heart and mind.
As we enter this season of fasting and penetance, as we seek a deeper knowledge of God who calls us into our next phase of ministry guiding our congregation, our corner of the Church to do the feeding, building up the Heavenly Kingdom, all with a view towards God’s will, not our own. Amen.