Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where 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. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And 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. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9Then 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, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.
There’s a wonderful Jewish Folk Tale about God and the Devil having a conversation.
The devil says to God, “I am so bored. I go around and around all day, and there isn’t a bit of work for me to do.”
God says to the devil, “Why don’t you go lead some people into sin? After all, that’s your job!”
And the devil replies, “Lead people into sin? Why Lord, before I get a chance to say a blessed word, they’ve already done and sinned on their own!”
You have to admit that there’s quite a bit of wisdom in that story. And more than a little truth.
If we’re being totally honest, all of us might say, “Do not lead us into temptation, dear Lord, because we can find it on our own just fine pretty much every day.” And we do find ways to mess up. All. The. Time.
But it seems to me that we give evil forces outside our own fickle human hearts way too much credit.
We are entirely capable of finding ways of separating ourselves from God’s good and generous intention for our lives all by ourselves. It seems to be hard-wired within us. Perhaps that’s why one of my favorite hymns is “Come thou Font of Every Blessing,” and my favorite line is, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the Lord I love.”
So if you are anything like me — prone to mess up, wander, and find an infinite number of ways to make Jesus shake his head in frustration – there’s a season just right for all of us wanderers.
It’s the season of Lent.
In fact, today is the first Sunday of Lent, and it might interest you to know that you can read your Bible from cover to cover and you will not find one single reference to Lent. No Fish Frys or Fat Tuesday in the Bible. No mention of anything resembling a Lenten Bible study or giving up meat or swearing off chocolate.
Lent is not in the Bible.
There is a story, however, of how Lent came to be observed in the church. So here’s a little abbreviated church history for you.
We know that early Christians began something like a Lenten practice by fasting for the 40 hours between Good Friday and Easter, but the observance of 40 days of Lent came much later.
Those early Christians were quite zealous in their faith, and serious about fasting and praying while waiting for Jesus to return which they thought would be any minute. In fact, they were so downright strange that the Romans had to keep coming up with new ways of torturing and executing early Christians to dissuade them from their zealous ways.
The problem of course is that Jesus didn’t return as quickly as they thought he would.
After they figured out that Christ wasn’t coming back anytime soon, early Christians lost some of their spiritual zeal and settled back into ordinary routines that didn’t include fasting. After the world didn’t end as Jesus said it would, his followers stopped expecting so much from God or themselves.
Little by little, Christians began to get comfortable. They began to stop standing out so much in a crowd. They blended in. They did not make a fuss about injustice. They did not love boldly. They did not get arrested for standing up for the poor orphans or widows. They were, in fact, model citizens who got along very nicely with the govermental authorities.
The comfortable Christians decided to be nice rather than holy. And yes, there is a difference between being nice and being holy.
Somewhere along the line, Christians forgot that the soul of Christ’s ministry is risk and vulnerability. The Gospel isn’t a story about security and safety and being nice people and getting along.
The theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard tells the story of skaters on a large frozen lake. There is an enormous treasure resting in the middle of the lake where the ice is most thin. While everyone would like to obtain the treasure, no one is courageous enough to skate out there to the middle.
So instead, the skaters have learned to skate around magnificently on the thick ice near the shore of this lake. Instead of taking the risk of moving toward the treasure, their obsession becomes ever more intricate skating, until all thoughts of that treasure are lost.
This is Kierkegaard’s picture of the church. The church had forsaken the cross in its mission. They had grown rich and comfortable and given up on taking chances. The church had gotten really good at fancy footwork and beautiful figure 8’s. But it had lost the heart of what it is to be the Church and wasn’t brave enough to follow the Jesus out to where the ice is unstable and dangerous.
It had long stopped trusting Jesus and had learned to trust itself
Eventually, someone suggested it was time to bring the church back to its senses and although the Bible does not give specific instructions for Lenten observances, it did offer some clues on how to recapture some of the zeal of early believers.
Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness learning what it meant to trust YHWH.
Elijah spent 40 days in the wilderness until he heard that small still voice of God on the same mountain where Moses spent 40 days listening to God’s giving of the law.
And then, there was Luke’s story about Jesus and the 40 days he spent fasting and praying and being tested in the wilderness by every temptation the devil could think up to throw at him.
So the church began to reclaim the practices of Lent. 40 days.
To remind Christians what it is to open our eyes and see what remains when all we have to depend upon is God.
To encourage us to venture out into thin places.
Onto thin ice. Into the wilderness.
To remember what it is to live by the grace of God alone and not by own cleverness.
Today’s text takes place immediately after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan.
Jesus enters into the wilderness with his hair still wet, and with the pronouncement that he is God’s beloved son still ringing in his ears.
And I wonder if Jesus knew exactly what that meant. To be the Son of God. To be Jesus?
That journey of self-discovery for Jesus begins in the wilderness. In the desert. On thin ice. Jesus is driven by the Holy Spirit into the middle of nowhere and, what’s more, it is God who put him there. 40 days in the desert. As the days dragged on and his belly began to growl, Jesus might have begun to wonder whether being God’s son was such a good thing to be.
And the human Jesus is tested by a voice that probably didn’t sound all that evil. Perhaps the voice sounded entirely kind. Sympathetic. Persuasive.
Do you think the devil would sound like (weird growling noise)?
No, I think it would be more the voice of reason. Of kindness. Of concern.
Are you hungry, Jesus? Go ahead…turn the stone into bread and you’ll never be hungry again.
Do you see injustice and suffering in the world, Jesus? Just stick with me. I’ll give you authority over all the kingdoms and powers in the world and you can fix everything.
If you are the Son of God, Jesus, the angels will rescue you. It’s going to be okay. Go ahead. Throw yourself off a tower. Then everyone will think you are truly god and they’ll listen to whatever you say.
My best guess is that the voice Jesus hears in the wilderness sounded entirely reasonable. Not demonic. Not evil. I think it was probably a voice that would familiar and comforting to us as well.
After all – the voice is offering Jesus good things, right?
What’s so bad about bread – there are so many hungry people.
What’s so bad about Jesus becoming the Authority – there are so many terrible governments hurting so many people.
Rescue – what’s wrong with trusting angels to protect him? After all…Jesus will go on to walk on water which is only a little less difficult than floating on air. At the end of Luke, Jesus will indeed ascend into heaven. Into the sky. How is what the voice offering him anything so different?
What the voice offers Jesus doesn’t seem so awful, right? In fact, they seem like things that wouldn’t be sinful on their face. It’s not a trip to Vegas or a crime spree.
As I thought about these “temptations,” I realized what is offered to Jesus represents thing that are probably very familiar to all of us. They all the things that tempt us every day of our life to trust anything and anyone but God only.
Just around the corner lies happiness…if only my child would get into this school or my spouse would get that job…
That new boyfriend or girlfriend or lover will provide lasting bliss and I’ll never be lonely again..
If I had what she has, then my life would be complete…
All of these are fantasies, of course. They are illusions. They are not the treasure at the center of the ice.
Lent leads us to a different, more risky place. Out in the wilderness to figure out who we are and what we trust.
It is likely that all of us have already been in the wilderness at some point. Maybe your wilderness looked like a hospital waiting room.
Or a silent house after someone you loved and thought would never leave you up and died on you.
Or maybe it looked like a parking lot where you sat in your car and cried after you lost your job.
Or maybe it was even the kind of wilderness in the middle of the night where you waited for a word from God but all you could hear was your own panicked breathing.
No one wants to go into the wilderness, but sooner or later each one of us will be forced by circumstance to take a turn skating out on thin ice, scared out of our wits, and then we will discover who we really are and what our lives our really about.
Jesus was led out into the wilderness to find out what it meant to be Jesus and what his life was to be about as God’s beloved.
And, if you think about it, Jesus will accomplish each one of these “temptations,” that was offered by the comforting voice, but by taking a different course.
He will change stones into bread: a few loaves of bread and five fish will feed five thousand.
He will “hurl himself from a tower” and be “caught by angels,” by giving up his life on the cross.
He will be worshipped, but only by being willing to humble himself as a servant.
I think the sin that dwells within all of us is not so much the propensity to do what is bad or harmful, but our inability to trust God’s promises to us. The voices we hear every day tell us we cannot or shouldn’t trust God – you may go hungry, you do not have enough, you are not enough. All of us are naturally insecure in so many ways. We want to hang back at the margins where the ice is solid and thick and secure.
But God is out there in the middle of the lake, smack dab on the thin ice. Can you believe that you are loved – so loved by God – that you don’t have to be afraid?
Jesus responded with Scripture to the voice in the wilderness. It is in Scripture that Jesus finds the words to give voice to his absolute trust in God. And it is in Scripture that we learn not to be good, not to be nice, but to be faithful enough to venture out…into…the middle…where the ice is thin
Jesus’ time in the wilderness freed him. And the Lenten wilderness can free us, too, if we let it.
Thanks be to God. Amen.