Deuteronomy 26:5b-9 (NRSV)
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
Romans 10:9-13 (NRSV)
If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11 The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13 For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Luke 4:1-13 (CEB)
Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. 2 There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. 3 The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”
5 Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. 7 Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.”
8 Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”
9 The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you11 and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”
12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.” 13 After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.
God of signs and wonders, who speaks the world into being, speak again your words of life and death. May your word be ever near us, on our lips, and in our heart. Transform us as we hear your word this day, that we may respond with faithful praise. Amen.
As we come to the first Sunday in Lent, we are called into a spiritual journey that begins with Jesus in the wilderness. Lent is the period of 40 days, not including Sundays, that lead up to Easter. So the number 40 and the wilderness both have significance for us as we begin our journey.
First, the number 40 was a key number in the story of God’s people. Noah spent 40 days and nights inside the ark as the earth was being flooded, Moses spent 40 days and nights fasting on Mt. Sinai in preparation for receiving God’s Law, Elijah spent 40 days and nights fasting in the wilderness before hearing God’s whisper, and of course, the Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness after God delivered them from slavery in Egypt as God formed them spiritually before bringing them into the Promised Land.
In Deuteronomy chapter 1, verse 3, we read that “it was in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, that Moses spoke to the Israelites precisely what the Lord had commanded him for them.” If you were to read the entire book of Deuteronomy from beginning to end, it reads like one long sermon – even longer than one of mine! As Moses gives them God’s divine law, he explains that instead of being merely a list of Do’s and Don’ts, it is a gift meant to help order and sustain human life, “so that you may live and increase” (Deut. 8:1). He goes on to tell them that the 40 years of manna in the wilderness was designed to prepare them to receive the law, by humbling them and highlighting God’s ordering, sustaining presence in their lives (Deut. 8:2-3). In other words, the daily manna, or bread from heaven, was a way of forming them into a people who could trust and depend on God for everything needed to sustain them. So after 40 years, when they finally entered the land of “milk and honey” they were able to recognize that it was God’s gift, instead of being tempted to say “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” (Deut. 8:17)
In fact, they are told that even after they have lived for a long time in houses they did not build and harvested from trees they did not plant, that they are bring their first-fruits to the temple to be consecrated and to recall their story, which begins with, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…” Rehearsing their story in this way is a reminder that even when they have inhabited the land for such a long time that they come to the Temple with their arms laden with the fruit of their harvest, they never forget to whom the land truly belongs and the story of how they came to be. Their story grounds them in a tale of survival and struggle, even when (perhaps especially when) they begin to get comfortable and are tempted to forget that it is God from whom all blessings flow.
With this in mind, now, let’s consider Jesus’ time in the wilderness. Luke tells us that after Jesus’ baptism, he was “full of the Holy Spirit” and “led by the Spirit” into the wilderness. Remember that John the Baptist also spent time living in the wilderness when he began preaching his message of repentance. And so Jesus seems to be going into the wilderness for an intentional time of spiritual formation; he goes full of the spirit and led by the spirit in order to have his heart humbled, strengthened and transformed by God before he began his public ministry. He observed a fast, during which time he did not eat. And it was at the end of this fast, at the end of the 40 days, when Jesus was as his most vulnerable, that the Tempter began whispering in his ear.
Several of the commentaries I read in preparing for this sermon warned that we should not try to make light of Jesus’ fast by comparing it to the Lenten fasts in which we tend to partake, such as giving up chocolate or meat. In fact, they cautioned against making comparisons to ourselves at all, because the temptations that Jesus faced were aimed precisely at Jesus as the Son of God. So let’s consider them from that point of view.
The Greek verb translated “to tempt” in verse 2 (peirazō) implies hostile intent. Repeatedly Jesus is approached by the devil with temptations to become other than the Son of God he is created to be. The first temptation, to turn a stone into bread, is on one level a temptation to satisfy his physical hunger. But when Jesus quotes Moses in Deuteronomy 8 by saying, “One does not live by bread alone,” (Deut. 8:3) we see that Jesus is recalling the story of God’s people who were humbled by their dependence on God. Jesus seems to be thinking, I’ve learned the ancient lesson of the manna: God is the true source of my sustenance, physical and otherwise. Bread certainly has its place, but every good thing - including bread! - comes from God’s graceful decrees. Jesus overcomes this temptation to supply his own needs “with the power and might of my own hand” and surrenders himself to God’s graceful provisions.
The second temptation was to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. One of my commentaries noted, “Whereas Matthew describes the kingdoms of the kosmos (“world”), Luke uses the politically laden noun oikoumenē. For Luke, kosmos typically refers to creation (9:25; 12:30), while oikoumenē generally refers to the political order (as in 2:1; 21:26; Acts 17:6). Luke conceives of a struggle between two kingdoms. The social-political order previously presented as under the charge of Rome (2:1; 3:1) is here revealed as a counter-kingdom ruled by the devil, whose authority now dangles before Jesus.” (Alan P. Sherouse. Feasting on the Gospels--Luke, Volume 1: A Feasting on the Word Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press.) Jesus could have become the ruler of the social-political world; he could have overturned the Roman empire and set up a new government. But instead, he knew that God’s reign could not be contained by human laws – that loving God and loving others could not be legislated. Jesus responds again with words from God’s divine law, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” (Deut. 6:13) – Jesus chose not to elevate himself in a political power grab, ruling as an earthly governor or king, but embraced his call to minister to the poor, the sick, the broken and the brokenhearted, as the One who would bring God’s spiritual kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.
Finally, Jesus is tempted to put God to the test – to throw himself off the Temple to see whether God loves him enough to save him. What a temptation! Perhaps Jesus was already struggling with the human fear of the end, or questioning God’s presence with him. To make it worse, the devil himself quotes scripture from Psalm 91 in order to make it even more enticing. That’s right, sometimes those who are quoting scriptures may have evil or selfish intentions. But Jesus recalls again the story of his ancestors, when out of their thirst, they tested God in the wilderness, crying out, “Is the Lord even among us?” Surely Jesus must have wondered that himself at times; but recalling the story of his people strengthens him even further, and he resists again with the words of Moses, saying, “Don’t test the Lord your God.” (Deut. 6:16)
Ultimately, the devil tempted Jesus with opportunities for self-reliance, self-power, and self-gratification. But Jesus shows the devil who he really is, God’s beloved Son whose relationship is built on his communion with God and his “insufficiency” apart from God, who is the “fount of every blessing” at the center of his life. And so the Gospel message for all of us is this: God longs to be at the center of our lives, as well. God loves each one of us as God’s beloved child, and every good gift in our life is God’s mana from heaven – our daily bread – for which we give thanks, and pray for it to be new every morning, expecting nothing as we come to God with open hands and humble hearts. As God forms us into grateful, loving and serving people, we are also called into ministry to spread the news of God’s salvation for all, and to build the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
As we will continue to read throughout the gospel of Luke, Jesus’ journey out of the wilderness will take him to the cross. As we are called to follow Jesus today, we are called to a similar journey of self-awareness, realizing that the power we are tempted to worship in our world today is the power that Jesus resisted. That the kingdom Jesus brought forth and calls us to help build is a counter-cultural kingdom of humility, vulnerability and self-denial. The journey of Lent can be a test for us to see where we are on our discipleship journey… are we really willing to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus? Are we really willing to let our hunger and thirst mold us into a dependence on God, instead of on money, power, status, popularity, self-righteousness, physical comfort, entertainment, etc. to meet our needs? What kind of Lent are you being challenged to practice? What are the temptations that risk pulling you away from your relationship with God?
Throughout these 40 days, as we begin, or recommit to, our own spiritual journey of growing closer to God, our scripture readings from today can help us to remember who God is, and whose we are, especially in those times when we feel like we are wandering in the wilderness of our own hearts. We will need to be reminded over and over again, just as the Israelites were, that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
O God, you have spoken to us today through this word of faith. Embolden our spirits by your Spirit, that your words may be made manifest in all that we say and in all that we do to bring your kingdom on earth. In the name of Christ, we pray. Amen.