Every Lent, the readings in the lectionary for the First Sunday are about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, an event that happens immediately after his baptism and before the beginning of his preaching, teaching, and healing ministry. It makes some sense. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, the desert. Forty is a number in the scriptures that signifies a significant passage of time. The flood lasted for forty days. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days. And we observe a 40-day season of preparation at Lent, a season of repentance and introspection as we journey with Jesus a road that leads to Jerusalem, to death, to the cross.
But why this text in particular? Is it more than a match in numbers? I’ll admit, at first read, this passage isn’t one that particularly moves me. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness by the devil, and he seems to so effortlessly knock down anything that the devil pitches to him. Is this is a struggle for him? The temptation reminds us, perhaps, that Jesus is one of us, lived as one of us and was tempted like we are. But when I read this passage, I think, “gosh, I think I could have avoided those temptations too!” It seems so easy to see through the motivations of the devil. It seems so clear that Jesus must and will refuse these shambles of offers of fame and glory and fortune. We all face temptations of many kinds in our lives, and some are easier to resist than others, to the point that we don’t really even find them tempting. For example, I don’t actually ever feel tempted to eat meat. Cheese, yes, is a struggle. But meat is not really a temptation for me. And I’ve never been tempted to use drugs, or to cheat on a test. I know these things may be tempting for some people, and I take that seriously. But these are things that don’t really tempt me, and so I can’t claim any great feat for ‘resisting the temptation’ of them. It hasn’t cost me any great stress or pain or trial to not do these things.
This is what I wonder about when we come to this temptation passage about Jesus. Was he really tempted here? Where is the temptation? What would have been appealing about this offer from the devil? Did this event really cost Jesus, or stress him, or push him, or bring him great pain? Was he teetering on the brink of giving in? I don’t immediately see it. I’m a bit skeptical. And yet, for the gospel writers, the passage is clearly important. It is recounted in all the gospels but John, though Mark does not give us the details that Matthew and Luke do. And as I said, it occurs early – it is one of the foundational events for Jesus’ ministry. The position lends to the idea that this passage is important – we’re meant to see it as important. What are we missing?
I return to the question – does this event cost Jesus something, or stress him, or push him, or bring him pain? It must, for it to truly be a temptation for him. So how can we unravel this passage and learn from it? If we look at the things that the devil asks Jesus to do, we can see that the devil doesn’t ask Jesus to do anything that it is outside of his power to do already. The devil encourages Jesus to turn stones into bread for food. Well, we witness in the scriptures Jesus turning water into wine and Jesus feeding crowds of thousands. If he can do this, we can reason that he could easily make stones into bread. The devil tells Jesus that he will give Jesus glory and authority over the kingdoms of the world if Jesus worships the devil. But Jesus speaks occasionally of his knowledge that if God had chosen, Jesus could indeed be an earthly king with earthly kingdoms to rule – he wouldn’t need this power from the devil. And the devil tells Jesus to test God by throwing himself from the pinnacle of the temple, insisting angels would rescue him. But Jesus has just come from hearing God say directly at his baptism that Jesus was God’s beloved son, that God was well-pleased with him – he didn’t need to test God – he had already experienced God’s love for him in a direct way.
So these things, these temptations aren’t tempting because Jesus can’t do them with the devil’s help. The devil offers Jesus nothing that isn’t already in his power. They are tempting because they are easy, and they would directly benefit Jesus, no one else, and they wouldn’t cost Jesus in the way that the path Jesus is on will cost him. What the devil offers is what Jesus already has and already can do, but in a short-cut way that corrupts and twists. What the devil asks Jesus to do is to forget who he is, what he is called to do, whose child he is, what his purpose is. Jesus knows what he’s come for – but the devil is trying to convince him that he can get essentially the same things in a supposedly easier way.
Pastor PJ Lockhart draws our attention to this certain phrase that the devil speaks. Lockhart writes, “Two simple letters “I” and “f” change everything. If you are the Son of God. The moment this little two letter word is stuck in front of the assertion that Jesus is the Son of God it brings into question the certainty of identity. If you are the Son of God.” The devil tries to call into question Jesus’ very identity, make him feel uncertain, make him doubt. “And the same uncertainty,” write Lockhart, “springs in to our lives as well, constantly harassing us with doubts as the word [if] turns statements into questions. If you are a good person? If you have faith? If you are loved by God? Two letters that take us from a place of security into a place of uncertainty and doubt. And from doubt into temptation.” (1) If you are, says the voice of temptation, urging Jesus – and us – to question our meaning, our purpose, ourselves, and God.
I think that the biggest temptations we face are not temptations that would lead us to lie, or steal, or eat too much, or abuse substances, or cheat – though of course these things can all be tough temptations. I think the biggest temptation is the temptation to forget, to be drawn away from, to be convinced we’ve been wrong about who we are, and what “who we are” means. It is easy to think more of what benefits us than what will help others. It is easier to be comfortable than to be challenged. It is easier to just glide along in life without really making an attempt to follow Jesus and live as he lived.
David Lose writes, “I would argue that temptation is not so often temptation toward something – usually portrayed as doing something you shouldn’t – but rather is usually the temptation away from something – namely, our relationship with God and the identity we receive in and through that relationship. Too often Christians have focused on all the things we shouldn’t do, instead of pointing us to the gift and grace of our identity as children of God. But the devil knows better. Notice how each of the temptations seeks to erode and undercut Jesus’ confidence in this relationship with God and therefore undermine Jesus’ identity … Bread, power, and safety. But it just as well might have been youth, beauty, and wealth. Or confidence, fame, and security. On one level, we experience specific temptations very concretely, but on another they are all the same, as they seek to shift our allegiance, trust, and confidence away from God and toward some substitute that promises a more secure identity … Consider the media barrage of advertising to which most of us are so regularly subjected. Nine times out of ten the goal of such ads is to create in us a sense of lack and inadequacy, followed by the implicit promise that purchasing the advertised product will relieve our insecurity … People are under assault every single day by tempting messages that seek to draw their allegiance from the God who created and redeemed them toward some meager substitute.” (2)
“If you are the Son of God,” the devil taunted. Jesus is tempted – but he remembers who he is. He is the one God sent to save God’s people – and Jesus can’t, won’t forget that. Jesus remembers always what he is meant to do. We are called to do likewise. Lent is a time to reject everything that is drawing us away from God. It is a time to turn back to God and the identity we have in God. That’s what it means to repent – to turn back to God. In Lent, we commit to rejecting the false messages. We reject the “if you are” voice of deception that tells us we are anything other than God’s, anything other than belonging to God, children of God, beloved of God. The next verse after our reading for today tells us that Jesus leaves the wilderness filled with the power of the Spirit. He was tempted. But he left the wilderness with a clear head and a willing heart. That’s what I hope for us. Our road to Easter is long. But I’m praying that we arrive there with clear heads, willing hearts, and the power of the Spirit. Amen.
(1) David Lose, http://www.davidlose.net/2016/02/lent-1-c-identity-theft/