February 14, 2016 - Luke 4.1-13

“40 Days”

Luke 4:1-13

February 14, 2016


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.


When we read or hear the temptation story, we need to try to clear the clutter from the mind's table and look carefully at what is reported, as if hearing it for the first time. Jesus is not caught off guard; he is not trying to avoid the devil. He has willingly walked right into the devil's lair; the Spirit actually lured him there.


The good news in this text certainly isn't that we see ourselves in Jesus. He was made of sterner stuff than we are. We would probably turn rocks into bread and figure out how to feed ourselves and the world. We would be delighted if God would keep us from falling. We would trust ourselves to wield power over the world.


But Jesus declined. He did no grabbing. There would be no razzle-dazzle for this One who came to give himself for us. On his way to teach, heal, and suffer crucifixion, Jesus was tested, and our blessing is that he was faithful.


Often, a person is defined by what they do, what they affirm, what will cause he or she to say “yes”.  It is one of the most astute way of determining a person’s character and beliefs.  What a person will accept, agree to do, will also tell you a lot about who they are.


In the same way that what a person is defined by will he or she will say “yes” to, a person is defined by what will make him or her say “no”.  In this text today, we find out an awful lot about Jesus by looking closely at what makes him say “no.”


Jesus is led into the Wilderness.  Why?  The symbolic significance of the 40 days and the wilderness.  40 – days and night of rain, years the Israelites wandered, the gestation period of pregnancy, - tribulation, trial, test.  Wilderness – Elijah, Moses, John the Baptist – wilderness was a place of testing.


Our Contemporary imagination of this event is wrong.  Devil – smoky, with horns, demon, smelling of sulfur.  Jesus – calm, cool, fresh breath, clean.  Reality is much different.  Jesus was weakened physically and Satan was offering good things.


Satan does not attack Jesus, assault him or abuse him.  He does not try and possess him or havoc on his physical body. 


Satan makes three temptations:

  1. Is a physical temptation, end hunger.  What gift is more basic than bread to a hungry person?  Most of us spend most of our day working for bread – the necessities of life.  Most of our human productivity is tied to economic production.  We have just finished riding the crest of the greatest wave of economic prosperity in our country’s history.  There has been a lot of bread.  Jesus’ response to Satan’s offer?  NO.
  2. Is a political temptation for real power.  Wouldn’t it be an end to the government corruption in the world if Jesus were in charge?  Yes!  Jesus is being tempted to just take charge and fix it all!  Have you ever known or heard anyone say that they wanted power to do bad things?  Power is always given for noble things like economic development, or national self-determination or providing people with their rights.  All noble.  We certainly live in a time that because we have so much bread, and have so much free time, that we end up seeking power, too.  We want power to live our lives like we please, to customize our lifestyles.  We admire people who have power and can use it, and we have contempt for leaders who seem powerless.  Jesus is tempted to take power and rule righteously.  His answer?  NO.
  3. Is a religious temptation – let them see your wonderful works and they will be convinced!  Jesus is offered religion.  Spiritual Showbiz.  Success!!  Imagine the numbers!!  There is a great deal of interest today in spectacular religion, religion that works.  Wouldn’t it be a good thing for everyone to know what Jesus is capable of, who he really is in the scheme of things?  What is Jesus’ answer?  NO.


This is the first time Jesus is in “action” in Luke’s gospel.  And he chooses to define himself not by what he affirms, but by what he will NOT do.  Interesting. 


With Jesus three “No’s” he puts himself at odds with three of the most cherished possessions of this culture – money and possessions, power and religion.  Our world does not train us up to tell ourselves “no.”  Our world tells us to tell ourselves “yes” to anything we want.  “As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone...well, anyone we know.”  Self-denial is treated like an oxymoron in our culture.  People have not learned, in our culture, to do what it takes to live up to our principles.  It is unthinkable in our culture to deny ourselves something if we have the means to get it.  It doesn’t even cross our minds that it might be better for us not to have it.


George Washington – Historian was asked, “What was the key event of the American Revolution?”  When Washington laid down his sword and retired as Commander in Chief of the Army.  “It is one thing to begin a revolution, but it is an even greater thing to sustain a revolution.  Many would have been happy if Washington would have installed himself as a benevolent dictator.  His refusal to be a king or pseudo-king was the greatest moment of our revolution.”


Thomas Jefferson – knew in his heart and mind the real evils of slavery.  He spoke out against it and wrote against it as well.  Yet until his death, Jefferson could not bring himself to free his slaves.  He knew it was wrong, but for whatever reasons, he could not say “no”. 


Jesus did not succumb to temptation because God had a plan for him and he followed it.  Jesus was charged with a specific task and was going to do it the way God intended.  Why didn’t Jesus make the bread?  Because there was always a reason for him to do a miracle, and filling his own belly wasn’t it.  Why didn’t Jesus take charge of our governments?  Perhaps God wants us to learn how to govern justly in the will of God.  Why didn’t Jesus show himself in a dazzling way?  Same reason he didn’t come off the cross.  The cross was necessary, and it is necessary that we choose to come to Jesus. Jesus told Satan “NO.”


Opportune time.  Sounds ominous.  He will return.  Satan may even use scripture against us, like he did with Jesus.  The things will sound good.  They will make sense.  We will not be able to resist just like Jesus did, with just the right answer, but we will have the answer in our vocabulary – “NO”.  So remember the words of the hymn we sang earlier – A mighty fortress is our God, Martin Luther.  “The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him...one little word shall fell him.”  And what is that little word?  NO.


Can you hear the background music to this story? Jesus' combat with the devil mirrors Israel's testing in the wilderness. They grumbled and plunged into idolatry. Fortunately for us all, Jesus passed the test they failed.

Jesus' battle also recalls the Garden of Eden episode. Adam and Eve crumbled swiftly under the pressure of temptation. Lucky for us, Jesus did not seize the apple, and his victory is our salvation.

Even the noblest, most spiritual among us will never achieve what Jesus did for us. St. Francis once embarked on a forty-day fast. On day thirty-nine, in order to avoid the temptation to vainglory, he ate a crust of bread. Yet hidden in the battle itself may be some comfort: Martin Luther believed that being wooed by evil was a sign you were in sync with Jesus.

That hollowness we sometimes feel is not a sign of something gone wrong. It is the holy of holies inside of us, the uncluttered throne room of the Lord our God. Nothing on earth can fill it, but that does not stop us from trying. Whenever we start feeling too empty inside, we stick our pacifiers into our mouths and suck for all we are worth. They do not nourish us, but at least they plug the hole.  To enter the wilderness is to leave them behind, and nothing is too small to give up. Even a chocolate bar will do. What is going on when you crave a chocolate bar? Are you hungry? Well, what is wrong with being hungry? Are you lonely? What is so bad about being alone? Try sitting with the feeling instead of fixing it and see what you find out . . . Then tell the devil to get lost.[1]


Notice how Jesus responds to temptation, to evil, not with his own brains or muscle, but with scripture. Ready with a verse for any occasion, Jesus was "armed with the sword of the Spirit" (Eph 6:17), knowing the Bible isn't something nice or spiritually neat. It's a matter of life and death, of having half a chance to fend off evil, or the seductive lure of our culture . . . so we constantly read, re-read, memorize, and make the scripture the spectacles through which we see the world.


The devil's ploy, quoting from the Bible (Ps 91:11-12) should give us pause, and sober us up about simplistic ways of veering to scripture.

Notice how the devil is using the Bible for his own selfish purpose, instead of letting himself be used by the Bible, letting it perform its corrective surgery. We do not exercise authority over scripture; scripture exercises authority over us. "The Devil in effect said that the promise of God in scripture applied to anyone, at any time and place, regardless of circumstances, if that person would only claim them" (Charles Talbert).


Jesus himself refuses rule over the earth! Jesus "did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant" (Phil 2:6). Our downfall is when we try to be God instead of letting God be God (Gen 3:5). For all of us, the more we have, the more stuff we accumulate, the more personal clout we wield, the graver our spiritual danger. Jesus is the true inheritor of the earth, its ultimate lord, but he exercises that lordship not by possessing but by emptying himself, not by heavy-handed controlling but by leaving creation to be itself, free, vulnerable.

Luke adds that the devil "departed from him until an opportune time" (Lk 4:13). Evil lurks, waiting for an opening. But Jesus' ministry can now begin - and he can call us to repent and be faithful, for he did maintain his focused obedience under severe assault. The devil pounced again, and often, finally assailing Jesus in his crucifixion. But that torment is God's love for us, and healing balm for us who have been pierced from behind by talons, and the invitation to stick near this one on whom the dove descended so he, and we, would be armed for the hour of testing.

  Thank God we are free.  Thank God that we can resist temptation.  But praise be to God that we are given grace and mercy when we fail and can be forgiven.


[1] (Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way, Cowley, 1999, p. 67 ff.)

  April 2018  
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