The season of Lent began this past Ash Wednesday. Lent is the journey from the ashes of death to the joy of the resurrected life on Easter. The days of Lent call us to turn around, to change directions, and to repent.
We are called to follow Jesus into the wilderness, to resist temptation, to fast, and to proceed “on the way” to Jerusalem and to the cross. Our Lenten journey is one of metanoia (“turning around”), of changing directions from self-serving toward the self-giving way of the cross.
Our gospel text from Luke this day begins our observance of Lent as we read of Jesus being led into the wilderness by the Spirit where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.
During the season of Lent, we prepare for Easter by recommitting our lives to following Christ. The “giving up” of things during Lent can be a significant spiritual practice of forgoing what suits us in order to focus more faithfully on what serves God. This is the kind of discipline that nurtures our capacity to subordinate our will to God’s will. But Lent is more than learning how to yield our will to God’s will. It also corresponds to the concern of strengthening our wills to withstand forces that would weaken our commitment to the sacred.
The Temptation of Jesus teaches that along with deciding what we might give up for Lent, we should also be determining ways to build up ourselves. Accordingly, through the example of Jesus’ experience in the wilderness, our scripture lesson (Luke 4:1-13) defines who and what we are up against and how we can stand against the one who would enlist us in going against the will of God. Who we are up against is the devil, whose stock in trade is false accusation and slander. By definition, the “devil” is one who intends to overthrow others by the hostile means of full-on verbal assault.
What we are up against is the way the devil mounts his verbal assault on Jesus. We tend to think of temptation in terms of being lured or seduced. But this only scratches the surface of what the devil is up to with Jesus.
The deeper meaning of “to tempt” involves testing character. In the case of the devil’s approach, the test is designed to trip up Jesus. The devil’s tone with Jesus throughout the passage is provocative, even taunting. This is especially evident in verse 3:
“If you are the Son of God tell this stone to become bread.”
And then again in verse 9:
“The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.’”
In both of these temptations, a more accurate translation isn’t “if” but “because,” so the phrase should read… “Because you are the Son of God ….”
Wasting no energy quibbling over Jesus’ title, the devil moves directly to the deeper challenge of calling into question and demanding tangible proof whether Jesus has authority and power sufficient to back up that title.
The devil is desperate enough to try taking on Jesus by way of proof texting, quoting Psalm 91:11-12. For it is written:
“He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”
The devil opposes Jesus from the very beginning. He provokes Jesus, appeals to Jesus’ pride, even resorts to selectively use of Scripture — all to no avail.
A common thread in this testing is how the devil tries to play on Jesus’ sense of worth. In the first test (vv. 3-4), Jesus is tempted to take care of his rightful needs. Next (vv. 5-8), Jesus is tempted with all earthly glory and authority just as he’s poised to launch an earthly ministry that will crown him with thorns and enthrone him on the cross. Then Jesus is tempted to flaunt his importance to God (vv. 9-12).
In each case, Jesus demonstrates that his sense of worth is intimately connected to the priority of trusting God and serving God’s purposes.
In light of today’s passage (Luke 4:1-13), perhaps the key to our giving up and building ourselves up during Lent is to make and renew our commitment to giving over — giving over ourselves to the priority of trusting God and serving God’s purposes.
The devil is a worthy adversary, but no match for Jesus. For Jesus is connected to the One from whom all blessings flow. In the long run, all the devil can offer is nothing worth having in the first place, no matter how tempting.
Just like Jesus, you and I know what it’s like to be tempted. We know what it’s like to have a hunger for something we want, something the advertisers say we need, but something that we know will serve only to distract or derail us. Click on that questionable Web site; spend that extra two dollars on a Power Ball ticket thinking that if we win all our problems will be solved; drown our sorrows through excessive drinking; run away from your problems; gossip behind the back of a coworker or a church member; ignore the kids… the list is endless.
Temptation is everywhere. And, like the smell of great food when our stomach is growling, its pull is strong. Jesus isn’t the only one who has Satan whispering in his ear.
So what do we do about temptation? How do we fight temptation and stay on track?
First, it begins with understanding what temptation truly is. Some people see temptation as evil, that is, they see the mere act of being tempted as sin. And the end result of that is that often followers of Jesus worry about the strength of their faith or the fullness of God’s Spirit in their lives because they feel the pull toward selling out to sin. However, when we look at the Scriptures, we see that this isn’t true at all.
Temptation was a part of life on God’s planet even before everything fell apart when sin entered the picture through the disobedience of Adam and Eve in Genesis (chapter 3). Likewise, we hear today of Jesus being tempted, and yet the Scriptures tell us he committed no wrong, that he “knew no sin.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Don’t treat yourself terribly because you’re tempted. It simply means you’re human. This isn’t to say that temptation shouldn’t be taken seriously. It may not be a sin, but it is a tool of the devil who, Scripture tells us, is “prowling around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). And if Satan can lure you in through subtle temptation or an overt call to an irrational sin, he will do it. Again, just look at Jesus. If the devil is bold enough to try to fool the Son of God, he surely isn’t intimidated by you and me.
Now temptation comes in countless forms. But no matter how it manifests for you, Satan’s goal is always the same:
To pull us away from a life that gives glory to God in exchange for a life of gratifying ourselves.
This is the tactic he tried with Jesus.
“Hey, Jesus, forget about following the plans of your Father. Feed your stomach instead. Stop submitting as a son. Instead, bow to me and grab some glory for yourself. Why do you trust all God’s plans in the first place? Jump from these heights and see if he has your best interest at heart.”
The goal of temptation, just like with Jesus, is to pull us off the mission of living a life that’s obedient to God and gives glory to God. Instead, Satan wants us to walk through life scratching every sinful itch and ultimately just gratifying ourselves.
Back to our question: So what are we to do? Well, the antidote to temptation isn’t to assert more willpower. As if, we have it within us to resist every single sin, if only we try hard enough.
Some might argue that the best defense is to barricade ourselves from as many evil influences as possible. Cancel the cable; pull the plug on the PC; no cell phones; no texting; home school the kids; pull away from society, and by so doing we will be able to avoid all worldly temptation.
The only trouble is that Satan can infiltrate that “world” as well. He followed Jesus into the desert; he’ll follow you, too.
Seriously, what do we do?
If we look back to Luke, we see that Jesus decides to fight temptation in a very specific way. He didn’t assert his power, although he could have. He didn’t flee, although it was an option. Instead, Jesus fought temptation with truth. He fought temptation with the truth of God’s word. With each of Satan’s offers, Jesus answered by pointing Satan to the promises and standards of the one true God.
As temptation tries to pull us from God, the greatest antidote we have — our lifeline — is the truth of God.
When temptation shades our eyes and clouds our minds, God’s “word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path” (Psalm 119:105). We can’t truly live by feeding our hunger, by devouring the bread or by savoring the joy of food alone. We truly live only when we feast on the things of God.
The season of Lent is the time for us to repent and receive the Good News that in Jesus Christ we are both forgiven, and given a chance to become a new person, to make a fresh start. This is true for us individually and it is also true for us as God’s church, this community of faith.
Lent is the season for reflection and repentance. It invites us to look inside our hearts, seeing ourselves with both compassion and truth — to see both our brokenness and our beauty, both our failings and our faithfulness. In this season, we are invited and encouraged to enter into a deeper commitment to the ways of Jesus.
There’s something else here, something incredibly important for us to understand. During his time under the pressure of temptation, Jesus didn’t budge. He didn’t sway. He endured. He did it not only to stay on task, but he did it for each one of us. We give in to temptation all the time. Jesus never gave in once. But where we have fallen down, Jesus succeeded.
Therefore, when we fall to temptation and prove ourselves unfaithful, we have the ability to hold on to the faithfulness of Jesus. We can cry out to God, saying,
“I have fallen, but your Son is strong. I am rebellious, but he is obedient. Forgive me for his sake, and set me again on his path.”
In Jesus Christ, we have been given the assurance that there is forgiveness, that there is mercy, and that there is grace abundant for all of us.
May we model the strength of Jesus; May we run to the truth like Jesus, but most of all, when we fall, may we feast on the forgiveness found in Jesus.