“Trials & Temptations” Colchester Federated Church, March 6, 2022, (Luke 4:1-13) First Sunday in Lent

This morning we encounter Jesus right after his baptism.  Jesus is still basking in the glow of God’s acceptance (“You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness”).[1]  Luke tells us that Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit, and it is the Spirit that leads him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for forty days.  Lent begins with a physically weakened Jesus and a gloating, deceitful Satan facing off against each other.  Now we may have various images and ideas about the devil.  But whether we think of a literal being or a metaphor, evil exists.  And trials and temptations can trip us up on our own faith journeys.  So this Gospel story is open to interpretation, though the story of Jesus tempted in the wilderness presents scenarios that continue to play out.   

In the First Temptation, the devil goes right for the jugular.  The tempter says, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”[2]  Remember that Jesus just heard (seemingly for the first time) that he is God’s Son in whom God finds happiness.  The tempter immediately calls that holy moment of identity affirmation into question.  We can read between the lines and sense the sarcasm.  Jesus responds in this moment of vulnerability by quoting scripture: “People won’t live only by bread.”[3]  He passed his first trial by not doubting his identity and value as God’s own beloved child. 

In the Second Temptation, the devil leads Jesus up to a high place and instantly shows him all the kingdoms of the world.  The devil makes a power play: “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. Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.”[4]  If Jesus ruled all the kingdoms of the world, he would have ruled justly with mercy.  He could have set things right.  It would have been those kingdom of God values on earth as it is in heaven as he taught throughout his ministry.  But where would his power have come from?  Even though Jesus was good to his core, could he have ruled justly if he had to bow down to evil in order to gain that power?  Jesus overcomes this temptation by telling the devil that God alone should be worshipped and served.

In the Third Temptation, the devil takes Jesus to Jerusalem and they stand at the highest point of the temple.  The tempter again calls Jesus’ identity into question, “Since you are God’s Son” and tells Jesus to throw himself down.  For it is written in scripture: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you’ and ‘they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.’”  This is a test of heroism and questioning what kind of Messiah Jesus will be.  Will Jesus be the David-like king—a political leader who would once again establish Israel as a sovereign state?  Will Jesus be a priestly leader and provide authoritative interpretation of God’s law?  Will Jesus be a powerful spokesperson from God like Moses or the prophets and tell people the will of God?  Will Jesus be a supernatural or cosmic figure who would come to secure the victory of the Jewish nation over its oppressors through divine warfare or some other miraculous event?[5]  Or is Jesus going to be a Messiah folks never imagined—the Suffering Servant who will die on a Roman cross?  Jesus tells the devil in response to this temptation, “Don’t test the Lord your God.[6]  Jesus passed the final temptation by seeing through evil’s call to test God, and the devil leaves Jesus until the next opportunity would present itself.

Jesus didn’t teach or heal those in need to prove to anybody that he really was God’s Son or God’s self-revelation in our world.  Jesus didn’t need to have a chip on his shoulder because he already knew who he was.  He knew to whom he belonged.  Jesus was grounded in his identity as the Messiah and the Son of God, affirmed by God in the waters of baptism.  And because he knew who he was and what his life was about, Jesus worked his wonders to meet people right where they were.  To help other people see themselves as God’s beloved children, to see themselves and one another with the compassionate eyes of God.  To understand that their identity as God’s beloved defied any labels that others attempted to place on them.  The poor, outcasts, lepers, tax collectors, sinners—Jesus viewed the world with compassion.  Just as Jesus still meets us right where we are, abiding with us no matter what tempts us to stray from God’s naming and claiming of us.

In reflecting on this Gospel story Rev. William Sloane Coffin once preached at the Riverside Church, “There are many things I have done that I repent.  But they are as nothing compared to the good things I regret not having done.  To me, it’s not the lives we’ve lived, but our unlived lives that stand out, and that poison our existence . . . Our hands not only bring food to our mouths, they play the flute; they help us salute one another, and they help us address God.  We are extra-ordinary.  We do not live by bread alone.  So in this Lenten season, in our separate wildernesses, we have to ask ourselves whether the devil has not seduced us to sell ourselves short, to live only by the light of the obvious, to grab so greedily at today that we lose all tomorrows.”[7]

Throughout Lent we say a Prayer of Confession every Sunday.  There’s one meaningful prayer that comes to mind that asks God to forgive us for what we have done and for what we have left undone.  As William Sloane Coffin wondered, is it our unlived lives that actually stand out and poison our existence?  Regret can be debilitating.  Selling ourselves short can leave us bitter. 

In the church year, Lent is an especially good time to seek forgiveness and to bridge those areas of separation.  Lent is a time of reorientation.  Some people may give things up.  Others may take things on.  Whatever we may be embarking upon on our own spiritual journeys, we remember that now is a time of examination and deepening commitment.  Because we will have trials and temptations.  Perhaps it won’t be as dramatic as Jesus facing down evil in the wilderness.  Though we will have moments that challenge our self-understandings, how we wish to respond to adversity, and how we see one another.  Let this Gospel story give us courage.  And remember that there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love.  As Paul wrote to the Romans, “Not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created” can separate us from God’s love.[8]  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Luke 3:22, CEB.
[2] Luke 4:3.
[3] Luke 4:4.
[4] Luke 4:6-7.
[5] Notes from Systematic Theology II, Dr. Benjamin Valentine, Andover Newton Theological School, Spring Semester 2008.
[6] Luke 4:10-11 and Luke 4:12.
[7] William Sloane Coffin, “Eyeball to Eyeball with the Devil,” in The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Volume 2, pg. 11.
[8] Romans 8:38-39.

Photo by Lauren Lorincz on Unsplash