1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." 4 But he answered, "It is written, "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.' " 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, "He will command his angels concerning you,' and "On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.' " 7 Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' " 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." 10 Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.' " 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
And Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Welcome, then, dear people of God, to the first Sunday in Lent, the season in which we move ever more near the cross and the empty tomb. Yes, that is where this story, our story, is going to end up, but that is not where it begins. Instead, it begins in two places, both fraught with the same problem. Yes, for this Sunday, we are back in the Garden of Eden with our primordial parents and simultaneously with Jesus in the wilderness, as he does battle with the devil. Now, these may seem like entirely different stories with different results, and that is true, especially in Jesus’ victory over the devil in this case, but the very nature of the temptation that they all three undergo is essentially the same. Yes, we pray weekly that God would “lead us not into temptation” but what is the real substance of that plea?
Now, often it is the case that we think about temptation in terms of illicit or inappropriate behavior. From this way of thinking, temptation is basically the bodily urge to do something that we know is not in our best interest: we sneak some food that is banned by our diets, we have one more drink than we probably should, we mutter a gossiping word about someone we do not like, or our gaze at that attractive co-worker is just a second too long. Temptation, in this way of thinking, is an issue of morality. To fall into temptation is to act in a certain way. This can be a helpful way to think about temptation, but I think our stories are after something more fundamental. Temptation, at least according to the two stories that stand in front of us, is first an issue of how one relates to God before it is an issue what one does in the world. What hangs in the balance, then, is whether God is to be trusted, or if we should go it alone. This, as we will see, is a much more complicated ordeal than whether or not one should order dessert.
Take, if you will the story of Adam and Eve, and notice please how the serpent begins what the process of Adam and Eve’s collective ruin. In response to Eve telling the serpent what God has said about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the serpent plants a seed of doubt in Eve’s vulnerable mind. “No, what God has told you is actually incorrect” says the serpent, and “my advice is far more trustworthy. God is not setting for you a loving boundary but rather is jealously guarding power that very well could be yours.” The serpent, then, convinces Adam and Eve that God is withholding something from them, that God’s motives are not entirely pure and there just might be a way into a power and wisdom that makes being a creature seem petty and trivial by comparison. Yes, the rhetorical strategy that the serpent employs is one that cuts directly to the heart of the matter: is God to be trusted?
In the same way, when the devil comes to Jesus in the wilderness, that particular force of evil tries to undo what God has just done. You see, immediately prior to Jesus’ temptation is his baptism, that whole scene in which the heavens are torn wide open and God declares Jesus His beloved Son. So, it is no accident that the devil gets right down to business. Yes, if you are the Son of God, that is, if God is actually to be trusted, surely you can command these stones to become bread, after all, that sounds like something the Son of God would be able to do, does it not? Or if you are indeed God’s Son, no doubt the angels will protect you in all things and so why not show off a bit of that divinity and be rescued by angels mid-sky dive? Or finally, that whole Son of God title is a pretty powerful bartering chip, certainly worth a multi-million dollar off-shore bank account, provided that you will switch sides and worship me. Yes, the temptation here is fundamentally the same as what Adam and Eve undergo. Is the God that just proclaimed Jesus the son of God, the same God that established limits for Adam and Eve, is this God to be trusted?
Before it is anything else, temptation is the urge to reject God’s Word as sufficient for our lives of faith. Accordingly, temptation is a tragedy before it is an invitation to immoral behavior, however we come to define that. Yes, temptation is that voice that ensnares us in the middle of the night, telling us that the love that has found and named us in Christ just may not be as reliable as we think. Temptation is the urge to ask for some evidence, a little bit of stone turned to bread perhaps, or the deeper urge to step over the limits that God has established and to ask for things that are not ours but God’s. Yes, when the temptation takes hold of us, it is then that we are ever so vulnerable to forces of decay and destruction, forces that tell us we will never be good enough or loveable enough for God or for other people. When we operate out of that fear and insecurity, we will chase after whatever illusions we believe may grant us some measure of security, as we frantically try and become people of worth and value. To be sure, there is a void in us that we try and fill one way or another, but there is not enough money, or prestige or knowledge in the world to make us genuinely secure. Yes, this is the temptation, this is the tragedy that waits to everywhere ensnare us.
While we might, then, believe that we must take up arms against this old foe on our own, nothing could be further from the case. No, we will not be tempted or tested like Jesus, as none of us here are the Messiah, but the manner in which Jesus defeats the devil is of paramount importance. You will notice that when the devil attempts to unnerve Jesus, to make him question who he is as the Beloved Son, Jesus quotes Scripture to him; which is to say that while the devil tries to lead Jesus away from his identity as God’s son, Jesus plants his feet firmly in the Word of God. Jesus returns to the source of his identity, the God of the Word, and this is enough to keep the forces of evil at bay. How true this reality is for us. Yes, when we are tempted to believe that we are not beloved children of God, when we are tempted to believe that who we are is a matter of how much we have, or when we are tempted to see our neighbor as a competitor and a threat, yes, when the temptation comes as come it must, you have this to remember: Christ named you as his own in your baptisms. Christ gives you his body and blood, and Christ dwells in your hearts through faith. He comes to you in the promises that you hear in this place. All this he does so that you may never be alone or forget that you are his beloved people, children of his own redeeming. This does not take the struggle away. In this life, sin and temptation are real threats, and to state otherwise is to venture into a dangerous denial. So yes, the danger and the fear will remain as long as we have breath in our lungs. But this is not cause of despair or a reason to succumb to the urge that we are alone. No, for the God who goes to the cross is with us. Yes, Christ is with you. He is with you in your struggles and fears; he is with you when you cannot sleep for worries over this life. He is with you to proclaim to you this one word, over and over again: you are my own, my beloved. So when the temptation comes, stand defiantly against it and tell it this one thing: I belong to Christ and in him I am forever free. For as Martin Luther was wrote: “this one little word subdues him.” In Christ’ name, amen.