1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where 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. 3 The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." 4 Jesus answered him, "It is written, "One does not live by bread alone.' " 5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And 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. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." 8 Jesus answered him, "It is written, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.' " 9 Then 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, 10 for it is written, "He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' 11 and "On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.' " 12 Jesus answered him, "It is said, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' " 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
“Lead us not into temptation” we will pray in a few minutes, and surely we must mean something more than do not put a extra piece of that chocolate cake in front of us. Indeed, there must be more at stake than our waistlines, important though they may be. What does it mean to be tempted? And not just tempted, but tempted specifically as a Christian person, as one who has been claimed by the Christ in that baptismal flood? After all, if we are to look to the culture around us for clues on what temptation means and why it must be resisted, we will, no doubt, be left with more emptiness and confusion than we started with. Dare I say this, but it is my hunch that the culture around us has totally lost any notion of what genuine temptation means, and believe me, I know that 30 years old is way too young to be a curmudgeon, though please hear me out. We have, it seems to me, lost the gravity of temptation in two steps. First, we have come to think of temptation as only those things that are related to our bodily appetites-- plates of food dripping with rich, buttery sauces, an attractive man or woman, a really good bottle of wine or a really large amount of beer. And then, because we have, collectively, lost any sense that maybe some form of discipline and not indulgence is the way into happiness, we go ahead and take whatever we feel we deserve. Life is short we say, tomorrow is far from promised, so why not take what small thrills are afforded us in the present moment? In this, we see succumbing to temptation as a sort of illicit, though I cannot imagine who is objecting, way to fill our lives with meaning and joy, fleeting though they may be, a little luxury to get us through the grind of our daily lives. So according to a different creed, we eat; we drink; we are merry, as tomorrow we die.
And the point I want to make this morning is that I don’t think any of the above is a helpful way to understand what it is to be tempted as Christian. Certainly there is a good and holy discussion to be had about what it means to live out our discipleship in the midst of our creaturehood, to ask what it means to be a Christian with all sorts of good and God-given appetites, but that discussion is not the first and most helpful way into today’s text. Because there is nothing frivolous or luxurious about the temptation that we see in today’s text. Here Jesus is, led by the Holy Spirit to the wilderness. 40 days alone, 40 days apart from the comforts of family or home or friends and loved ones, to say nothing of a regular and timely meal. 40 days to sit in utter reliance on God, the creator and sustainer of all things. And so when the devil comes to Jesus, by this point famished, and makes the very reasonable suggestion that he use his divine power to procure a bit of bread, there is much at stake. What hangs in the balance in this first temptation and will carry over to the second and third is this: what does it mean to actually trust in God? You’ll notice that the devil, in his craftiness, does not ask Jesus to give up being faithful or anything like it. Instead, he attempts to twist the meaning of words and sentiments to take what is good and God-given and bend it towards his own ends. “If you are the Son of God, why not demonstrate that power and create a bit of bread? Clearly, Jesus, you are a pious soul, so why not worship me and get a little more out of the bargain than 40 days in the desert? Oh, God has promised to protect you? Well, just to make sure that is true, why not a bit of base-jumping to make sure that God is still paying attention?” You can see the deception at work, can’t you? The point is to twist and corrupt this faith, this trust, step-by-conniving-step, so that Jesus is fooled into thinking that he needs more evidence than what he already has. The strategy of the devil, the form of the temptation, is finally to try to expose God’s promises to Jesus as not being enough. To call to question the proclamation at his baptism, to make it so that the Holy Spirit’s nearness to Jesus in the wilderness is insufficient, and in all of this, to take Jesus’ faith and twist it until there is nothing left at all.
All this, then, brings us back to the state of our own temptedness. No we are not Jesus and we will not, are not tempted with this same intensity. That is left for him alone. However, as those baptized into Christ, as those who share of his life with the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit, we can expect the temptations to come. And no doubt, they come to us in our own wilderness experiences, when the things that gave us stability, meaning, a sense of the future, yes, when even these begin to crumble. And that can come in the form of a health scare or a divorce, or a severe downsizing at work, or a suddenly rocky relationship with a family member, or 14 days in a row without any time off, or any number of other circumstances that we all face and endure. And when these afflictions overcome us, the first thing the devil will try and take is our trust in God. “Oh, God loves and cares for you,” he will whisper in our ears, “why is it that you still can’t find a job or that your mother is not well?” Yes, this is the way the devil will tempt us, by trying to take away the trust in God that the Holy Spirit has created within us. He, that is the devil, will try and tell us that the evidence just doesn’t match up. That the good things of God, the Word, the holy meal, the communion of saints who comfort us, the joyful service of the neighbor to which we are called, that these aren’t as real as the pain and trials that we go through, and in this we are tempted, one niggling doubt at a time, to lose our trust in God’s goodness, and this is, no doubt, is much more serious than that extra piece of cake.
But these trials and temptations, these by no means must lead to those sins of despair and unbelief. Though we ourselves are overcome by such things, the God who is near to us in Christ is not. No, this God can silence these doubts and temptations by his strong presence and mighty word. This is why the devil is so quickly defeated in Jesus’ temptation. While the devil might be able to take and twist around the words of God, he himself cannot create them or withstand them. In the words of Luther’s finest hymn, “One little word subdues him.” And as St. Paul writes that Word, that Word which alone is your salvation and your comfort, that Word which comes to you in the flesh of Jesus the Christ, that Word which envelopes and guards you from all evil, that “word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” And that Word is strong enough to guide and protect in all the wildernesses through which you must pass. So cling to this Word this Jesus as he cling to you, and know that he has withstood all temptation and pain on your behalf. Know his mere presence is enough to scatter the powers of darkness. So fear not when the wilderness comes or when God leads you out there. For you are only being led that your faith may grow and you may return with deeper love for God, neighbor and all creation. In Jesus’ name, amen.