February 14, 2016

Where for Forty Days He Was Tempted by the Devil

Passage: Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13
Service Type:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.



In 1738, the English literary giant Samuel Johnson wrote in his diary: "Oh Lord, enable me to redeem the time which I have spent in sloth." Nineteen years later, he wrote, "Oh mighty God, enable me to shake off sloth and redeem the time misspent in idleness and sin by diligent application of the days yet remaining."  He wrote some variation of this prayer every year after that.  Finally, in 1775, 38 years after his first resolution, he wrote, "When I look back upon resolution of improvement and amendments which have, year after year, been made and broken, why do I yet try and resolve again? I try because reformation is necessary and despair is criminal."


According to one British survey the average length of time a person can expect to keep their New Year resolution is around three and a half weeks.  Today, we are just over seven weeks into the New Year—how are you doing with resolutions?  For many Christians Lent is a season for making something like resolutions—a commitment to take up or set aside.  Lent commitments are for only 40 days—and even these are not easily followed.  


For many Ontario university students this coming week is reading week marking the halfway point of the winter semester.  For a number of these students graduation day is already in their calendar. Preparations are well-underway for that exciting moment of receiving a degree with your name on it. Speeches are being written for such events commending high hopes for these graduating students in the careers that are potentially before them.  I wonder how close the vision painted in the graduation speech matches the actual experience of students.  Do you remember your hopes at graduation from high school or college or university? Has you experience been as anticipated on that day?  We launch with high hopes.  


What is it about we humans in things like our resolutions, Lenten commitments, and career visions that seem so easily derailed?  Why do we struggle to keep them? In fact whenever we purpose or resolve some good course of action or worthy undertaking we find that very soon after we encounter something that is deliberately aimed at throwing us off course.  Why are things like this so difficult?  There are no books about how to fail but countless about how to succeed.  Why do we need so much advice on succeeding?


  1.  They gospel story of the temptation of Jesus comes on the heels of a graduation story, in a manner of speaking.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke place this story of wilderness temptation or testing (the Greek word means both English words), in immediate proximity to the baptism story.  The baptism of Jesus is the event that marks Jesus’ launch into his preaching, teaching, and healing ministry.  The voice from heaven confirms it all like the diploma that confers the rights and privileges of the degree “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  This is the heady moment of launch looking forward to all that is the potential of this beloved Son.  “Full of the Holy Spirit”, is how Luke describes this man Jesus coming up out of the waters of baptism now on his way from the Jordon to the world before him,


Immediately, it seems, Jesus finds himself in the wilderness. The question for Jesus is what kind of son will this Beloved turn out to be.  It did not take very long for the opposition to confront him.  The enemy who would deflect him off course is ready to hand.  Like us, the heady days of plans and resolves are soon met with discouragement and temptation aimed at deflecting off course and those deliberately so.  


As we explore this story keep this overarching theme in mind —Jesus is the one human being not deflected from his course by this opposition.  The gospel writers want hearers to know that we can trust Jesus.  The tempter threw everything he had at our Lord to no avail.  The gods of Roman and Greek culture were full of treachery and flawed character.  The vaunted ones of our own culture all have clay feet.  Jesus stands out as wholly different in this respect.


What is at stake for Jesus in the wilderness is our salvation.  His life and ministry is for our sakes and if he is deflected at this point our salvation is lost.  If he takes the self-indulgent road of serving himself by making bread we are lost from sight.  If he follows after any god promising power and influence it is over even if he rationalizes that he can use that power to help the poor and the marginalized.  If he waivers in his faith in the one he calls the Father—“jump and see if God will really not let your foot be dashed against a stone,” whispered the tempter, “test and see if God will really com e through”—if Jesus succumbs to this seed of doubt then he will be consumed in the wilderness.  Our Lord does not waiver.  Luke assures us that evil will have no charge over the Son.  The evil one cannot prevail against Christ and therefore cannot ultimately prevail against his people who are “in him,” even though the evil one does plenty of harassing.


The untold story in our world today is the persecution of Christians.  Christians are the victims of 80% of all acts of religious discrimination in the world.  The martyrdom of Christians in the last hundred years has been utterly unseen in history. The last century brought more Christian martyrs than in all the 19 centuries which preceded it.  The evil one is doing plenty of harassing of our Lord’s people.  (See the Under Caesar’s Sword website sponsored by the University of Notre Dame—Reg Reimer listed as one of their scholars on this subject.)


  1. Alan Jacobs is a professor of humanities at Baylor University.  He teaches English and was commenting on the assumptions of fiction literature with regard to the question of what we ought to do.  He was comparing the works of modern writers to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. (The Lord of the Rings.)  Jacobs wrote: “Modern liberalism likes to think that all our problems are epistemological: we are afflicted by never knowing with sufficient clarity what we ought to do. Our fictions tend to reflect that assumption. Tolkien, not being a modern liberal, thought it more interesting to explore situations when people know what they need to know but may lack the strength of will to act on that knowledge. He might say, and with some justification, that contemporary literary fiction is not simplistic in regard to such problems but oblivious to them.”

When we read this first century story of Jesus it is clear that the assumptions about what we ought to do are very different from today’s assumptions.  Jesus is very clear about what he ought to do; he does not lack information.  Further, the tempter’s assaults do not imply that it was information Jesus lacked.  The doors the tempter tries to slide through are natural desires (hunger), thirst for power and influence, and certainty about God’s goodness.  


The assumption of the gospel is that there is something gone askew in the human clogging up the works.  We have talked of this before with regard to the freedom the gospel promises the believer.  Gospel freedom is attained when a thing realizes its own true nature.  According to gospel humans are not free, free to live according to our true nature.  Something clogs up the works.  According to the scripture the clog-up is massive; the clutter and debris is called sin.  And because we are not free to live according to our true nature—the nature God created the human to thrive with—we are frustrated with doing what we know to be right, derailed from achieving hopes and dreams, and find it challenging to make a change for the forty days of Lent.


The promise of the gospel is that in relationship with Christ he promises to set us free.  And this freeing is experienced as a process over the course of a life as we walk in company with him.  The writer of Hebrews tells us that in Jesus we know the “one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”  (Hebrews 4:15) If following him we are ever being shaped into his image.


There is more assumed in this gospel story.  It assumes that there is an enemy who actively seeks our undoing—who promotes human misery, taking advantage of the corruption of the human heart purposely deflecting people from ever realizing their true nature.  Jesus takes the reality of the devil for granted when he taught us to pray, “deliver us from the evil one.” Note that in this story we see Jesus’ complete victory over the tempter.  The Apostle Paul reminds followers of Jesus that “No testing (temptation) has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13).  Listen again for this promise the opening lines of Psalm 91, “You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”


  1.  I invite you to consider another assumption this story makes in regard to the temptation of our Lord.  Note with me how seriously Jesus takes this encounter.  Our culture may not take Satan seriously but Jesus does.  You may wonder why Jesus would make such a big deal over what looks to us relatively minor—turning a stone into a loaf of bread.  While indeed we do not live by bread alone we still need bread to live.  And he needed bread at the end of his fast.  Is this not the same one who would multiply loaves and fishes to feed 5000?  So why not a wee loaf of bread for himself?


Think about air flight for a moment.  A small, even slight, change in compass settings makes a huge difference with respect to where you end; if you were mapping a straight line route from Toronto to Tel Aviv (Israel) that it only takes a slight degree change in the headings and you would end up in Moscow.  The course trajectory would not look like much at the end of the first kilometer but it is ever so vast after some hours of travel.  Our Lord can see what we cannot or will not see.  If I make an excuse to be self-serving today will I be able to reign it back in tomorrow?  Experience teaches us otherwise.  We may regard such things as small matters—our Lord shows us otherwise.


  1. Notice with me as well that Jesus assumes Satan to be a liar—that is his starting point.  You know that the Bible contains lies don’t you?  Of course you do because it records some of Satan’s lies for us.  Take the whopper he told in the garden of Eden—“and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  He tells another in the wilderness to Jesus.  The devil didn’t “misspeak,” he lied.  “The devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world, and then said ‘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. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”  This is a lie—it isn’t his to give.


Jesus called the devil the father of lies because this is his nature. (John 8:44) Think about any of the small “g” gods asking for your allegiance promising to satisfy your heart’s desire—wealth, fame, popularity, indulgence of appetite, power, or prestige.  You can assume what Jesus does about all small “g” gods—they are liars.  Only in relationship with the living God can your true human nature flourish and thrive.  All other cheap imitators consume people and diminish life.  Take it from Jesus—they are all liars.


  1.  The story is told of a certain African tribe that learned an easy way to capture ducks in a river. The tribesmen learned to go upstream, place a pumpkin in the river, and let it slowly float down into the flock of ducks. At first, the cautious fowl would quack and fly away. After all, it wasn't ordinary for pumpkins to float down the river! But the persistent tribesmen would subsequently float another pumpkin into the re-gathered ducks. Again they would scatter, only to return after the strange sphere had passed. Again, the hungry hunters would float another pumpkin. This time the ducks would remain, with a cautious eye on the pumpkin, and with each successive passing, the ducks would become more comfortable, until they finally accepted the pumpkins as a normal part of life.


When the natives saw that the pumpkins no longer bothered the ducks, they hollowed out pumpkins, put them over their heads, and walked into the river. Hello dinner!!


I am not saying that Satan is the guy with the pumpkin on his head.  I am asking you to note that Jesus remains ever wary seeing through whatever disguise the tempter chooses and will not entertain his lies—complete and utter rejection.  May our Lord’s vigilance be ours.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.