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Luke 4:1-13

Luke 4:1-13 has three distinct groupings of verses: 1-4; 5-8; and 9-13. Each contain a different vignette featuring Jesus and the devil. A similar pattern persists throughout: the devil speaks to Jesus and/or leads him to a specific place, tells Jesus what he should do, and Jesus refuses by quoting scripture from Deuteronomy 6 and 8 (“It is written…”).

Until this chapter, Luke provides important biographical information about Jesus. Luke ties Jesus’ conception and birth to the story of John the Baptist who turns “…many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God” with “the spirit and power of Elijah… (Luke 1:16-17).” This, combined with Jesus’ miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit, the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth, the angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth, and Jesus’ own baptism in which he is named as “the Beloved,” make it clear by chapter 4 that Jesus is the Messiah. However, this chapter begins to describe in more detail the kind of Messiah Jesus is.

The three vignettes in verses 1-13 create one cohesive picture showing Jesus as the one who refuses to wield power for his own benefit. Luke Timothy Johnson writes, “As to the content of the temptations, each involves a seizure of palpable power: the theurgic ability to change the elements of creation, the political and military control of humans, the capacity to force God’s protection.”[1] The devil suggests that Jesus should assuage his hunger by turning rocks into bread (Luke 4:3). Jesus should use his divine agency to provide for himself in order to eliminate his own suffering. When he refuses, the devil recommends that Jesus should pursue “glory and all this authority” by worshiping the devil himself. By bowing to the one who has been given power over “the kingdoms of the world,” Jesus could become a great political leader who utilizes worldly power to accomplish his messianic agenda. When Jesus rightly judges that worshiping anyone other than “the Lord your God” is unacceptable, the devil recommends using the temple for an elaborate publicity stunt. Jesus should throw himself off the Temple roof, trusting that such a grand display will show the people that he is indeed “the Beloved” as God’s angels save him from certain death. 

For those of us who have already planned to follow the Lectionary’s Lukan theme through the beginning of Lent, we will probably need to preach this scripture in its entirety on a single Sunday. This is certainly possible as all three vignettes do create a single picture of Jesus as the one who uses his power to be obedient to the Father rather than meet his own needs or accomplish his own political and religious agenda. However, if we have the flexibility to preach this passage over the course of three Sundays, we might discover some opportunities to tailor our preaching more directly to our context.

The first vignette (vv. 1-4) contains at least two entry points for preaching. The first is Jesus’ location in “the wilderness.” Many significant biblical themes connect here: the “formless void” of the creation story, an angel speaks to Hagar in the wilderness, the Israelites wander in the wilderness after the Exodus, “…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness (Luke 3:2b).” Though barren places seem particularly hostile to humans, these are the places where God seems to consistently show up throughout scripture. The second entry point comes into view when we realize that, despite the adverse conditions present there, the wilderness is part of God’s creation. Perhaps this is why Jesus refuses to use a stone, part of the created order, to meet his own needs. Jesus rejects the temptation to assuage his own desire by using his power to mine creation for whatever material good benefits him.

The second vignette challenges the suggestion that we preachers ought not to say anything about politics from the pulpit. Here, Jesus is confronted with the possibility of accomplishing his agenda through the kingdoms of the world. What makes this passage particularly preach-able is that it gets to the heart of the Church’s problem with globalized neoliberal political systems: while these systems ask nothing less of us than the devotion of our whole selves to the “free” market, Jesus reorients our devotion by calling the church to reevaluate whatever faith it may have in presidents and parliaments. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him (Luke 4:8b).” During a time when Christians might find themselves bogged down in trite political rhetoric, Jesus cuts through the noise with a refreshing reality check: only the Lord is worthy of our worship and devotion.

The third vignette invites preachers to proclaim the good news about “trust.” To trust in God is often considered virtuous especially when it is attached to people who are perceived as doing that which is “heroic.” We need to trust in God when we feel we are beyond our limits. While this is true for pastors and lay people alike, we rarely ask how we arrived beyond our limits. Has God led us there? Or have we exerted heroic effort because it makes us look good, feel effective, or helps us fit in with an upwardly mobile culture? Just as the devil invites Jesus to trust the angels who will catch him as falls, so too are we tempted to exert heroic effort that is baptized in the rhetoric of “trusting God.” In this temptation we find ourselves all too willing to put God to the test. Jesus’ refusal to throw himself down from the temple places the Father’s gracious initiative before his own. Jesus does not force the Father to act on his behalf by going beyond his limits. Rather, Jesus is committed to following the Father who goes before him, leading him in the way of truth and righteousness.[2] Here, preachers can point to Jesus as the one who models the path of discipleship by trusting the Father who goes before him rather than using his own power to achieve the result he thinks is best.  [1] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 76.  [2] Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, 76. “Jesus will not force the Father’s hand. He will be the servant who ‘hears as those who are taught’ (Isa. 50:4), and who ‘walks in darkness yet trusts in the name of the Lord’ (Isa 10:10)…”