Perhaps appropriately, on this first Sunday in Lent we take a step backwards. In Epiphany we read the remaining verses of chapter 4; with the larger pericope of 14-30 broken up for two separate Sundays. We’re out of order, because before reading about Jesus’ near death in Nazareth we read of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. In the excitement of Epiphany we jumped forward to the incredible story of Jesus in his home synagogue. In Epiphany heard the Father proclaim Jesus’ identity as the Son, we heard Jesus proclaim that he is Messiah, we saw Jesus miraculously walk through a crowd trying to kill him. We saw Jesus’ divinity. Lent, and more specifically the temptation of Jesus, helps correct us from our Docetic tendencies. While divine, Jesus was completely human.
As often happens when you leap ahead too quickly, you’re forced to take a step backward. This Sunday we do just that. And like Jesus’ Baptism – where the Spirit of the Lord descended on Jesus – here it is the Spirit of the Lord that leads Jesus into the wilderness. In today’s Gospel we see Jesus’ wilderness experience is eerily familiar. This story not only mirrors the life of Israel, but is the fulfillment of it. Things are similar, but not that similar. Like Israel passed through the water before entering the wilderness for 40 years, so does Jesus pass through the Baptismal waters before entering the wilderness for 40 days.
In the wilderness the Israelites grumbled about not having food. Then when they had food they grumbled that they didn’t like it! Did you notice that Luke records the temptations taking place after Jesus has fasted. After 40 days without eating he’s not only hungry, he’s vulnerable. Like the Israelites before him, Jesus is tempted with the prospect of food. In response to this first temptation Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3. Unlike Matthew, Luke has a different order for the second and third temptations. Matthew’s conclusion is reached on top of a mountain. Luke’s is in the Temple. When tempted, like the Israelites actually did in the wilderness (Exodus 32), to worship someone other than God, and when tempted, like the Israelites actually did in the wilderness, to put God to the test (Exodus 17), Jesus quotes two verses from Deuteronomy 6; 13 and 16, respectively. These two references come from a passage that immediately follows The Shema, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Jesus understands these temptations to be, more than anything, a test of his faith. In the midst of this, will be remain faithful to God?
The first temptation is a temptation to “exploit his Sonship for his own benefit.” The temptation is to trust his own means rather than the Father’s. The second temptation is a temptation of compromise. Jesus is and will be King of all this earth; every nation, tribe tongue. Satan doesn’t tempt Jesus with something that isn’t going to happen. The temptation here to achieve this through unfaithful means; to see it realized right then and there without going to the cross, without waiting for the culmination of the Kingdom. Does Jesus trust God to bring about God’s Kingdom in God’s time? The third temptation is a temptation of putting God to the test; should Jesus throw himself off the Temple would not God send angels to save him? “Jesus would fulfill his divine sonship not by escaping death but by accepting death and defeating it. Unlike Israel of old, Jesus refused to put God to the test.”
It’s about faith. Does Jesus believe the most fundamental statement of his faith is true? “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
In his brief, yet prophetic, little text “In the Name of Jesus,” Henri Nouwen writes about pastoral leadership through the lens of these three temptations. The temptations of Jesus are temptations faced by all Christian leaders. The first, to turn stones into bread, is a temptation to be relevant. As the Church become more marginalized in society, the temptation is to be relevant, to try to look, act, and be like society. Writing nearly 30 years ago Nouwen states, “The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there.”
Nouwen follows Matthew’s order of temptations, so his third is our second. The temptation to worship the Deceiver in order to receive the Kingdoms of the world is a temptation to power. Preacher, when you’re standing in front of a congregation of people with eyes and ears trained as you help formulate their perspective on God, the temptation is to see this as powerful. Christian leaders of today fall into the temptation of power all too often. Too often we’ve believed that the power-brokers of the world are the ones to whom we should cater; politicians most particularly. “The long painful history of the church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led.”
The final temptation is to be spectacular. What a show it would be for Jesus to throw himself off the Temple only to be caught by God before getting hurt or killed! With the Kardashians, Real Housewives, and Donald Trump dominating our media – and therefore shaping our social imagination – there is a tangible temptation to make our worship a spectacle; something entertaining; big, bright, flashy, perhaps even “relevant.” The remedy to this temptation is confession and repentance. “Christian leaders are called to live the Incarnation, that is, to live in the body, not only in their own bodies but also in the corporate body of the community, and to discover there the presence of the Holy Spirit.” We don’t “produce” something spectacular to be consumed; we enter into the life of the community incarnationally.
Maybe it’s right that we begin our lenten season by taking a step backward; taking a moment to pause, stop, reflect. The temptation is to forget your baptism; to forget who you are and whose you are. In the lenten season we repent of our giving into these temptations of relevance, spectacle, and power. We step back to reflect on the means. We ask ourselves not just WHAT we desire to see but HOW it ought to be realized.
Preacher, remind your people that our Kingdom isn’t a Kingdom of show, flash, spectacle, authoritative power, or coercion. Ours isn’t a Kingdom of rhetoric, relevance, or red herrings. Ours is a Kingdom of prayer, confession and forgiveness, and theological reflection. Remind your people that this Lenten season is one of repentance; of continually turning away from self and turning towards Christ. As Christ sought not to satiate his own needs, make a name for himself, or pursue good things through unfaithful means, so are we to confess and repent when we’ve acted more like Israel in the wilderness than Christ in the wilderness. In this Lenten season may our prayer resonate with Christ’s in the wilderness, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”