Gospel: Luke 4:1-13
1st Reading: Deuteronomy 26:1-11
2nd Reading: Romans 10:8b-13
When I used to watch Saturday morning cartoons as a kid, I remember a common theme was a character who had a choice to make. On one shoulder would be an angel, telling him to do the right thing, encouraging him, and rooting for him. On the other shoulder would be a devil, a little red guy with a pitchfork and a forked tail, urging him to do the wrong thing. If I remember right, it seems that the character often chose to do what the little devil told him to do. I don't know if that is because that is what many of us usually do, or maybe it just makes a much more interesting story when a person does the wrong thing and then we get to see the consequences of their actions. We get to learn through them what not to do, and it can be funny when somebody gets what they deserve, especially if it is just a cartoon character.
Jesus, today, is led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. I imagine the Holy Spirit, or a dove, perched on one shoulder and the devil on the other. Did he actually see either of these folks, or were they voices he heard, or simply a tug in his heart as he imagined the possibilities of what it meant to be the Son of God. We'll probably never know, except for our own experiences of temptation. Sometimes there are two people representing our two choices and other times it is an internal battle.
I want to talk a little bit about wilderness. Picture a desert, where there is no living thing, as far as the eye can see. The heat of the sun is intense. It is deafeningly silent. The wilderness is a place that is so quiet and empty, we can hear both the angel and devil. Maybe it isn't an actual wilderness for most of us, although I did have a friend who after the breakup of a 9 year relationship took a solo bicycle trip for a month through the Olympic Peninsula and then back down to Oregon. She talked about how cleansing it was to spend that time with her thoughts, to sort through who she was without him and what her own dreams were for the future. That was the wilderness for her. I guess the Olympic Peninsula is the actual wilderness, but the wilderness for her was also the breakup. Other wildernesses might be the death of someone close to us or an illness or simply unrest within us urging us to change. The deafening silence is a time when we might entertain thoughts that come from the Holy Spirit and some from the devil, and sometimes we might not be able to tell the difference.
I guess some people might feel uncomfortable thinking of Jesus tempted by the devil. Maybe they'd rather think of Jesus being so pure as to never feel a tug in the wrong direction. Another way to look at this is as a story telling us who Jesus is and and who he is not. Temptation is simply the result of having choices.
Jesus, of course, passes the test. But passing the test is a rare thing. First of all, Jesus is the Son of God—so we have just heard at his baptism and so the devil reminds him in today's Gospel. We would think that being the Son of God would give the certainty that he would pass the test. However, there was one other called the son of God and only in the chapter before this in the Gospel of Luke. That is in the genealogy tracing the lineage of Jesus all the way back to Adam. Adam is also called son of God. But we all know he failed when he was tempted. God told Adam not to eat from the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, and he did, and then he blamed “that woman” for it.
These temptations would have also brought to mind temptations that the Israelites experienced in the wilderness when they were wandering over 40 years before they came to the promised land. The first temptation is about changing a stone into a loaf of bread. Jesus quotes what Moses says to the Israelites when they were hungry in the wilderness. “One does not live by bread alone.” The manna God provided wasn't the point. Filling their tummies was not the point. The point was where the bread comes from, that God provides it. The manna in the wilderness taught the Israelites to trust God. Jesus knows it is God who feeds him and it isn't up to him to make bread for himself. We know he is perfectly able to make bread, or at least we assume that is how the 5000 are fed, later in Jesus' ministry, but he doesn't use his gifts to please himself. That's not what they are for. They are for the good of the whole.
The second temptation is to political power. This is a temptation the Israelites were also familiar with. They wanted to be like their neighbors. The wanted to worship the gods of the other countries who they felt would deliver better for them. They also wanted a king like other countries. They wanted military might. As it turned out, most of the Israelite kings were not so good at resisting temptation, and ended up seeking not the good of the people of the kingdom, but only to build themselves up.
The third temptation is to see if Jesus can get a reaction from God by leaping from a high place. In a very tricky move, the devil quotes the Bible. Simply being able to quote the Bible is not proof that one is faithful. I think Lutherans have always been suspicious if anyone other than the pastor quotes the Bible very often, because we've seen the Bible used in ways that hurt people more than we've seen used to comfort or show love. Jesus again quotes Moses in the Old Testament. He says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Moses said this when the people were thirsty in the wilderness. The people asked, “Is the Lord among us, or not?” In other words, “Prove to us that God is real by giving us what we want. We won't believe if you don't do what we ask.” Of course the Israelites failed test after test in the wilderness. But God is faithful and brings them through.
Some say that Jesus was free of tests after this—that the more opportune time only came in the garden of Gethsemane when he prayed that this cup would be taken from him. But others argue that the tests continued in his ministry. I am more inclined to believe he continued to be tested. I can better identify with a more human Jesus. But also we see evidence that he was still tested. His disciples were constantly confused, and sometimes Jesus' seems genuinely fed up with them. Demons were still inhabiting people and causing them great distress. People were still ill—evidence that the devil is still out there wreaking havoc. And people were always asking questions that seemed to rile Jesus up, like, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind.” I can imagine, now and then, Jesus felt temptation, even for a moment, to throw up his hands and give up.
The Israelites were definitely still tempted, and that's why we have this reading from Deuteronomy. The temptation is to believe that this land is theirs, that they earned it, that they don't owe anything to anyone, and it is for them alone. However, Moses gives them some steps so they won't go down this path. Every spring, when they harvest the grain, they take the first part of it, the first of all the fruit, and bring it to the priest. They are to remember the story of where this grain came from, where they came from, how they got here. They are to remember the story of how God continues to be generous—or they'd never have these fruits to bring. They are to remember how they aren't self-sufficient, how they suffered and wandered, and how they called out to God, helpless, and God answered them, delivered them, fed them with food and with words of justice and sharing and unity and love. Then take that offering and share it among you—not some of you, but all of you—and celebrate God's generosity together.
Sometimes I wonder about the land my house is built on. What did it look there 100 years ago or 1000 years ago? Who lived there, human and animal? What kinds of plants grew there? Some of you tell me about the land just below the church, how people grew Christmas trees there and radishes, as few as 50 years ago. I love looking at old pictures to see what places used to be like. That was one thing about Germany—the houses were so old in most cases that it was like peering into the past. I think of my family coming over from Germany, and finding a place to call home, they definitely gave credit to God. But that land was once populated by the Native People of this land. My great-great grandmother was Native American. I wonder about the parts of me—how my European ancestors pushed out my Native ancestors, but how the two came together to have children and here I am. None of us can claim we did it on our own, and that's the temptation. If we did it on our own, we don't credit God who made all of us. If we follow that path of temptation, I don't think of God abandoning us, but I think we find ourselves feeling all alone, in that wilderness, wondering who we are and where we're going. I know God is in that wilderness with us, but can we see God there beside us? We may at times find ourselves in the wilderness feeling alone, either that we did it all ourselves or that everyone has abandoned us, however we also have the opportunity to look around and see all that we are connected to.
That is the chance to remember our story, that on the night when he was most feeling alone and in the wilderness, Jesus took bread, first fruits of the earth, and shared it with his friends and enemies, and asked them to remember to love and care for the poor, to wash one another and feed one another, because none of us is ever really alone. Jesus asked them to be the body of Christ, to re-member him, to stay connected in order to share his message and his love. He took the wine, and shared it with all of them, and asked them gather and share his blood and remember him. None of us is alone. God is here with us. And we share with all and celebrate with all the fact that God meets us in the wilderness in all our temptations and sends the Holy Spirit to guide us and bring us through to everlasting, abundant life.