Last Sunday and the weeks leading up to it was a celebration of all that God is doing in this place. Read your annual report, review your congregation’s Facebook page and you will see a story of loaves and fishes– blessings multiplied–and miracles great and small! You will see stories of love and hope and courage.
Why do Christians do what we do? Because Christ came to save the world. We, the Body of Christ, continue his saving work for a world, providing shelter to those without, clothing the naked, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, befriending the lonely. We do this not by our own power but by the power of the Holy Spirit living in us.
In today’s reading Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. Notice it wasn’t something he chose to do. It wasn’t something he necessarily wanted to do. He was led—by the Holy Spirit.
In the season of Lent we ponder what our wilderness might be. What are the places we don’t want to go to? How are we tempted to forget our purpose on earth and spend our energy tending to our own self-interest? How is the Holy Spirit leading us forward through our wilderness experience?
The temptations that Jesus faced may seem strange to us. And yet, they’re as common as breathing! The voice Jesus heard is the same voice we hear every day inside our heads. Not only that, but these are not three different temptations. These are all the same temptation, told three different ways.
The first of these temptations may be easiest to understand. Jesus had been led into the wilderness, he was there 40 days and understandably, as v.2 puts it, he was “famished.” Command this stone to become a loaf of bread. Well, why not? Who of us wouldn’t if we were able? After all, how much teaching and preaching and healing could he do…if he were dead?
Those times in life when we feel like we are in a wilderness—when we’re afraid, grieving some loss, experiencing a crisis of faith—it’s tempting to go for whatever seems to give immediate comfort. When we feel like we’re just trying to survive, when the pain feels unbearable, there’s a good chance that we’ll reach out and grab whatever seems most likely to help us survive—or at least give us some relief. And God knows we live in a society that is quite happy to turn our stones into bread. Medications, entertainment, wealth, addictions of every kind—all these can offer a bit of temporary relief from the difficulty of life in the wilderness. And yet, sometimes the wilderness has something to teach us if we’re not in too much of a hurry to escape it.
The temptations in the wilderness are this: Save yourself. Here in the very beginning of the Lenten season we get a hint of what’s to come on Good Friday. As Jesus hung on the cross people who walked by mocked him, saying, “If you are the Son of God, save yourself.” It’s the same voice that Jesus hears in today’s reading.
As I’ve thought about it this week, we use this language a lot: Save yourself some trouble. Save yourself some time. Save yourself some money. Notice how each of those sentences begins: Save yourself… It seems harmless enough, like turning stones to bread when you’re hungry. But Jesus asked a different question: Where does God fit into the picture? He turns the attention from himself and his own needs to God.
The second temptation is also about saving ourselves. The voice says, “Worship me & all the kingdoms of the earth will be yours.” Now, none of us has much chance of ruling the world. But, in those wilderness times, when our lives feel out of control we want to get back in control, sometimes desperately! If the first temptation was about having power over the material world the second temptation is about having power over other people.
It’s a wilderness time in our society. For many people the world seems to be spinning out of control. The world they thought they knew is not what it was, or at least, is not what it seemed to be. The world of the past no longer exists and never will again. So to people in the wilderness the little voice whispers, or shouts, “Save yourself.” And even if we’re not emperors or presidents or CEOs we look desperately at the little world in which we live and are tempted to grasp for any little control or advantage we can find over others. In doing so we can preserve the illusion that at least a little piece of our world is ours to control. And it is only an illusion.
Jesus had a different answer. Worship the Lord your God and serve only him, he says. With one simple sentence he knocks the little voice inside him sideways. He may still be in the wilderness, but Jesus is able to resist the temptation to save himself and puts the focus on God. He has mastered one of life’s great lessons: Controlling other people offers no lasting peace. Serving God, serving others is the path to true peace. Or, as St. Paul put it in his letter to the Corinthians, “Love does not insist on its own way.” Through control and power over others we try to save ourselves. Through our service of others God saves us.
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…” I’m reminded of the time I went skydiving a couple of years ago. Jump! But Jesus had no parachute!
This temptation, like the others, seems unlikely to touch our lives. But is it so rare? Do we not also take foolish risks, believing that God will somehow protect us? When we smoke, or drink too much, or drive above the speed limit, or spend too much, do we not hope that God will overlook our human weakness and that God will protect us anyway? “Go ahead. Be self-destructive. Risk the well-being of others, too. God will take care of you.” This temptation is the sneakiest of all because it seems like we’re not trying to save ourselves. We’re relying on God to save us! In the end, of course, this temptation is all about us. It’s all about life on our terms, being in control even over God, doing what we want rather than praying, Thy will be done.
The life of faith is all about salvation, not in the life to come but here and now. Lent leads us to ponder what our wilderness experiences are, how we’re tempted in those experiences to save ourselves, and how we are in need of the saving power of God.
If you haven’t chosen a Lenten discipline, maybe it’s enough to do this much: Listen carefully to the voices inside your head. Spend some time in the next weeks asking where in your life you’re trying to save yourself: through control of the material world, control over other people, or substituting God’s will for your own.
The One who was tempted as we are walks with us in our wilderness. Only he has the power to save. Thanks be to God! AMEN