Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and in many of our churches we will read and reflect upon Saint Matthew's telling of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. The church has recalled this story on this day since ancient times. The story is pivotal to the claim of Jesus upon our lives.
It is easy to associate the story of Jesus' temptations with the struggles and temptations we encounter in our own journey to Easter. The forty days of our Lenten observance are often spoken of as an imitation, of sorts, of the forty-day wilderness experience that Jesus endured after his baptism. In the isolating terror of the Palestinian desert, Jesus prepares himself spiritually for what he must endure when he arrives in Jerusalem. These temptations of Jesus invite us to move more deeply into the isolation and solitude of our own experience. They are invitations not to avoid but to wrestle with our own demons and confront the relentless temptations that are unique to each of us.
In the Gospel story of the temptations, Jesus is engaging the powers of this world--the underbelly of human existence, that is embodied for the purpose of telling the story in the figure of the devil. The powers of this world are the great resistant forces, largely uncontrollable, that hold people hostage, captive to the institutions and systems that carry us along, the forces that drive the spirit of the age promising life but leading to death. The powers of this world seek to render us powerless, before the immensity of the world's problems.
- These are the powers that say, "No one really wants war, but the bodies keep piling up."
- That say, "No one really wants homelessness, but we can't seem to do anything about it."
- That say, "No child needs to die of hunger anywhere, but especially in the wealthiest nation on earth, and yet they do."
- These are the powers that say, "I am not really living, but simply being driven along by forces beyond my control."
The powers of this world are characterized by domination and violence, relentlessly seeking to have their own way regardless of the costs, even to the point of death. These are the powers that Jesus resists in the wilderness temptations, and they are the powers that will eventually crucify him.
In the first temptation, Jesus says no to the use of power for his own survival. Jesus is famished. Hungry. And the devil invites Jesus to use his power to turn stone into bread. At what must have been a time of great physical and emotional weakness, Jesus is tempted to use his power to meet his own needs, to secure his own survival. And Jesus turns to the Scriptures and speaks a word in the face of the powers. Jesus reminds the devil that one cannot live by bread alone.
The ancient people of the Hebrews cried out in desperation for God to provide manna in their wilderness, but Jesus declares in his wilderness that faith and obedience to God will be his security. Jesus does not yield his body and soul to the false security of the powers of this world. Jesus knows that people can suffer death by bread alone. This we can clearly see in our own self-indulgent, consumer-driven environmentally reckless society. If Jesus yields to this temptation, he secures his own survival, but there would be no need for the cross.
In the second temptation, the devil invites Jesus to tempt God: "Throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple so that God's angels can save you before the eyes of all who are watching and then they will know for sure that you are who you say you are, then all will know that you are the Son of God." This is the powers of this world at their best: claiming God to be on their side, making their own power, their own political ends, their own way of seeing the world, into God's way of seeing the world with no regard whatsoever whether it is God's way or not.
The devil tries to outsmart Jesus by turning as Jesus does to the great tradition. Jesus quoted Scripture to the devil. Now the devil is going to quote Scripture to Jesus. This turn in the story is a poignant reminder that in the wrong hands even the Bible can be a weapon to be used in opposition to the will of God. Once again, Jesus says no. Once again, had Jesus said yes, there would have been no need for the cross.
In the next temptation, the devil invites Jesus to use his power to establish a political regime based upon the ways of the world. Jesus can have it all--all the worldly power and domination there is--if he will just "yield to the devil." "Take charge of it all," the devil says to Jesus, "all the power in the world can belong to you: all you have to do is to claim it by worshiping me, by yielding to domination and violence."
Again, Jesus says no. To follow the devil's lead will make Jesus the emperor--the King of Kings of the kingdoms of this world, but Jesus refuses to take the world by domination and violence. The only weapon Jesus uses against the powers of this world is the Word: the only sword Jesus ever draws is the sword of the Spirit. It is exactly what Martin Luther was describing in his great Reformation hymn:
The prince of darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
Jesus says no to the temptation of violence and domination. Had Jesus not said no, had Jesus assumed the powers of this world, there would have been no need for the cross. Today's gospel is important to us because in it we see the resistance of Jesus to the powers of this world, the resistance that begins right after his baptism and leads eventually to his crucifixion. The powers must crucify Jesus because of the "no" he speaks to their ways, to their ideologies, to the false securities they promise. The powers can only deliver death and destruction. Only Jesus can deliver life. Intent on their survival at all costs, the powers of this world must crucify the one who threatens their authority. Committed to domination by the sword, the powers must put to death the one who threatens their values.
The gospel story of the temptations of Jesus is foundational for all that lies ahead. In it we see the conflict between the ways of this world and the ways of God, between the way of death and the way of life, between the way of darkness and the way of light. And at the center of this conflict stands the cross of Jesus.
In these days of Lent, we live between temptation and crucifixion. Jesus resists every temptation that the devil throws at him. And Jesus resists because he sees what is coming. Jesus can see that these temptations are stumbling blocks on the path to Jerusalem. Jesus knows that with the resistance of each temptation he is taking a step towards the cross.
All of us struggle with the powers of this world. All of us know, as Jesus knows, that it is often easier to choose power, violence, and domination instead of the reconciling ways of the reign of God. All of us know, as Jesus knows, that it is easier to pick up lifeless stones and hurl them toward one another, instead of passing the bread that sustains life.
Holy friends, as we walk these great forty days from temptation to crucifixion, I bid you to walk gently and with your heart wide open. Listen for Jesus. Jesus will call out to you as he makes his way from temptation to crucifixion. Jesus will call out to you from the cross. And in the midst of death, domination, and violence, you will hear his voice: "Choose life," he will say. "Choose life!"
Let us pray. Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by satan, come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and as you know the weakness of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.