Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Luke 4: 1-13, Deuteronomy 26: 1-11)
He is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, the desert. He’s led there at the very beginning of his ministry. How’s that for kicking things off? He heads into the desert, a place of absence, of nothingness, of scarcity. No one there to keep him company. No shade from the blistering sun. No food for forty days. I’ve been doing a little intermittent fasting as of late, sixteen hours at a time. Almost a whole day. Jesus did forty.
Everything about the situation that Jesus is put in here is about absence. About nothingness. About scarcity.
Which is in contrast to the temptations that greet him in the wilderness. The temptations that come to Jesus in the desert are temptations of excess – more specifically, temptations of power, of control, of rule. But to be honest, they are these temptations on steroids:
For it is not merely the temptation of a loaf of bread in the middle of a 40-day fast, but it is the temptation to be able to magically turn rocks into bread, rocks being one of the very few things in abundance in a desert.
And it’s not merely the temptation to rule over a small group of people, or a city, or even a whole nation, but it is the temptation to rule over every single nation on the entire planet.
And it is not merely the temptation to determine the course of one’s life, but it is the temptation to be able to control life itself.
These temptations of excess are laid at the feet of a man who is fasting for weeks on end, a man utterly alone in the desert. They take advantage of his weakened state. They play to his very faith, using scripture in one instance as justification.
And yet in each of these instances, Jesus resists the temptation. He shoots them down, one by one, with surgical precision. We have this image of Jesus swatting the devil’s incursions away like someone shooing away a pesky fly. Now I have to figure there is more to the story than Luke lets on here, a little more nuance to things. But in the end it’s all the same: Jesus resists the temptations. He passes the test.
Which begs the question: is that what this is about? Is the temptation story in scripture about Jesus simply passing a test?
We would not be faulted if we assumed such. Noted American writer Joseph Campbell has done a good bit of work on the hero motif in literature, and in particular what he calls the “testing” stage. It is this stage, Campbell writes, where the hero or heroine-to-be faces some particular task or situation. A test. This test prepares them for the greater ordeals yet to come by helping them learn more about who they are, who they can trust and who they cannot trust. It is here where our hero is able to test out their skills and powers and prove themselves worthy to face what is coming.
Now we see this testing motif woven all through our cultural stories, our literature, our movies – think Luke Skywalker in the Dagobah cave, Harry Potter in the Chamber of Secrets, Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games arena. There is a sense that these heroes would not be heroes had they not “passed the test.”
And so it comes as no surprise that the temptation story of Jesus is often viewed through this rubric: our hero Jesus tested in the desert, tempted at his most vulnerable by ho diabolos – that’s the Greek here, what we typically refer to as “devil,” it literally means, “The Diabolic One,” which I actually like better, it kind of does away with the stereotypical image of a horned creature with a tail, “the Diabolic One” – all of this so that Jesus can prove his worthiness as the son of God for the long hard road before him. This temptation story, which is accounted for in two other gospels, it seemingly has “test” written all over it.
But I ask again: is that really what’s going on here? Is Jesus simply being subjected to a test? What would it mean, I wonder, if, instead of asking whether Jesus passed the test or not, we instead focused on why it was that Jesus went into the desert in the first place. Because he did not go there on his own – scripture is very clear in saying that he was led there; led by the Spirit.
The Spirit is front and center at this particular juncture in Jesus’ narrative, the way Luke tells it. Right before this story at the end of chapter 3, we find the baptism of Jesus, where we are told that “the Spirit descended on him like a dove” and that Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit.” We turn the page and immediately find that same Spirit leading Jesus into the desert – almost to the point where we wonder if Jesus had any real choice in the matter.
Why? Why the barren wilderness immediately following the spirit-filled dove? Why the onslaught of temptations right on the heels of glorious baptism?
Perhaps there is some truth to the notion that Jesus needed to discover some things about himself, things that could only be discovered in the wilderness. Although maybe it wasn’t a journey of self-discovery that the Spirit led him there for, proving to himself and everyone else that he was, in fact, the son of God. He already knew that. Could it be that this journey into the wilderness is less about Jesus discovering whether he was God’s Son or not, and more about him discovering how he was going to live because of that? The kind of life he would lead because of who he was.
Come to think of it, the wilderness offers the same kind of discovery to you and me, does it not? Those wilderness moments in our lives are not about us proving to ourselves who and whose we are – we already know that. We know we are children of God. We know we are followers of Jesus. And if there’s one thing we’re good at doing these days, it’s identifying ourselves with something bigger than us. A religious faith, a political party, a college or university, a sports team. We wear those identities like words on a name tag, we display the banners, we subscribe to the email lists, we wear the school and team colors. We know full well who we are.
What we struggle with, though, is how we live in light of that. In a recent editorial to the Charlotte Observer, Presbyterian pastor Kate Murphy writes, “It’s interesting to me how so many Christians believe that following Jesus has nothing to do with our actions, only our words. Many of us believe that what we do is of no interest to God, only what we believe in our hearts and say with our lips.” What’s on our name tag.
That’s why the wilderness is so God-awful, because it will not let us get by with what’s written on our name tag. That’s why the temptations there are so dang tempting, because they are not calling into question who and whose we are. They’re daring us to actually live like it.
The earlier passage that Jodi read from Deuteronomy chronicles a time in Hebrew history when the entire nation was in a wilderness season – literally, forty years in the wilderness. Kind of reminds you of forty days of fasting, eh? God’s people are in the wilderness where they have certainly learned more about who and whose they are, but just as critically, they’ve learned and are still learning about the kind of people God is calling them to become. They are learning how to live as God’s people as they prepare for their new home.
And it’s worth noting, I think, that one of the many commandments God gives the people in their wilderness season revolves around how they are to care for those who, like themselves, are in the wilderness as well – marginalized groups, foreigners, strangers. God commands the people to give these folks – not themselves – the first fruits of the harvest.
Throughout Lent, as part of our “Full To The Brim” Lenten theme, we will have a piece of artwork tied to each sermon – each family will receive a small print in worship and you’ll find larger ones in our makeshift art gallery in the cloister, which I highly encourage you to check out. Our artwork for this Sunday is “First Fruits” by Lauren Wright Pittman; and it depicts this verse from Deuteronomy beautifully. God commands God’s people to remember their own time in the wilderness as they tend to the needs of those still in the wilderness; and to fill their absence and nothingness and scarcity with first fruits. You see? It’s not about what they have written on their name tag – the Israelites, God’s chosen. It’s about how they live that out.
Which makes me wonder, beloved, if this wilderness, despite all its temptations, is not something we’re supposed to go into and get out of as quickly as possible. Jesus certainly didn’t. God’s people certainly didn’t. What if, in fact, we are called to hang out in the wilderness for a while – to dwell in our doubts, fears, anxieties, and brokenness? And what if we are meant to stand in solidarity with those mired in their wilderness? Who might those people be, I wonder? And what are those first fruits of ours that we can give to them?
It is hard these days to hear the news updates as an entire nation on the other side of the world is currently mired in their own wilderness. It is frightening, the way history seems to be repeating itself; a history we swore we’d never repeat again.
And I wonder if our calling as those who follow Jesus is to stand with and for our Ukrainian siblings in whatever ways we can. To give them our first fruits. The Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the branch of our denomination that provides response to natural disasters and other needs around the globe, is hard at work creating ways that you and I can help the Ukrainian people. There will be more information coming out this next week, but if you’d like to contribute now, you can text PDAUKR to 41444.
We can also engage in consistent and fervent prayers, that war would give way to peace, that aggression would be replaced with compassion, that tyranny would be upended by true democracy. And we actively engage in any and all efforts to pursue the common good over personal gain, to stand for and with those who have no voice, to confront systemic systems of oppression both abroad and right here at home. If we truly believe the wilderness is not some place to get in and get out of, if we are in fact called to sit here for a spell, perhaps these are some of the ways we can focus on how we live in light of who and whose we are.
Because the truth is that, even in the desert, we can find first fruit. In fact, the desert is sometimes where the best first fruit comes from. More than excess. There is a fuller life we are called to live there. The first fruits, like a river flowing with cups running over, washing over us all with everlasting grace.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.