God Moves into the Desert

God Moves into the Desert

Rev. Grace Lindvall (Deuteronomy 8:1-10, Luke 4:1-13)

Swiss theologian Paul Tournier tells this story about a pastor and his confirmation class. The pastor asked his confirmation class, “what is religion?” One young man shot his hand into the air to exclaim the certain truth he knew about religion. Without a doubt in his little Swiss mind he responded to the pastor “Religion, religion shows us the things we must not do.”

That answer probably doesn’t surprise you, religion has come to be filled with plenty of “must nots.” Things that have become understood that we must not do if we are to be called a child of God. Before I say another word let me just say this, in case you hear nothing else in this sermon, there is nothing you can do that can separate you from the love of God. Again, there is nothing you can do that will separate you from the love of God.

Anyways, as I was saying, religion, and Christianity in particular has come to be known more for what and who it excludes rather than what it says about who we are. Temptations as they have come to be known in religion might allure us to think of them as all the bad things we are encouraged to do by the world, that are not pleasing to God. I would suggest this passage, this temptation story sets the stage for understanding temptation in the Christian faith in a completely different way, thanks be to God. This passage, the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, tells us a lot about who Jesus is and what Jesus refuses to be. And while it doesn’t directly talk about us as people of God, it does tell us about who we are because of whose we are.

The story we just read from in Luke immediately follows two stories where we learn who Jesus is. In chapter 3, right before this temptation story we just read from, we learn two things about who Jesus is. Following his baptism in the river Jordan, the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove and tells everyone gathered there that this is Jesus, “my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” And right after that, we read Luke’s one paragraph genealogy account of who Jesus is, all the people in the biblical narrative with whom Jesus is associated. Luke goes into detail describing Jesus’ genealogy. Then comes this story of the temptation in the wilderness, directly following two passages which tell us exactly who Jesus is, this temptation passage comes threatening Jesus’ identity – threatening not what Jesus does but threatening who Jesus is.

The temptations Jesus faces in the wilderness are not innately bad or wrong. Jesus is tempted with bread when he’s hungry, what’s so wrong with that? There are countless people across the world in need of food who would hope for a messiah who would be able to turn stone into bread when needed. Jesus is tempted with instant power over the cities he has come to save and know, there are countless people across the world facing oppression who would hope for a messiah like Jesus who would take over the governments of the world. And finally, Jesus is tempted with safety and immortality, again, there are people across the world who crave to know Jesus’ identity with certainty who would hope for the kind of proof this would bring.

The temptations Jesus faces in the wilderness are not things that are destructive or evil in and of themselves, rather they are evil and harmful because of what they do, they threaten to change who Jesus is, how he understands himself in the world, and what he came to do. They force Jesus to question his identity in God, his ability to trust in God. These temptations are so threatening because they attempt to turn Jesus away from who he is in and with God.

There is an interpretation of this text by the artist Rembrandt. In the drawing, Rembrandt draws Jesus and the devil walking down what looks like a country road together, talking along the way. The devil appears to be with Jesus in conversation, he looks almost reasonable, he drapes one wing over Jesus’ shoulder almost as if they were friends, so that it is not that Jesus is being taunted but rather reasoned with in conversation with a friend. Tempted by reason, not by threat.

I find Rembrandt’s depiction of the temptation of Jesus most accurate. I struggle with the idea of Jesus in a desert with a gremlin like devil who threatens and menaces Jesus with outlandish temptations of evil and destruction. The picture Rembrandt literally draws is so much more akin to the experiences of temptation I’ve had, I would think you as well. Temptation that reasons with us and masks itself in attempts to help us, temptation that tells us we are not good enough, we are not worthy enough, we are not loved enough and so we must do something more to make ourselves worthy or loved or just plain, enough.

The temptations around us threaten to tell us that we are not the people of God unless we can do something to be better, to prove ourselves, to be more worthy. David Lose writes, “people are under assault every single day by tempting messages that seek to draw their allegiance from the God who created and redeemed them toward some meager substitute.”

Wherever we might be we find a daily barrage of advertisements and political maneuvers that tell us we are not enough, that we must change something about who we are, that we have some problem that can be fixed with an easy fix solution.

So as we face our own temptations, temptations that might tell us that we aren’t loved, temptations that would tell us we are not a called people of God, temptations that might tell us we are not worthy in order to entice us to be something that we are not, to pull us away from God and towards something less worthy, we must look to Jesus. Not just to the example of Jesus in the desert but also to the truth that Jesus reveals about who he is and who God is as he faces temptation in the desert. The truth of who Jesus is, one who is unwilling to be compromised, one who knows and readily accepts his mission to be for the people of God at whatever cost.

Jesus knew his identity in God, Jesus clung to the words spoken to him at his baptism, Jesus remembered the long genealogy he had and all those who shaped the story of our faith. And in that desert, with the knowledge and trust of who he was, Jesus chose to say no to these temptations so that he could say yes to who he was as the messiah. And so must we, remember who we are. The world will threaten to tell us we are not enough, loved, good, but what was revealed to us in the desert is a God who loves us so desperately that he refused to be told to be anything else, a love that was so powerful that it resisted temptations and threats.

What the devil tries to do is take this identity away, to make Jesus believe that he isn’t what he is. What the evil in the world tries to do is take our identity in God away from us, to make us believe that we are not worthy, that we are not loved, that we are not forgiven. The temptations of the world are harsh and threatening so we must hear over and over again the truth of our faith in Christ.

While serving in Kenya a decade ago a pastor friend of mine, Pastor Sam told me about the first sermon he preached in Nairobi. Sam was from Minnesota and spoke no Swahili when he was called to serve as a missionary in Kenya. He arrived to a church to greet the people and be introduced as one of the incoming ministers, as they welcomed him up to the front, one of the leaders whispered to him, “now you preach the sermon.” Stunned, unable to utter complete thoughts in Swahili, Pastor Sam delivered the shortest and trust of sermons, he said “mungu ni upendo, Amen.” God is love, you are loved, that is the most important of truths that we simply must cling on to, period.

A student of Bishop Michael Curry, the bishop of the Episcopalian Church who famously preached the sermon at the wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry tells a story of a sermon he once preached. Bishop Curry reminded each person gathered there that God loves them, a truth perhaps we know but a truth we do not claim often enough. He said, “turn to the person next to you and tell them “God loves you.” As the congregation hesitated to take that awkward turn, Curry said “I’ll wait.” And so I give you the same charge, turn to the person next to you, the person behind you, the person in front of you, the person six rows back from you that you’ve never seen and tell them the truth of their faith: “God loves you.” Be sure every person in here hears this truth, I’ll wait.

Knowing our identity in Christ, and thus resisting the temptations that might entice or threaten, I believe has the power to change the world. As we begin this season of Lent, a time of repentance to turn away from the things that might entice us away from who we are created and called to be, we must cling tightly to the identity God has given us, our true and most important of identities. It is the good news and it just might be what saves the world, so hear this now and be remined of it often:

You are loved.

You are worthy.

You are forgiven.

your identity lies in Christ

God has carefully crafted you together.

Know these truths in the depths of your heart so that they might entice you greater than the temptations of the world.