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Luke 4:1-13: Wilderness Tests

The following sermon was preached by Audrey L. S. West, Adjunct Professor of New Testament, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Monday, February 26, 2007.


Luke 4:1-13

In my Bible, the translators have titled this week's reading, "The Temptation of Jesus." That's not a bad title, really. Almost 20 years ago it served well, with modification, for the Martin Scorsese film, The Last Temptation of Christ. Willem Dafoe played Jesus and an uncredited voice was the devil. Scorsese earned an Oscar nomination for Best Director, and in June of last year, Entertainment Weekly ranked the film #6 in the top 25 most controversial films of all time. When the movie was released —while I was in seminary, by the way — huge picket lines protested a dream sequence in which Jesus hallucinates about a normal married life with Mary Magdalene. The temptation in the film's title was not nearly as scandalous as protestors suggested. It was, as one critic said, "the seduction of the commonplace; the desire to forgo following a "calling" in exchange for domestic security."(1)

So, the "Temptation of Jesus" is an apt title for this week's Gospel reading. The devil tempts Jesus to go for "domestic security;" to stave off hunger with a little bread; secure the glory of political leadership, perhaps even while securing the borders; and demonstrate trust in God with a stunt at the Jerusalem temple. The problem, though, is that the word "temptation" makes it sound like Jesus is being prompted to do something inherently evil. And yet, there's nothing wrong with seeking bread when you're starving, or serving as leader of a people, or trusting God to take care of you in a life or death situation.

Probably a better title for this episode, then, is "The Testing of Jesus." The Greek word can mean either — tempt or test — but I prefer test, for this reason: The encounter that pits Jesus against the devil is a sort of "cosmic assessment" to check out his competence for God's call. His endorsement interview, in a way. Or, shall we say, his accreditation?(2)

Clearly, Jesus has the credentials: He has been declared God's son. And Jesus has the authority: He is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. But in the language of assessment, credentials and authority only reflect "inputs," and not "outcomes;" they are like saying "he studied a lot with those rabbis" but they don't answer the question whether Jesus is aligned with God's purpose. Is he following God's call? Is he living most fully into his identity as God's chosen Son?

The encounter in the wilderness is a test. A test to see if Jesus is ready to get on with his ministry.

There they are, the characters of this scene: Diabolos, otherwise known as the Devil, and Jesus, otherwise known as the Christ. They've had plenty of time to get acquainted. Forty Days already. Forty, the same number of days that Noah and his family waited out the flood. Forty, the number of days Moses fasted on Mt Sinai as he wrote down the words of God's covenant. Forty, the number of years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, tested by God in preparation for their arrival in the Promised Land. Forty, the number of days of this season of Lent as we journey with Jesus toward the cross. Forty years, forty days… Forty: a time of waiting; fasting; preparing; testing. And all of it in the wilderness.

Jesus has not stumbled into the wilderness accidentally, as if he's lost due to faulty Mapquest directions or water in his eyes after his recent baptism. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit "was leading him" there. Intentionally. On purpose! The Holy Spirit, in all her wisdom, leads Jesus to this place for the preparation for ministry.

And, like all good ministry, this one is grounded in the Word of God. Both Jesus and the devil have a fondness for God's word in the Scriptures, they quote them a lot. Obviously, they had really good Bible professors in seminary. Like good exegetes, their debate centers on implicit questions: three of them.

First question: Will Jesus perform a miracle on his own behalf? "Since you are the Son of God," the Devil says, "command this stone to become a loaf of bread." He might have gone on: "You're hungry. You haven't eaten in more than a month. You're the Christ, for heaven's sake, why not just do a little miracle here, and get on with it?" Jesus responds with a quote from Deuteronomy, recounting the Israelites who grumbled about their lack of food in the wilderness. His hunger places him squarely in solidarity with all the starving people of the world, even as he affirms his trust in God's provision. —"One does not live by bread alone."

The second question in this exegetical exchange takes a grander turn: Will Jesus take on the rule of the imperial world, and all the power and glory that goes with it? In the Devil's election proposal there is no need for exploratory committees, or fund-raising, or primaries, or voting machines. "MINE is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory," says the Devil. "And I offer it to you if you will worship me." Jesus responds again, right out of the Scriptures, this time quoting a section of the Shema. "You shall worship the Lord your God and serve only God." Worldly power and authority may belong to the accuser, but Jesus' allegiance belongs to God, whose power and authority are manifested in reversals: lifting up the lowly, bringing the mighty down from their thrones… bringing good news to the poor.

The first test, then, is personal — make enough bread for one. The second is political — worship the Devil in exchange for world dominion. The third test combines these in a publicity stunt that should prove to everybody that Jesus has God on his side. This time, the Devil pulls out all the stops, even quoting from a favorite Psalm (Ps. 91), the one that begins — " You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, Who abide in God's shadow for life, Say to the Lord: "My refuge, My rock in whom I trust!" It is a blatant attempt to persuade Jesus to jump off the Jerusalem Temple and let God's angels catch him. The question implicit in the test is this: Will Jesus trust God to save him in Jerusalem? Jesus wastes no time turning down the challenge, and quotes, again, from Deuteronomy: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."

And there, in the contest of dueling Bible verses, the Devil is defeated. For now, at least.

The testing may be over, but the ministry has, in fact, already begun. These challenges that test Jesus in the wilderness?—they are challenges throughout his ministry. Whatever tests us in the wilderness will turn up again: back home, in the market, on internship, in our jobs. Whatever it is or whoever it is that seeks to derail the reign of God, that seeks to turn Christ or you or me away from our calling as children of God, whatever keeps us from living fully into God's loving desire for us… whatever or whoever that is, never lets up. Diabolos might leave Jesus alone for now, but it is only for now. He will return at an opportune time.

And, have you noticed? He often returns with a twist. With another deception. A different way to take a truth and turn it into a lie. And that's a test, too. Just because the right answer on the first question of a multiple-choice exam is "C," does not mean we should write "C" for every other question down the line. The right answer to the test in the wilderness doesn't mean it is the right answer later in our ministries.

During his wilderness test, Jesus refuses to turn a stone into bread. It is not the time for that miracle. However, it will not be long before Jesus performs something like that miracle when he feeds 5000 in the wilderness with five loaves and a couple of fish. Or when he performs an even more important miracle, when he is made known to the travelers to Emmaus in the breaking of bread. The time for a mighty act comes, and that mighty act is used not only to satisfy his own hunger, but to feed 5000 hungry others, to reveal himself for who he really is.

He turns down the offer of power to rule the kingdoms of the world. However, he later uses the power God gives him— power over hunger, over sickness, over corruption and injustice, over sin, over death. A different sort of power, directed at a different kingdom.

Jesus does not in the wilderness prove his trust in God by throwing himself down from the heights of the Jerusalem Temple. However, it is not long before he commends his own spirit to God from the heights of a Roman cross.

A wilderness test is not something we face only once, but something that happens again and again. And when it does, Luke is clear to tell us, we can trust in the leading of the spirit, the empowerment of the spirit, the fullness of the spirit to help us discern its lessons.

It is not about bread, it is about God.

It is not about the top-down world's power; it is about the upside-down power of God.

It is not about avoiding death, but about living into the fullness of life.
These are the tests of the wilderness. The tests of Lent. The tests of our ministries. The tests of our lives. The tests that Jesus — in, with and through the power of the spirit—enables us to meet. May it ever be so. Amen.

(1) Miles Bethany, "Editorial Review: The Last Temptation of Christ," Amazon.com Essential Video Reviews.  http://www.amazon.com/Last-Temptation-Christ-Willem-Dafoe /dp/B00008XFAM/ref=imdbpov_dvd_0/103-0440725-9201422

(2) The sermon was preached during the campus visit by the accreditation team for the Association of Theological Schools.

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