Sermon: The Value of Tempation
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Deuteronomy 26.1-11; Psalm 91.1-2, 9-16; Romans 10.8b-13; Luke 4.1-13
Today’s lectionary readings provide us with an interesting set of scriptures. It takes a few readings to see how these scriptures are related. For a very quick overview, the gospel tells us of Jesus temptation’s in the wilderness, Deuteronomy depicts a celebratory ritual involving the first fruits of the Promised land after 40 years of testing in the wilderness, the appointed psalm cites one of the passages Satan employs in tempting Jesus, and Romans provides the assurance that all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. Let’s more closely examine these interconnections.
To begin, bear in mind Luke’s depiction of events following Jesus baptism: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased’” (Luke 3.21-22; NRSV). Luke then interrupts the story with the paternal genealogy of Jesus, after which we read, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan (the site of his baptism) and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil” (Luke 4.1-2; NRSV).
One of my favorite biblical commentators, Dennis Hamm, SJ, provides some remarkable parallels between Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and the testing of the children of Israel in the wilderness. Jesus’ temptation of 40 days calls to mind the 40 years the children of Israel wondered in the wilderness. At the beginning of Deuteronomy, the children of Israel are on the verge of entering the Promised Land. Moses sets forth three farewell speeches which remind the Israelites of their experiences, their obligations under the Law, and of observances they are to initiate upon entering the Promised Land. Upon presenting the basket of first fruits, one was to declare, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us” (Deuteronomy 26.3b; NRSV). After the priest accepts the basket and places it on the altar, one was to offer a creedal statement: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien . . . and there he became a great nation. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us . . . we cried to the Lord . . . the Lord heard our voice . . . brought us out of Egypt . . . into this place . . . a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me” (Deuteronomy 26.5-10; NRSV). Our presentation of alms and gifts during the offering reflects this practice. The people, together with the Levites and the aliens living among them were to remember how they were tested and to celebrate God’s bounty.
Back to the temptations Jesus endured in the wilderness, that open place people believed to be filled with spirits. Jesus was ravenously hungry. The devil said, “If [since] you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread” (Luke 4.3; NRSV). Come on, Jesus; you are the Beloved; use this power for your own benefit; God doesn’t want you to suffer like this! As Christians we still hear this seductive voice: “God wants you to prosper, to be rich; it is there for you, all you have to do is grab it and give thanks. Why suffer needlessly?” Jesus replied by quoting Deuteronomy 8.3: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone’” (NRSV). Let’s look at the full context of Jesus reply as found in Deuteronomy: “God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8.3; NRSV). The people were humbled by their hunger.
The devil then showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and said, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours” (Luke 4.5-7; NRSV). Jesus replied, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him’” (Luke 4.8; NRSV). Again, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy: “The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear” (6.13; NRSV).
The devil then set Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem and said, “If [since] you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone’” (Luke 4.9-11; NRSV). Here the devil is quoting Psalm 91.11-12: “For God shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways. They shall bear you in their hands, lest you dash your foot against a stone” (NRSV). Come on, Jesus, don’t you have some doubts as to whether you are truly the Messiah? Let’s find out. Go ahead, jump!’
Jesus answered, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Luke 4.12; NRSV). Again, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested God at Massah” (6.16; NRSV). Massah is a reference to the place in the wilderness where the Israelites pleaded with Moses for water: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17.3b; NRSV). God commanded Moses to strike the rock at Horeb and the waters poured forth. Moses then named the place Massah (which means ‘test’) and Meribah (which means ‘quarrel’) “because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not’” (Exodus 17.7).
The account of Jesus temptations ends thus: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4.13; NRSV). In Luke’s gospel, the devil returns to further test Jesus at the time of Jesus’ passion. We see the onset of this in Luke 22.3: “Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve” (NRSV). In 1955 Nikos Kazantsakis published The Last Temptation of Christ which Martin Scorsese and others made into a movie released in 1988. As some of you may recall, the movie was highly controversial.
As Hamm, SJ, (http://liturgy.slu.edu/1LentC031019/theword_hamm.html) points out – Jesus’ temptation is a reliving of the temptations God’s people experienced in the wilderness, but unlike the Israelites, Jesus passed the test! Our Lord Jesus Christ has accomplished what we could not, and we are called to emulate Jesus Christ.
I have sometimes facetiously quipped, “This may not be theologically sound, but the fastest way to deal with temptation is to yield, get it over with, and move directly to repentance!” Although this results in laughter, in part, I think, because we have all been there and we recognize the truth of it, this comment still recognizes something important about temptation – all of us fall prey to temptation.
Whether we recognize it or not, every temptation invites us to put our self and the satisfaction of our desires first, above whatever we might owe to God and our neighbor, to put our self in God’s rightful place, to worship our own self. Every temptation invites us to abandon the love God would have us live.
As George Macdonald reminds us, “The one principle of hell is ‘I am my own.’” When I am solely my own, I take the position that I owe no one anything, not even God. Many years ago, the realization that I believed this led me to abandon Christianity. However, I had had enough hell drilled into my consciousness that I did not go out and live a riotous life-style, but I was all about me. The Hound of Heaven had my scent and finally treed me. Like the prodigal son, I came to realize and experience the immensity of God’s love.
This does not mean that temptation ceased. Far from it! On occasion, I have betrayed my love for God and my beliefs, and I have suffered the brokenness, God’s judgment, that comes from having done so. In retrospect, like the ancient Israelites, I was humbled. We can learn from our failures and become even stronger in our broken places. Our failures also serve to reveal our extensive reliance on God’s grace; they also show us the necessity of calling upon the name of the Lord for our salvation.
In this Lenten season, let us acknowledge the temptations we experience and call upon the name of our Lord for salvation. Let us support one another in prayer and fasting. Amen