Tests and Temptations

The Devil once came dejected before God and wailed, “Almighty God – I want you to know that I am bored – bored to tears! I go around doing nothing all day long.  There isn’t a stitch of work for me to do!”  “I can’t understand,” God replied.  “There’s plenty of work to be done only you’ve got to take more initiative.  Why don’t you try to lead people into sin?  That’s your job!” “Lead people into sin!” Muttered the Devil contemptuously. “Why Lord, even before I get a change to say a blessed word to anyone they have already gone and sinned!”

 

We often think of temptations as doing bad things, things from the second half of the Ten Commandments, like stealing, lying, committing adultery.  These were not the kind of temptations Jesus faced in today’s reading.



Tests and Temptations

 

You’d think that such a well known Gospel story as this one wouldn’t be much of a challenge.  It has been the subject of untold messages we’ve heard over our lives. Immediately on knowing the text our musicians made all kinds of assumptions as to what the message for today might be.  Let me read it for you and maybe you’ll have some suggestions.

Luke 4: 1-13 

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,

2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.

3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “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. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

 

Any suggestions?

How about a little story?   The Devil once came dejected before God and wailed, “Almighty God – I want you to know that I am bored – bored to tears! I go around doing nothing all day long.  There isn’t a stitch of work for me to do!”  “I can’t understand,” God replied.  “There’s plenty of work to be done only you’ve got to take more initiative.  Why don’t you try to lead people into sin?  That’s your job!” “Lead people into sin!” Muttered the Devil contemptuously. “Why Lord, even before I get a change to say a blessed word to anyone they have already gone and sinned!”

 

We often think of temptations as doing bad things, things from the second half of the Ten Commandments, like stealing, lying, committing adultery.  These were not the kind of temptations Jesus faced in today’s reading.

 

I found Jesus’ experience to be an echo of the Israelite’s exodus experience.   This same Spirit led them into the wilderness where they wandered for forty years, not forty days.  One thing about the fact that the testing occurred in the wilderness is that as much as we may think the opposite, the wilderness is not God forsaken – the Spirit is there as well as anywhere else. So I find it more than just interesting that Jesus was both filled with the Holy Spirit and led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Being Spirit filled and Spirit led doesn’t indemnify us from tests and temptation – and maybe the opposite is the case. Is it possible that the more we let God’s Spirit possess us and direct our lives the more likely we are to be met with such testing?

 

What Luke suggests as the three tests Jesus faced call to mind Israel’s need to trust God to provide for them, to worship only God, and, instead of reluctantly, rebelliously, obstinately and demanding of miracles, to  live into a way of life under the rule of a God of justice, mercy and peace.   

 

Oh, and about the testing thing—usually, when teachers or driving instructors give tests it is not to flunk those taking the test. It is design to measure their level of attainment, to help them know what they know and what they can do.  It is difficult to know how to translate the word we find in the second and thirteenth verses of this passage.  It is the same word used to describe God’s testing of Abraham when asking him to sacrifice his son.  When the children of Israel were gifted with manna and were told to not gather more than enough for that day it was a test to see whether they would follow God’s direction. In Deuteronomy 8 we are told that it is “to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good” that God tests us.  Matter of fact the scripture Jesus uses to respond to the first test comes from this same chapter in Deuteronomy: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.  He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which your ancestors were un-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.” 

 

Beyond the testing is this confusion about who it was that was administering the tests.  Luke says it was the devil.  The Greek diabolos almost always translates the Hebrew as Satan which means adversary and throughout Hebrew scriptures adversaries are not supernatural beings but other people.  Beside its use in this passage, its only other occurrence in Luke is where the seed that fell on the path is taken away by ‘the devil’.  The way Diabolos works is to try and change our wills by lying or stretching the truth.  Diabolos entices us not with great evils, but with good things—usually for the wrong reasons.

 

To be fair to Luke, we must acknowledge that what happened in this story was witnessed by no one except Jesus.  Jesus faces as adversary who seems almost a friend, a friend who offers him things that sound perfectly reasonable and good. Richard Swanson says that Luke didn’t imagine pitchforks, horns, pointy tails, or the red long-johns that provide color to our cartoon imaginations.  It’s much more likely that the tests came from deep within Jesus himself; hungry, alone and wondering.  It’s probably most helpful to imagine a seductive voice offering plausible, attractive things that as we say ‘make a lot of sense’.  So, when we think back on the three temptations about which we read you might want to weigh these things.

 

What is wrong with turning stones into bread to feed the hungry?  Later, doesn’t Jesus turn a couple of fish and five loaves of bread into a feast for five thousand?  God provided manna in the wilderness, didn’t he?

 

And what’s wrong with the King of kings and Lord of lords assuming control over the kingdoms of this world?  Wouldn’t it be better if Jesus ruled the world rather than Romans?  Isn’t that what those who pant for the end times expect to happen?

 

And what’s wrong with Jesus trusting God to the extent that he was confident that God would send angels to come and protect him?  Would the later experience in Jerusalem been necessary had they witnessed such an amazing and dramatic angelic rescue. 

 

What is so diabolical about these requests?  One answer comes from the last part of that passage of scripture from Deuteronomy which we just read.  When Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3  to say “One does not live by bread alone.” the passage continues: “but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”  Even if the adversary suggests things that appear very good, they have come from a mouth other than God’s.  As individuals and as a Meeting who’s word motivates us?  Is it possible that we might ‘sell our souls to the devil’ in order to achieve some great goal?   In an attempt to be more important or bigger or better might we be entices to sell out to powers other than God?  Jesus was confronted with the choice of listening to the voice of the attractive promises of the devil or to the voice of God.  Isn’t that the dilemma we all face?

 

Luke never lets us forget that the Spirit of God rests upon, dwells within and accompanies Jesus – not just in the wilderness but from the beginning through-out and to the end of his Gospel. Mary Gordon, in her book Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels, reflects on this story pointing to the hunger Jesus felt that involved his whole body and soul.  The word in the text is ‘famished’, well beyond hunger.  She writes: “Famished: you can feel it in the cave behind your ribs, in the midriff’s empty drum,” she continues, “Jesus was in the state of depletion, an almost dangerous, desperate state.”  Barbara Brown Taylor brings this message nearer to our own spiritual lives.  She tells how this pre-Easter season called Lent developed. Jesus’ followers had ‘stopped expecting so much from God or from themselves.” And “had become devoted to their comforts instead.”  Does this shoe fit us today?  “They decided there was no contradiction between being comfortable and being Christian, and before long it was very hard to pick them out from the population at large… they blended in. They avoided extremes.  They decided to be nice instead of holy and God moaned out loud.”  She describes the empty place we feel in ourselves as God’s throne room – a space un-fillable by this world’s goods, but we try. Taylor challenges us to identify the habits, substances or surroundings we use to comfort ourselves, to block out the pain and fear we feel, to name our particular addictions, the things we use to fill the empty place inside us that belongs to God alone.  She says that it is necessary to find out what life is like with no comfort but God.   Dare you imagine what would happen were you to give up your favorite pacifier?

 

Jesus’ three temptations are ours as well: to trust our own devices instead of trusting God to provide for us; to serve the stuff of life as idols instead of worshipping God; to make our choices of life consistent with God’s ordering of justice, mercy and peace. And the good news is that same Spirit who rested on, dwelled in and accompanied Jesus attends us as well, even in our own time of testing.  

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