March 1st, 1998 (St. George’s URC, Hartlepool)
Lent 1 (RCL - year ‘C’)
Readings: Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Romans 10:8-13 *
Luke 4:1-13 *
I want us to focus today on something that Satan said, and on something that the apostle Paul said.
Satan said this to Jesus in the Wilderness: "If you are the son of God, command this stone to become bread...If you are the son of God, throw yourself down from here..."
Paul said this to the church in Rome: "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
There is a question for Jesus in the wilderness and there is a question for the church in Rome. Essentially it is the same question: What does God mean when he says to Jesus at his baptism, "Thou art my beloved son, with thee I am well pleased"? What does God mean when he says to the disciples at the top of the mount of transfiguration, "This is my beloved son, listen to him."?
Let's look at the question posed to Jesus first. I, for one, have always thought it unfortunate that the story of Jesus' forty days in the wilderness has come to be known as "The temptation of Jesus". What's wrong with calling it "The temptation of Jesus" you may ask, and I would reply that such a title can mislead us in two ways. First, it involves a mis-translation. The word so often translated as "temptation" is "Peirazo" which actually means "testing". It describes a situation where a person or a nation has to make a choice. The image is not of a horned figure with a forked tail trying to persuade Jesus to eat a sticky bun. No doubt Satan's intention was to persuade Jesus to do wrong, but the initiative was with God, and the whole emphasis of the story in on the testing of Jesus' calling as son of God, how would he choose?
Secondly, to speak of the temptation of Jesus is misleading because this was not the sum total of Jesus struggle and testing. Jesus was faced with many other situations where he had choices to make. I would rather call this story, "At the start of his ministry, Jesus decides to choose God's way". So now we've got the title sorted out, what's the story all about ? We read first of all that the Spirit drove him into the wilderness, and this is our first clue. Right at the start we are reminded that it is God who is in control here. Satan is, if you like, an agent of God. We are not to sit on the edge of our seats, holding our breath, waiting to see whether Satan will snatch Jesus away at the last minute. Satan is not the prime mover here, God is.
The wilderness doesn't mean that much to us today. For the people of Jesus' time and place it was a word full of meaning. Any reference to the wilderness and they would immediately have pictures in their minds about stories of the Israelites in the wilderness. To them, the wilderness was a place where hard lessons had to be learned and choices had to be made. The people of Israel entered the wilderness gladly, they had been set free from bondage, released from slavery to Egypt. But they soon found that freedom brings choices and responsibilities. At first it was easy to follow a God who rescued them with mighty acts, but it wsn't so easy when life became a little harder. Their time in the wilderness was a time of testing, a time for making choices. The same is true for Jesus, and the story describes the three tests or choices that he faced.
The first is the turning of stones into bread. Perhaps the voice of God is still echoing in his head - "You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased." Satan arrives and says, "Alright then, if you are God's beloved son, turn this stone into bread to eat. The son of God shouldn't have to go hungry, you can choose to satisfy physical needs by miraculous power."
During Jesus' ministry, Satan was proved to be right, Jesus did have the power to satisfy hunger by miraculous means, and he did so in the feeding of the 5000 and in the turning of water into wine. But here in the wilderness Jesus recognized in his hunger an experience designed by God to teach him a lesson.
The people of Israel in the wilderness had faced the same lesson. For them, God had turned the dust of the desert into a carpet of manna. They were to gather only enough for their own immediate needs. They were to trust God that he would be faithful to his word and provide for the next day. Some of them made the wrong choice - they gathered bucketsfull to put by for days ahead in case God wasn't as good as his word. Of course the next day it was foul and full of worms.
The people of Israel had failed to learn the lesson that Jesus now faced - to follow God's calling requires obedience to God's plan. God's plan for Jesus was that he would be a servant messiah, one who lived for others. Concern for his own material comfort could only jeopardise his mission.
Choice number two: "Why don't you throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple and let the angels catch you ? Then you would know for sure that your God is with you, and that you can rely on Him." The people of Israel also had these kind of questions. "Is the Lord with us or not ? If He is with us, why haven't we got any water ?" "You shall not tempt the Lord your God". Jesus realized that the son of God could only live in a relationship of trust that needs no test. If there is one thing that really destroys relationships it is a breakdown in trust. No relationship can survive if one is always having to prove himself to the other. God has revealed himself to us, He does not have to prove himself to us again and again.
The third choice: "I can give you dominion over the world if only you will bow down and worship me." As the people of Israel entered the promised land it wasn't long before compromise threatened their faith. This is what is offered to Jesus - world dominion, power to really change things. But this wasn't his calling. He had already identified himself with the sinners he came to save. That meant the lowly path, not that of earthly glory. It meant a cross, not a crown. It was a crucial test of Jesus' loyalty to his father, even where it meant renouncing the easy way.
Three choices then, a choice of priorities - to minister to others before ministering to himself; a choice to trust in God's perpetual presence, even when circumstances seemed to deny it; and a choice to see his mission and his calling through to the end, and to take the road that God ordained. That was the question that Jesus faced in the wilderness.
A few years later, Jesus has answered that question in his life, death and rising again. He has followed the path of the suffering messiah, the servant king, right to the end. Satan has no more questions for Jesus. And Paul is writing to a small, beleaguered church in Rome. And he is challenging them, "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
What does it mean, to confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord ?
It sounds quite easy doesn't it. "Jesus is Lord!" There! I've said it! Simple! But to confess something is much more than simply to say something. If you say something with your lips, you merely form the words. If you confess something with your lips you give expression to something that is central to your life, you give expression to something that touches you deep inside. If you confess something with your lips, you reveal the contents of your heart. If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead...
If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, then you are revealing what you believe in your heart - that Jesus Christ is risen from death, that he is Lord of lords and King of kings. You are revealing what you believe in your heart that Jesus Christ is God's beloved son, that he is risen from the dead and that therefore he is all he has claimed to be - the light of the world, the living bread, the true vine, the good shepherd, the way the truth and the life.
If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, then you are revealing what you believe in your heart, that he is Lord and that you belong to him. You are revealing what you believe in your heart, that he is Lord of all your life, every part of it, your work-time, your leisure-time, your home-life, your church-life, your money, your relationships, your whole life.
Jesus was examined by Satan in the wilderness: "So you are the God's beloved son? What does that mean? What are you going to do about it then?"
We too are examined as we begin this season of Lent. God challenges us through Paul's letter: "So you believe Jesus is God's beloved son? You confess him as Lord? What does that mean for your life? What are you going to do about it then?"
Loving God, in the wilderness Jesus faced hard choices about the direction of his life and his response to your call. As we begin this season of Lent, show us the hard choices that we have to make about the direction of our lives, and give us the power of your Spirit that we might choose always to follow Jesus our Lord. Amen.