Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit. The power of the Holy Spirit is emphasized by the author of the Gospel of Luke. There are so many other kinds of power that tempt us in this world – authority, wealth and fame – but the true power that will never abandon us is that of the Spirit of God. Our first lesson, from Deuteronomy, refers to the “wandering Aramean” who was the ancestor of the Jewish people. That wandering Aramean was Abraham, and he was put to the test many times but the Spirit of God never abandoned him.
By Jesus’ time it was a common concept in Judaism that a person of God should undergo a time of testing. They knew that many of their ancestors – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Job and Daniel among others – were tested, yet never abandoned by God. Their trials led them to unexpected triumphs which shaped the grand history of the Jewish people. Before Jesus was born, both Mary and Joseph were tested by God to accept and believe in the task to which they were being called, even though their culture, tradition and even common sense may have dictated that they refuse. Yet, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, they both agreed to be the parents of God’s son here on earth.
Last week we celebrated the Transfiguration, when the divinity of Jesus was made known to three of his closest disciples in a mysterious and dramatic way. During Lent, the focus will be on the humanity of Jesus, and in this, our first story for the season, he takes on our humanity in such a way that he is tempted and tested. His temptation takes place immediately after his baptism, when, as Luke describes it, the Spirit led him into the wilderness. So the Holy Spirit actually initiated this difficult time of testing, and two narratives will unfold, that of Jesus and that of the devil. He spent forty days in the wilderness, the place where his ancestors wandered for forty years and John the Baptizer spent most of his time. The wilderness is not a desert of rolling sand dunes, like the Sahara, but a place more like the Sonoran desert in the west where most plants that sustain animal life only flourish during the seasonal rains.
During the forty days, Jesus ate nothing and was continually tempted by the devil. Our story takes place near the end of his ordeal, when he is famished. We hear only the final three temptations; we don’t even know what he was confronted with prior to that. The struggle between Jesus and the devil is all about his identity. Luke has told us he is the Son of God. His identity has been confirmed by Mary, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna, John the Baptist, and the genealogy in the third chapter of Luke. Jesus did not have to do anything to prove his identity or to earn commendation as the Son of God. He is declared to be the one who will bring salvation to his people. He is the Son of God, the Savior, but the devil tempts him to prove who he is in self-serving ways that would undermine his identity as the Son who relies on the good gifts of the Father. In families of the ancient world an adult son was often understood as the father’s representative and the father and the son would work together to accomplish the family goals. The son’s identity, honor, and status were rooted in his family’s identity, honor and status. Therefore Jesus does not need to gain these things by giving in to the devil’s temptations.
Yet the devil will call his identity into question with each temptation – “If you are the Son of God…” The devil offers the temptation of self-indulgence – make bread from stones to ease your hunger, self-promotion – all the nations of the world will belong to you if you worship me, and self-serving religious identity – if you are the son of God cast yourself from the top of the temple. (There was a belief among some Jewish people at the time that the Messiah would appear on the top of the temple in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish identity and worship.) Jesus responds with quotations drawn from scripture that show his awareness of the true source of life and identity – he knows that life is more than food, he has complete reliance on God who is the one worthy of true worship and service – unlike the devil – and he understands that God’s character is not to be tested. Jesus’ underlying belief is that he is dependent on God rather than himself for life, glory, and identity.
Both Jesus and the devil quote from Scripture during their battle. In response to temptation, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy, but it is not enough to just know Scripture. The devil – who is bold, cunning, clever and powerful – offers quotes from Psalm 91. We have all encountered people who take a verse or two out of context and try to make that a proof text for their argument. Scripture must be understood in the light of God’s true nature and the life God envisions for us. That life is rooted in God’s promise of grace and our response of faithful obedience to God. It is not based on self-reliance, which is the way of life the devil offers.
We live in a world of competing stories and so we must know the Christian story in order to resist the false narratives that tempt us and try to dominate our lives. In the story of Jesus’ temptation he is empowered by the Holy Spirit, a power which is greater than the power of the devil. He may be in the wilderness, which is often thought of as being God-forsaken, but just like his ancestors, God never abandons him. The temptations that Jesus faces demonstrate that he knows deeply and intimately what it is like to be human.
During this season of Lent we want to simplify our lives and to identify who we really are. It is helpful and encouraging to see that Jesus was able to resist the temptation to take for himself the wrong kind of power, a power that would demonstrate complete self-reliance, and deny his true identity as the Son of God. We can admit to ourselves that it is difficult to resist the temptations of self-indulgence, self-promotion and to take on a self-serving identity that denies who and whose we really are. It is tempting to try and make it on our own, to be self-sufficient, even though we know we must rely on God, who created us and who empowers us to be obedient and to live the life of abundance that God intends for us.
During Lent we will concentrate on disciplines of fasting, prayer and giving to the poor and those in need. We can practice discipline by giving something up, but not just to benefit ourselves. If we give up certain foods, we can donate them to the food pantries. If we give up behaviors, we can reflect on how it helps us to reveal our true selves in a more wholesome way. We can also practice Lenten discipline by adding something to our lives – praying more attentively, reading scripture on a daily basis, or volunteering for something new. We can admit how difficult it is to resist temptation and seek help from others, or offer our help to them as they struggle to resist the devil that tempts them. We can look into the story of our lives and find the truth of who we truly are. That should result in gratitude for the power of the Holy Spirit of God that enables us to resist temptation and to live life abundantly. Amen.