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Wouldn't it be romantic to imagine Jesus being baptized by John in the river Jordan, and then simply wandering off into the countryside and beginning his preaching, teaching and healing?
And it would be about as realistic as imagining pastors gliding through three years of seminary and then casually moving into churches to preach.
But just as your own lives, seen from a comfortable distance by others, might appear to them to be easy, you know life is not. And I can't help but think of my visits to my parents, when a large gathering of brothers and sister and nieces and nephews are present.
It always seems that meals appear out of nowhere! But I know that's not the case. I know that mother had to make detailed plans, had to decide what she needed, had to purchase the groceries, and then had to spend the time preparing all that food.
So it is, I believe, with the life of Christ. Jesus made it all look so easy. And we like to believe that it WAS easy because, after all, Jesus was God in the flesh. But we forget that in taking on our humanity, God took on all our weaknesses.
In the early verses of the fourth chapter of the gospel according to Luke, we learn of Jesus' temptations by the devil. "Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil."
Now, in the scripture, this would appear to have been a one-time event in the life of Jesus, and I have no doubt that it did occur following his baptism. However, I suspect that all of this is also symbolic of the temptations that he faced throughout his ministry. I don't believe that it was truly over and done with after the devil gave up on him in the wilderness. Wouldn't it be wonderful if each of us could go through a 40-day trial, and a brief oral examination by the devil, and then be free of temptation for the rest of our days? But somehow, it doesn't work quite that way.
The devil, in whatever form, continues to hang around, and temptation is always with us.
"He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished."
After forty days, that's not hard to believe. But that's not all that is taking place. Richard Foster, who has written on the discipline of fasting, who has carefully studied it, has found that even "by the sixth or seventh day you will begin to feel stronger and more alert. By the ninth or tenth day the body will have eliminated the bulk of toxic poisons and you will feel good. Your sense of concentration will be sharpened and you will feel as if you could continue fasting indefinitely."
However, he also goes on to say that in an extended fast of up to forty days and more, hunger pains will return. But consider those positive aspects! Jesus was preparing himself for the temptations to come.
And I think the same might be said for things other than food that we give up in our lives. We frequently find that we can live without them, and even find that we may be better off without them.
And the devil, seeing Jesus hungry, said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread."
The devil is taunting Jesus. It sounds a lot like "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" Now, on the one hand, I think the devil sounds simple-minded; but on the other hand, the devil is appealing to our simple-minded instincts. For how often do we see the world in a superficial manner? How often to we wish for a "quick fix" from God?
How often do we believe that if God does not answer a prayer clearly and immediately and to our liking, that God will not answer the prayer?
Truly, the devil knows what strings to pull; the devil knows how to get to us! And the devil thinks that the same approach can be taken to Jesus. And what better point to strike than where Jesus seemed to be weakest: in hunger.
But the devil has overlooked one thing. In the process of Jesus becoming hungry, Jesus has become stronger. The Holy Spirit has been working through Jesus in this time.
"Jesus answered him, "It is written, "One does not live by bread alone."
And he is echoing the words of the third verse of the eighth chapter of Deuteronomy: "He 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."
Jesus is telling the devil that the instant miracle is not the answer to life; that although bread may be necessary to life, it is not sufficient for life.
And I don't believe that this message is only about bread for our hunger. I believe it also applies to other forms of "instant gratification." But instead of turning stones into bread, people turn plastic money into whatever they happen to want at the moment. And what we too often fail to understand is that we can turn plastic into an infinite array of material goods and still never be satisfied.
We will still be hungry.
But the devil, not ready to give up, led Jesus up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And 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.
"If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours."
What a deal! But Jesus was not the first to whom it was offered, nor was Jesus the last. That deal is still being made, and still being accepted. Yet, is anything more apparent in history than how short-lived is earthly power? Empires, and dynasties, and civilizations all fall. To be replaced by new empires, and new dynasties, and new civilizations, which in their turn will also fall.
When Jesus was made this offer, the Roman Empire was the reigning earthly power. The Romans thought they would reign forever. They did not. But Jesus also knew the history of the Jewish people as recorded in the Torah. He knew the works of the Prophets.
He knew of the rise and fall of many empires, of the Egyptians, of the Assyrians, of the Babylonians. And he was not impressed with the devil's offer. That was two thousand years ago. And it was already clear to Jesus that earthly power was a fleeting thing.
Is it not remarkable that we still have not figured that out today? The British Empire sprawled the globe, and the British thought they could do anything, anywhere, anytime, and for all time. How quickly all that vanished.
Jesus' answer is simple: "Jesus answered him, "It is written, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him."
And he is echoing the thirteenth verse of the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy: "The Lord your God you shall fear him; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear."
But in this response, Jesus shifts the focus. Jesus does not simply refuse the reward the devil offers in the deal, because it doesn't matter what the devil has to offer. What Jesus refuses is the price that must be paid: worship of the devil.
And Jesus response is helpful to us, when we wonder about our own lives. The question is not about whether our acts are good or evil; the question is, Whom are we serving? Are our lives in the service of God and what we see to be God's purpose? Or are we serving ourselves only, and moving in league with the devil?
So the devil loses out again. But the devil has one last trick. "Then 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, 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."
The devil is truly sneaky. The devil knows the scripture also, citing the eleventh and twelfth verses of the ninety-first Psalm. And the devil is sounding much like the devil sounded in the first temptation. "If you really are who you say you are, you can do anything. So jump down from here."
Well, jumping off a tall building isn't like turning a stone into a loaf of bread. It's not a miracle required. But the catch is in surviving the fall.
Now, all of our lives are filled with taking chances, with assuming risks. In fact, simply being alive involves unavoidable risks. But there are varieties of risks. There are many risks we take in life in the full faith and confidence that God is with us.
They are risks taken WITH God. But, on the other hand, there can be risks which we take to test God. In fact, they may be seen to spite God. They put God at arm's length, outside ourselves; and God's acts become, in our eyes, more like tricks than divine works.
When I began seminary, I was taking a risk, actually many risks. But there was always, and still is, the sense that God was with me in taking those risks. That we were taking it on together.
To have made it a "test" of God would have been to alienate myself from God. To have put God outside me. And I don't believe that that is where God is. Rather, I believe that God is a spirit working in us and through us. And in that spirit, we can take risks.
So the devil's temptation of Jesus is not just a temptation, but also a test of Jesus' relationship with God. I think there is a parallel relationship here with us and our family and friends.
We know that in times of need there are likely many who will and do come to our aid. I've felt most fortunate to have had family and friends whose graciousness has been overwhelming, far more than I've deserved, when I've had need.
But to intentionally put that graciousness to the test is to violate the love in the relationship. It is to alienate ourselves from others.
It is taking advantage of the relationship. The devil knows about these sorts of things. And the devil is still with us. The devil was quite correct in the scriptural basis for the temptation. But the devil missed the point.
"Jesus answered him, "It is said, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time."
I'm not so sure the devil departed, exactly. For Jesus, and for all of us, I suspect that the devil is always lurking nearby, for that is how close temptation is. Are we not continually being tempted to place the material above the spiritual?
Are we not continually being tempted to serve ourselves above serving others? Is not our faith sorely tested in trying moments? Yet, through it all, while the devil may be just around the corner, God is with us, within us, if only we seek God.
In this Lenten season, as we re-examine our spiritual lives, we should not despair in our temptations, but rather take consolation in the example of Christ. Jesus has shown us the way; Jesus has been there, and the scripture is our guide to the journey.
And God is continually supporting us on the way.
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