Sunday, January 27, 2013

Into the Wilderness (Luke 4: 1-15)


The power of temptation is real.  We watched in stunned amazement as Lance Armstrong finally confessed in a television interview that he made a career out of using performance enhancing drugs, cheating and lying his way to no less than 7 Tour de France titles.  It was shocking to watch, to see Armstrong fall from such a height; and yet we can all empathize in some way with him.  Each of us in small and large ways is tempted to compromise our deepest held values, to be something other than what we appear to be, or what we know God wants us to be. 

As Jesus rose from the Jordan River, a voice from heaven said, “You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased.”  What would it mean for Jesus to live out that identity before the world with integrity?  How would Jesus, the Son of God, the Man of the Spirit, pursue his mission and bring people to God?  In Luke 4:1-15 we learn how Jesus was tempted to misuse his power and authority as the Son of God in order to achieve his mission. To know how Jesus faced these temptations may not only give us hope but show us how to do the same.  My daughter asked me the other day, "How could Jesus have been tempted if he was perfect?"  I agreed with her that it sounded strange...but then pondered with her the truth that Jesus as a fully human being was tempted in every way that we are, except without sin (Heb. 4:15).  One way to define the word temptation is "a strong appeal to satisfy legitimate desires under the wrong circumstances, with the wrong means, or for impure motives" (Ada Lum).  Luke tells us that Jesus faced three temptations, all of which are quite familiar to us...

(i) The first is the seduction of physical comfort. If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread” (3). Surely it is right for God’s Son to have the provision of all his needs…and if he needs bread, to make it?!  

This was Jesus’ temptation: to make the satisfaction of his own bodily needs and those of others his primary mission.  The Tempter knows that the hunger for bread, for physical and material comfort is universal, because there is no doubt that “one does live by bread.”  After all, we expend tremendous energy and resources in the pursuit of material comfort, and earthly bread.  Think about it: Jesus could have easily won a following by providing bread over and over again!  Indeed, the only miracle recorded in all four gospels is the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, one which caused great crowds to follow him for a time.  In Dostoevsky's parable of "The Grand Inquisitor," the leader of the Inquisition denounces Jesus for his response to the devil, suggesting that he should have manipulated the masses with miracle after miracle of multiplied bread, for they would have eaten out of his hand like cattle, grateful and obedient…but also fearful too that he might withdraw his hand and the bread.  Of course, the point is that Jesus refused to manipulate people in this way or to deny them the greater good…the freedom to choose the Bread of Life.  As Israel learned in her own wilderness experience, “One does live by bread, "but not by bread alone” (Deut. 8:3).  The full quotation continues, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” 

The need for spiritual bread is the greatest need of the human soul…to know God and to be known by him.  We can be so distracted by the drive for accumulating earthly bread, by the pursuit of material comfort, even by the lack of bread that others have and the injustice of that, that we forget that even after this need is met and all social injustice is eliminated (and may God hasten that day), there will still be a deep hunger for spiritual bread, for purpose and for life that only God can provide.  Thus we need both…to be fed with earthly bread and to receive the spiritual food of communion with God.

(ii) The seduction of power.  “To you I will give [the world’s kingdoms] 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” (6-7). The devil now takes Jesus to a high mountain, as Matthew’s gospel makes clear, where he can show Jesus the kingdoms of this world in panorama.  Remember that Jesus came, in a sense, from the mountain of God, that he descended from heaven to earth, emptying himself of glory and taking on our human frailties.  This was Jesus’ temptation: to advance his mission from that high and lofty position…to rule over the nations as Son of God by the force of his will.  Surely he had the right as Son of God to have such power? 

Jesus must have known the seductive nature of earthly power and social status.  He lived in Roman occupied Palestine, and came from a relatively poor family.  As he began his public ministry some asked, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him” (Mark 6: 3).  How tempting it must have been to use his newfound popularity and social status to be another Alexander, Caesar, or Hitler; to manipulate and force his will upon others; to bow to the god of this world as Satan asked him to do.  Instead, he answers again from Scripture, “It is written, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him' " (Deut. 6: 13). 

Many if not most of us long to be powerful and successful in the eyes of others…and to have all the outward signs of that success.  But there are pitfalls.  If we have been relatively unsuccessful we may become bitter and resentful of others, and plagued with jealousy.  We may keep desperately trying to win the approval of others and despair if we don’t get it, seeing our value only in what we can achieve in the way of wealth, popularity, or personal comfort. On the other hand, if we do have a relative measure of success …we may attribute it to our own hard work when we know that success is often as much about our circumstances (where we were born, the job market, the economy) as anything else.  The world is not “fair” in this way…yet we may still look down at those who don’t have our success, instead of feeling gratitude or responsibility.  For Jesus teaches us that the value of a person is not based on social status but upon one’s value in God’s eyes.  

Indeed, Jesus chose to ignore the barriers created by social status and the kingdoms of this world.  He made those at the bottom rung of society like fishermen or tax collectors his disciples, yet he also welcomed people of high social position like Centurions and Pharisees who came to him looking for God.  And in humbling himself in this way he showed that God’s power is revealed in weakness…in humility, justice, mercy, and forgiveness. 

(iii) The seduction of security.  Jesus is now taken by the devil to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem (v. 9) where there was a sheer drop of 450 feet down to the Kidron Valley below.  Notice that in the first two temptations, Jesus defends himself with the word of God, but now it is Satan who uses Scripture (Psalm 91) to tempt 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 he will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”  Surely it is your right as the Son of God to claim God’s protection from all dangers.  The Bible says so…so jump, and prove to the world that you are!

Obviously it is not enough, when we need guidance, to know some Scripture and be able to quote it.  Satan knew the Bible too and was able to quote it!  The Bible does teach in passages like Psalm 91 that God is our shield in times of trial, but we cannot turn this into a condition of our trust, as if to say: “Unless you protect me from all harm, I will not trust you," or “Hardships can never be good for me.”  Therefore, Jesus replies, "It is said, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' "  (Deut. 6: 16). “Consider it all joy my brothers and sisters when you encounter various trials,” says James, “knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance….” (James 1: 2-4).  In other words, Jesus refused to put conditions on his obedience; as if to say, "I will trust you Father only if you prove your love for me by rescuing me from all harm and protecting me from all pain." 

Someone came up to me after the terrible events of Newtown and said, “God must surely be powerless if he allowed such evil to happen to innocent children.”  I shared his pain and anguish in the face of such evil.  Together we wrestled with the fact that Christ entered a world where there is the possibility of both goodness and evil; that God could have created a world without the possibility of sin or pain…but God chose instead to create a universe where there is freedom, where pain is possible, but also love, courage, forgiveness, sacrifice. Jesus entered that world as a fully human being, not as a superman whose foot never touched the earth or stubbed his toe…but as the incarnate Son of God who was tempted, who experienced hunger, and who suffered evil as we do.  Certainly he could have lived a life free of all this, but how then could his life have been a path for us to follow?  Heb. 2:18 puts it this way: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Now after Jesus responds to this third temptation, we read that “[Satan] departed from him until an opportune time” (13). Luke is referring to that moment when Jesus could have called upon a legion of angels to protect him, but instead willingly suffered the consequences of our sin on the cross (Matt. 26: 51-53).  Why?  So that he might show us the victory of God over sin, death, and all the powers of hell.  We have learned much from Jesus’ response to these three temptations, but as we think about our own personal trials and temptations, there are two things which Jesus gives to us in this passage that we might share in his victory:


There is the promise of his Spirit  (Luke 12:11-12; Acts 1:8).  Christ gives us the very same Spirit who indwelled him in his earthly ministry.  Jesus, the Man of the Spirit, baptizes us with his Holy Spirit as well.  Regardless of our past, or what we are facing today or in the future…we do not face it alone. The Holy Spirit will be with us always.  

There is the pattern of his life. As Christians, we take Jesus’ death very seriously as we consider his sacrifice for us, but we do not always take his life very seriously…that is, the pattern of life he gave us.  How can we live as Spirit-filled men and women?  Jesus shows us how to train that we might finish the race well. First, we go into the wilderness.  The reason Jesus went into the wilderness to face these temptations is because it was in the place of solitude and silence that he could pray and fast and meditate upon the truth of God’s word.  Then, we return to Galilee.  Jesus did not stay in the wilderness…we read in v. 15 that Jesus, “filled with the power of the Spirit returned to Galilee” where he began to teach and minister to the hurts of people.  He gave us a pattern to follow…time alone with the Father and his word…and time with his people in loving service.  This is the inhale and exhale of the Christian life, the true alternative to the pursuit of material comfort, power, or security.


We began by talking about the power of temptation and the temptation to seek power.  I found an annual list which names “the one hundred most powerless people in the world.”  It includes men like Tony Hayward, the former CEO of BP, in 2011 the 4th largest company in the world (based on revenues). After a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the BP board of directors eventually fired Hayward.  Jim Keyes, the former CEO of Blockbuster, once one of the nation's largest retailers.  Mike Jones, the current CEO of the former #1 social network—MySpace, which once had 70 million users.  Arnold Schwarzenegger, the once powerful actor and politician in California, who is attempting to make an acting comeback after driving his state's finances into the ground.  Hosni Mubarak, the former President of Egypt who left the country in disgrace.  To that list we could certainly add Lance Armstrong.  

Perhaps you feel like you could be on this list…because of mistakes you have made, or hardships you have experienced.  What’s stunning is that here, in the wilderness, Jesus firmly chose to take the path of powerlessness and humility, forsaking earthly comfort, power, and security … even to the point of giving his life for us on the cross.  In Him we discover that we too are beloved by the Father and that our identity comes not from the elusive goals of earthly comfort, power, or security but in the sure knowledge that we are beloved sons and daughters of God, the only true source of comfort, power or security in this life.

Heavenly Father, we thank You that because your Son was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested (Heb. 2:18). We therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, confident that we will receive mercy and grace to help us in our time of need. Wash away our many sins, and grant us strength to fast from everything we know is wrong. Fill us with the same Holy Spirit who brought Your Son strength in the wilderness. Feed us daily from Your word; and help us to prayerfully rely upon You instead of material comfort, earthly power, or false security. Now may the Fruits of the Spirit be evident in us: a reminder that Your grace is at work as we grow in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Amen.

For further reading:
Spiritual Theology, by Diogenes Allen
Temptations by Diogenes Allen
The Brothers Karamosov, "The Grand Inquisitor" by Fyodr Dostoevsky
The Spirit of the Disciplines, "Salvation is a Life," by Dallas Willard

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