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Lent 1c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
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.
As is the case on the first Sunday in Lent every year, our gospel passage tells of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. This is a very dramatic episode; in fact, screenwriters have found it to be among the easiest episodes from the life of Christ to portray on film. The script practically writes itself: Saint Luke in particular sets the time and the scene the way any screenwriter or storyteller would do, right at the top of the page. It is after the baptism of Jesus, and the spirit has led him into the wilderness. There he has spent forty days, being tempted by the devil. We are only presented with the last three temptations, but Luke says this has been going on for forty days, during which time Jesus has eaten nothing — and if you want to get a sense of what that might have been like I suggest you try going for forty hours and see how it feels.
So the scene is set and the dialogue very quickly ensues. In fact the dialogue happens so quickly that I fear we are likely to lose the impact and the import of these three temptations; so I would like to take a little time this morning to look at each of them in greater detail. These three temptations point to three half-truths. Jesus transforms these halves, doubling them into three full truths: truth times three.
The first temptation is a natural: Jesus is famished and so the devil tempts him with food, in particular with bread — but note that he does not simply present him with a nice freshly baked loaf of bread; he urges him to make it himself by transforming a stone into bread. Jesus responds by quoting the Scripture, Deuteronomy 8:3, “One does not live by bread alone.” You know there is more to that citation, that verse; but Jesus, quoting the Scripture in this way, is doing something that the rabbis of his time often did — that is, they relied on the scriptural literacy of their students, and at the same time tested that literacy, by only giving half the verse, to see if they would come up with the second half on their own; to test the understanding of the hearer. They would know the rest, as I’m sure you do — after all, that’s why the rabbinical students were studying, and as far as the devil goes, there’s an old saying that the devil can quote scripture to his purpose — which we will see in a moment. So in this case, you all remember the other half of this verse: “but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
To those who know that Scripture, this unspoken half of the verse should resonate with great power: for not just what but who is the word that comes from the mouth of the Lord? It is not just the Law that comes from God, the written word given on Mount Sinai; but it is also the Son of God himself — Jesus — the living word of God, spoken from before time and forever; the one who comes forth from the Father, the Only-Begotten Word of God. Moreover, he is also, as we will see later in the gospel, the one who gives himself as bread, for the life of the world. So the half-truth that the devil presents is that the son of God can transform stone into bread; but just as at the wedding in Cana of Galilee Jesus showed that there was a far more to his mission than a mere magic act, so too here he shows the whole truth: that life itself is not merely something that comes from eating earthly bread but from heavenly bread and from the word of God, living and true.
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The devil’s next temptation involves a change of scene and a vision of all the world’s kingdoms. With this comes the half-truth that the devil can arrange for Jesus to come to power in these earthly lands if he will devote himself to the devil’s agenda. Anyone who reads the newspaper or watches CNN can see the stories of politicians whose rise to power was built on betraying the very principles they were called upon to defend. Dare I mention using campaign funds to buy yourself a watch that’s worth more than what most people make in a whole year?
Jesus once again responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:13, substituting one word, “worship” for “fear.” And if in the first response Jesus gave part of a quote to imply the rest of it, here he alters one word, picking up on the devil’s offer that if Jesus will worship him the devil will give him authority over the nations of the world. This altering of a single word is another rabbinic tool: bending a text by substituting a close synonym to make a point, as Jesus does here to show a greater truth: there is no cause either to worship or to fear the devil. God alone is the source of all right judgment and truth. To rely upon the devil to come to power is to build on a very shaky foundation indeed — as we have seen when countless tyrants, liars and hypocrites, and politicians, topple from power when they are exposed for their betrayal of the truth and their failure to fear the judgment of God — for we are all answerable to that power.
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Finally there is one more change of scene, and also a change in tactics. Perhaps a bit annoyed at having had Scripture quoted at him, the devil decides to quote Scripture himself, offering not just one but two quotations from it — in this case both from Psalm 91. Once more Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:16. Obviously there is some truth in the devil’s challenge; after all it comes from Scripture: God does indeed protect his own. But Jesus wisely points out the whole truth: that God’s protection does not mean we are to test or challenge God by putting ourselves at risk just to show that God is God. God doesn’t need us to prove that God is God. God is God whether we prove it or not!
But another and more important truth in this last challenge and response lies in the last verse of the passage: Jesus says, “do not put the Lord your God to the test,” and the gospel concludes, “when the devil had finished every test he went away, awaiting an opportune time.” “When the devil had finished every test.” This is Luke’s way of highlighting what in fact has been taking place here in the whole scene: the devil has been testing Jesus, but in doing so he has also been testing God — for Jesus is the Son of God incarnate, and the devil knows that full well, just as he knows his Scripture; but he has gotten so caught up in the coils of his own lies that he has forgotten who it is he is speaking to. He may think he is only preying upon the human weakness that Jesus has embraced in becoming human — the human weaknesses of hunger, ambition, and fear — but the devil has forgotten — as he so often does, poor fool that he is and always has been — that in spite of his human weakness Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, he is the bread of heaven, he is the true power and authority of all creation by whom all things were made, and not someone who can be put to the test by one who lost his legs in the Garden of Eden, condemned to spend the rest of his life belly-squirming in the dust.
So it is no wonder the devil chooses this moment to slither away and bide his time. Jesus’ last response might just as well have been, “Just who do you think you are talking to!” You shall not put the Lord your God to the test. The devil has gotten so tied up with his own charms that he has forgotten just who Jesus is — and that sudden reminder is enough to send him slithering back to his snake-hole. “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” For all his talk, the devil is an awful coward.
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And so my friends let us take away these three important whole truths from this short drama: First, Jesus is the word of God and the bread from heaven, and it is by him, in him, and through him that we are called and invited to live. Second, he and he alone is and ought to be the only object of our worship and our service — any power or glory that comes from any other source is to be rejected for the worthless and undependable trash that it is. Third and finally, we are called upon not to test, but to trust, and to bear in mind who it is with whom we will have to deal at the end — the devil will not be our judge. The devil may be our accuser, but our judge, who shared our life as we share his, will also be our advocate, and redeemer, and he will speak on our behalf. What does Saint Paul say? “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.” We have heard this day three precious truths, to support that confession and that faith, my friends, three precious truths from the heart of the wilderness and from the heart of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+