Did you notice the little two letter word “if” when the Gospel was read? It shows up three times in twelve verses – a small preposition with the power to undermine God. “If you are the Son of God”, “if you then” and again “if you are the Son of God.” It’s a word that instills doubt, raises anxiety, which is internalized fear, and sends us into the wilderness – where we meet Jesus today. With his hair still damp from the Jordan River’s baptismal water where a voice from heaven declared “You are my beloved Son with you I am well pleased,” the Holy Spirit leads him into the wilderness where for forty days he is tempted by the devil.
“If” is the wilderness word. It sets up conditions that must be met and tests that need to be passed. The Greek word translated tempted in Luke carries a double meaning – both temptation and testing. The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness for a time of temptation-testing where who he is and what he does, comes together.[i] It’s boot camp for the Savior, only instead of a sergeant screaming in his face, there’s the devil, Satan, adversary and tempter. And while a good sergeant holds both the well-being of the entire army as well as the greenest recruit in her or his mind that is not the case for Satan. The biblical witness from the Garden of Eden in Genesis to the heavenly battles in the book of Revelation lets us know that Satan seeks to tear down rather than build-up. Satan does this, not by enticing with great evils, but with tempting through good things for the wrong reasons.
That’s Satan’s strategy with Jesus who is famished. He hasn’t eaten in 40 days. So, Satan offers a seemingly good suggestion: “If you are the Son of God, why not turn the stones to bread?” Not only will he be satisfied. Think about the millions, no, the billions of hungry people, who will be fed. Stones to bread – no more PACS collections, Phantom Food Packs and St. Peter’s meals and that’s just in Phoenixville. And is there anything wrong with the King of kings and Lord of lords assuming control over the kingdoms of the world? Imagine, if Jesus said “yes”, there would be justice, fairness and peace. No borders. No walls. No separation of children from their families. And what about a little miracle like jumping from the pinnacle of the temple trusting the angels to catch him– a Cirque du Soleil feat that would draw the crowds in and leave them in awe. Welcoming Team run off more new member forms and get ready to sign them all up. Satan entices with good things, but only if God comes in second place not in first.
You see, most of the time temptation is not about doing something wrong. When I studied pastoral care, I learned the very few people wake up in the morning and say, “Let me go out and mess up my life.” Mostly everyone tries to do the best they can. When Adam and Eve were in the garden, the tempter asked, “Would you like to be as God?” not “Would you like to listen to Satan?” No one asks, “Do you want to be an addict?” but, “Do you want to chill?” Another video gamer doesn’t suggest, “Blowing off studying for the science test,” but “How about another game?” The question asked by the Tempter, Satan, is: “Would you like to be as God?” Not, “do you want to mess up your life?” And when we seek to be God, that’s exactly what happens – we mess up our lives.
You see temptation at its deepest level is not so much about doing something we shouldn’t, but who are we going to listen to – God or someone or something less than God, and that someone includes ourselves. Did you notice how each of the temptations seeks to erode and undercut Jesus’ relationship with God? Satan is trying to steal Jesus’ identity. “Have a snack,” Satan says, and Jesus replies, “We are to live by God’s Word.” Satan ups the stakes, “Worship me and gain the world” and Jesus answers, “Worship the Lord your God alone.” “Do a miracle,” Satan tempts. Jesus responds, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” In every temptation, Jesus seeks the will of God, showing us when we are tempted, we may do so too. What is God’s will for us? For you, for me, for St. John’s?
First, God wants us to remember who we are. Our hair is also damp with the waters of baptism where we are blessed and given our identities. Whenever I talk with our new Bishop, Pat Davenport, in one way or another she reminds me that I am a beloved child of God. That blessing takes my breath away. We are beloved ones. We are enough. When Jesus was in the wilderness, I wonder how many times he remembered his baptism, recalling the voice from heaven, and that God was well pleased with him. Everything we do as a congregation begins in baptism. That’s why whenever we embark upon a mission trip or a mission day, we gather around the font, remember our baptism and bless one another. You are invited to do so today as you begin another week of mission and ministry in God’s world. Remember we belong to God.
Second, God gives us his Word. Jesus’ response to all of Satan’s “if” were directly from Scripture. He obviously paid attention in Synagogue School. When reading the bible notice what connects with you, how the words connect you to God. Read as if each word is for you! Then in prayer, reflect and wonder. And finally, in words and deeds share this good news. Don’t worry if you can’t quote Bible verses –just live out the love they contain. Participate in one of our Bible studies, or pick up a small prayer book, or simply sit quietly in God’s grace-filled presence.
Next worship every week. God gave us the commandment to remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. You might not know that there are two listing of the 10 Commandments. The first is in Exodus, chapter 20, where we are told to keep the sabbath, because our non-anxious God rested on the 7th day. If God is anxious, we don’t have to be either. In Deuteronomy 5, we’re told to observe the Sabbath so that we do not become slaves to work. Worshiping God takes us beyond ourselves into a land of milk and honey, blessing and grace. Each week during Lent we are given another opportunity to worship on Wednesday evenings, gathering with God’s holy people of our community and this year with five specific saints – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Bishop Oscar Romero, John Knox and Martin Luther King, Jr.– each one of them sought to do the will of God in the face of great temptations.
Finally, I believe God wills St. John’s to live, grow and share in God’s love through Jesus Christ our Lord. Over the years I have learned that how we do that is as important as what we do – for in the body of Christ there is no separation between means and ends. God calls us to love one another, to share that love with the world, to welcomes others into this community of faith and to trust that God always gives us what we need – even in the wilderness. Amen.
[i] Eugene Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Waterbrook, 2017, 232.