SERMON An Opportune Time…

I did not preach this Sunday, but if I had, it would have looked and sounded something like this.

First Sunday in Lent (Year C)

  • Deuteronomy 26:1–11
  • Psalm 91:1–2, 9–16
  • Romans 10:8b–13
  • Luke 4:1–13 (Purple)

1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” 4 And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone. ’” 5 And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, 6 and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 And Jesus answered him, “It is written,
“‘You shall worship the Lord your God,
and him only shall you serve. ’”
9 And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written,
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
to guard you,’
11 and
“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone. ’”
12 And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test. ’” 13 And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:1-13 ESV)

We have three versions of this story, the temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness. Mark’s is short, a mere two verses, and tells us nothing of the encounter, save that Jesus was tempted for forty days, the wild animals were with him — comforting him, probably, the way a cranky old cat comforts my foster daughter Molly when she has anxiety attacks and nightmares — and the angels were ministering to him.

Matthew’s telling of this story is long, like Luke’s, and Matthew tells us that Jesus is driving out into the Wilderness by the Holy Spirit in order to be tempted by Satan. God, seeing what his incarnate self is made of, seeing what temptation looks like. And whether or not it can be withstood.

There doesn’t seem to be quite that purpose to Luke. The Devil — Διαβολος in Greek, the slanderer, the accuser, the weaver of lies and falsehoods — seems in Luke’s telling merely to tag along while Jesus wanders into the Wilderness, tempting Jesus all those 40 days, pestering him, bothering him, laying before him the very temporary but glittering wonders that Satan has to offer.

Here, in Luke, God is not trying to figure out what temptation is like and whether it can be resisted — because God has spent most of scripture laying choices before Israel, before his called out people, and telling them one choice leads to life and abundance and prosperity and the other to suffering and death. So, it only seems fair that an incarnate God stand hungry, exhausted, lost, and even despondent before a devil who tempts and taunts and tries his best to convince that his way, Satan’s way, is the best.

If in Matthew it seems that God is exploring what it means to be incarnate, to be enfleshed and all that means, here, in Luke, Diabolos seems intent on figuring out if an incarnate God is subject to the kinds of human weaknesses the rest of us are. Does hunger, and thirst, and exhaustion, and confusion, and desperation, mean that God can be convinced of a different way of doing things? Well, the devil works his hardest — maybe — to find out. It’s at least worth a try, with the incarnate, enfleshed Son of God in front of him (and it’s funny how as we insist upon the femininity of God, no one seems to do the same for the devil), to tempt him, and see what happens.

Because maybe, just maybe, Jesus will succumb. Jesus will give in.

What does Diabolos tempt Jesus with? He tells a hungry man who possess the power of the divine to take stones and make them loaves of bread. Jesus need not be hungry, not ever. This sacrifice in the wilderness, this fasting, is all for nothing, because Jesus can, with the mere touch of a finger or the saying of a word, turn worthless stones into life-sustaining bread.

He could feed not just the world, but himself.

When Jesus says that bread is not enough, Diabolos takes him up to the highest point in the world and shows this lost, lonely, and powerless man all the kingdoms of the world — kingdoms which could be his if just bows down and worships Diablos. “I will give all the authority and glory of this world, because it is mine to give to whom I will, “ Diabolos tells Jesus, “If you will worship me.” Jesus could rule the world, and make sure every knee bends and every tongue confesses. He could really enforce the will of God — dry all eyes and break every sword.

Peace and bread. For all.

But Jesus says no. The worship of the Lord our God is more important, more important than authority and power and glory and peace and bread.

So then Diabolos takes Jesus to the temple, and invites him — if you are the Son of God, take a stupid and pointless risk with your life — toss yourself off the pinnacle, for the angels of God will rescue you. You cannot die! You cannot even suffer! You can do any stupid and pointless thing you want, because God will bail you out!

And Jesus — hungry, lost, exhausted Jesus — tells Diabolos, “no, you shall put the Lord your God to the test.” He will not pointlessly risk death for something stupid.

I like the temptations. Because Jesus does, in fact, do everything Diabolos tempts him to do. He feeds the world, though not himself, with his own broken body. Bread for all, at the table we gather at every time we worship.

He rules the world and all its kingdoms, but not through the kind of authority glory Diabolos so easily gives to all who aspire to earthly rule. He rules, but not through power and might, not through lies and violence, but through truth, weakness, and surrender. He rules not in victory and conquest, but in defeat and exile.

And he does risk his life, though not in a stunt, but in a very real act self-giving of love. He faces the priests and the soldiers and the mob, all of whom howl for his death. And he does this, not pointlessly, but on a cross where the sins of the world are nailed. Where our sins die with him, are buried with him, but do not rise with him. Because he rises, from death, from defeat, from exile, he shows us that all the worlds’ caesars and kings and dictators and presidents offer nothing of real, permanent, lasting value.

He resists the tempting words, the enticing promises, of Diabolos, both here in the Wilderness and then in his very life, his death, and his resurrection.

So, what to make of these last words of Luke in this passage: Diabolos departed from him until an “opportune time”?

That opportune time is now. Today. Actually, that opportune time is anytime we who are the church face the same temptations — to feed ourselves and the world, to rule it in authority and glory, and to risk our lives and tempt God needlessly. When we are hungry, and lost, and desperate, and think the only solutions to the problems we face — to the problems the world faces — are somehow in our hands or at our fingertips. When so much good could be done, when so much justice could be accomplished, when so much could be proven and demonstrated by well-timed and well-done stunt — sorry, public display of faith. That’s when Diabolos is there, whispering in our ears, command these stones to be bread, bow down and worship me, throw yourself off.

All we need do is just use our power and our wealth, and everything will be right.

THAT is the opportune time.

We cannot resist. We cannot help ourselves. We want bread. And peace. And justice. And we want everyone to see so they can, without a doubt, know the truth of God and thus there will be no excuse for non-belief. We live in a world that was long ago handed over to the accuser, to the teller of lies, and we are daily tempted with his means of ruling that world. We may delude ourselves that we use those means — violence, coercion, lies, trickery, magic — for the good ends God desires. But this is still Diabolos’ world, this world of power and authority and glory.

The devil’s world, yes, but it is also God’s good world. Into which Christ came, to redeem it.

Jesus resisted all these temptations. He feeds the world with himself and rules in an authority and glory founded upon suffering, weakness, and death. We are his — and even though we cannot resist temptation, we are part of his saving and redeeming rule. We are part of his victory over lies and deceit, over fear and desperation, and we become part of his saving defeat of despair, hopelessness, and death. He resisted temptation for us, so we do not fail even when we cannot resist. We are part of his overcoming when we gather at this table and proclaim the feeding of the world. When we worship and proclaim the good news of a crucified God who gave his life for the salvation of the world.

Diabolos is done. Defeated. And he knows it. He rages and he rails against it. But he takes comfort from our fear that he might still have a chance of winning, that the final outcome has not yet been decided. Diabolos wants followers to share his doom by trying to convince us that if we do not act, and act right now, if we do not grab the devil’s means, then all is lost. Because we too are in the wilderness. Hungry. Lost. Desperate. Frightened. And alone.

But we are not. We have Jesus, our King, our Lord, our Savior, and our Brother. Who walked into the Wilderness for 40 days. Is here in the wilderness with us now. And came back out. Ready to preach. Ready to heal. Ready to cast out demons. Ready to break bread and feed people and proclaim God’s forgiveness of sins.

Ready to suffer. And ready to die.

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