Thomas J Parlette
“It’s Tempting, But…”
Luke 4: 1-13
Once upon a time, there was father who told his son NOT to go swimming. But it was a hot day, and the thought of a cool refreshing dip in the lake was too much for the boy to resist – so he went in anyway. And the father caught his son swimming.
“What do you think you’re doing!? I specifically said NOT to go swimming today.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to go swimming, it just sort of…. Happened.”
“It just happened? Then why are you wearing your swimsuit, your mask and your flippers – and you brought a towel?”
“I brought them along just in case I was tempted. Mom would kill me if I got my good clothes wet and tracked water into the house.”(1)
Temptation. That’s where we begin this morning. Jesus has been baptized, he has been filled with the Holy Spirit. He has heard that voice from the clouds, “You are my son, with you I am well pleased.” And now, Jesus is off to the wilderness.
Before he goes back to his hometown synagogue to announce his mission, he’s got to figure out a few things. Jesus is in the process of figuring out what it means to be God’s Son. What does it mean to be the One who is pleasing to God? What is he going to do now? Jesus needs to figure out who he really is. And so, he goes to the wilderness, that place of spiritual discovery.
Now we’ve been to the wilderness before. When you read the story of Jesus’ temptation, you can’t help but think of that other wilderness story, the one about Israel wandering around in the desert for forty years following a guy named Moses.
You remember that the Hebrews faced many challenges and many temptations out there in the wilderness. There was no obvious source of food or water. It was hot, it was uncomfortable and they weren’t too sure where they were going exactly. And they didn’t have much confidence in the leader, Moses. They often wondered out aloud, “Maybe we would’ve been better off in Egypt – we were slaves, but at least we had food.” And of course, we all remember what happened when Moses went up the mountain and left them on their own for awhile. When faced with their own time of trial and testing and temptation – the Hebrews failed miserably.
But, as we heard in our passage from Deuteronomy, God did not give up on them. God formed them into a community by giving them a future to hope for in their dreams and a story to tell to their children – “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…”
We’ve been to the wilderness before, and it didn’t go well. Maybe it will be different this time.
While in his own wilderness, Jesus meets the Devil. And the Devil says, “Since you are the Son of God, command this stone to turn into a loaf of bread. Go ahead, feed yourself. Use your power to feed others. Wouldn’t God want that? Isn’t that what God did in the desert during Israel’s Exodus? Come, let’s see some of that divine glory.”
And Jesus answers, “It’s tempting, but… it is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”
It must have been tempting to whip up something to eat after fasting for 40 days. It was probably pretty tempting to consider the possibility of feeding all the hungry people in the land too – nothing gets you followers like free food. But even though Jesus will be called to feed the hungry, there is a bigger issue at stake.
Then the Devil showed him all the Kingdoms of the earth, he offered Jesus all the political power he could dream of. Just think of all the good that could be done if you had that kind of power, Jesus The spirit will be upon you to bring justice and release to the captives. Just think how easy that could be if you had all the political power the world had to offer.
But again, Jesus answers, “It is tempting, but… it is written, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him.”
“Okay,” says the Devil, “let’s try something else. Let’s go to the top of the Temple and I’ll show you I know my scripture too.” For as a guy named William Shakespeare would one day write, “the devil quotes scripture for his own purposes.”
And the Devil proves that true here. “You know it is written, He will command his angels to protect you, on their hands they will bear you up.”
So let’s have a little fun. Since you are the Son of God – throw yourself off the Temple and let’s see if the angels catch you.
“Ah,” says Jesus, “yes, I know that verse. It’s tempting, but scripture also says, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
And that’s the end of the scene. The Devil leaves, deciding to bide his time and wait until a more opportune time.
On our first trip to the wilderness, Israel, God’s chosen people, were tempted and failed. They failed to put their trust in the Lord their God. But on this second trip to the wilderness, Jesus, God’s chosen and beloved Son, faces temptation and he triumphs. He faces perhaps the greatest temptation, the original temptation, and he overcomes it. The temptation here is not just about fresh bread, or political power, or having your own personal security force of angels watching over your every move. The real temptation here is the same one presented to Adam and Eve in the Garden at Creation. The temptation to be like God.
You remember the story. God created the world and everything in it and called it good. God created man and woman and made the Garden of Eden for them to live in. The only condition? Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
But then the snake, the symbol of the Devil himself, convinces the woman that it will be okay to eat the fruit, because then you will be like God. And both the man and the woman give in to this temptation – to be like God.
The original sin, the original temptation?- is to be like God, possessing all the wisdom and knowledge that God has. That is the greatest temptation that we face.
Early on in Christian theology, a name was given to this temptation. Gnosticism. According to Harold Bloom the author of a book called The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, Gnostics hold two absolute convictions:
1. Human beings have a spark, a breath of God within them.
2. That spark can find its way back into a fallen world through Knowledge – or “gnosis.”
In other words, Gnosticism is the belief that we can save ourselves. Through knowledge, we can bring about our own redemption. We need only to look within ourselves. We can be like God. Equality with God is attainable. Through some secret, higher knowledge, we can be like God.
That’s the real temptation for us, and for Jesus – to be like God. But here, Jesus overcomes that ultimate temptation. As Paul so eloquently put it in Philippians: “Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…”
Yes, it’s tempting to try and be like God, especially for Jesus – God’s Son, the chosen one, the beloved. But Jesus answers this temptation by emptying himself and choosing instead the path of self-sacrifice and service. A choice that would ultimately lead him to the cross.
But as Paul explained, “Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped…”, at least, not yet. He will get there, but not now… not yet. There is work to do first. That is the work we relive in the season of Lent.
It is tempting to be like God, to act like we are in control of life. But Jesus shows us the way to deal with this ultimate temptation. Empty yourself, live by the word of God, and serve only the Lord.
It’s tempting to live otherwise, but… let God be God.
1. Source Unknown.