BIBLE READINGS: Romans 10: 8-13; Luke 4: 1-13
The Devil said to him “if you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” As a young man, Jesus was led into the wilderness. There, the devil tempted him. A chapter earlier, Luke recounts Jesus’ baptism. At his baptism, the heavens open and a voice from heaven says, “You are my beloved Son” (3:22). Here, fasting in the wilderness, is Emmanuel, Messiah, God’s only begotten.
But what kind of Messiah? What kind of God are we getting here in Jesus? In a moment, Luke will help us to discover who Jesus is by revealing, in this story of the temptation, who Jesus is. “If you are really the long-awaited Messiah,” said Satan, “let’s see some sign of it. You’re hungry after your forty day fast? So are lots of other people who spend their whole lives without a decent meal. If you are God, make these stones into bread. After all, what could be more compassionate, more godly, than mercy upon hungry people?” Jesus responds: “It is written, we shall not live by bread alone.”
“Feeding the hungry doesn’t appeal to you? Well, I can see your point. Feed the hungry today; what good does that do for tomorrow? Let’s feed them forever! How? Through the only long term means of good we know - politics! Here, laid out before you, are all the kingdoms of the world. I will give you power over them and their glorious accomplishments. All you must do is recognise my authority over political matters. Worship me.” Jesus responds: “It is written, we shall worship only one God.”
“Well, if you won’t show a little compassion for the hungry, if you don’t really care about making the world a better place, then at least show concern for those struggling to believe, who can’t believe. Show that crowd down that you are indeed who the voice said you are. Leap from the top of the roof and stand before them unbroken. After all, you’re God.” Jesus replies: “It is said, you shall not tempt the Lord your God.”
Now what do you make of this strange story? Why is it here? An obvious response is that the story of Jesus’ temptation is here to encourage us in our temptations. He resisted temptation. We should resist as well. William Willimon says in a sermon on this text, “Beware of the Bible being obvious.” It’s obvious that we need help in our struggles with temptation. What may not be obvious is how the Bible names temptation. Therefore, I want you to think of this story, not immediately or obviously as a story about how the devil tempts us but rather more deeply as a story about how we tempt Jesus, about how you and I are determined to make him into a Messiah more in tune with our own assessment of our needs. The question is: “If God really wanted to help us, why in God’s name did he send a Saviour like Jesus who, when confronted with our need, just stands there and quotes scripture? If God is love and God is power, why, in the name of heaven, does God just stand there?” Keep that in mind as we look further into this strange story of temptation - “If you are the Son of God, why don’t you act like it and do something?”
The Bible is uninterested in the modern quest “Is there a God/” The Bible’s chief interest is, “What kind of a God is there?” Adam and Eve, right at the very beginning of everything, are the first to trip over the question. Being told they are built “in the image of God,” being blessed by God, Adam and Eve quite naturally assume that God must obviously be concerned with meeting their needs. They are hungry, not just for food, but also for life, for knowledge. So, when they “saw that the tree was good for food, and … a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise (Are not food, beauty, and wisdom worthy human goals?), they ate the fruit of the one tree that God had forbidden (Gen 3:6). And after liberation from Egyptian slavery, once free and out in the wilderness, the Hebrew children said to Moses, “God should have killed us rather than bring us out here in the middle of nowhere with no food” (Ex 16:3) God gave them food, manna.
So, when you hear the Devil taunt Jesus with “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread,” remember that you have heard it before. Temptation is a function of hunger. Is God for us or not? They asked Moses. Let’s have bread as proof that God is our kind of God, ie: a God who responds to our hungry need. What good is religion or praying, or your getting out of bed on Sunday, if it doesn’t yield results in your life? “We have forsaken everything and followed you,” the disciples said to Jesus. Now, what’s in it for us?
When Satan enters the story and has an opportunity to tell his side, this seems to be his main theme. If you are really God, says Satan, make bread, minister to their hunger, because that’s really the object of their worship, the real reason they fall on their knees, finger their rosaries, put dollars on the plate, wear gold crosses around their necks – bread. Satan knows - nobody serves God for nothing. Who can say that they have not bargained with God? Who can deny that often they imagine a cosmic ledger, where the goods and bads, pluses and minuses are totalled and we all get what we deserve. But it isn’t like that is it? You know that bad things happen to good people as well as good things to bad people. There is no cause/effect relationship between our love for God and the good or bad that comes our way in life. To do so would be to deny reality, let alone being seen to be trying to manipulate God. God is not some sort of heavenly Santa Claus who exists to shower us with what we want.
But if God can’t give us always what our hearts desire, can’t God give us a sign? What’s the harm in a sign? Anything would be better than this silent, sign-less, two-faced universe. A believer looks at a butterfly emerging from the cocoon and says, “See, there’s your proof of God!” A non-believer looks at the same cocoon and says, “See, there’s your universe working quite fine, thank you, with no need of fairy tales about God.” And you know, the world appears to be set up just that way. You can read it as: This is my Father’s world. Or: This is an amazing series of cosmic accidents. Why not a clear, unambiguous sign?
Remember, we’re not speaking selfishly here. It’s not just for our sake that we would like God to do something, to take a stronger hand in the world, to show a sign. It’s for God’s sake. “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down,” cries the prophet. God didn’t come; the Assyrians did. Deliver us! cried Israel. They were delivered all right, right into Babylonian captivity. “Teacher, we want a sign,” they said. “An evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign;…”(Lk 11:29) was his reply.
Well, who do we say he is? The heavenly voice at his Baptism, at his transfiguration said that he was the only begotten Son of God. But what are we to make of the fact that he just stands there quoting Scripture, giving us neither bread nor a sign, grasping neither political power to change the world or even making bread to feed the world? “If you are the Son of God… Well, who do you say that he is? Jesus put that to his disciples. Who do people say that I am? Peter’s hand was the first to go up. “You are the Christ of God”(Lk 9:20). At last we shall get this movement organised, unfurl the banners, beat the drums, and get the whole Messiah things going! No. He said, “The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected… and killed…”(9:22).
Matthew has a bit more to say about this episode than Luke. Matthew reports Peter outburst” God forbid, Lord!” God forbid that you should be a God who would be rejected, suffer, and finally die just like us? What good is a God like that? No bread, no sign, no power, no glory! God forbid! Jesus turns to Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan!” Can you see? We have been asking, have we not, who is this God, and who is his only Son, whom we are to love with heart, soul and mind?
And Jesus turns our question back on us! Who is this Satan, this demonic tempter who is bent on tripping me up, tempting me to walk a path other than the one God has commanded? Don’t you see? The Satan, the tempter, is one of his own disciples! The ones who offer him the greatest temptation, who are desperate to transform him, are his own people - us. The temptation he resists is us - Jesus’ own people who, rather than follow on his terms, attempt to make him over into our own image of who God ought to be that to follow him as the God the Scriptures say he is.
The good news today is, he is able to resist temptation in the wilderness or here in our church. Get thee behind me Satan! He not only quotes Scriptures, he lives the Scriptures, he embodies, in his own life, the God of whom the Scriptures speak. Later, they tempted him even as he hung in agony on the cross: “If you are the Chosen one of God, save yourself.” This time he did not curse them or quote Scripture, he just hung there. Sometimes, when we ask him to be our kind of God rather than the God he is, he doesn’t curse us. Sometimes, in his love, he is silent.
It’s hard to hear our Lord curse us, and demand that we get behind him as he moves down the dark narrow way toward the cross. The good news is that he walks it for us, despite us, because of us. It is also our way, this way of the cross. And the good news arising out of his triumph over temptation is that he will go ahead and be God. This Messiah is not pliable. If he would go on and save us, he must first be able to hold out against us and our demands. He will go ahead and be a real God, not some projection of our egos. Not our will, but yours be done.
Don’t just do something, Jesus, stand there. Stand there for us, faithful even when we are not, true to Scripture. Be the God for us we don’t deserve and didn’t ask for. Despite us, don’t just do something, stand there. “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.”
Acknowledgements: William Willamon