We gather on this first Sunday morning of our Lenten season. We had a meaningful Ash Wednesday service last week. If you missed it, the reflection from Wednesday is up on the church website. The meditation focuses on the spiritual discipline of a Lenten fast. I do encourage you to engage in a fast, but I encourage the read the sermon first to ensure that your fast may be a faithful fast according the scriptural word of Isaiah.
As we move through these #40Days, I also invite you to be strengthened in community through sharing how you are encountering God in the midst of this Lenten season. You can engage in community through one-on-one or small group conversations, and you can do so by sharing and engaging in social media. The #40Days, seen on the cover of your Word on the Street insert, is a tag used to share experiences of Lent online. You can be a part of that conversation and share your experiences, as well as learn from the experience of others in these days of wandering in the wilderness.
It has been the practice of the church from its earliest of days to observe a season of preparation for Easter. We have records dating back to the early third century that the church was observing a season of Lent of some length prior to the Easter celebration. We know with certainty that the 40 days of Lent were an established practice by the end of the fourth century.
The word lent gets its origin in the Anglo Saxon word lencten, which means Spring, and the word lenctentid, which means March – the month in which Lent is primarily observed.
The length of 40 days has significance stemming from multiple stories throughout our scriptural foundation. Moses stayed atop Mt. Sinai for 40 days in preparation to receive the ten commandments. Elijah walked with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights atop Mt. Horeb. In the narrative of the great flood, we are told it rained for forty days and forty nights. And in this story, our scripture from Luke this morning, we hear that Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness.
These 40 days of Christ’s wandering in the wilderness perhaps can best articulate for us what we should be experiencing and expecting in our time of preparation for Easter.
The translated text tells us that Jesus was tempted by the devil for these 40 days of wandering in the wilderness, facing the three temptations as his 40 days ended. The greek word used for tempted is the word peirazo. While tempted is perhaps an appropriate translation, another form of the word, which perhaps fits the historical meaning of peirazo better, is tested. Thus, to better understand this text of Jesus’ wandering in the wilderness and his interaction with the devil entity, it would serve us well to understand the difference between the words tested and tempted.
To tempt someone is to entice them to do something that they may find attractive, but would perhaps be seen as harmful or not beneficial.[i] For example, every couple of years McDonalds brings back the McRib sandwich. They plaster billboards, the internet, and television commercials with the breaking and all too popular news that the McRib is back, for a limited time only. This is a temptation. You are being made to believe that this attractive item is what are craving and what you need most. But I assure you, when faced with reality, it is not so beneficial. This is a mere temptation.
The word tested can be understood as revealing the strengths or weaknesses of someone by putting them under strain. For example, anyone applying for law school must first take the LSATs. “The LSAT is designed to measure skills that are considered essential for success in law school.”[ii] Almost every graduate program has a similar exam. Many programs use the GREs, but there are the specialties like the LSATs, MCATs, and the GMATs. Most educational programs and many professions have similar exams to test one’s knowledge, abilities, and comprehension throughout their early years in the work place, if not throughout their entire career. In the training and preparation to become a full-fledged actuary, there can be as many as 10-12 exams one must successfully complete.
Temptation is an attractive invitation to engage in a less than beneficial act. Testing is not about encouraging a harmful act, it’s about gauging one’s capabilities or current state of preparation for what may be coming next.
Richard Swanson, Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Augustana University, has an interesting take on his understanding of the interaction of the presence of the one whom Luke refers to as “the devil.”[iii] Quite interesting indeed is the connection that is drawn between the testing of Christ in this story of Luke and the testing of humanity as seen in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve.
Dr. Swanson names that to best understand the testing of Christ and the testing of the first created humans we must first understand how it is that such a testing has come to be and who is the one performing such a test.
In our modern day culture, when we hear the name ‘devil,’ we often associate such a being with the red-faced, spiked horns, trident carrying, flame breathing creature that has been given the name Satan. Such a being is often given and attributed the same amount of power and sway over the desires, thoughts, and decision-making of humanity as the God of all creation. Swanson says, and I find it hard to disagree, that to attribute any such power to someone other than God is to grant too much power to anyone other than God. Inherent in our scripture and our faith in the Judeo-Christian world is that we are monotheistic, not bi-theistic or poly-theistic. That is, we believe that there is but one God, and it is this one God that has the power to rule all, and that no other entity wields such power.
Swanson argues that to see this devil creature as a god-like being who rules over the netherworlds and has the same power as God to entice us and tempt us into anything that would separate us from the love of God would be unfaithful to our monotheistic and scriptural foundation. To say that such an evil being does not exist does not negate the presence of evil in the world, but it does intentionally set evil down off a god-podium. It allows us to name and believe that evil does not wield the power of God. Naming that evil and this satan being are two separate entities does allow us to set apart God as God, and decreases any chance we might misunderstand the force of evil to have the same control over our lives as the God who breathed into us life.
But doing so then leaves us with the question, who is this devil character Luke mentions that is testing Jesus?
When we think about what the scriptures teach us about testing, we would be remiss not to take a look at the book of Job. In the first chapter, we are told that the heavenly beings all came together in God’s court. Among them – among these heavenly beings – is satan. One must ask themselves, if satan was so opposed to God, why would God allow such a being present in the midst of such a holy court?
Satan, being in the midst of God and the heavenly chorus, is spoken to directly by God, who asks, “Where have you been?” Satan replies, saying he has been all over the earth. And God invites satan to visit Job – to test him. God gives satan the power to test Job, whom God describes as being the most faithful and upright man earth has ever seen. God says, “There is no one like him, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns from evil.”
Hearing this story, acknowledging that this satan character is not being treated like an enemy of God, or even standing in opposition to God, we must ask, what then should we understand to be the role of satan? If satan is not an evil, god-like character, what is the purpose of giving someone the power to be such a tester?
We must think back to the role of testing. Testing, unlike tempting, is not seen to be such a negative thing (perhaps in the moment it is for the students, but not for those of us who are relying on testing exams like the MSATs to ensure those students have the capability to perform life saving surgeries.)
Dr. Swanson again argues here that perhaps the most faithful way to understand satan is not as an evil temptress, but as a heavenly building inspector. The job of satan, as witnessed in the Garden of Eden, in the realm with Job, and in these 40 Days with Christ, is not to tempt them to leave God, but to test, to push, to try out, and to inspect the inner workings of their hearts and minds to ensure that in each situation, the created beings of God – Adam, Eve, Job, and Jesus of Nazareth – truly have the internal capacity, comprehension, stability, and faith to trust fully in God and to live as the beings God created them to be.
Satan, the heavenly inspector, is given permission as one of God’s heavenly own, to be a tester to ensure that we are as solid as we should be.
And in this testing we find that there is a major difference between the average human – created by God in the image of God – and the bi-nature of Christ who is fully human, yet fully divine. To clarify, let us probe deeper into the similarities and differences between the Garden and the Wilderness.
In the garden, Adam and Eve are offered the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Of all the fruit bearing plants in the garden, of all that God had supplied, God gave the one requirement to not eat of this one plant.
Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness fasting. He went 40 days without consuming food of any kind. And the text tells us that at the end of these 40 days, he was famished. And it is then, in his state of hunger, that he is tested.
Adam and Eve are offered the fruit by the serpent – tested to try and eat of the fruit which may provide them the knowledge of good and evil.
Christ is tested by the devil to turn the stones into loaves of bread that he might eat, to satisfy his hunger.
Adam and Eve cannot resist the temptation. In their inability to refuse to go against God, a flaw is found in the establishment of humanity. They were created to be God’s helpers – created in the image of God to be part of God’s creative process. But they tried to overstep their own mission. Instead of being satisfied with those who God had created them to be, they sought to satisfy their hunger in ways God had explicitly forbidden.
But in Jesus Christ, offered a similar test to satisfy an earthly hunger, we find no flaw. Christ turns down the bread and speaks, “Man cannot live by bread alone.” Christ knows his mission, and in his refusal to turn the stone into bread, he is refusing the temporary satisfaction of hunger, acknowledging his role is not a temporary solution, but a call to provide eternal life for all of humanity.
In the offering of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve are offered greater knowledge and made to believe they can wield the power of the Holy. They are tested by the serpent to determine if they would seek to overstep their created limitations to usurp the knowledge and power of God.
In the wilderness, the devil offers the same temptation to Christ. Christ is offered the opportunity to have glory and authority over all the kingdoms of the world. In exchange, Christ simply must worship the tester.
In the Garden, our first created beings, tested on their willingness to trust and worship God, could not refuse the opportunity to take that which belonged to God, the power and knowledge of all of creation.
Yet, in the wilderness, Christ, tested with the same promise of having power and authority over all nations, is found without fault. He names, quoting the She’ma in Deuteronomy 6, “It is written, Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” Christ passes his second test.
And again, Christ is tested a third time, taken to the top of the temple, and invited by the inspector to defy natural laws. He is invited to jump from the temple mount and to defy gravity, ceasing to crash into the stones below. Christ is tested by being invited to live beyond all created limits.
In the same way, Adam and Eve are tested to see whether they would live within the limits God had ordered for them. They were given so much – they had ample food, and control over a garden of paradise.
And yet, Adam and Eve were found to be with fault, seeking to live beyond their created means.
Christ is once more found to be without fault. He was tested, and he was found to be steadfast in his faith. “Do not put the Lord your God to test,” Christ exclaims.
It is as if Christ is holding fast and naming for all to hear, “I will remain faithful to the one who has called me, and faithful to that which I have been called.”
Our text this morning ends, not with a promise of Christ’s assurance, but with a promise that the tester will be back again. It says in verse 13, “When the devil had completed every test, he departed until an opportune time.”
Our season of Lent, our season of 40 Days, our time spent in the wilderness offers us a time to think of our own tests. It calls us to reflect on how well we have faired in tests that have come before in our own time. It invites to strengthen ourselves in our faith that we may be prepared for tests still yet to come.
And I ask myself, what grade do I deserve on the tests I have endured?
We journey together because we have all failed at one time or another. We learn from our own failures; we learn from the failures of others; and we learn from the failures of our communal body – our community as a whole. Our call is to acknowledge that we will will continue to fail unless we entrust our lives fully into the hands and will of God.
We look to Christ as our example. He denied the tester so as to remain faithful to his mission, a divine calling by God.
Though he refused to turn stone to bread, he does feed the hungry. Though he refused political power, he preaching and teaching regarding God’s empire of justice and peace. Though he refused to jump off the temple, he does go to the cross in confidence knowing that God’s will for life will trump the world’s desire to execute him.
May this season be a season we learn to more completely entrust our lives and our world into the hands of the one who denied himself to ensure that each of us, and all created beings, may have life, life abundant, and life eternal. Amen.