The Tempter’s Power

Posted by secondchurch on March - 20 - 2019


Ever since I first understood the word Lent, I have come to the season with a nagging Progressive Protestant inferiority complex.  It just seems to me that Catholics, for example, do Lent a little better than we UCC-ers.  One can actually detect something of a change in behavior among many Catholics.  I remember playground conversations with my Catholic childhood friends about what delicious things we would give up for Lent and I can recall with equal clarity my dismal performance at self-denial. I’ve been seeing suggestions for giving up plastic for Lent, which would certainly take some constant awareness.  There is the idea of a carbon fast – also hard to do.  And for those of us with too much stuff, there’s the fine suggestion of putting one thing on each of the forty days into a bag to be donated after Easter.  In many of our households, we wouldn’t know the difference once we were done!  Just a few days ago I was in a conversation with someone about giving things up for Lent.  This person wanted to know how that tradition came about and whether we, in the Reformed tradition practice it.  Well, with varying degrees of seriousness, I replied.  I prefer to think of the practice as working intentionally to relinquish all those things that are barriers to living the life we know we ought to live.  What’s in our way?  Let’s give up those things.  Very Protestant of me, I know.


The tradition for giving something up for Lent has its origins in this story about Jesus confronting temptations following his 40 days in the wilderness.  While it was Luke’s version you heard this morning, the story is told in all three of the Synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  All of them, with variations for their individual theology, purpose and audience, offer the observation that Jesus, after his baptism but before beginning his public ministry, went into the wilderness alone, presumably to prepare for the work ahead.  The tradition tells us that he fasted the entire time, and so he would have been in a weakened state when confronted by Satan’s temptations. 


Good story-teller that he was, Luke picked up the theme of Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness by telling us that Jesus was in his wilderness for 40 days, hence the 40 days.  The story tells us Jesus resisted the temptations visited upon him by Satan.  Angels waited on him.  Those Biblical scholars whose mission it is to determine what the historical Jesus probably really did and said, agree on these few things about this story – Jesus, after he was baptized by John in the river Jordan, an event that almost certainly did happen, went away for a time from his family, his friends, and his work. When he returned from his retreat, he was ready to begin his ministry.  Beyond those probabilities, the story is, well, a story, told to persuade us of some things about Jesus and to help us understand some important things about his ministry, his character, and his relationship to the Prophetic Scriptures that shaped him.  Most importantly, it’s a story that teaches us about some of the ideals of Christian discipleship.


Luke’s details of Jesus’ wilderness experience – his encounter with Satan, his responses to the temptations that confronted him, the ministering angels – all these are speculations, of course.  There was no one watching him.  There is no mention of Jesus having journaled his experiences, nor did Jesus himself speak of his time in the wilderness so far as we know, not even to his disciples.  There were no witnesses to his conversation with Satan.  But is it truth? Of course it is. In that way of the truly consequential stories, this one teaches us about preparation and solitude about temptation and resistance and power and humility.  Luke tells us that Jesus faced some of the most difficult human impulses imaginable.  And that he resisted them all.


In light of such a powerful testimony, cultural chatter about giving up household tasks, or sweets, or even personal bad habits sound, well, small.  In fact, the story of Jesus’ temptations pierces through to some of the most vexing problems of religious and spiritual life.  If God is really on your side, why don’t you use that proximity to make some things happen?  Why don’t you satisfy your personal desires by turning that stone into a loaf of bread?  Why don’t you accept the power you could have and rule this kingdom?  Why don’t you just see if God really wants you to live and throw yourself over this cliff?  The temptations recorded in the Gospels all speak to that haunting question – will God actually do anything for you or not?  Can God give you the power you crave?  Would God give you the power you crave if you deserved it?  But wait, of all the deserving people in the world, surely Jesus stands above them all.  Would God have done for Jesus what Satan told him God could do?


This story is a preacher’s gold mine, since each of the temptations Jesus faced and resisted foreshadow some of the most significant events in Jesus’ ministry.  They point to the very things that later frightened and confounded and enraged the religious leaders of his day.  They were the very personal temptations that confronted Jesus in the last days of his life.  He overcame them at the beginning of his ministry and at the end, the temptation to satisfy his physical desires, to use his unique and special relationship with God to save his own life, and, the most wily temptation of all, the temptation of power.


If I were to ask you to list the things Jesus did for those who followed him, it would not take you long to say that Jesus empowered people who were powerless.  Many Gospel stories attest to the ways Jesus gave power away.  Occasionally, a story tells us that Jesus was barely conscious of the particularities of the persons to whom he gave power.  The story of the bleeding woman who secretly touched the hem of Jesus’ robe was just such an example.  He knew someone in need had touched him because he felt power had gone out from him.  So unfailingly did Jesus give power to the powerless, that it would not be an exaggeration to say that for this reason above all others, the religious and political leaders feared him.  Their power depended, in large measure, on keeping others from sharing in that same power so, for Jesus to instill the concept in the powerless that they were not, in fact powerless, worried the persons who depended upon keeping the benefits of power to themselves.


Power.  There it is, that word that seems to mean a hundred different things – the thing that everyone seems to want and only a few appear to have, the thing that corrupts absolutely and makes things happen, the thing that our culture attaches to money, light skin, heterosexuality and maleness, the thing that is difficult to define but easy to recognize.  Power – it’s the elixir that appears to intoxicate many of those in our highest political offices.  Power.  It is the thing that those who do not have, want, and those who do have too often abuse.


This is a busy day today what with setting up tables and food, organizing for lots of guests this afternoon, and generally getting ready for a huge party, so let me just leave off with this one observation about the story of those powerful temptations facing Jesus.  I’m not sure the temptations were about power itself.  In a hundred other ways, Luke told us Jesus had tremendous power and authority.  No, the temptation was the hollow and flagrant demonstration of that power, the need to show it off a little bit, to let others see how much power he actually had, to play into the tempter’s power to test the limits of God’s ability.  If we’re going to give up something for Lent, might I suggest we give up the need to show off how much power we have?  I’ll leave it to you to ponder what symbols and signs of power you regularly flaunt around.  I know which ones I need to work on in myself.  Is it possible for us to give those things up?  We should try.  Amen.

Luke 4:1-13

March 10, 2019

Rev. Dr. Carla J. Bailey

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