A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Lent 1 ~ Luke 4:1-13
It’s a story that we’ve heard so many times, and that’s inspired so much art, and literature, and yes, sermons over the years that we may think it doesn’t have much more to say to us. Like much of scripture, the more familiar bits require us to dig in a little deeper to get underneath what we think we already know. And it’s a good reminder that while the story appears to be about Jesus way back then, it’s actually about you and me, here and now. Let’s get into it, and curiously perhaps, we’ll spend most of our time just on the first verse!
Luke 4:1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.
There is enough wonderful spiritual food right here in this verse to fill this entire sermon. And until we have a really strong grasp on this verse there’s no sense going on to the rest of the passage. In fact, without grasping this verse a person could completely misread and misunderstand the whole temptation bit, and how Jesus faced it. The temptations get all the attention, but for me it’s these three words that matter the most: fullness, led, and wilderness.
This scene takes place right after Jesus was baptized. He’s just experienced a transcendent moment in the waters of the Jordan, and has had a life-changing encounter with the Presence of God. Jesus is absolutely full of the Holy Spirit. I’m certain if you could’ve talked to him at that moment you’d have been able to see it in his eyes, and his face would’ve been glowing with shalom and love.
The reason I’m emphasizing this is because it’s crucial that before Jesus was tempted in the wilderness he was full of the Holy Spirit. What I’m saying is: don’t face temptation on an empty tank. If Jesus was left to his own willpower who knows how those temptations might have gone. If you find yourself tempted, or struggling, wondering if your strength will be enough – it might be, but even Jesus relied on something far greater than his own willpower.
I know what you’re thinking – “my temptations tend to come when I’m out of gas and that’s why I so often stumble and fail.” Yup. It does seem like that. So I’m saying if you want a different result, start with a full tank. Don’t wait until you’re on empty before you think about refueling. Constantly stay filled with the Holy Spirit and you’ll always be ready, for whatever may come.
The fullness of God, the fullness of the Holy Spirit, that’s not something Jesus earned like a gold star by acing his temptations – it was his starting point. Start with the fullness of God and everything else looks different. And not that this is the only place to get filled, but doing this worship thing regularly and growing and cultivating your capacity to love God, love people, and love one another is a fabulous recipe for fullness!
The place where Jesus was tempted was the wilderness. We’ve talked about this before. In the bible when you hear of a person going to the wilderness it’s a metaphor for a place of transformation. It isn’t that the desert, or wilderness, or deserted place is magic; it’s that it’s quiet. There are no distractions in the wilderness when you’re alone – except for your own thoughts, of course. Jesus had just been baptized and he was about to figure out how to live the rest of his life. What shape would his ministry take? Was he really ready to begin a public ministry that might have significant consequences? His time in the wilderness helped him discern that.
The other giveaway is the number 40. Whenever 40 is used in the bible it’s about a transformation. 40 years in the wilderness the Israelites journeyed to the Promised Land. 40 days and nights it rained on Noah and the world was transformed. 40 days Moses was up the mountain to get the commandments. 40 days Jesus was in the wilderness. Again, there’s nothing magic about this – it’s just a placeholder for a significant enough period of time for something to really change. They say if you want to break a habit or build a new one it takes around 6 weeks for it to stick. That’s around 40 days. So it’s a period of transformation in a place of transformation.
Fullness. Wilderness. And now the third word – led. Jesus was led into the transformative wilderness by the Spirit. That means Jesus did not choose to go. Jesus did not necessarily want to go. Jesus was not in charge. Jesus was not following a carefully laid out 7-point plan that he read about in a self-help book. Jesus was doing the one thing that we find so very hard to do. He allowed himself to be led. He felt a spiritual nudge and went with it.
It’s very popular for church people to call ourselves followers of Jesus. But that doesn’t just mean to do as he did – it also means to be led as he was led. Not all of us want to be in the lead, or be a leader, but precious few of us have the strength to allow ourselves to be led, to surrender. Did you catch that? Being led, surrendering to Spirit, is not a sign of weakness – it’s a sign of great strength. To be led, by definition, means less self-importance and more humility. Like Jesus.
There he is, in the wilderness, full of the Holy Spirit – being led – facing hard challenges and temptations – having his being shaped by God’s love, and discerning what his life is going to be about.
Will he be self-serving or serve others? Will his ego get the better of him or will he answer God’s call? Will he use his gifts, and skills, and power for his own gain or so that others can know God’s love too? Will you?
Just like us, Jesus was tempted with ego and power – and he replied with the love of God. Will you? Look at this picture. It absolutely sums up this whole scripture passage in one image. Jesus was tempted, not by some ridiculous red-skinned, devil with horns and a pitchfork trying to talk him into doing something naughty. No, Jesus’ adversary was much more insidious than that – he’s facing his own consciousness, his own ego, his own shadowy self, trying to talk him into turning away from God’s Presence and relying on himself alone. And Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, drew on that spiritual power that so utterly filled him and claimed the light and love of God.
The voice of temptation said, “Go ahead, take the easy way out. Satisfy your worldly desires. You can do it. And no one would ever know. Don’t worry about all that other stuff, just take care of yourself. You know you want to.”
Jesus replied, “There’s more to life than my desires. We’re here to love.”
The voice of temptation said, “The cool kids worship power and money, and fame, and success. Don’t worry about all that materialism, and environmentalism, and injustice, and privilege stuff. You can do whatever you want, to whoever you want, whenever you want. Doesn’t that sound great?!”
Jesus replied, “You’re worshipping all the wrong stuff. We’re here to love.”
The voice of temptation said, “If God’s really all about loving us then God will grant our wishes and be at our beck and call. And if we live right and pray the right way we should never get sick, never suffer, never have a problem. God should be like your very own personal lifeguard who’ll bail you out of any situation you get yourself into!”
Jesus replied, “God is not a holy vending machine. We’re here to love.”
The devil, the mirror, our worst selves, the ‘world’, entices us with indulgent quick fixes like selfishness, self-aggrandizement, and bad theology. It tempts us to take the easy way out, not confront wrongs, not care about the ‘other’, worrying only about number one. The world is gunning for us.
I’ve called this Lenten sermon series ‘War of the Worlds’. I’m not going to spend much time analyzing the famous sci-fi book. The title came to me as I was watching the news about the horrific Russian invasion of Ukraine. A superior military power, with no explanation or apparent reason, invades and tries to destroy a lesser power. In the War of the Worlds book it was Martians invading the earth. It’s been argued that the book was a commentary on colonialism/imperialism – a great power that imposes its way over another. Tragically, while dressed as fiction, it really happens. Those perpetrating these terrible injustices experienced the same temptation Jesus did – power and ego – and they’ve failed it catastrophically.
You could also say that we’re in the midst of our own war of the worlds. The ‘world’ has declared ‘war’ on you and me, as followers of Jesus, as God’s beloved. This war doesn’t come with bullets and bombs, but it does come with dramatic consequences depending on how we respond. There’s the way of the world, and there’s the way of God’s world, and they are in conflict, and we’re in the battle. The ‘front’ we’re looking at today is temptation. We’ll look at other ‘fronts’ through the Season of Lent.
What is entangling your soul today? What is capturing your energy and attention? What’s distracting you from something better? When temptation appears what will it look like for you? Do you have the strength to face it alone? Did you know you don’t have to? Even Jesus needed a full tank to face the world.
Lent is a season in the wilderness – a season of potential transformation. It’s up to us how we journey through this season – toward Holy Week, toward the cross, toward Easter. If we try to do it on an empty tank we’re in for a long, hard trip – but if we can do it feeling more and more of the fullness of the Holy Spirit, enfolding us and empowering us, maybe we can experience what Jesus did during his time in the wilderness.
And perhaps we will find ourselves led by the Spirit into a deeper place. Our Lenten journey begins with an open hand – a deep breath – and a ‘yes’ to God’s invitation. Feeling the fullness of God let us surrender to the lure of the Holy Spirit and immerse ourselves in the transformational wilderness of Lent. It’s not an easy walk. The challenges are significant, and the battle can be hard. But look around – we are not alone. And close your eyes and breathe deeply, filling yourself with the fullness of God – you are not alone! Like Jesus, hopefully we can come through our war of the worlds saying, “We’re here to love.”