I’m preaching from Luke 4:1-13 on this first Sunday of Lent. The story of Jesus in the wilderness packs lots of significance and symbol for us to reflect upon during these next weeks leading to Easter. I trust that you will have a wonderful Sunday worship experience today as we begin our journey toward the cross and the empty tomb.
Three Tests In Forty Days
Luke 4:1-13 NIV
1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”
5 The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
8 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
9 The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. 10 For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you
to guard you carefully;
11 they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
12 Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
13 When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.
The Beginning of Lent
Today marks the first Sunday in the season of Lent. As you know, the Lenten season comes in the forty days preceding Easter, not counting Sundays, so Lent actually lasts about 46 or so days. Usually, when we think of Lent we think of a time for reflection, a time to consider the life and ministry of Jesus that led him to the cross and to the victory of the empty tomb.
Typically, when we think of Lent, the event in the life of Christ that is representative of this season is the passage we read today — Jesus in the wilderness. In this passage we have all the classic signs and symbols of focusing on God.
Forty Days: A New Way of Reckoning Time
First, there is the period of time — forty days. The number 40, while it certainly can be a literal number, has a greater theological significance. The number 40 indicates a sufficient time, a time when what needs to be completed can be completed. It is a time that extends beyond the ways in which humans keep time. It is longer than a lunar month, and so represents another way of keeping time, a way of keeping time that accommodates the plans and purposes of God.
For example, Moses spends 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai in the presence of God. The nation of Israel, after its disobedient refusal to enter the Land of Promise, wanders for 40 years in the desert until the unfaithful generation has all died out. The prophet Elijah retreats for 40 days after his encounter with the prophets of Baal and threats by queen Jezebel.
In the past few years, a spate of books have been published which emphasize a 40-day period of study. But, 40 days or years isn’t a magic number, or even a number that is somehow more adequate for study and reflection. Forty days represents the time needed for God to fulfill his purposes. It’s God’s time, not ours, and during this new way of counting time, God is at work.
Luke sets the stage quickly for the significance of Jesus’ time in the desert this way —
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
We know God is at work here in Jesus’ life because Luke places the Spirit of God front and center in this particular event. Jesus is full of the Spirit, and led by the Spirit into the wilderness. God is at work here, and the time for God’s work is measured in a different kind of time, a time that Luke says takes 40 days.
The Wilderness: A New Place To Encounter God
The second sign and symbol is that this work of God takes place, not in a town or city, not in a synagogue or even the Temple itself. If 40 days or years marks a new way of understanding time, then the wilderness symbolizes a new place to encounter God for Jews in the 1st century.
We have a hard time truly understanding the significance of the Temple in Jerusalem. This massive structure that dominated the skyline and physical boundaries of the city of Jerusalem was thought to be the place where heaven met earth, where God dwelled among humankind. God was resident in the Holy of Holies, God’s presence was assumed and revered by righteous worshippers. Only on one day of the year, Yom Kippur, did anyone enter the Holy of Holies to encounter the presence of God.
But the wilderness has a long and marvelous history of being the place where God is found. Wilderness has always been a place of seclusion, of revelation, and of danger. Moses encounters God in the burning bush in the backside of the desert, and it is that encounter which sets the stage for the rest of the history of Israel and the world.
The wilderness is where the Law of God is given, where prophets retreat to find God again, where God sends the last Old Testament prophet, John the Baptist to preach and baptize. When John the Baptist establishes his preaching and ministry of baptism in the wilderness near the Jordan River, John is speaking a rebuke to the Temple in Jerusalem, to the sacrificial system, and to the corruption of the religious leaders and sects who control access to God, and who set the acceptable ways in which God can be obeyed. John the Baptist wasn’t in the wilderness because he wore animal skin and ate a strange diet of locusts and wild honey. John the Baptist was in the wilderness as sign and symbol that God was doing something new, stripping away the old systems of religious habit, and calling his people to a new life of obedience.
So, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Mark’s Gospel dramatically says Jesus is thrust into the wilderness by the Spirit. God is up to something, and the wilderness, in all its stark devastation is the place where Jesus is to meet God, his Father.
N. T. Wright believes that Luke is offering a parallel between the life of David, the most revered king in Israel’s history, and the life of Jesus. After David is anointed by Samuel, while Saul is still king, David goes to fight the giant Goliath. After Jesus is baptized by John, and receives the anointing of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit descends upon him and God’s voice declares “this is my Son in whom I am well-pleased,” Jesus goes immediately into the wilderness to face the adversary, satan or the devil. Wright sees other parallels as well, but if that is the case, Jesus’ wilderness experience places him in the legacy of King David, not only biologically, but also spiritually.
The Temptations Reveal The Conflict Between This World and The Kingdom of God
Often when we read this passage, or the account in Matthew’s Gospel, we tend to zoom in on the temptations of Jesus, and then seek to apply them to ourselves. But, I’m going to suggest today that we zoom out, and look at the temptations of Jesus in a new light. While it is true that these temptations are given for our benefit, or else they would not be in Scripture, if we stand too close to them, and reduce them to moral do’s and don’ts, we miss the greater message.
There are three temptations or tests that we are told Jesus encounters toward the end of his 40 days in the wilderness. We can only assume that the bulk of the 40 days is spent in prayer and fasting, but we also know that Satan is working on Jesus all during that time.
I think its interesting that the only way we know this story is because Jesus must have told it to the disciples himself. And while 40 days is a long time, and fasting for that long is a spiritual feat in itself, the part that Jesus chooses to tell the disciples focuses on the end of the experience, and the choice Jesus makes.
In my estimation, the temptations of Jesus highlight the contrast and conflict between this world, and the Kingdom of God which Jesus is about to announce and begin to usher in.
The first temptation is the same type of temptation that Adam and Eve faced. The choice to eat or not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is posed as a choice that can make Adam and Eve like God. But in Jesus case, Satan knows Jesus is God, and so couches his temptation in challenging language by saying, “If you are the Son of God…”
Of course, Jesus is the Son of God, and of course he does possess the power to turn stones into bread — after all he turns water into wine, and multiplies bread and fish. But the contrast between this world system and the Kingdom of God is this — who do you trust for your daily provision?
When Jesus quotes Scripture back to Satan, he recalls the Exodus experience, and the fear of the Israelites that they would starve in the desert. They want to go back to Egypt because at least they had food to eat. Israel would have traded freedom for food, affirming that the power of Pharaoh was greater than the power of God.
But Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 8:3, where Moses is reminding the people of their history, their mistakes, and how they are to live in the future when they get to the Promised Land.
“He (God) humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” — Deut 8:3 NIV
And, what was the point of that? The point wasn’t that you don’t need food, or that reading the Bible is a good substitute for a meal. The point is who do you trust? Do you trust the lying, deceptive words of Pharaoh, or do you trust God to feed you? Do you trust what you know — food that you age in Egypt — or do you trust God to do something new if he needs to — provide manna — to feed you? This world, or God’s kingdom? That’s the point of the first temptation.
Jesus echoes this in the Sermon on the Mount when he describes what life is like in the Kingdom of God. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.” (Matt 5:6 NIV).
But, Jesus reiterates this point of trusting God’s ways for material provision later in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6:11, Jesus teaches us to ask God to “Give us this day our daily bread.” And, he then encourages us not to worry about having enough to eat or wear, not because its not important, but because in God’s Kingdom, God provides for everything, even the flowers and the birds.
The second temptation raises the level of conflict, and gets right to the point.
The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
8 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
So, no more subtleties from Satan. In this temptation, Satan cuts right to the heart of the matter. If you have ever traveled in the southeastern United States, you have no doubt seen signs painted on barns and billboards that say, “See Rock City.” Rock City, located near Lookout Mountain close to Chattanooga, Tennessee, is a roadside tourist stop that capitalized on the natural rock formations typical of that part of the state.
In addition to the rock formations, and the additions of not-so-natural-features like miniature golf, Rock City touted its magnificent views. “See Seven States From Rock City” was the message plastered all over the southeastern US. And, on a clear day, you can.
Well, I always think of seeing seven states from Rock City when I read this passage in Luke. Satan takes Jesus up on a high place — we don’t know where — and Luke says, “shows him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.” Pretty good view, but I think something else is at work here, too.
Then Satan offers all he sees to Jesus, if Jesus will worship him. And, that brings us back to our conflict between this world and the kingdom of God.
Now a lot has been written about whether or not Satan really could have delivered the kingdoms of this world to Jesus. Of course, Satan is a liar and a deceiver, so there is the real possibility here that he’s blowing smoke. And considering where he came from, he may literally have been blowing smoke.
But the point isn’t the power of Satan. The point is the contrast between the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God. I think it’s interesting that Satan promises Jesus “all their authority and splendor.”
But the authority of the kingdoms of this world is a fleeting, temporary, and false authority. Mao Zedong is quoted as saying, “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun.” That was Mao’s authority. Jesus authority came from a different ethic when he said, “Love your enemies.” And, I think it’s interesting that at the end of his earthly ministry, right before he ascends into heaven, Jesus says, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and in earth, Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations…”
The promise Satan makes, whether he could deliver or not, is an empty promise based on temporal authority. Of course, read any newspaper or watch any network news program and you will see daily the scramble for power and authority. From politicians to bloggers, everyone wants to be noticed, to be powerful within their own sphere of influence, and to be able to exert that influence for personal benefit. But the Kingdom of God talks about things like the “last shall be first” and the “peacemakers will be called the children of God.” Jesus knows there is no shortcut to glory, no easy way to claim his rightful place as King of kings and Lord of lords. The only way is the way of the cross, and Jesus chooses that instead of the power and glory of this world.
Finally, the last temptation is one last futile attempt to call into question the character of God. Satan dares Jesus to throw himself down from the highest point of the Temple, because God will send his angels to save him.
Jesus’ reply is “Don’t put God to the test.” You either trust God or you don’t, you either believe what God says or you don’t, you either give you life and all you are to God or you don’t. And if you don’t cheap displays of pointless power will not sway one individual. After all, Jesus, in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, said that even if someone comes back from the dead, they wouldn’t believe him. Which is of course, what happened when God raised Jesus from the dead.
Our Time in the Wilderness
During these next 40 days, our time in the wilderness is a time to reflect on our own choices. Are we choosing the kingdom of God, or the kingdoms of this world. Do we trust the provision of God, or the frantic consumer culture in which we live? Do we live by Kingdom values, which are not the values of power and might projected by governments and politicians?
Jesus was tempted for two reasons, I think. First, so that he could become the representation of righteous Israel. In every temptation Jesus faced, Israel had already faced them and failed. In the manna in the desert, the quest for kingdom power, and the failure to trust God, Israel had failed almost every test she had been given. When Jesus resists Satan and affirms his faithfulness to the Kingdom of God, Jesus becomes the representative of all of God’s people. This will give him the right to die for the sins of all God’s people on the cross.
But, Jesus was also tempted to demonstrate that we can choose the Kingdom of God over the kingdoms of this world. In order to proclaim God’s Kingdom, Jesus had to choose it. If we are to proclaim God’s kingdom, we too must choose it. We must make a conscious choice to live our lives differently, with different values, than the current world system.
That’s what our time in the wilderness is about. The only question is, what choice will we make?
Dr. Sun* of Yunnan province in China made his choice. The son of a doctor and hospital administrator, Dr. Sun survived the Cultural Revolution in China, and in 1977 was admitted to Beijing Medical University. He obtained his MD degree in 1982, and joined the staff of a hospital in Suzhou. Dr. Sun’s skill as a surgeon, and is concern for helping patients quickly elevated him to the role of hospital administrator.
The Communist Party bosses in Suzhou saw Dr. Sun as a promising young physician. They awarded him a car for his own use, and all the perks that went with his position. However, Dr. Sun was more interested in helping patients than in enriching himself. He told the local political leaders to sell the Volkswagen Santana he had been given, and to give the money to help the hospital. Dr. Sun rode his bike to work each day afterward.
Dr. Sun also disrupted the cozy relationship between Chinese hospitals and Chinese pharmaceutical firms. Cheap medicines are available in China, but even in the 1980s, doctors and hospitals would prescribe the more expensive medicines, and charge exorbitant fees for their services. Dr. Sun drew the unwanted attention of local political leaders who also benefited from the arrangement.
In 1990, disenchanted with the China’s communist government and its failures to actually help medical patients, and seeking direction for his own life, Dr. Sun attended a prayer service with several of his medical school students. A year later, at a Christmas service in a Chinese Christian’s home, Dr. Sun said he “felt his heart touche in a way it had never been touched before.” He was soon baptized.
In 1997, Dr. Sun’s boss presented him with an application to join the Communist Party. A membership in the Chinese Communist Party was the first step in becoming one of China’s elite leaders in his field. However, Dr. Sun told his boss he could not fill out the application.
“I believe in Jesus Christ,” he said. “I have already made my choice, and this is my only choice.”
His boss was visibly upset. “You are a communist official. You enjoy the salary and the benefits of a Communist official, yet you believe in Jesus Christ? Can he provide you with food and clothing?”
Dr. Sun looked into the man’s face and said, “I am quitting now. I need to save my soul.”
Banned from working in government hospitals, Dr. Sun worked in Thailand for a while. But on a return trip to China in 1999, Dr. Sun met a former student of his. The student told him of a very sick woman in a remote village from the student’s own province. The next day he showed up to take Dr. Sun there.
For the next 10 years, until 2009, Dr. Sun served quietly and without pay, providing medical care for people in the remote areas of Yunnan province. Often, villagers would not be able to pay anything for their treatment, but fed Dr. Sun, and gave him a place to stay in their homes. Donated clothes, and the financial support of other doctors and Christians allowed Dr. Sun to continue his work until 2009. Finally, Chinese authorities accused Dr. Sun of having subversive motives, and banned his medical practice from Yunnan province. Dr. Sun was invited to the United States by a Chinese Church to tell about his medical ministry, but the government of China refused him re-entry. Dr. Sun lives in California today, where he is planning to replicate his medical ministry in Africa. Dr. Sun made his choice. What choices do we make?
*Dr. Sun’s story from God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, by Liao Yiwu. Published by HarperOne, 2011.