This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/10/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
I’ve always loved this story of Jesus, going out into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. Here it is. Jesus and the Devil. Mano a mano in a battle royale for the fate of the cosmos. Let me get my popcorn!
I mean, it’s such a great story. Even if I didn’t believe a word of it, I would want to watch the movie.
But the fact is, I do believe this story. And I believe it’s just as epic, just as consequential as the gospel writers portrayed it to be. It’s God’s story; and it’s the human story, too. It’s the story of two kingdoms. Two rulers. Two power structures and worldviews vying for our allegiance. It’s the story of Israel and the church, and what it means to be children of God.
It is written, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” It says that he was there for forty days, eating nothing and being tempted by the Devil.
Forty. Days. Can I see a show of hands – who here has fasted for one day? One day is a more significant challenge than you might think. Not eating, even for a day, opens something up inside of a person. It promotes awareness of all the things that we’re addicted to, dependent on. Forty days. I can’t even imagine what fasting for that long would be like. Jesus must have been fully awake.
He also must have been very weak. The contest that we see between Jesus and the Devil comes just at the moment when Jesus had reached the lowest valley of energy. Bear that in mind, because Satan doesn’t play fair.
And the Devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
Jesus is starving. Literally. All around him are rocks and shrubs. No food anywhere. If he’s the son of God, now would be a good time to use some of that cosmic power. John the Baptist just got done saying that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Why shouldn’t Jesus raise up loaves of bread to feed himself?
But despite his gnawing hunger and fatigue, Jesus recognizes this as a test, a temptation. And what is Jesus’ response to temptation, to testing? He returns to the words of Scripture. He goes back to the text. He quotes the Bible. The Hebrew scriptures. The book of Deuteronomy. Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
The written words that Jesus is referencing here are these, from Deuteronomy 8 (verses 2-3):
Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
These are the words of Moses to the people of Israel, as they were getting ready to enter the promised land. The good land, flowing with milk and honey, that God had promised them for generations. For forty years, God led them in the wilderness. For forty years, the people had fasted from the settled life of empire. They gave themselves over to God’s care. God fed them with manna from the sky. They drank water from a rock. They came to understand that all life and sustenance springs from God. None of us are self-made people. We are utterly dependent on God’s word, life, and power.
Power. That sounds pretty good, thought the Devil. Let’s try power.
It is written: “Then the Devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the Devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
In an instant. All the kingdoms of the world. “If you will worship me, it will all be yours.”
Now, again – this is God’s promise, right? God has promised to inaugurate the kingdom of God, the reign of God over all the earth. But here goes the Devil, twisting it around, just like he did with Adam and Eve in the Garden. “Oh, you want to be like God? You want to be in control? You want to understand how this world works? Disobey. Put God to the test. Seize the reigns and take charge. You won’t surely die.”
How does Jesus – the new Adam – respond to this line of attack?
Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Here, Jesus is once again remembering the words of Moses from Deuteronomy. This time Deuteronomy 6 (verses 12-15), where it says:
[After you enter the promised land,] take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, because the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God. The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth.
Again, the word of the Lord to Jesus. The word of the Lord from Jesus in rebuking the Devil. The word of the Lord to us gathered here today: Remember.
Do not forget the Lord who brought us up out of Egypt. Do not forget the God who guided us through the wilderness. Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples who are all around you. The gods of wealth, of power, of survival. Do not follow any of these, but worship the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery. Him alone shall you serve.
“Hmmm,” thinks the Devil. “This isn’t going well.” Jesus keeps countering every word of the evil one with the words of God. Maybe it’s time to try fighting fire with fire.
It says that the Devil took Jesus to Jerusalem, and placed him on the highest point of the Temple. And the Devil taunted him, “If you are the son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written…”
And then the Devil proceeds to quote scripture at Jesus. Psalm 91, to be precise. The Devil quotes snippets. Here’s a longer portion – Psalm 91:11-16 – which Jesus surely had memorized:
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.
Oh, my, my. Sweet temptation. Beautiful temptation. Holy temptation. The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it. God will protect you, Jesus! God promised prosperity and protection to David, his chosen king. How much more so will he bless you Jesus? How much more will he protect you from any evil that might befall you.
“Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them.” Don’t worry Jesus – you’re bulletproof. No one can touch you!
“If you are the son of God, throw yourself down from here…” Those words, and the words of Psalm 91, must have been burning in Jesus’ ears as he hung from the cross three years later. When the soldiers who crucified him, mocked him, saying, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself!”
I used to think that the temptation to seize power was the greatest of the three. But now I’m starting to think that it was this one. God has promised to stand with us. He has told us he loves us, that he will never forsake us, never abandon us. How can he allow us to face the cross? How can there be so much suffering, so much pain, so much injustice? How long, Lord? How long until you deliver us like you said you would?
But in his moment of greatest temptation, greatest testing – as Jesus hung upon the cross, he would say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” An obedient son to the end. Trusting in the power of God to deliver, even if he couldn’t see how. Even if it looked like defeat and death in the eyes of the world, the Devil and his kingdom. “Into your hands I commit my spirit!” Though all seems lost, I will trust you.
And so Jesus answered the Devil: “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, he references Deuteronomy 6 – the strong words of scripture, rooted in the experience of the desert. The experience of the manna and the water from the rock. The experience of loss and suffering, and of God’s presence in the midst. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” For he is with you.
He is with us. You want a psalm, Satan? “Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for God is with us.” Amen? God is with us.
Even when it’s dark. Even when we’re been in the desert for forty years and we can’t remember what real food tastes like. Even in the moment – especially in that moment just before the dawn breaks, when it seems like the darkness goes on forever.
Even when all hell is breaking loose, remember the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 6, Remember the words that Jesus remembered when he was doing desert battle with that old tempter, Satan:
Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. You must diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his decrees, and his statutes that he has commanded you. Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may go in and occupy the good land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you, thrusting out all your enemies from before you, as the Lord has promised.
“The word is near to you, on your lips and in your heart,” says the apostle Paul. Oh, yeah. He was quoting Deuteronomy, too.
As Moses says:
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
We just have to remember. It’s so easy to forget. It’s so easy to follow other gods, the gods of the peoples who are all around us. It’s easy to bow down to the Devil when he speaks to us with holy words. Or offers us power to change the world through coercion and violence. Or promises to save us from pain, hunger, weakness.
If we are friends of Jesus, then we are in the desert with Jesus. And we must remember. This is a time of testing. We must stay awake. This is a time of opportunity, because God is with us. With us in the desert. Present in this tent of meeting. Speaking to our hearts. Witnessed to in scripture.
We must remember who we are, and who we belong to. We are not sons and daughters of this world. We are not sons and daughters of Silicon Valley or Wall Street. We are not the children of border walls and drones. We are not citizens of an empire that survives by dividing and stratifying people, so that everyone knows their place.
We must remember. Because we belong to a different empire, a different kingdom. The reign of Jesus. Our teacher. Our Christ. Our king, who conquered the world on the cross. He lives today in the bodies of the hungry, the powerless, the unprotected.
It matters that Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert. Moses did the same thing as he wrote down God’s words, the words of the covenant. He fasted and waited and prayed.
It matters that the children of Israel wandered in the desert for forty years, guided by God. They endured. Taught to be awake and obedient.
It matters. Because transformation takes a long time. Because we must remember, and remembering doesn’t come cheap.
We must be changed. Our minds, our lives, our whole worldview has to shift. We must become a people who remember. We must know who we are. A people who live by the word of God. Who dwell in the word of God. Who soak in the spirit of Jesus. Who live in the desert, even in the midst of this world’s empire.
Fortunately, we don’t have to do this by ourselves. We are a community. And at our center is the risen Jesus. He is our word. He is present with us just as surely as God traveled with the Hebrews in the wilderness. A pillar of smoke by day, and a pillar of fire by night. Jesus is here in our midst, by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Word of God is here.
We have the living Word of God, Jesus. We have the written words of scripture. We don’t have to go looking for it. We just have to remember. “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”