Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 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.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
– Luke 4:1-13
This is one of those Lectionary texts that just begs us to imagine it in our own minds. It’s full of rich imagery that draws us in and invites us to see it in our imaginations, as if we were part of the action, or at least right there in the moment, a witness to the action. Doing that can lead to all sorts of images, based on our own viewpoints and perceptions. And you can do that exercise any number of ways. For example, you can imagine being part of the story in as historically accurate a way as you can imagine, or you might mentally recast the story in a totally different context. For example, I remember one year when I was preaching about this text, I recreated the scene for the congregation as if it were a gunfight in an old western movie: Jesus and Satan facing off with each other at opposite ends of a deserted street somewhere in the Old West. Townsfolk peeking from behind curtained windows to see what’s going to happen. A tumbleweed blows across the street between them, kicking up dust. And as I recreated the scene, I wore a Mexican serape and a black Clint Eastwood hat, and I had the theme music from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” playing over the speakers in the background.
Well, I’m not going to do that again here this morning. 😉
My point is that there are a lot of ways to picture this story, or any story from the scriptures, and that’s a good and valuable exercise, having the intention of hopefully hearing more deeply how it speaks to our own lives.
But I have to admit that before I even get there, any time I think about this particular story about Jesus’ temptations, I instantly get sidetracked to a personal memory from when Erica, our older daughter, was born; a story that dealt with Temptations from Motown rather than the ones from Judea.
When Erica was born, she had a mild case of infant jaundice. That meant that she had to hang out in the NICU for an extra period of time in an isolette, under bililights until the jaundice cleared up. During that time, every day as soon as work was over, I’d immediately head to the hospital so I could spend some time with her. I’d take her out of the isolette, and take off the little mask that was velcroed to her temples to protect her eyes from the lights. And I’d gaze into her eyes, and hold her close to me, and as I did, I’d sing the Temptations song “My Girl” to her, and I’d dance with her. I didn’t just love her; I fell in love with her. I was totally mesmerized by this miracle, this amazing, beautiful, beloved child, and in those moments it was just the two of us in the whole world, and I was oblivious to anything else.
About a week into Erica’s extended hospital stay, when I arrived at the hospital there were a handful of nurses standing at the nurses’ station, and when they saw me coming down the hall, they started giggling. When I reached them, one of them smiled and asked me, “Are you going to sing to her again today?” It was only then that I noticed, for the first time, that for the whole week, my private, intimate, one-on-one bonding time with my newborn daughter had been playing out in front of a big plate glass observation window that looked into the room.
So that’s my confession to you this morning; every time I read this particular story from Jesus’ life, this story about temptations, my brain always detours into that memory, at least for a few minutes. But eventually, I refocus on the actual text itself, and I think about these temptations that Jesus faced as he was going through this time of crisis. Dealing with feelings of insecurity about food and other basic needs in life. About having power, and being able to control the way things will play out, so things will work to one’s own advantage. About being certain in one’s own security; that there’s a trustworthy safety net offering protection in the event of the unexpected.
These temptations that Jesus faced all have to do with instilling a mistrust – mistrust of God, and of himself. They’re all about instilling in him the belief, the fear, that somehow God isn’t big enough, or powerful enough, or loving enough; that God isn’t sufficient to keep him safe.
We get this fear, don’t we? It’s all around us, all day, every day, cast in only slightly different language from what Jesus heard. We have entire industries and social institutions in our society that are built upon instilling and stoking these fears and insecurities in our own lives. Just look at the constant barrage of advertising and marketing we’re subjected to; all of it intended to convey the idea that whoever you are, whatever you are, it isn’t sufficient. We’re incomplete, inadequate, unsafe; and we’ll continue to be, until we buy the solution that they’ve convinced you we have. Political candidates trying to gain votes by playing to our fears of terrorists, or immigrants, or corporations, or whoever; and trying to make us feel like we need the deliverance and security, the safety net, that only they can provide.
All of us, every single day, face the same temptation that Jesus endured – the temptation to believe that the love and protection that God has promised us is ultimately not enough, insufficient, and because of that, we’re tempted to offer our trust and allegiance to someone or something that claims to be a better and more trustworthy substitute for God.
As our lives play out, in times of uncertainty and crisis, it can be very tempting for us to give in to the temptation that we ourselves aren’t worthy of God’s care and protection, and that frankly, even if we were, God isn’t up to the task. Believe me, I know. So maybe an important part of our journey through Lent, our time of self-reflection and our contemplation of our relationship with God, is to refocus on, and to reinforce, our understanding that God does, in fact, love us, beyond our wildest imagination. To refocus on the great truth that God does consider us acceptable, and worthy. That God understands our struggles and temptations by having known them in person, in the flesh. That even in our darkest of times, when it’s the hardest to see, God is more than sufficient to provide what we need, and to lead us in the right direction. That there’s nothing that can separate us from God’s love. And that every day of your life, God holds you, embraces you, is mesmerized by you. Every day of your life, God sings to you. God dances with you.
This past week, we began Lent by marking our foreheads with ashes in the sign of the cross, recognizing that we were created from dust, and that we will return to the same. Maybe an equally important thing for us to do, every day in Lent and every day beyond, would be for us to start every morning by looking at ourselves in the mirror, tracing the cross on our own foreheads, and telling ourselves, “I am a beloved child of God.” And recognizing that because of that, as the song says, “I don’t need no money, fortune, or fame; I got all the riches, baby, one man can claim.”