Into the Wilderness

Here is the sermon I preached this past Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent, on Luke 4:1-13. The issue of prooftexting is a major one in today’s church – how many of us share a piece of Scripture on Facebook without even a second thought? How many of use have fully read and understood the context of a particular verse before repeating it to bolster some pre-conceived theological opinion we have? As the following story and sermon shows, even Satan can quote Scripture. Let us be mindful that the Bible is a dangerous weapon, and we must use extra caution whenever we wield it. Here follows the text and sermon:


Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 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. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’” The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.  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. If you worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’” 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. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.

So, how many of you have ever tried to read through the whole Bible? And how many of you succeeded? More than once? I remember the first time I tried to read through the whole Bible. I think I must have been 6 or 7, because it was before we moved to Mooresville. I had my Adventures in Odyssey Bible – do any of you remember that show? Where the kids go back in time and live out the Bible stories? Anyway, I decided that I needed to read the whole thing, cover to cover. I got to Exodus.


Later on, when I went to college, I decided to try again. This time I had my archaeological study Bible – I was studying to be an archaeologist, you know – and I printed off a plan from online that would allow me to read through the entire Bible in a year. I got about halfway through it, and stopped. It was one of those things where you had to read a little bit each day, and I eventually got so far behind that I got discouraged, and didn’t feel like I could catch up. Well, two years later, I decided to pick it back up again and finish the second half. Even though there were stories and verses I’d read before, I made sure to read each page as thoroughly as possible – notes and all – so that I could say without a doubt that I’ve read through the entire Bible, front to back. Kind of important, if you’re going to be a minister, don’t you think?


Of course, we studied the Bible extensively in Divinity school, and the sum total of our reading requirements included most of the Bible (as well as, of course, apocryphal texts, articles, papers, books, commentaries, sermons, etc.), but there were parts that we skipped over. There were some verses that we read and studied in what seemed like every biblical studies class I took, and some verses that we just didn’t get to at all. And as a result, I can confidently say that I’ve read each verse in the Bible somewhere between one and one thousand times. Some verses I know a lot better than others. I can paraphrase quite a few, but honestly I probably have less than ten memorized word-for-word (depending, of course, on which translation you’re using). All-in-all, I would say that I know my Scripture pretty well, but there is certainly room for improvement.


Now, that is my story – my experience with the Bible; but if I had to guess, you probably aren’t thinking about my relationship with Scripture right now, unless you are comparing it to your own. Each of us has our own relationship with Scripture. Each of us can remember the first time we tried to read through the Bible, or the first verse that spoke to us on a personal level, or the first time either reading through or experiencing the Noah’s Ark story in Sunday School. Some of us have a continuing relationship with the Bible, making sure to read our daily devotional each morning. Some of us haven’t read the Bible in a while, but we see Bible verses on Facebook or in church. Some of us have our favorite verse tattooed somewhere on our body, or plastered across our computer’s desktop, or hung up on the wall in our homes. We all each have a unique relationship with Scripture, and I suspect that it means something very different to each of us. But, whether we post it on Facebook or recite it to ourselves daily, we all share one thing in common – we all use Scripture as a weapon.


In fact, it is a weapon. Ephesians 6 describes Scripture as the “sword of the Spirit”,and if you’ve ever fenced, or watched sword-fighting, you know that the sword is as much a defensive weapon as it is offensive. In the same way, Scripture can be used both to attack and to defend oneanother. It is, like the sword, merely a neutral tool that can be used to do great good or great harm, depending on who is wielding it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our text today, which recounts in vivid detail what I consider to be one of the greatest spiritual duels of all time.


Jesus, having just come off his baptism (where he was imbued with the Holy Spirit and declared in front of everyone to be the Son of God), is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Just as the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, Jesus remained there for 40 days. And during that time he ate nothing. Now, if you ever wondered where we get the Lenten tradition of giving something up for 40 days, well, this is it. At the end of those 40 days, it says he was famished, as anyone who hadn’t eaten for that amount of time obviously would be. And this sets up the scene for the duel between Jesus and Satan.


Now, we are told that Jesus was tempted by the devil throughout the forty days he was fasting; presumably, he held his own pretty well. But these next temptations are a different story, because Jesus has been psychologically compromised. He is starving. He cannot think straight. He can no longer rely on his own merits, his own reason, to fend off Satan’s temptations. As we will see, all of Jesus’ words in this exchange are not his own – they come directly from the Jewish Scriptures; specifically, from Deuteronomy. Let us examine each temptation, as well as Jesus’ response, in turn.


The first temptation that Satan presents to Jesus represents that of physical, bodily desire. It is, quite simply, the temptation to eat something when Jesus has already committed to fasting. It’s not that Jesus isn’t allowed to eat, or use the restroom, or have romantic encounters, or anything else we might consider “instinctual” impulses. All of these are part of being human, and all of them have been declared “good” by our Creator. The temptation for Jesus is not to give in to his physical needs, but rather to violate his sense of self-control, to go against what he had already decided for himself, just as those of us who have committed to a strict diet might give in on a particularly stressful day. Jesus’ response is to parry Satan’s attack with the Scripture from Deuteronomy 8:3, “One does not live by bread alone,” – i.e., I am fasting for a purpose, and that purpose is spiritual nourishment, which I need just as much as I need physical nourishment. Point Jesus.


The second attack made by Satan appeals to Jesus’ thirst for power and wealth. He takes him up to a high mountain and shows him everything – all of the kingdoms of the world, with all of their accompanying wealth and power – and says that they will belong to Jesus if only Jesus will worship him. This may not seem like much of a temptation, since Jesus is God and all of everything already belongs to God anyway – except that we later learn that everything is given over to Jesus only after his crucifixion and resurrection. This temptation is about offering Jesus an easier path to supreme Kingship. More specifically, it is about gaining power and authority through the worship of something other than God. In response, Jesus again quotes Deuteronomy – “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” – and I should note here that this isn’t actually an exact quote. Jesus is paraphrasing “You shall fear the Lord your God, and serve him. By his name alone shall you swear.” Well, that’s okay because Jesus knows the quote well enough to understand its meaning – don’t worship anyone but God. Again, point Jesus.


This final temptation is one of my favorite exchanges – and if you were looking for the main point of this whole message, here it is – Satan takes Jesus to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem, and tempts him with a verse from Scripture!!! He tries to get Jesus to test God by throwing Psalm 91 at him – “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you; on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” He’s saying to Jesus, “Prove your Sonship – the Sonship that was just announced! Because if you really are the Son of God, then this Scripture will apply to you.” And if you’re Jesus, and that’s all that you heard, and you aren’t really sure whether you’re the Son of God or not – I mean, the Spirit said you were at your baptism, but are you really sure? This would be a way to be sure – and the devil isn’t some actual, physical being standing there saying these things to you – because, let’s face it, that would just be obvious – but it is, in fact, all just happening in your head, the suggestion that why shouldn’t you throw yourself off the Temple and prove to yourself and to everyone else in the crowded streets of Jerusalem that you are, indeed, the Son of God sounds very tempting. I mean, it says right there in the Bible that you’re going to be okay.


But Jesus knows his Scripture. He knows it oh so well, and so he is able to counter Satan’s use of Scripture with his own – “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” Deuteronomy 6:16. Game. Set. Match. Jesus wins.


This story about Satan and Jesus doesn’t just tell us how to deal with temptation when it arises; it shows us. Better than just writing a “How-to” book, Jesus actually gives us a demonstration. We see that temptation strikes when we are at our most vulnerable; when we are least able to think for ourselves – when we are “in the wilderness”. Notice that throughout the story, Jesus is never said to have left “the wilderness”. Even when the devil leads him to the top of the Temple in the middle of Jerusalem, Jesus is still in “the wilderness”. Which means that “the wilderness” does not always signify this uncivilized, God-forsaken place. In fact, as we see in the story, “wilderness” can be broken down into three different categories:

  1. The “wilderness” of the self. Temptation arises when we seek to gratify our own bodily desires to the detriment of ourselves or others. As Jesus shows us, this temptation is most easily countered by a full knowledge and understanding of Scripture.
  2. The “wilderness” of the world. Temptation arises when the world tells us what we need to do, who we need to be, and how we need to behave in order to ‘fit in’ with the rest of the group. In most cases this temptation comes in the form of power and wealth. Again, this temptation is most easily countered by a full knowledge and understanding of Scripture.


The final category of “wilderness” will probably take the most explanation. It is, put simply, the religious establishment. For Jesus, it was the Temple. For us, today, as Christians, it is the Church. This type of “wilderness” is the most difficult to recognize, because it looks and feels so much like home. The temptation that arises in this wilderness is even more devious, because it sounds like the right thing to do. In fact, much like Jesus’ final test in the wilderness, the temptations found in Church often come straight out of Scripture. And they most often have to do with who God is and how we relate to God and others. And if you don’t believe me, all I can do is once again direct you to our text this morning, where Satan uses Scripture to try and get Jesus to relate to God in a sinful way.


A few weeks ago, I saw an example of this kind of temptation pop up on my Facebook feed. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of proof-texting – in theological circles, it is the pulling of Scripture out of context in order to make a specific point. This is exactly what Satan does to Jesus, and this is exactly what happens so often in the Church. And, to be fair, I don’t think that those of us who do this are intentionally misleading others the way Satan does in our story; but we need to recognize that when we post or recite certain verses out of context we are carelessly mishandling a dangerous weapon. For example – in this particular Facebook case, one of my Facebook friends posted the following verses from Job: “Far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should do wrong. For according to their deeds he will repay them, and according to their ways he will make it befall them. Of a truth, God will not do wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice. Who gave him charge over the earth and who laid on him the whole world? If he should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, all flesh would perish together, and all mortals return to dust.” This sounds nice, and was clearly meant to be uplifting and reassuring to all who read it – to communicate God’s providence over the world. Except, this is Job 34:10-15, and it is a part of a speech given by Elihu. Elihu has joined Job’s three friends in arguing against him that he must have done something wrong to deserve all the awful things that happened to him. And at the end of all of this arguing, God answers, and specifically says to Job’s friends “My wrath is kindled against you…for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” In other words, God says in the Book of Job that the verses that my friend shared on Facebook are not a correct description of God. But if you didn’t know all that, you could very easily be led – tempted – to believe that they are an accurate description of God.


And that’s why it’s so important to know and to fully understand Scripture. It’s not enough to just have verses memorized without understanding how they fit into the rest of the story. It’s also not enough to know the story pretty well if you don’t have any Scripture memorized and ready to parry any attack of temptation that comes your way. After all, it’s important to be thoroughly knowledgeable about a subject before you enter into a debate on that subject – if you’re going to debate physics with someone, you better know the laws of physics, and be prepared to back up your claims with specific information. And when it comes to Scripture, Satan’s an expert. So read up. Study the Scriptures. Seek to understand the full range of meaning and context of each verse. Prepare yourself. Because you never know when you might be heading into the wilderness.