Three No's, More Yes's
Luke 4: 1-13
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.
The 40 days of Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter, which began this last week on Ash Wednesday, symbolically represents these 40 days that Jesus walked through the wilderness fasting and being tempted by the devil.
And in the story today from the Gospel of Luke we see a particular question being asked of Jesus--newly baptized and anointed the Son of God, God’s most beloved. The question is one that we will take with us all through Lent: What kind of God are you that you would become a human? What kind of power are you going to have? How are you going to use it?
These are some of the questions of Lent, of wilderness, of our tendency and proclivity to want to know who God is--or rather, shape God into who we want God to be.
In our story for today, Jesus has just been baptized and anointed as the Son of God, God’s beloved. Instead of marching off to the temple to start his ministry, he goes instead into the desert, the wilderness, for 40 days to fast. He takes the contemplative path to begin his work among us.
Many prophets in Israel have done this 40 day fast, most notably Moses when he received the 10 commandments and the prophet Elijah when he fled persecution from the ruler Jezebel. She preferred her gods, not the people of Israel’s. The whole nation of Israel did this in some degree in their 40 years in the wilderness. In the 40 years they wandered and fasted and wrestled with God, from the time they left captivity in Egypt to the time they entered the promised land.
And in each of these stories, Moses, Elijah, and the promised land journey, we learn something about who God is. The 40 days tell us about God’s character and the way God works--and does not work--in the world. For Moses--he received God’s priorities for how God’s people should live together. For Elijah, we learn about God’s protection. For the nation of Israel, we learn through their 40 years of wandering that God is serious about God’s promises. Each of these periods of 40 days or years offers a deeper understanding of God’s character.
In our story today, Jesus spends 40 days fasting in the wilderness and what do we learn about who God is? If God comes among us, to dwell with us, as one of us, what do we learn about God? What does this 40 day trek reveal?
I think that ironically, this particular 40 days with Jesus does some stripping away of what we think God could and should do, with skin on or not. We get the “what I’m not” lecture. And our tour guide is the devil--favorite name for those who challenge the goodness of God and God’s creation.
The first temptation in the wilderness, the devil tells Jesus to turn the stone into bread--to abandon his body, his humanity, his commitment, his solidarity and just make some bread. Jesus says no. You are hungry Jesus, make this stone into bread. Jesus is tempted to be God on earth who is above the earth, making his meal whenever he needs it. Welding resources to his gain. To this, Jesus says no.
The second temptation Jesus encounters is the temptation to be the type of leader who rules politically, through our principalities and our processes, in our kingdoms. The devil shows Jesus “in an instant all the kingdoms of the world” and says “these can be yours if you worship me.” You can command and own the world. To this, Jesus says no.
In the final temptation the devil takes him to the pinnacle of religiosity in his era: the temple. This is the place of religious power--and in further stories in Luke and the other Gospels, we see that the temple has become the place of social power as well. The devil tells Jesus to throw himself off of it--the angels will catch you. You can be a God who wields the power of the heavens however you want, even here on earth. To this, Jesus says no.
Jesus refuses to participate in a type of humanity, even in a type of God-hood, that places in his hands all the human power, systems, and motivations we’ve created and controlled for so long. To this, Jesus says no.
The devil says: play our game. Jesus says no.
But our game is so fun. I love the poem from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Love Poems to God that gets at our proclivity to want God to participate in and embody all the ways we imagine power and privilege to rule and work and reign in our lives. (I'm partial to Joanna Macy and Anita Barrow's 100th anniversary translations).
“We must not portray you in king’s robes,
You drifting mist that brought forth the morning.
Once again from the old paintboxes
we take the same gold for scepter and crown
That has disguised you through the ages.
Piously we produce our images of you
Till they stand around you like a thousand walls.
And when our hearts would simply open,
Our fervent hands hide you.
To all of this painting and producing and portraying God in king’s robes, Jesus says no.
So to what does Jesus say yes? In his responses to the temptations and to the devil we start to build a picture of who Jesus is. He quotes Deuteronomy three times in his responses, each response declaring in its own way the human path of faithfulness even in the midst of the wilderness: Humans don’t survive on bread alone. Humans are warned against worshipping themselves and should worship only God. Humans should trust God, not test God. To these things, Jesus says yes.
If you keep reading Luke the pieces of Jesus character come together as we get further “yes”es.
In the very next story in the Gospel of Luke Jesus says a big yes! Jesus travels to Nazareth where he was raised, goes into the synagogue, and declares from the scroll of Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
That’s a huge yes.
After that he says yes to healing a man with an unclean spirit. And then he says yes to healing Simon’s mother in law.
And on and on and on. As we emerge out of the wilderness in this story and in Lent we begin to pick up the paintbrush and to draw a better, more clear picture of the character of Jesus and the character of God through all the things Jesus says “yes” to after his three “no’s” in the wilderness.
I so rarely quote theologian Karl Barth, but in this we do agree: to the temptations to wield our flimsy and toxic versions of power Jesus says no. To us and to this creation that God has made, Jesus says yes.
So we walk with Jesus these 40 days of Lent, learning from him, sharing solidarity with him, and growing in him, learning who God is not, but also just who our God is, even here on earth. We walk this somber, dusty, wilderness walk with Jesus SO THAT we can better know God and in return ourselves and this creation. 40 days of Jesus.
And yet even in this somber season of Lent, there are signs of spring. While Easter and the resurrection are still 36 (plus Sundays) days away, there are some signs of life even in the desert and wilderness--the Holy Spirit, who walked with Jesus and walks with us, makes sure of that. There are springs in the desert!