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Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Temptation of Christ

The Temptation of Christ
Delivered at Madison Chapel, Madison, MS
February 17, 2013
The First Sunday of Lent

This first Sunday of Lent must make up for the time we’ve spent in confession, contrition, and repentance since last Wednesday. We find Jesus’ activity in Judea beginning with John’s baptism in the Jordan, which we remember was followed by the heavenly proclamation of Jesus’ authority. The Scriptures say that Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and lived in self-imposed exile for 40 days in the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil.
            It is this 40-day period that we emulate in our Lenten fasts – we self-impose an exile of sorts to intentionally prepare for the spiritual reality of Easter. We concentrate on prayer, on repentance, on things spiritual in ways that we haven’t in months gone by. But let us be clear – in a similar way to repeating the Lord’s Prayer or practicing his supper or baptism, we follow him into the wilderness in this sacramental season.
            It is at the end of these days of fasting that Jesus and the devil come to a narrated interaction in Luke’s Gospel. Luke has set the table for us by reminding even the least aware among us that after 40 days of fasting “he was famished.” It is in this hungry state that we find the Lord tempted in powerful and meaningful ways, ways in which the very nature of the world’s hope of salvation depend.

The Temptations in Brief
            The three temptations differ slightly in the synoptic Gospels, and in Luke’s account we find some truly unique language that affects the setting of the devil’s offers.[1] What is most interesting about Luke’s version is the position in which the devil places himself with respect to the famished Jesus.
            In the first temptation, the devil reminds Jesus of his miracle-working power, power that could easily overcome the hunger in Jesus’ belly after fasting for 40 days. There have been sermons galore on how the devil attacks Christians at their weakest points, and how our basic hungers are the doorway to sin.[2] Such preaching misses the broader picture and scope of just what the devil is attempting to accomplish in the first temptation.
            Jesus could have made the stones to bread; that much is obvious. But what is the true temptation here? Isn’t it that Jesus could have fed the world? Couldn’t he have made the feeding of the 5000 look like an appetizer by turning the world’s stones to loves of finest bread? In another Gospel[3] the people try to make Jesus an earthly king by force after he feeds them. Certainly the temptation offered by the devil is not to simply stop the rumbling in his stomach – the offer is to be the great Provider, the king who would guarantee bread in exchange for fealty.[4] The temptation is to end both those imposed and accidental fasts by declaring bread to be that which sustains humanity.
            The second temptation is also curious in Luke because it portrays the devil as having dominion over the world and as being able to offer a share of that dominion to Jesus in exchange for fealty.[5] There are many, many layers to this single paragraph, but let us consider one aspect in particular, that of the devil as a benefactor in Jesus’ ministry.
            By offering Jesus the glory and authority that had apparently been given to him, the devil is attempting to bring Jesus’ ministry under his patronage.[6] Whether we agree that the devil actually held the Creation and could offer it in trade or not[7], the offer is a true and valid temptation. By allowing his ministry to be co-opted by the power structures and economies of the world, Jesus could certainly spread his message far and wide, reaching perhaps the greatest possible audience through the well-connected, the rich, and the powerful. Yet Jesus replies that such patronage would be a contradiction the service he owed to his Father; this was a mission that was to exist outside of the normal “powers” that controlled the lives of men and women.[8]
            Finally, the devil tempts Jesus in a way near and dear to every preacher – the need for an audience. By throwing himself from the temple’s pinnacle, whether angels truly would attend him or not, Jesus would certainly make a spectacle of himself and become a celebrity immediately. By descending in glorious, dramatic fashion from the heavens above the place where God was said to reside would lend certain legitimacy and gravitas to Jesus’ words and ministry. His work in Galilee, Jerusalem, and the entire world would be made smoother and more potent by his celebrity status.
            What temptation! Jesus could go from backwater Nazareth to Hollywood in moments with one profound charlatan’s act. But no, Jesus would refuse even this sure way to be more successful.

Jesus as Epic Hero
            We have to see that Jesus is being cast by Luke as a new type of hero. Certainly Jesus could have performed the heroic acts he was tempted to – he could have made the world’s largest loaf or marched from heaven with a legion of angels. He chose to not be so grandiose, so magnificent, so, so, human.
            In this temptation we have glimpses of Harry Potter,[9] of Odysseus, of Luke Skywalker, of Daniel.[10] Jesus is weak, at the breaking point, and yet he overcomes the temptation to forsake his mission and use his powers for selfish gain, even if those gains may have been perceived as beneficial to the world at the time.
            What we must understand as we walk this path of Lent is that Jesus’ temptation is not an “also” or extra story in Jesus’ ministry narrative. Rather, I believe that that temptation passages in Luke and the synoptic Gospels are the very passages that give contrasting meaning to the cross and resurrection. If Jesus is not successful in overcoming the temptation to be heroic, if he concedes impotence in the face of human suffering and uses the means of the world to meet the world’s perceived needs, then he has failed. It would be the same as Harry joining up with Voldemort; with Luke serving the Dark Side; with Odysseus never trying to find his way home; with Daniel and his fellow exiles feasting like Babylonians.
            A part of Lent is the painful process of realizing that we can’t do even a simple fast. If the restrictions we place upon ourselves or the extra things we take on during this season were east, we’d have no need to concentrate on them now. Yet even in these things we will certainly fail, either in deed or in motive, in thought or in spirit. A part of Lent is the realization that we need a Savior who can overcome our desires to be heroic in our religion.

The necessity of Jesus’ Sinless-ness
            The temptation narratives form a critical component of our Christology.[11] When we consider what Jesus accomplished on the Cross, that is, that he “became sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,”[12]we are confessing in the same breath that Jesus necessarily overcame all of the temptations of humanity through the presence of the Spirit. We need these temptation narratives to magnify the accomplishment of the Cross! We need Jesus to resist the devil in these three encounters; otherwise we have a Savior who looks just like every other ruler in history!
            We must not lose sight of the necessity of these temptations in our Lenten journey. If we are to be driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted, let us not expect to find a Savior there who is just like us. We cannot reduce Jesus to a moral exemplar in the weeds who happens to have been sent from God. No, ours is a Christ who was tempted in every way, but was without sin.[13] He is the one who rejected the power structures and avenues of influence of the world in favor of ushering in a new reign of God, one that is already and not yet quite in place in our world.
            We will, unlike Jesus, fail in our journey through the wilderness. We will be tested in every way, and will fail inasmuch as we are tested. The power of our Christ’s successful resistance to sin is found in the Cross toward which we look at the end of this journey. Without these temptations, without Jesus remaining true to the mission of God in the world, our salvation would be incomplete. Our hope would be a half-hope. Our cross would be in vain.
            But thanks be to God, our Lord was what we could not be. Thanks be to God for a new way, a way free from celebrity, a way not of patrons, but the way of the Cross. Let us go deeper into the wilderness, knowing that we will be tempted and that we will fail. Then let us rejoice that there is One who failed not, and upon who we may call and through whom we may claim righteousness.

[1] The differences in the Lucan account have been interpreted as paraphrase or as an expansion of the Matthean account. See Loisy, L’Evangile selon Luc, Paris: Nourry, 1924, p. 150; J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I–IX: Introduction,
Translation and Notes Garden City: Doubleday, 1981, p. 516.
[2] For a brief sampling, see
[3] John 6
[4] Emperor Constantine I achieved this very thing with remarkable success. He minted “bread tokens” that served as a family’s voucher for a daily ration of bread to be given out in exchange for the family’s relocation to a preferred spot inside the walls of his new capitol, Constantinople. See Judith Herrin, Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, Princeton: Princeton University, 2007, p. 7.
[5] Not everyone is in agreement on the devil’s actual authority in Luke 4:6. See Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation; Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1990, p. 56; J. Noland, Luke 1-9:20, Dallas: Word, 1989, p. 180; I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978, p. 172.
[6] For a more thorough understanding of ANE patronage, see K.C. Hanson and Douglas E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998, p. 111  and Frederick W. Danker, Benefactor: Epigraphic Study of a Graeco-Roman and New Testament Semantic Field, St. Louis: Clayton, 1982.
[7] See Dominic Rudman, “Authority and Right of Disposal in Luke 4:6,” New Testament Studies 50 no. 1 (2004), pp 77-86.
[8] See Walter Wink, The Powers that Be, New York: Doubleday, 1998.
[9] J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, New York: Scholastic, 2000.
[10] See Daniel 6.
[11] See I. J. Davidson, “Pondering the Sinlessness of Jesus Christ: Moral Christologies and the Witness of Scripture,” International Journal of Systematic Theology, 10 no. 4 (2008), pp. 372-98.
[12] 2 Cor. 5:21.
[13] Heb. 4:15.

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