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Testing, Not Temptations, in the Desert: The First Sunday in Lent

Sunday, March 6, 2022:
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13

I don’t know about you, but this gospel story jumps out to me as especially familiar; maybe overly familiar, like “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey or “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, that get played on the radio constantly. (They get played all the time because they’re good, and timeless, but at this point I’d be OK not hearing them ever again.) But it is a good story, hence its popularity in Sunday School classes. With the devil’s appearing it has the feel of a classic fantasy story. (And Matthew and Mark have angels.) If you were in youth group as a teenager, or went to teen revivals, this was always a big story, because adults want to keep teenagers away from temptation (and the kids, perhaps, feeling guilty for giving into temptations).

So part of ourselves might be ‘tempted’ — I couldn’t resist — to disregard and dismiss this story, as a quaint fantasy, if we’re not too preoccupied with the image of a devil, or troubled by temptations in a way we once were. So, for me at least, the task is to not trivialize this story. Just as we might want to ensure that whatever our personal focus is during Lent isn’t trivial or clichéd.

Our first hint that this isn’t just a cheesy story is reflected in our lectionary’s choice of Old Testament reading: in going to the desert for 40 days, Jesus is evoking the 40 years his people spent in the desert, which is one of the foundational, identity-forming stories of the Hebrew people. If the desert was where his ancestors had solidified their identity as the people of God — through the receiving of the law, and their realization of their utter dependence on God — then something similar is happening here. Jesus is identifying himself in that same stream or tradition. If I’m onto something here, then we can start to see this story primarily about identity than about temptation.

Think about it: our toddler self would call to mind a hand caught in a cookie jar, when asked about temptation. Our teenage self would bring up drugs or alcohol. But in this Jesus story, as we have it, the first temptation is about bread for someone that has fasted for 40 days(!). That seems reasonable. Or at least does not seem unreasonable. Jesus is offered power. We live in a world in which some people hold power, and it can make a positive impact, when wielded responsibly. And lastly, protection; something we’d think would be foolish to refuse in most cases. The issue does not seem to be that these three things are bad in themselves, and thus to be resisted. The question, instead, is whether they are appropriate and in line with the identity and vocation of Jesus. So: Is avoiding all discomfort appropriate for him? Is worldly, political power his destiny, and his means? Is an unnecessary display of power, and the avoidance of the mortality that he came to share with us?

It would seem that the answer is no. The devil has been tempting Jesus with things that, in themselves, or interpreted in some way, may not be bad in themselves. But they are not congruent with who Jesus is. And so we might make a slight alteration to our terminology here: instead of “tempt,” we might use the word “test.” I don’t think it twists the story’s meaning. We talk about being put to the test, or being tested in a time of trial. And so we might say that Jesus, in this story, is being tested by the devil, and in enduring it, is testing his vocation. He’s testing his identity, as the Beloved one of God. And he makes choices in his time of trial that are in line with his purpose.

And so there is something important for us to glean from this story: when times get tough, will we be true to ourselves; true to the people God has called us to be? Moreover, in contrast to Matthew’s version of the story, in which Jesus casts out the devil with some bravado, shouting “Away with you, Satan!” Here, in Luke, we’re left with a somewhat anti-climactic ending: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from Jesus until an opportune time.” The lack of drama might make it more relatable to us. But more than that, it says something about how the temptations or tests of the devil — things that can sidetrack us from our purpose or distract us from our true selves — these will crop up in our life at opportune times, when, like Jesus, famished from his 40 days, we are at our weakest.

So this Lent, whether or not there are the typical temptations that we’re dealing with, there will be times for us to test our vocation or identity: opportunities to consider with seriousness who we are in God’s eyes; who God made us to be; and how we are called to make use of our God given gifts and talents to bring in the Kingdom in a world that, we’ve heard, “has been given over to [the devil].” So if “what should I give up” or “take on” isn’t a question that resonates with you, try instead exploring questions around who you are, at your deepest level, and how to honour that, and honour the One who made you, in your living.

© 2022 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter