First Sunday in Lent

  1. Lent 1.22 “Tempting” Luke 4:1-13

40 days. One day for each year Israel wandered in the “wilderness” (in Greek ερημος literally, “the deserted place” where the empty, burning sky is your only shelter). Jesus, full of Holy Spirit was led in the Spirit (not “by the Spirit” in the Greek) in the deserted place 40 days, being tempted by the devil. And “when the days were ended”, he was hungry. Interesting. So, apparently he wasn’t hungry during the 40 Spirit-filled days? They flew by like that trip to the Sahara you always wanted to take, where the communion with infinite things provides a soul-refreshing solitude. 

What ended with the 40 days? Why was Jesus only hungry at the end? This little detail might shed some significant light on the Temptation of Jesus and what it means for us. What follows is my take on it, a little quirky perhaps, but springing from a close, literal reading of the text and some good old fashioned biblical Christology like you find at Nicea and Chalcedon and in Luther.

One of the key tenets of Nicene-Chalcedonian Christology as the Lutheran fathers re-discovered it (from a close reading of the Scriptures) is that Jesus did not always or fully use his divine attributes in his human nature during his earthly ministry, until after the Resurrection. We see this paradigmatically in the healing of the woman with the flow of blood. Jesus was on his way to raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead and is being mobbed by a crowd (like the unfortunate Who concert in Cincinnati ’79 when 11 people were crushed to death) when a woman who’s bleeding out squeezes (without crushing) through the crowd and touches the hem of Jesus’ garment, believing if she just touched his clothing, she would be healed. And she was, instantly.

And Jesus, “feeling power go out from him” turned around and went “Who touched me?” And the woman came forward and confessed and was assured of her complete salvation by faith in Christ alone. But that shows that, while all the divine power of God dwells always, fully in Jesus bodily, he doesn’t always or fully make use of it, but operates usually in “human mode” only by the normal human senses and powers we all have. Otherwise, Jesus would have just turned and addressed the woman directly, using divine omniscience.

In short, I think Luke is hinting that something similar is happening here with Jesus at the end of the 40 days. 40 days Jesus is “full of Holy Spirit” from his baptism and the Father’s acclamation, and in that divine power rushes through the desert reclaiming his territory from Putin, er Satan, showing who’s the real Boss of Israel! But when those days were ended, the Spirit withdrew into the depths, did not leave him but hid; so that Jesus was now, by his own will, operating only “in human mode” like the gas engine in the hybrid shuts down and he’s only on battery power (with limited range). 

Why do this? Why not draw always on the divine attributes that are Christ’s inherently? In order to bear our sin and be our Savior and fully experience our lot under the weight of sin, death, and hell. To be a great high priest who can empathize fully with our weakness. In short, so that he can really be tempted as we are, though without sin.

So, I would say: when the Spirit withdraws, Jesus is left with only our normal human strength. And while it is small indeed, he also shows us what a man can do with the Word of God alone (which Word Jesus embodies in his human nature).

Three temptations that are very tempting for us: 1) to use God’s power to satisfy our physical wants. 2) To use false worship in order to achieve worldly power and dominion. 3) to exalt ourselves above God’s word, to use it as a tool for our own aggrandizement. Let’s look at how Jesus handles each one:

The first temptation is clever: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” It’s clever because of how it mixes truth with lies. Jesus is God, the only Begotten Son. Satan suggests that a little exercise of that divine creative power might convince the devil to turn over a new life; maybe, become a Christian? But even more subtly, the devil plays on the truth that God promises to supply all our needs of body and soul. So: when you’re starving, God promises to provide food, and since there is no food handy, why not just use God’s power to satisfy your physical need?

It’s not unlike Moses in the wilderness the 2nd time Israel was out of water and thirsty and God told him to go and simply speak nicely to the rock (unlike the 1st time when he was commanded to strike the rock with his staff) so that it would be clearly seen that it is the Word of God alone and not Moses’ magic stick that provides for Israel’s physical needs. But Moses doesn’t heed the word; he whacks the rock with his magic stick to produce the water, using God’s power to satisfy physical needs as it if it is in our power to wield God’s as we please…

Jesus simply speaks as Moses was commanded, doesn’t whack any stones, or turn them into bread, but just speaks what is written in Deuteronomy “man shall not live by bread alone.” Even in human mode, we can rely solely on the Word of God, and even though we die, yet shall we live. We overestimate the physical needs of the body, all the time: like my cat who always thinks he’s about to starve to death even though he’s well fed; but those who rely solely on the Word overcome the physical by the divine Word—a better Way!

Next, Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in a point in time (like Borge’s aleph, a point that contains all points in the universe, which Borges brother in law says is under his basement stairs and Borges comes right over) and the devil says, “It’s all yours—if you’ll just worship me.” Jesus says “you shall worship the LORD your God, and him only shall you serve.” 

The Roman emperors of the 4th century, from Constantine to Theodosius, tried to use Christianity to hold a leaky old pagan empire together. When divine worship becomes a means to human, earthly ends, worship has become false, even if it’s outwardly not contradicting the Bible. We are easily tempted in our day to do this, bending the old liturgy to fit modern whims and desires. Jesus only worships the Father his way, the handed-down prophetic, apostolic way.

Finally; the devil whisks Jesus bodily to the temple of Jerusalem, sets him on the pinnacle and says “throw yourself down, because it is written: the angels will bear you up on their hands.” And Jesus simply retorts, “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test.” And the devil left him, until an opportune time.

That’s a tricky one! To use the letter to exalt ourselves above the real Spirit of the Word. If you look at Psalm 91, I think we still read it the devil’s way. We think “on their hands they will bear you up” means angels will physically catch us when we fall. But you have to remember: Hebrew malaks and Greek angelos are literally “messengers”—angelic not in themselves but only by the Word, the heavenly message that makes them so.

Heavenly hands that pass God’s word along—that’s what bears us up! It’s not a circus stunt. It’s being guided by the Word—even when IT leads to death and cross, with Jesus, we’d follow, tempted to share His dying that His Living would be ours as well. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

About Pastor Martin

Pastor Kevin Martin has served six Lutheran congregations, beginning in 1986 as a field-worker in Trumbull, Connecticut, and vicarages in Arlington, Massachusetts and Belleville, Illinois. He has been pastor of congregations in Pembroke, Ontario and Akron, Ohio. Since 2000, he has served as pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh. Pastor Martin is a lifelong (confessional!) Lutheran (even though) he holds degrees from Valparaiso, Yale, and Concordia Seminary St. Louis. He and his wife Bonnie have been (happily) married since 1988, and have two (awesome!) adult children, Bethany and Christopher. Bonnie is an elementary school teacher. The Martin family enjoy music festivals, travel, golf, and swimming. They are also avid readers and movie-goers.

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