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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent 02/17/2013

On this First Sunday in Lent, the battle lines are drawn.  In one corner you have Jesus representing the Kingdom of God; in the other corner you have the devil, representing the Kingdom of This World, and so they go at it.  I think what this gospel text is, is another example of Luke, the master storyteller.  What seems likely is that following his baptism, Jesus retreated to the desert as he tried to sort out his identity, tried to make sense of his calling and his mission, tried to figure out what path he should take as his ministry was about to begin.  A retreat like that was not unusual; many others, before and after Jesus, retreated to the wilderness for a time of spiritual discernment, away from distractions.  Throughout the gospels there are other times when Jesus goes away or at least tries to go away, by himself, to pray.  So a retreat following his baptism seems quite likely.

What also seems likely is that during his ministry Jesus would have talked about this wilderness experience, telling his disciples about the feeling of being tempted, tempted to chuck it all, and go in a different direction, one that might be less likely to lead to trouble.  Among his followers then, this wilderness temptation became part of the oral tradition concerning Jesus, one of the stories that was told.  Mark, as the earliest written gospel picks up on this and makes mention of Jesus’ temptation, but what Mark has is very spare, just two verses. 

Luke however, takes the oral tradition and crafts another of his masterpieces with this story of a three round match that Jesus wins.  In the creative way he tells it though, Luke defines the nature of the conflict that Jesus faced and would continue to face, which becomes the conflict of the ages, the conflict we all face, placed as we are, between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of This World.  What’s also significant in the way that Luke tells it, is that while Jesus wins, he doesn’t exactly win by a knockout; his victory is more on points.

The fundamental temptation put before Jesus in each of the three rounds is to put his own self interest ahead of the will of God.  The way the temptations are packaged is very clever in that none of the things the devil challenges Jesus to do seem inherently evil on the surface, nothing that’s going to hurt anybody.  Again, you can imagine Jesus talking to his disciples about this, cautioning them to beware of how apparently innocent and subtle many temptations are.  

Round one is especially subtle; it seems so reasonable.  After forty days of fasting Jesus had to be starved so who would have blamed him for turning a stone into a loaf of bread to relieve his hunger.  After all, in order to take care of others he had to take care of himself; we hear that said all the time when there’s concern about a caregiver who seems to be wearing out as he or she tends to a loved one.  But it’s the way the temptation is prefaced by “If you are the Son of God, change this stone into a loaf of bread.”  If Jesus gives in to this, his identity, his divine identity that he’s sorting out, becomes associated with taking care of himself; but that’s the me first, taking care of number one, Kingdom of This World.  As reasonable as the suggestion is, Jesus can’t go there; so he resists, a point for him.

Having failed in round one, in round two the devil pretty much cuts to the chase with the offer of power even if it’s power that’s not really his to give.  He cuts to the chase but still it’s rather subtle because, knowing his scripture, he knows that people want and expect the messiah to be a power figure, a political and/or military force.  “Just be who they want you to be,” he’s saying to Jesus.   “Power makes the world go round.”  Like the first temptation, giving in to this would serve Jesus well, it would take care of him very nicely and from such a position he could even serve others, but he wouldn’t fulfill the will of the Father.  His kingdom is not about self interest and power; another point for Jesus.

Round three is about putting on a show.  “Just dazzle ‘em,” the devil is saying.  “They’ll love you and they’ll come back for more!” He even tries to use scripture to support his point, not the first or the last time that scripture would be used to promote a diabolical scheme.  Whatever Jesus’ mission is though, he knows it’s not about ShowTime.  Magic tricks might dazzle and amaze and attract attention, they might put people in the pews, but they don’t change the world and the Kingdom of God is about changing the world; a final point for Jesus.

The way Luke tells the story, it has the effect of clarifying Jesus’ mission for him; the points he wins are points of clarification.  As I said, the battle lines are drawn and at the end of this, Jesus knows which side of the line he’s on.  Jesus wins this encounter but it is more on points than it is by a knockout.  In another brilliant piece of storytelling, in the last verse Luke tells us that the devil is down, but not out, just waiting for an opportune time.  That was true for Jesus and it’s still true for us. 

One of the things a story like this does is to define the nature of temptation, particularly the subtlety of it.  Whether or not you believe in evil personified in the figure of the devil and his demons is not really all that important because I think most of us would agree that there are evil forces in the world that work against the will of God, forces from outside us or inside us that tempt us and lead us astray or at least try to.  If nothing else, talking about the devil provides a convenient way to talk about those evil forces that lead us into temptation.  Most often temptation starts with convincing us that it’s not going to hurt us or anything or anybody which I think is part of the brilliance of this story today.  The nature of temptation is that it convinces us that there is no battle here; there’s no choice to be made; we can have it both ways, the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of This World.

Jesus resisted the temptation and thereby clarified the battle lines; for the moment he sent the devil scrambling, but the devil continues to use those opportune times Luke mentioned to blur the lines.  He’s good at it.  He’s so good at it that I’m not even sure he has to work very hard anymore.  We’ve been convinced that we can have it both ways, convinced that the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this World are pretty much the same, that Christian values are pretty much the same as American values. 

We convince ourselves that being a Christian is easy, it really doesn’t take much of a commitment on our part, so we can be pretty casual about it, do it at our convenience.  We convince ourselves that we’ve got this thing under control and with that the devil can pretty much say, “My work here is done. I can just leave them to do it to themselves.  They have met the enemy and they are it.  My work is done”

That’s why we need the honesty of Lent.  This is the season when we admit that we have met the enemy, and they is us.  Lent wakes us up to the ways of the devil, the ways of evil in this world.  It wakes us up to the fact that the nature of the ways we are tempted is often so subtle that we don’t even know we’re being tempted.  When we’re able to honestly confront that, then comes the acknowledgement that we can’t fix this on our own which is  true, but there are things we can do, those Lenten disciplines, that can help to put us on the Kingdom of God side of the battle line and help to keep us there; but first has to come the recognition that there is a problem, part of which is that those evil forces have lulled us to sleep.

In practicing the disciplines that awake the Spirit in us, being guided by the Spirit, the same Spirit that guided Jesus, we can then turn the tables and begin to blur the battle lines on the devil.  The Kingdom of God is present and can be seen in the Kingdom of This World but the devil doesn’t want you to know that; he wants you to focus on the bad things.  What he also doesn’t want you to know is that while Jesus represents the Kingdom of God, at the same time he is fully committed to this world and the revelation of the Kingdom of God in this world.  We can sometimes think that Jesus’ mission was just about a path to eternity, but it was much more worldly than that.  His mission was here and was about blurring the battle lines in ways that cause the Kingdom of God to be made known.

In this story today, the lines are made clear.  For his mission and ministry Jesus needed to know that and so do we.  But…with knowledge of his victory in this encounter and even more with knowledge of his victory in the cross and resurrection we know the final outcome.  For each of us, the battle goes on; the devil is good at making use of those opportune times.  The battle goes on, but in Christ, the victory is won; the Kingdom of God will prevail and the devil can’t do anything about that because the final victory is by a knockout.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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