March 6, 2022
“Put to the Test”
Reverend James Rausch
“Lent” comes from an old English word for springtime, “lenchten,” perhapsconnected with the lengthening of days in this time of the year in theNorthern Hemisphere. The season of Lent, which began this past Wednesday, is a timefor growth in faith— through prayer, spiritual discipline, and self-examination inpreparation for the commemoration of the dying and rising of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Lent, is a period of forty days—like the flood of Genesis, Moses’ sojourn atSinai, Elijah’s journey to Mount Horeb, Jonah’s call of repentance to Nineveh,and Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness. The Sundays in Lent are notcounted among the forty days, as every Lord’s Day is a celebration of Christ’sresurrection. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and concludes at sunset on HolySaturday, at the start of the Great Vigil of Easter.
So, we return to the story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness at this time every year to allow his experience, his response, and his outcomes to teach us about our human nature, God-given power, and the faithful use of that power. I’d like to focus on power, a subject that is not typically taught in schools, and is far too often overlooked in family discussions. Thank goodness we at least have Spider-man to offer us some direct teaching on the subject. Let’s see how many of you have learned your lesson about power from Spider-man. Who can quote the great teaching on power? (Pause for answers.) That’s right! “With great power, comes great responsibility.” I think Jesus would be on board with that.
When I would teach teens about the subject of power, my question to them was, “If we want to learn about power, who could we go to who knows the most about the subject?” They never used to include in their answers Marvel Comics characters. So, I’ll ask you. Since power is a critical subject for humans to understand, who could we approach for the best answers? (Pause for answers.) God! Of course!
But why do I say that power is a critical subject for us to learn about and understand? Because we all are given power to one degree or another! That likely is part of what is given to humanity in the fact that we are created in the image of God. Our ability to choose, our agency, rises above pure instincts and conditioning. We have the ability to consider our choices and actions. We have the ability to consider outcomes and the effects our choices will have on ourselves, others, and our world. So, have I convinced you that it is a necessary thing that we learn from God, who knows more about power than anyone or anything? Yes? I see some of you nodding agreement. The rest of you just sit there and listen anyway. 😊
Let’s look at an example of power from our human standpoint that everyone here can relate to. It’s an approach that I have used with teens, and they agree it gives an understandable perspective. When you were born, you had almost no power, and your parents or caregivers had almost all of the power in your life. Basically, your only God-given power, though an important one, was to complain. You could cry, holler, and scream. Those were the humble beginnings of your accumulation of power to this day. Some of us are still very good at making use of our power to cry, holler, and scream, though many of us have learned to complain in more sophisticated ways.
The point is that we began with almost zero power, and our parents or caregivers exercised almost 100% power in our lives. In the natural progression of our growth, our power increased while our caregiver’s power in our lives proportionally decreased. This continues to a crucial time when the balance of power is about even and about to shift. For the first time you are about to venture into new territory. You exercise as much or more power than your parents. This period is called (I should have asked Hyunmi to play a dramatic chord on the organ, like they used to do in the old radio soap operas) “The Teenage Years.” Teens love this illustration because it puts into focus that they are on a trajectory toward independence. They also love that it explains why adults are afraid of them at this point in their lives. Why are we afraid? Because we know that whenever new power is exercised, danger increases.
A great example of this is the power to drive. We all love the freedom that comes with becoming a licensed driver. That’s a great leap in power! Freedom gained is top of mind for those who begin driving. What others have to remind them of is that, as Spider-Man says, “With great power comes great responsibility.” In driving, you have gained a power that literally can mean life and death for you and others. At age 16. Yikes. New Power… Now we don’t put signs on cars that say “Experienced Driver.” But we do put signs on cars that say, “Student Driver.” We require classes and lessons and gradual permissions and licensing because this new power represents something that effects everyone on the roads.
Now some of you may be thinking of another part of the lesson on power that comes when we arrive at the time of surrendering powers like driving privileges. That is another lesson we have to learn from Jesus, and it takes a great deal of spiritual and emotional maturity and grace to accept the surrendering of power. The people who put “Student Driver” signs on cars don’t also make signs that say, “Half-Blind Geezer Driving” signs.
But back to the first part of the lesson. Let’s ask of Jesus, “What do we need to know about power?” From today’s Gospel lesson, it is made clear that whenever one receives power, pretty much the first thing that will happen is that you will be tempted to misuse it. Jesus received power at his baptism, and before he could exercise it for its intended purpose, he was driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit where he was tempted by Satan to misuse that power.
The first temptation was to misuse it for selfish (though seemingly harmless) purposes. You’re hungry. Change these stones to bread and eat! Why not? He wouldn’t be taking anything from other? What harm would it do? But Jesus recognized the test and who the tempter was, and he answered, “Humankind does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” The response makes little sense to us unless its biblical context is recalled. In Deut. 8:3, from which this saying comes, Moses is recalling for the people of Israel their sojourn in the wilderness and, in particular, God’s gift of manna. Moses explains that their hunger and God’s gift of manna took place because “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” Israel’s need for bread was secondary to Israel’s need to understand that God alone gives bread. Jesus, because he understands that fact, can resist the temptation to take matters into his own hands.
The second temptation, that to political power, is likewise one that would make sense to any reader. Who has not, at one time or another, wished for some such might? In the context of Israel’s history, however, a particular set of concerns about power are evoked by this scene. Israel’s recurring desire to be like its neighbors—to worship their gods, to have a king such as their kings—lies close to hand. Jesus replies to the devil by quoting Deut. 6:13 (see also Deut. 10:20), which not only rejects the devil’s demand for worship of himself, but simultaneously insists that the only real power comes from God.
The temptations then reach their peak when the pinnacle of the Jerusalem Temple serves as the locus of temptation. Given the way in which Luke centers his story in Jerusalem, and Luke’s interest in the Temple, already we know that something especially important is about to occur. This time, when the devil speaks, he uses Scripture itself to buttress his suggestion. If Jesus is God’s Son, then he can force God to prove it and protect him, just as Ps. 91 suggests will be the case. For the third time, Jesus responds with words of Scripture taken from Deuteronomy. In this instance, Deut. 6:16 recalls Moses’ warning that God should not be tested, as Israel had tested God in the past.
So, what are some of the lessons we have learned? All power comes from God. When we receive power, we will almost immediately and even continually be tempted to misuse it. There are correct and God-intended uses of our power. Our exercise of power effects far more than just ourselves. These are great lessons for us to have learned and to be reminded of. Now, why not end here? Because for this pastor, that would be far too short a sermon! After all, the season of Lent call us to a greater discipline, so tough it out.
You see, someone among you might say, “But pastor, what about James 1:13?” You all know what James 1:13 says, right? 😊 “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.” That’s right! When we are tempted, it is not God doing so. It is rather another force. Some refer to that force as evil, some human brokenness, and others Satan. While we can’t fully describe or agree on the name of that force, we can all agree that something places temptation before us, and the Bible says it isn’t God. Jesus does say that God is there to help us resist and avoid temptation through God’s Word.
“But pastor Jim,” you might say, “if God doesn’t tempt us, why do we pray, ‘Lead us not into temptation?” Well, aren’t you glad that the sermon wasn’t shorter today? You would have missed this part!
Let’s remember that God tested Abraham, but did not tempt him. There’s a difference. In the Lord’s Prayer, the word translated as temptation can be read, as in the New Revised Standard Translation as “trial.” In fact, when I looked it up in the Greek dictionary, trial was the first definition offered, before temptation. As we have learned in our Bible Study class, Greek words can have a range of meanings, as can English words. Perhaps you have heard or read the Lord’s Prayer with this translation as it says, “Bring us not into the time of trial, but deliver us from the evil one.” So, we have to look for contextual clues and other uses of the word in the Bible to help us understand more clearly what we are praying when we say, “Lead us not in to temptation.”
When Jesus taught this prayer, he did so speaking Aramaic. However, we only have it recorded in Greek in two slightly different forms in Matthew and Luke. The Aramaic word Jesus would have used for “Lead us not” is the word Nission, which has two shades of meaning. The first is causative, which, if followed, would make the verse mean, “Do not cause us to go into temptation,” and this cannot be right based on what the Bible tells us elsewhere. But the word Nission also has a permissive sense, which would make the verse to read, “Do not permit us to go into temptation.”
We can all attest from experience that our tendency is to turn aside from our faith journey into trials and temptations. Famously, many have said, “Lord, lead me not into temptation. I can find it myself.” How true. Therefore, we pray to God to hold us back from our tendencies. Don’t permit us to turn away into temptation. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus says to Peter, “Watch and pray, that you may not enter into temptation.” Perhaps this petition of the Lord’s Prayer is a request for God’s help in avoiding this self-destructive tendency.
In light of what we have learned, then, what does it mean to say that Jesus is God’s Son? Luke answers that question in today’s passage in a negative way. Jesus is not the kind of child Israel proved to be. Israel thought it needed only bread; Israel succumbed to the temptation of idolatry; Israel indeed tested God. Jesus is not that kind of Son. Jesus understands that God alone is God. What Jesus’ Sonship means, put positively, will emerge in the second half of chapter 4 of Luke, as Jesus begins to preach and as Jesus begins to heal. For now, it is enough to understand that being God’s child does not mean seeking power for oneself. It means, by contrast, acknowledging the oneness and otherness of God.
I challenged the teens I taught to look at driving and other forms of power that they acquire as gifts from God, gifts that will last for a finite period of time. It’s not enough to use the privilege of driving to serve ourselves. It’s not enough to exercise it in ways that do not harm others. Instead, how can we use our gift in service of God. They came up with lots of great ways they could put their privilege of driving to work – from delivering items to providing rides for others.
Now I’m challenging you, because I’m preaching to people who have power from God. How has temptation come in light of those powers? Are you asking God’s help to turn from temptation? Are you learning to exercise your power in service to God? Will you surrender power as God calls for it back?
I will leave you with a preview of another sermon about power, reserved for another day. In the Old Testament, God’s power, and power in general is often referred to as, “The right hand.” Exodus 15:6 is one example of many: “Thy right hand, O LORD, is majestic in power, Thy right hand, O LORD, shatters the enemy.” Knowing this will give you a whole new understanding of Matthew 5:30, where Jesus says, “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” If you have power, and you can’t handle the temptation to misuse it, give it up! Let it go!
Talk about giving something up for Lent! I hope we have all learned something today about the nature of power. I hope we can recognize with gratitude the powers that God has shared with us, and that we can be wise and prepared for temptation. I hope we can recognize the seriousness and gravity of our choices, as well as the solidarity we have with and from God in that Jesus came to be tempted as we are. I hope Lent for you is a time of reflecting deeply on these things with humility and honesty. I hope that you know more clearly that God in the Holy Spirit equips you for mission and purpose with your gifts, and that God in Jesus forgives you when you fall short and will always find you when you become lost.
The forty-day period has begun. Let it be holy for you – different, set-apart from other ordinary seasons.
Portions above in italicized print are from TEXTS FOR PREACHING – A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV YEAR C Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, J. Clinton McCann, Jr., James D. Newsome
© 1994 Westminster John Knox Press