Summit Presbyterian Church
February 21, 2010
I'm going to ask you to think back for a minute. Have you ever taken a test where you felt that how you did would determine the direction of your life? Perhaps it was the SAT, the college entrance examination you took in high school; or a licensing exam for a trade; the exam for American citizenship; the GRE or LSAT or GMAT or other grad school exam; a job test. Most likely, you couldn't take anything with you into that exam: no books, no notes, no coffee, no cellphone. (If you took it in the dark days before cellphones and lifelines you may not have known what you were missing). Maybe you had a couple of #2 pencils or a bottle of water, perhaps a calculator or some tools. But when you took the test you had to rely on what you had inside: your memory, your imagination, your intelligence. If you were a believer when you took this test you may have prayed - not only for inspiration and the right answers, but for the strength to make it through that fate-full test.
In our scripture today, Jesus takes such a test. He's just been baptized in the Jordan river. The Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove, and a voice from heaven said, "You are my Son, the Beloved." Jesus will now be examined to see if he knows what it means to be the Son of God.* His examiner is the devil, waiting for him in the wilderness. Jesus has nothing with him: no scrolls, no papyrus notes, no food. He must rely on the Spirit, who has led him into the wilderness, and on what he knows: the Word of God, written in the scriptures, that he has studied from his youth.
The examination begins. It starts slowly: the first question is a warm-up. "If you are the Son of of God," says the devil, "command this stone to become a loaf of bread." We can imagine the answers that Jesus might have considered; a mental multiple-choice list. Choice #1 would have been to take the stone and turn it into bread. After sll, he was famished, he hadn't eaten for 40 days. Surely God didn't mean for him to die of hunger in the desert! If he took the stone and ate the bread, he'd have strength for the days ahead. He would also show the devil that he was the Son of God. Maybe the devil would even surrender, and come over from the dark side. Jesus must have been tempted, but he didn't choose that answer. Maybe he considered answer #2. That would be to take the stone from the hands of the devil, and then bop him over the head with it! He was a scrawny little thing! Jesus was the Son of God, he could kick that pitchfork out of his hand. Yes, it would be violent. It would mean killing a living creature. But the end justifies the means. Jesus was the Son of God, he had to defend humanity - and imagine a world, with no devils filled. He must have been tempted; it may have seemed like the right answer. But then Jesus remembered the scriptures -- how the Lord God led the people in the wilderness for forty years, in order to humble them, (it says in the Bible) testing them to know what was in their hearts, and whether or not they would keep the commandments. God humbled them by letting them hunger, and then feeding them with manna, [that weird stuff] with which neither they nor their ancestors were acquainted. God did this to make them understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deut. 8:2-3) Then Jesus knew. That was the answer. So he said, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"
Then the devil ups the ante. In an instant, he shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, past, present, future. And the devil says to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus must have thought hard about that one: would "yes," be the right answer? If all the glory and authority of every kingdom in the world was given over to the Son of God, he could rule with justice and love and the kingdom of God could be established on earth. So what if he had to worship the devil; it would be a private matter between him and Satan. His religion was his own business, and God would understand that he worshipped the devil in order to do good, do build a world where no one was hungry or homeless. Besides, Jesus may have thought, he wouldn't have to worship the devil forever. If he had authority over all the kingdoms in the world he would command every army, every intelligence agency, every information-gathering, picture taking, GPS directing satellite circling the globe. He could track the devil down in the most remote Afghan cave and starve him out. Jesus must have been tempted to say yes. But then Jesus remembered scripture. He remembered when Moses was speaking to the people before they entered the promised land. The land of milk and honey, where they would eat their fill and have their own kingdom after hungering in the wilderness for 40 years. And Moses told them that when they got there to take care that they didn't forget the Lord, who brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Moses had said to them, "It is the Lord your God you shall fear; and only him shall you serve." (Deut. 6:13) Then Jesus knew the right answer. He told the devil, "it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"
The comes the hardest, the trickiest question. The devil has figured out that Jesus looks to scripture for answers. His Bible is marked and underlined, he obeys the Word of God. So the devil takes him to the pinnacle of the temple, and the devil quotes scripture: "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, "He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and "On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against the stone." Jesus would have recognized that psalm [ the 91st psalm, that we just read this morning), surely he prayed it often. Jesus would have remembered that it begins "You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty." Yes, Jesus, must have thought: that's me, living in the shelter of the most high! He would have remembered the rest of the psalm, where it says that said God's faithfulness is a shield and a buckler, that under God's wings he would find refuge. Yes, he may have thought, surely God would command the angels concerning him, to guard him in all his ways. On their hands they would lift him up, so that he would not dash his foot against a stone - the scripture said so. So perhaps the right answer was to throw himself off the temple: when the angels caught him it would show everyone not only that he was the Son of God, but that God's Word was trustworthy.
How tempting that must have been. But then, perhaps just before he was about to jump, Jesus must have heard the Spirit whisper, saying: yes, the scriptures are God's word but not every interpretation is Godly. Those words in the psalm are not God's literal words to you as you stand on the tower. Search the scriptures more diligently and more deeply. Listen more closely for the Word of God as it comes to you through them. . . . . . . . And then Jesus remembered. He remembered the rest of what Moses said when he was speaking to the people before they entered the promised land. He warned them, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah." To tell you the story: at Massah, in the wilderness, they were thirsty and complained against Moses and said "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our livestock with thirst?" They quarreled and tested the Lord, saying "Is the Lord among us or not?" At Massah, God relented. Moses struck a rock and water burst forth, showing the people God was among them. But later, when they were about to enter the promised land, Moses told them, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test, like you did at Massah." So then Jesus knew the answer. It was not for him to test the Lord by making God "prove" to the devil or anyone else that he was the Son of God. So Jesus answered. He told the devil, "It is said, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" The examination was over - for now. The devil departed from him until an opportune time.
The examination in the wilderness showed Jesus - and the devil, and the world - what it meant to be the Son of God. He would not be a Messiah that would overthrow the Roman Empire. He would not rule kingdoms of this world. He would not fight evil with violence. He would not turn stones to bread or perform other miracles so he could be satisfied -- although he would multiply loaves to feed others. Being the Son of God did not mean performing superhuman feats, flying from towers so God could show his might and his favor. Being the Son of God meant total obedience. Obedience to God's Word in Scripture, interpreted through the Holy Spirit. That obedience would lead Jesus into a life of teaching, healing, eating with sinners, preaching good news to the poor, calling all to repentance. That obedience would take him to the cross. That's the direction his life would take.
Lent, traditionally, is a time of testing for us as well, a time of self-examination. Not necessarily a time to make a self-inventory of all our sins or to embark on a course of self improvement. But a time to ask ourselves: what does it mean to be a beloved child of God, and a disciple of Christ? Am I truly following him? There are no simple answers. It's not a pass/fail test nor is there a grade or score. You're allowed to bring chocolate into the examination, although I'd advise against alcohol, as that tends to garble any message from the Holy Spirit. But it is an examination that could change the direction of our life, in big ways or small.
And to help us take that test, we, too, have the Bible. We, too, have the company of the Holy Spirit, who opens our minds to the scriptures and is with us in whatever wilderness we may be wandering in. So I invite you, I invite myself, to a Lenten journey of scripture reading and prayer. You may have a written devotional, or you may meditate on the lectionary. You may choose to read one of the gospels from start to finish. Come to the Wednesday evening bread and broth or to Thursday morning prayer. Most important, come to worship every Sunday. Come to worship where we listen for God's Word in Scripture, open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, and ask God's guidance as we seek to follow Christ.
*See commentary by Arland J. Hultgren in "Working Preacher," www.workingpreacher.org, of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.