We live in a most abundant and privileged epoch in human history. We live in a time and a place where our physical and material needs are met in ways that were unimaginable to people even one hundred years ago—a time when people were coming out of a global war, a time when an epidemic was killing hundreds of thousands of people all over the world, a time that was building toward a world divided by ideology, a build-up that would culminate in weapons that could destroy the whole world. In 1919 the Russian revolution and the emergence of Marxist/Leninist communism would split the world into the two camps: Freedom and Totalitarianism
Yes, today, we do face new and no less serious challenges, but, materially, physically, and medically, we have never experienced such abundance as we do today in Canada. Yet despite this “prosperity”, we are not “happy.” There is something seriously lacking. The world is divided between the “haves” and the” have-nots.” The “have-nots” are trying to get to the places that the “haves’ control. The “haves” resist. Millions are on the move. We have an immigration and refugee crisis like never before. We have come to a point where technology and machinery advancing our prosperity is choking us and choking the entire planet. We have fires, floods, extreme heat and cold. We are in a climate crisis. We have more information about all of this and about each other. We have artificial intelligence that can beat the human brain at any game—chess, for example—compose music, and provide psychiatric therapy more quickly and effectively than any human. We are in danger of becoming the objects of the information age. We have an information overload crisis. We need only to turn on the evening TV to be reminded how precarious our times are, despite our material comforts.
Into that reality we are ushered into the season of Lent. The season of being tested by being led through scripture, tradition, and ritual to places of hunger, despair, anxiety, and longing. We are led into a wilderness. A wilderness challenge.
Today, on this first Sunday of Lent, we are drawn into this wilderness as we follow Jesus who: “full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” (Luke 4:1,2). This story in Luke is the final event in Jesus’ preparation for his mission—his public ministry. In Luke’s story Jesus has been born in an historical context. He has been included into his Jewish family tradition through appropriate rituals. He has matured and been identified as a brilliant young thinker. He has gone to the Jordon to be baptized by John. He has been called my Beloved Son with whom I am well pleased (Lk.3:21) by God, the Father. Now Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tested. This is not a “vision quest” like that of some traditional societies. This is not a game, like “Survivor.” He’s not going there to find himself or prove himself. He already knows who he is. He is God’s Beloved Son. He’s there, in the wilderness, to sort out what that means. The devil will challenge him with the words, “If you are the Son of God…. Then, show me.”
For Luke, this story is placed where it can lead us to the full power of God’s son. This becomes evident when Jesus reads from Isaiah in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth. God’s heir, Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, yet more, much more, interacting with the ordinary people of his day.
Three gospels of the four gospels have a temptation story. In Matthew and Luke’s gospels this story is preceded with a genealogy. Matthew’s genealogy goes back to Moses. To Matthew’s audience of mainly Jewish readers, Jesus is the new Moses. To Luke’s audience of mainly Gentile readers, Jesus genealogy goes back to Adam. Adam, the first “man”—the first “human.” Luke’s gospel is a gospel for humans, ordinary people, the common man. Luke’s gospel is preoccupied with Jesus’ ministry among the common people—the poor, the sick, those in debtor’s prison, the widows and orphans of the world.
Jesus was in the wilderness as were the common people of Israel—the children of Israel. The number forty is significant. It means a long time.
In the forty years that the Children of Israel wandered the Sanai desert, these forty years meant a “long time” to shake the identity of slavery and subjugation.
They needed two generations to get ready to enter the promised land—two generations to redefine themselves, not slaves but worthy people—two generations of testing—of fasting, of thirsting.
Jesus too is being tested for a long time. He will be tested—tempted by the devil himself. But Jesus’ temptations are not like our: “Should I eat another piece of that delicious cake?” Jesus is tempted by those things that on the surface appear to be good. Feeding the hungry, taking authority over the confused world, and setting himself up as a charismatic leader, preeminent “ rock star ”—staging a spectacle that will get attention.
I began talking today about our materially advantaged secular world. This account invites us to think about how Jesus, the Son of God and his ministry, his message, interact with the world. It invites us to see how this ministry is accomplished—our world. This account tells us once again how counter-intuitive this message is. It is a message that we need to hear today as God’s children, especially as we move forward as God’s people in this church.
Just like the Children of Israel, we, the Children of Kerrisdale, have been wandering in the wilderness, haven’t we? We, you and I, have been brought together, over the last two years, led by the Holy Spirit, if you will, “into the wilderness,” a wilderness full of challenges where we were required to re-examine ourselves, who we are as a worshipping community, how we would move forward as God’s people to be the light of Christ in this ever-changing reality—a reality where the church as an institution has diminished in its status —the end of Canadian Christendom. What kind of a church would we be? How would we become “relevant” in a community so different than the one that was in place when this church was first formed? How would we demonstrate our authority, our control, over events, over our worship, the music, the liturgy? How could we bring in more people? Would we have to do something grand? What would we have to do that would attract the attention of people? Something spectacular?
How could we become a better, more effective church bearing the name of Jesus Christ? All these are good questions. These are the kinds of questions we should be asking, surely? These are the issues that we need to address as we hope to move forward.
These are actually the same kinds of issues with which the devil confronts Jesus as he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness.
Jesus first accepts that he will be led into the wilderness. He might have declined. He might have avoided the challenges—the wilderness challenges. But he does not. He actually prepares himself in a peculiar kind of way to meet this challenge. He fasts until he is famished. He denies his physical needs. He empties himself. He creates a “clean slate.” He opens himself up. The devil comes to tempt him. The devil says, “Hey, you must be hungry. You are the Son of God, right? See this stone? Turn it into a loaf of bread.”
Jesus answers from the book of Deuteronomy, the book that is about keeping the way – the way set out by Yahweh, God when he gave his people the law—the Ten Commandments. The way for God’s people, God’s children, the way that honours and pleases God.
Jesus quotes from scripture, citing Moses: One does not live by bread alone” (Duet 8:3). Bread is good and needed, but it is not sufficient to define Jesus’ mission and purpose. It’s not about satisfying physical hunger. It’s not just about feeding the poor, the food for the stomach. It’s also about food for the soul. What about feeding our spiritual hunger? How do we meet that need? How do we meet that need as people of God, Children of Kerrisdale?
The devil continues to tempt Jesus. “See all these kingdoms. You can be known all over the world. You can invoke regime change. You can be famous and you can have authority, and power over all of them. It is within my power to grant you that. I’ll make you popular. I’ll make people listen to you. All you have to do is worship me. This is the power that is mine to give. Take it! Accept my power. Take charge! Go big or go home!”
Jesus answers with the She’ma Israel, from Deuteronomy 6:13. This is the most basic statement of the Jewish faith in a shorter version, “Worship the Lord your God and only him.” Again, from Deuteronomy: love God only—not power, not authority, not popularity.
Let God hold the power. Even playing out this authority for a good purpose would risk serving something other than the Holy One.” I will do good, but give all glory to God,” Jesus is saying.
So often we are ashamed of ourselves as a church. We used to be so big. We used to have hundreds of kids in Sunday School. We used to have a big choir etc. etc. We were the “go-to” church in Kerrisdale. We were the leaders.
What did Jesus say? “Where two or three are gathered in my name.” Worship is not about our “bigness”. Worship is about God’s “bigness.” Not popularity, not power, but purpose – to love God, to accept God’s grace and to share that love and grace. That ought to be our mission.
Then, finally, the devil takes Jesus to Jerusalem for the third temptation. Here in Jerusalem, where the Jews come for their pilgrimages and rituals, the highest forms of worship and sacrifice. Here too, ironically, is where Jesus’ ministry will culminate with his passion, his resurrection and the formation of his church.
Here on the roof-top of Herod’s spectacular edifice, the devil incites Jesus to perform a spectacular feat. Let the world be dazzled by a trick. Throw yourself down. You are the Son of God. God will save you. He promised that in the Psalms. The devil quotes from the Psalm we read today, Psalm 91. The temple is the place where the priests do their “holy” work—offer sacrifices, lead singing and lift prayers. This is where they practice their Faith.
“Go there and test it out,” says the devil “Go there and test this faith out. If God ‘s promise of protection for the righteous is true, then go ahead, you are the most righteous, the Son of God. God will protect you, right?” The devil challenges Jesus’ directly – not “if “ you are the Son of God , but “since”—Since you are the Son of God, you can do anything, right?
And Jesus again quotes Deuteronomy -- 6:16 Do not put the Lord your God to the test. Don’t put God to the test. Don’t expect some miraculous intervention when making decisions about the church. Be prudent. Be modest. Do the hard work, whatever it is. Don’t expect some miracle worker of a minister to “save” you. Don’t throw yourselves behind spurious programs or schemes that promise “growth.”. God is not mocked or manipulated.
Popularity, power, performance. These are the currencies of our age. All these are temptations that ordinary Christians face—especially in a world where Christianity is no longer “in charge.” How do we respond?
How do we behave, especially when we pray, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” The original Aramaic says, “and deliver us from the evil one.” Deliver us from the devil. Deliver us from the devil within.
The answer is given to us in the actions and teachings of Jesus. Go back to the source. Go back to the scriptures. Go back to the teachings that came from God through God’s messengers—Moses, the prophets. Look back, look up to God, the Father. Go back to the basics. Love the Lord, your God with all of your heart and mind and soul. Go back to the prophet Micah: “And what does the Lord require of you?” he asks, “But to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God”.
Go back and follow God’s beloved Son, Jesus.
When we face our own wilderness challenges, we have no greater guide than Jesus—let us be led by the Spirit, the same Spirit that led Jesus. Let us not fear the wilderness and its challenges. We have come so far, always trusting, always led by the Lord through, Christ and the Holy Spirit. When we are challenged, when we are tempted, where do we go? We go to God’s holy word. We follow “the way” Jesus said,” I am the way…” ( John 14:6) This is an echo of the Deuteronomist’s way., When we are faced with “the devil,” the devil within, mostly, whom do we call. We pray. We call upon God to be with us. To sustain us, to encourage us even as we move forward and live more intentionally during this Lenten season.
This is a critical time in the life of our church. This is a time of wilderness challenges for the Children of Kerrisdale. Let us face them trusting in God, trusting God’s word of faith, hope and love—led by the Spirit. AMEN