Grace Presbyterian Church
March 10, 2019, Lent 1C
Every year in the lectionary cycle, as the season of Lent commences, the first Sunday of Lent features as its gospel reading an account of the temptation of Jesus. Conveniently, all three of the synoptic gospels include such an account (though the gospel of John does not), but the three accounts given can differ in remarkable ways.
Mark’s gospel, generally agreed to be the first to be written, barely does more than mention the temptation; Jesus is in the desert for forty days, being tempted, Jesus was “with the wild beasts,” and angels ministered to him. That’s about it. Matthew’s account is more detailed, like Luke’s, but reverses the order of the second and third temptations that Luke includes. (One could almost make a sermon of that difference, but not today. Maybe next year.) Matthew also includes the angels ministering to Jesus in the wake of the temptation, which Luke does not.
One thing Luke and Matthew agree upon, though, is Jesus’s condition after forty days of this fasting and temptation. Both of the gospels make sure we understand that Jesus had eaten nothing for forty days by that time, and both use the word that we get translated here as “famished.”
“Famished” is a pretty visceral word. It’s one thing to say simply that you’re hungry, no matter how much emphasis you put on it – “I’m so hungry” is probably something like you have heard from your children at some point or another. “Starving” is strong, but also carries a separate, more clinical meaning – how many times were you chastised for not cleaning your plate because of those starving children in Africa? – that in some ways detracts from its immediate forcefulness.
For Luke (and Matthew too) to say that Jesus was “famished” feels different. Luke has already shown something of a flair for drama so far, and this certainly has a definite emotional and dramatic force. It cuts through the “duh” factor – well, of course Jesus is hungry, he hasn’t eaten for forty days – and brings home the raw sensation of the moment, the weakness and vulnerability inherent in a human being in Jesus’s condition at that particular moment. It also reminds us of that which we sometimes need to recall; that Jesus, Son of God that he was even walking about on earth, was also fully human, and in this moment painfully human.
So, not a surprise that the tempter first appeals to that famished-ness, is it? Turn these stones to bread and eat up. And if you think about it, there were an awful lot of hungry people – maybe even famished – who could be fed by such a maneuver, and plenty of stones just waiting to be turned to bread.
But Jesus turns away that temptation, as he does with the temptation to claim all worldly power (even though the tempter was not the one to hand out such power) and to demonstrate divine protection (in which Jesus answers the tempter’s quotation of a psalm with his third straight citation from Deuteronomy). Absent those ministering angels in Matthew, Jesus’s temptation ends as the tempter departs until an “opportune time,” which will turn out to be three years later, when a malcontent disciple named Judas provides the means to bring Jesus down. Or so the tempter thought.
Still, though, we have to marvel at how Jesus swatted aside those temptations like a basketball star rejecting shots around the goal. And in his famished condition, it can be even harder for us to comprehend. I know I can’t think straight when I’m even moderately hungry, and I’ll be the first to admit I’ve never truly been famished in my lifetime.
How does he do it?
Well, there is one other aspect of Luke’s account of the temptation that is different from Matthew’s and Mark’s stories. Both Matthew and Mark describe Jesus as being led out to the wilderness for this experience by the Holy Spirit. That can be hard for us to stomach, the idea that it was the Spirit that put Jesus in this position. After all, doesn’t the Lord’s Prayer specifically ask God not to lead us into a time of trial? Of course, one might argue that this experience is why Jesus teaches the disciples to ask for this, but that’s a topic for another sermon. Here, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus out into the wilderness. (Mark puts it even more harshly in his brief account, saying in 1:12 that the Spirit “immediately drove him out into the wilderness” when he was barely dry from his baptism.)
You can talk about things like how this experience clarifies exactly what Jesus’s mission is on earth, or what his relationship to God is, or any number of things like that, but this idea of the Spirit leading Jesus intotemptation isn’t ever going to sit easily with us. But there is one more element of Luke’s temptation account that is unique to him that we haven’t spoken of yet.
Notice how this passage begins: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.”
The Spirit doesn’t lead Jesus into the wilderness unarmed or undefended. Jesus faced the tempter full of the Holy Spirit, and that’s a mismatch every time. No matter how famished he might have been, Jesus was full of what mattered; physical hunger was no match for spiritual fullness.
Here’s the thing, though: the same thing is true for us, when we face temptation – at least if we would simply accept it. After the famous part of John 14, the part about “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus tells his disciples this: (14:16-17)
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
We are not left alone and defenseless. That Advocate, that Holy Spirit that filled Jesus out in that wilderness is with us and would fill us in that same way in whatever time of temptation or testing we might ever face.
What is it with us, that we don’t remember this? Do we really think that our Lord abandons us in these times of trial? We are, if we will accept it, as armed as Jesus was facing this temptation. Let the Spirit do her work. Let the Spirit fill us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #215, What Wondrous Love is This; #168, Within Your Shelter, Loving God (Psalm 91); #167, Forty Days and Forty Nights; #165, The Glory of These Forty Days