February 13, 2016: Gnaw on This

First Sunday of Lent – Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, 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. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”


Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said 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 answered him, “It is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.'”

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “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,’


‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.


The Backstory – What’s Going On Here?

Jesus’ temptation in the desert also apprears in Matthew, with ashort mention in Mark. In all three, it is a hinge event between his baptism in the Jordan River and his return to Galilee. In Luke, that ministry begins (after a short mention of his teaching throughout Galilee) his reading from the scroll of Isaiah. In between the baptism scene and this one, Luke inserts a geneaology that links Jesus all the way back to Adam, placing what is going to happen not just in a Jewish context but a universal one.


There have been volumes written about Jesus’ temptation and what it means (not to mention works like Dostoyevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor, which draws its structure from this scene). There are parallels to the Israelites’ time in the desert (40 years vs. 40 days – 40 in Biblical numerology is another way of saying “a long time”). There is the traditional use of prayer and fasting as a time of preparation. Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the 10 commandments. Elijah fasted for 40 days before speaking with God. Fasting also occurs in the Hebrew scriptures during times of grieving and repentance … the latter which also has connotations of purification and preparation. Jesus’ temptation has echoes of all of these things. The fact that he is tempted is also an affirmation of his full humanity, coming on the heels of his baptism affirming his divinity.


A few things to chew on:

*We tend to think of temptation as being toward things that are obviously bad. Yet all three of the things Jesus’ is tempted with have ends with great potential good — creating food to dispel hunger, gaining power, and proving the power of God. From individuals to nations, we often make decisions that allow for evil actions for what we believe is a greater eventual good. What criteria do we use … what criteria do you use … to decide when that is justified?


*Jesus’ time in the desert is a time of extreme vulnerability. He is at the mercy of the elements, of wild animals, and of cosmic forces. The danger gets worse as he gets weaker and weaker. He has no one to rely on but himself and God. As Americans, we live with economic benefits and social safety nets that much of the world does not have. Many Americans go our whole lives without ever being physically vulnerable in this way. When in your life have you felt most vulnerable and alone? Where did you turn … or maybe where are you turning?

Try This:


Fasting is not only an ancient practice of preparation and purification, it is a way for us as people who rarely miss a meal to experience even briefly what it is like for the 800 million of God’s children who live in some degree of hunger. It is an incarnational experience — of us experiencing a different aspect of humanity in our bodies the same way God in Christ experienced humanity. Ash Wednesday is a traditional fast day. This year, try using it as such. If you can’t do a full 24 hours, consider a sunrise to sundown fast. Take time during the day to stop, to feel what effect it is having on your body, and to pray for those who live with this without choice and ponder how God might call you to ease their pain.

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