A sermon on Luke 4:1-13 & Psalm 91:1-2,9-16 by Sylvia Sandeman
Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. In old English, the word Lent refers to the Spring of the year, but the church’s observance of Lent focuses on the journey of faith and when some denominations enrol their Catechumens. It is a time of special preparation for baptismal candidates, patterned on Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, before He began his public ministry. This also picks up on the imagery of the Israelites 40 years in the wilderness, as a time of preparation for when they entered the Promised Land.
For early Christians, the central festival of the Christian Year, was the one that celebrated the death and resurrection of Christ, and the observance of three great days, from Maundy Thursday to the climax in the Easter vigil.
It began with an attitude of solemn fasting and prayer, and came to a joyful climax, when people were initiated into the church through baptism, confirmation and communion.
My first experience of this was when I went to St Joseph’s in Malvern to attend their Easter Vigil service over twenty years ago now. I was totally blown away by the service – it is in fact very similar to ours, but I had never experienced it before. Reading followed reading, of how the Israelites had forsaken Yahweh and how he had forgiven them. Suddenly I realized that the choir had started to sing “Alleluia” and this meant Easter was here, as “Alleluia” was a word not used in the liturgy during Lent, and then the whole congregation were called upon to renew their baptismal vows – which we all did – something we as Baptists mostly never do.
We, as a church have begun this season of preparation and renewal focusing on the journey of faith. We follow Jesus’ journey, which faces us with the cost of discipleship. This is the journey that drives Jesus into the desert. All the gospels link this story of the temptations of Jesus, as our gospel reading for tonight does, with the story of Jesus’ baptism when for the first time he is declared to be God’s “beloved Son in whom He is well pleased”. He is then driven by the Spirit into the dessert to be tempted.
Many years ago, on the overnight train to Adelaide, I was sitting next to someone I knew – we were studying together and she was a Christian who was a member of a local Church of Christ congregation. How we got to my telling her about Jesus being driven into the desert by the Spirit, I do not remember but I do know that she could not accept that Christ was sent to be tempted – this was not the God she believed in. However all three gospel accounts state this. Luke says “Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit and was lead by the Spirit into the desert where he was tempted”. Matthew says “The Spirit lead Jesus into the desert to be tempted” and Mark says “At once the Spirit drove him into the desert ……..being tempted by Satan”. Thus these temptations were no mistake – they were for a purpose, part of Christ’s preparation for ministry.
Father Frank Anderson, a Catholic songwriter, was the speaker at a Lenten series that I attended some years ago now. He told a story which was about a Queensland town. This story opened my eyes to the meaning of baptism in a way it had not happened before. This town had a railway line that ran down the centre of the main street. All the “nice” people of town lived on the right hand side of the line and the poor, the Housing Commission homes, rundown rental properties and immigrants all lived on the left hand side of the line. No one ever crossed the line – the town was divided into 2 groups – the “haves” and “have nots” and they simply did not mix.
For 30 years Jesus lived on the right hand side of the line – he worked with his father, attended synagogue, he did every thing that a loyal son would do – but one day he made the baptismal decision to cross the line. And that decision to be baptized changed everything for him – he moved from being with the “nice” people, to associating with the publicans and sinners, the sick and the demon possessed, widows and orphans, and his life was never the same again. That baptismal decision drove him into the desert to face temptations he had not faced before, put him at odds with the religious and civil authorities, made him the friend of the sick, the demon processed, tax collectors, women of ill repute and found him mixing with publicans and sinners, Samaritans and foreigners and finally led him to death on a cross.
In a moment I saw that baptism could change everything. It was not just a nice thing to do, it set one’s feet on a road that would take you where one knew not, to places so different from those you had known before, or you could imagine, but it also began with the desert experience.
Jesus’ baptism took him from being an ordinary carpenter whom few knew, to the possibility that he was the Messiah, the Son of God, the long awaited one. The statement of the Father at his baptism declared it to be so. “You are my own dear Son, I am pleased with you.” Jesus is filled with the Spirit but while he is still coming to terms with what this declaration from the heavens means – he is compelled by the Spirit to go to the desert and there to have this declaration tested – “If you are the Son of God…….” – if this is really true what will you do? “If you are the Son of God……” What sort of Son of God will you be? How will you use the power that comes with such a position? You could do anything? All things are in your hands and available to you. “If you are the Son of God……….”
The Scriptures present the temptations as three events but these would have been what Jesus faced many times.
The first temptation was to supply his own physical needs, to satisfy his own hunger or to possibly to feed the hungry poor – but He does not take this road, instead of this He comes and walks our road with us, He becomes “the hungry poor,” – or as Nathan translates John 1 14 – ‘The Word, was born flesh and blood like everyone else. He cast in his lot with us and rolled out his swag in our midst.” because we need more then physical bread in our lives, Jesus resists this temptation.
The second temptation is about becoming an important person that has power and authority to do what needs to be achieved to change situations – to really have an impact in the world – to get stuff done – this is a real temptation in our day – to climb the corporate ladder or work in the big church, and so have the ability to effect change and influence society. Surely this is what “the Son of God” would do. But this is the subtlety of this temptation – we do long to address the wrongs and change society for the better – this is our starting point – but somewhere almost unknown to us things change, and we are caught up in the climb for power. Jesus is not this sort of “Son of God” – he could have shown that He was the Messiah – how often this disciples wanted him to do this – and the crowds would have loved it, but all his life he “took the road less travelled and that made all the difference.”
My brother Peter, when he was young man really wanted to be the Premier of SA, and he is smart and enough of a political animal to have got there. He wanted it for all the good reasons above but I am not sure that somewhere along the way he would not have got caught in the subtlety of this temptation. But something happened – hisfirst child was born and he discovered that his love for her was such – which he had not expected – was such that he gave up all his other ambitions, to care for her and be with her.
Nathan tells of the subtlety of this temptation – portrayed in the film “Jesus of Montreal”. The film is about a group of actors putting on a passion play but as they get more involved, events in their lives begin to mirror the stories of Jesus. I remember suddenly thinking, as the lead actor who is playing Jesus; is selecting other actors – “He is calling his disciples” – a powerful moment for me. Nathan tells of the power of the temptation scene for him – a young lawyer was showing the actor how his career could develop and all the things he could gain. It was not until the talk was almost over and the lawyer looked out of the window of his high rise office and said “All this could be yours” that Nathan realized the actor was being tempted to cash in on his talent and to compromise his integrity. Nathan was shocked – it had sneaked up on him, he had not seen the temptation coming, and if it could do that in a movie he wondered how often it happened in real life.
In the third temptation, Satan suggests that Jesus physically tests his Sonship – “if he is the Son of God” would his Father allow him to be injured – throw himself of the highest part of the temple – why not see if this is true for the scriptures say as we heard in our psalm for today
“Thanks to you, LORD of the universe, no evil can touch us; disaster can not get a foot in the door.
You have instructed your angels to look after us; made it their job to protect us wherever we go.
You’ve told them to catch us when we fall; to keep us from coming to grief on hidden snags.”
Jesus’ response to the Devil is “Do not put the Lord your God to this sort of test” – He trusted his Father to do what was best. Later in life – this temptation must have come as Jesus faces what will happen in Jerusalem and we told “Jesus sets this face to go there” not to test his Father but to do His Father’s will.
Then the scriptures say – the Devil leaves Jesus for a while. The next verse reads – “Then Jesus returned to Galilee and the power of the Holy Spirit was with Him.” So Jesus’ baptismal decision to cross the line drives Him into the wilderness to finally lead him out in the power of the Spirit and to begin His ministry.
Thus every Lenten Season the desert issues its own invitation to us as Elizabeth Cantham writes “Come enter my silence, my uncluttered solitude, my stark beauty and I will show you depths of your soul that you never knew you had. Come and listen to the Holy One who speaks within, tells you that you are loved and clarifies your call to service. Come and find strength, let grace encompass you, let go of baggage and wait simply for God.” So we are called to take this time apart to reflect anew on our call, on our lives and on our baptismal vows – ready for their renewal at Easter.
We go to the desert or wilderness, which does not just mean hot and dry, but also, uninhabited, lonely, with no human population – a desolate location whatever the reason for its desolation. The desert place has fewer distractions. There is time to weigh God’s call on our life. To unclutter our life of the things that neither serves God, or us any more. The Tempter tried to define life’s basic elements, as fame, security and a full belly, and we may have unknowingly been drawn to that path. But the desert calls us to faithfulness to God with or without abundance, and we need to assess the direction of our journey, our call to ministry and also to meet our own demons.
There are some traditional Lenten disciplines to help us reassess our call and declutter our lives.
The ancient disciplines are fasting, prayer and almsgiving, and these are not bad disciplines to follow, as they can be interpreted to meet our need and life style today. Fasting can be interpreted as fasting from food and one often hears people giving up chocolate for Lent but there are many other things that have entangled our lives – television, social media, sport and the list could go on. In England I became a bell ringer, I was not very good but I quickly became obsessed with it. We would go on bell ringing trips on Saturdays, ringing at 3-4 different churches in the area, we had bell ringing practice and rang for weddings and funerals, but my real obsession showed itself when on Sunday mornings – I would ring at 2 different churches, then arrive at my own church ¾ o a hour after the service had started. I was not alone in this – many bell ringers did this. One day I acknowledged my obsession and stopped.
However fasting allows time to simplify our lives. Giving ourselves to prayer is another discipline that we can follow. We can review our practices and set aside time every day to pray or begin a special prayer routine that may develop into a habit or meet with others regularly during Lent to discuss the scriptures and pray.
The final discipline is almsgiving. This could be in the form of money and/or support for a charity or mission, but it could also be giving of your time or talent in an extra way. Some years ago, I took on, during Lent, the visitation of people who had moved into an Aged Care facility. I would go at other times, but I sought to see them at least once during the Lenten season. So my almsgiving took the form of the gift of time.
But there are other things that you could do – such as meditative walks, a daily creative activity or journaling your Lenten journey – anything that marks this time as special, reviews your walk with God and prepares you to renew your baptismal vows.
In the midst of all of this, there is one thing that has not been mentioned and Luke does not mention it in his story of the temptations of Jesus but Matthew and Mark do. The account in Matthew and Mark includes the angels who came and helped Jesus after the Devil had left him. A couple of years ago at our Lenten Retreat I came across this poem, which I want to finish with.
The desert waits
ready for those who come
who come obedient to the Spirit’s leading
or who are driven
because they will not come any other way.
The desert always waits
ready to let us know who we are –
the place of self discovery.
And whilst we fear, and rightly,
the loneliness and emptiness and harshness,
we forget the angels,
whom we cannot see for our blindness,
but who come when God decides
that we need their help,
when we are ready
for what they can give us.
So as we travel our Lenten journey let us not forget the angels.