Are you in trouble?
Jesus is. He’s about to face some unbelievably high expectations. If we follow the gospel of Luke up until this point, we see just how much people expect from this man from Nazareth. Jesus’ birth is predicted and celebrated by angels. His uncle Zechariah, his mother Mary, and a holy man named Simeon all sing songs about just how great he is going to be, and the prophet Anna adds a prophecy. It doesn’t help, either, that through his adoptive father, Joseph, Jesus is part of a holy lineage that can be traced through David, Jacob, Abraham, and Noah and goes all the way back to Adam. Jesus’ cousin, John promises the crowds at the River Jordan that Jesus will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Finally, when Jesus himself is baptized, the heavens open, and God proclaims for all to hear: “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus is in trouble. He knows how much the people are hoping for from him. And he has an inkling, at least, of what God is hoping for, too. Looking within himself, Jesus is just not sure if he’s ready to take it all on and live it all out. So before he starts his work, he tries to prepare himself. He decides to follow the Spirit’s lead and take some time of religious retreat in the wilderness. Then the devil pays him a visit.
This passage raises so many questions. Among them are these: Who is this devil? And why would the Holy Spirit lead Jesus into a forty-day tryst in the wilderness with this guy?
The devil, or satan, appears in many forms in religion and culture. In this text, the devil we meet most closely resembles the Hebrew Ha-satan: the adversary, the deceiver, the one who obstructs or opposes. He perceives Jesus’ weaknesses and wields scripture to lure Jesus away from his true identity and purpose.
“If you really are the Son of God,” the devil tells the fasting, hungry Jesus, “tell this stone to turn into a loaf.” But Jesus replies, “The scripture says, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.”
Then again, showing Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth, the devil says, “I will give you all this power and magnificence if you fall down and worship me.” But Jesus replies, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only you shall serve’.”
And once again, ascending to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish faith, the devil says, “If you really are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for the scripture says, ‘He shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you’, and ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone’.” But Jesus replies, “It is also said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God’.”
The devil calls Jesus by his true and powerful name: Son of God. But he tempts Jesus to use his power to satisfy only his own personal needs and to gather only his own personal glory. Jesus is able to defeat him with wisdom found in the book of Deuteronomy. Jesus remembers and claims the truth that any power entrusted to him is meant to serve God and God’s people.
Jesus wins the debate, and the devil departs until another opportunity arises. But it seems like the victory was not assured. I wonder if Jesus needs to face this adversary, this deceiver, in order to prepare himself for the work ahead. He needs to struggle with the lies that are most dangerous to him, and find their antidote in the truth of God. Maybe this time in the desert is not some sort of messianic hazing ritual, but a gift of the Holy Spirit: a time of personal discovery and spiritual formation that makes everything else that Jesus does possible.
Are you in trouble? On Wednesday, we began the season of Lent, forty days in which Christians are asked to keep closer company with God. This close company with God isn’t really supposed to be a blissful reunion, though. Instead, it’s designed as a time for confession, repentance, transformation, renewal. It’s a time for us to become aware of what trouble we’re in. It’s a time for us to admit our regret for whatever part we’ve played in stirring that trouble up. It’s a time to seek God’s help in finding a different way. It’s not always a fun season, but it’s often the most meaningful, the most formative, in our liturgical calendar.
This year, we’re spending the season of Lent focused on the theme of forgiveness. I’ll focus on a different piece of forgiveness for six weeks in worship. There are devotional resources available and two forums led by Wayne Parrish. These forums are based on a book the whole congregation is invited to read, a book written by Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Mpho: The Book of Forgiving.
My guess is that few of you have noticed that Archbishop Tutu has a place in my office. It was my great privilege to travel to Namibia and South Africa for a semester during college, and study the transition from apartheid to democracy in that part of the world. It was particularly moving for me, as someone who had recently claimed the Christian faith for myself as an adult, to learn about the role that Christians played in that process. Christians played a key role, both in bringing about a political crisis and in leading the way towards political and spiritual resolution. I was, and am, dumbfounded by Archbishop Tutu’s spiritual strength in that process. Knowing that I hoped to become a pastor, I could not pass up the opportunity to buy a doll made in his likeness while I was in Cape Town. I hoped that the Archbishop would watch over me, and serve as a guide.
The Tutus, father and daughter, have a great deal to say about forgiveness, political, personal, and spiritual. One of the most important parts of their approach to me is their understanding that to forgive is not to forget or to deny the injury that has happened. On the contrary, the process of forgiveness requires a sometimes brutal honesty. It requires exploring the pain of hurting and of being hurt in our human relationships. It’s an opening up of the past, a delving into the present, an uncovering of secrets we have kept hidden, in many cases, even from ourselves.
Why would we do such a thing? For many reasons. To seek healing and wholeness. To find peace and avoid suffering. Maybe because, like Jesus, we need to be liberated from all lies and snares, so that we may become who God has called us to be.
Are you in trouble? Take some time, as Lent begins, to examine your heart. Notice the places of pain, the areas of stiffness, the parts that have been neglected or underused. Notice any lies that have come to live there. Notice the relationships that are not what you would desire them to be. Notice if there is an opportunity to forgive or to apologize.
Are you in trouble? Allow the Holy Spirit to lure you into the wilderness of Lent, into a time when you can pray over all that is in your heart. This is not without risk — the devil may even visit you there. But as Jesus shows us, the devil may be just the person we need to help us along our way.
This is dangerous territory, this Lent, this wilderness that we enter into this week. We who are troubled will surely need help from God, the great truth-teller, the great healer. We will also need one another. Throughout this season, there will be a small insert available in your worship bulletin on which you may write a prayer petition that our prayer group will hold in prayer during the week to follow. Please consider sharing the help that you need, and the journey that you are on.
God, I am in trouble. You hope for so much from me. You have asked me to love you with my whole heart. You have asked me to love my neighbors as myself. You have asked me to love even my enemies. I know that you made me in your own image, and yet, I do not feel equal to this calling. In fact, I am full of pain, anger, denial, dishonesty, and regret. Show me what is true; teach me how to heal; Lead me towards freedom. Amen.