Luke 4:1-13 — The temptation of Christ

Reading: Luke 4:1-13

The temptation of Christ is a rather interesting passage. I am never quite sure how it got into the Gospel narrative because there was nobody (except of course Jesus and the devil) there to see it happen. In spite of this being entirely hidden, it is the first thing you see in the life of Jesus following John’s Baptism. The temptation of Christ is part of the story of Jesus to the point that it is not only part of Mark’s gospel, but Matthew and Luke tell an expanded version rather than simply using the short version we find in Mark’s gospel.

I don’t know how much you know about how Matthew Mark and Luke were written, and I don’t really want to give a lecture on it today, but I do want to give enough of a summary to make a point. Mark is the oldest of the written Gospels. Mark is also the shortest and it tells a story. If we were to listen to Mark recited, in full it would take about an hour and a half. I believe that Mark was originally used in exactly this way — it was read out loud or recited by a story-teller in a single setting. As you might know, a storyteller convinced me of this as I listened to him reciting Mark.

Mark is wonderful for giving an engaging narrative that can be told in less time than we spend watching a movie, but Mark leaves a lot of important things out; specifically what Jesus taught and any stories about Jesus before John Baptized him. Basically Matthew and Luke are expansions of Mark’s gospel; both of them add sayings and teachings of Jesus, along with some stories that are not found in Mark — but, they generally follow Mark’s narrative structure. Scholars believe that Matthew and Luke had a shared “sayings” source that they call “Q”, and they believe that each had sources unique to themselves that scholars call “M” and “L”.

What is important here is that Luke and Matthew both have similar expansions to the temptation narration in Mark. The Temptation of Christ is both part of that short essential narrative that tells the story of Jesus’ ministry, and it is also found in those sayings of Jesus that people remembered. When we read how Christ was tempted in Luke 4, we are reading a blending of both the story of what Jesus did, and an account of what Jesus taught.

The first thing I’m going to do is respond to what it means that Jesus was tempted as an important part of the story. The account of the temptation of Christ in two verses in the first chapter of Mark:

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Mark 1:12-13 NRSV)

That is all there is in the essential story of Jesus, simply a couple sentences saying that right after the voice in the clouds said of Jesus: “You are my beloved Son, I am well pleased with you,” Jesus felt compelled to spend about 6 weeks in the desert where he was tempted by Satan. Mark does not talk about what the temptations are, only that there was temptation.

The biggest lesson that I learn from the couple sentences that we find in Mark is that temptation is not fatal. It is easy for a person to see himself as a fraud because he has internal struggles. This is so common that it was given a name: “Impostor syndrome”. Syndrome, of course implies that it is a mental illness, but psychologist say that it is not; the problem with diagnosing these feelings of self-doubt is that most of humanity would be crazy.

Why do people feel self-doubt? We feel it because we know our own struggles and failures, but we don’t know those of others. There is a proverb that says: “a master has failed more times than a beginner has tried.” The thing is, even after we are competent, we remember our failures while not seeing the failures of others with similar skill. When our success is recognized we remember our failure.

When it comes to our spiritual life, it is even harder. We don’t know our neighbor’s struggles. I don’t know how the people I respected the most have struggled — because our struggles are often internal and not visible — it is so easy to think that we are the only one.

Seeing that Jesus faced a period of temptation, even if we don’t know the nature of the temptation, tells us that internal struggles are universal. We shouldn’t lose heart if we face one of the same things Jesus faced. C.S. Lewis tells us in Mere Christianity that Jesus struggled with temptation more than anybody because he never gave into temptation. The thing about temptation is that the only people who don’t struggle with it are those who give into it without a struggle. There is nothing wrong with struggling to do right — if one did not struggle, one would not do right.

Luke (and Matthew) have added material which, our best guess, says comes from Jesus’ teaching. If we assume that Jesus told the story of how he was tempted — we see that Jesus named three ways he was tempted — following the order that we find in Luke:

  1. Tempted by hunger
  2. Tempted by power
  3. Tempted by fame

I guess that the reason Jesus would tell this story would be to help people realize their own motives for things, and to see things that can get in the way. If this is the purpose, then we can assume that all of these are common temptations and something that might endanger us as well.

First, let us consider the first temptation: Hunger. Jesus tells the story where near the end of his fast, Satan suggests that he turn stones into bread. While hunger can be a metaphor for anything that we need and a metaphor for what desperation can do to a person, it also can be taken quite literally. Worldwide 1 out of every 9 people went to bed last night without supper and 1 out of 3 suffers malnutrition. Unfortunately, while the United States is wealthy, in 2017 our ratio of people who face “food insecurity” was 1 out of every 8 people. I’m not sure how these statistics compare, but I do know that hunger makes a person desperate, and this is quite a few desperate people.

Now, the Proverbs 6:30 teaches us that we are not supposed to despise somebody who steals food to eat; yet the Proverb also observes that the thief will be punished for theft. Hunger can drive people to do what they would not normally do; it can lead us to turn away from our principles and to make decisions based on desperation.

Now — I completely understand when a hungry person is selfish. Somebody who is desperate for his or her next meal, perhaps cannot afford to do volunteer work, but instead always wonders “what is in it for me”, although, when I’ve worked with people distributing food from food pantries, I’ve noticed that a number of the people who came and worked passing out the food also received from the food pantry. When I’ve worked with the Salvation Army — I learned that a number of people who rang bells did so because they were grateful that they had received help. In my life, I’ve met a number of people who never have quite enough, yet always finds ways of helping others.

Here is the thing; if we let ourselves fall into the habit of asking: “What is in it for me?” and always acting in desperation, then we fall into temptation — as Jesus said, we do not live on bread alone. Yes, we need to eat, but we also need to see beyond the needs of our own stomach. Christianity is about the whole community — and if we get caught up on our personal needs, we miss everything else.

In Luke’s account, the second temptation is when Satan takes Jesus to a mountain and shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and tells Jesus that if He worships Satan, he will be given rule over all the nations. Now, this is both pretty obvious, and yet it is also hard to see how it applied directly to Jesus.

We’ve had about 17 centuries of significant influence in the political system. From chiefs of state who attended a publicly significant church to Christian kingdoms that are Christian by law, to political parties in democracies fighting for the Christian vote, political power is a reality.

Now, I am happy to see Christianity have a positive influence on the world; but I’m not happy to see the world’s influence on the church. I’m not happy when I see what churches preach change according to what is politically inconvenient; that people will ignore those parts of the Bible that challenge their favorite leaders. I’m not happy to see people make exceptions for clear teachings in scripture, because they challenge the behaviors of a political party, and I’m deeply concerned about the tendency we have to seek a political messiah.

Perhaps this last part is exactly what Jesus meant when he talked about his temptation. Several of his disciples wanted a political messiah who would sit on David’s throne after expelling the Romans. Acts 1 even has an unnamed disciple asking Jesus if, now that he is raised from the dead, he will drive out the Roman occupiers and establish His kingdom in Judah. The temptation to seek political power has been going on since the beginning. Once there has been an opportunity, Church leaders have failed many times; and while I won’t enumerate these times, I will point out that secular politics, not faith was the cause of “anti-Popes” (where more than one person was made bishop of Rome, based on which secular European king each “Pope” would support), and ultimately corruption would cause a number of Christian leaders to rebel against Rome. The earliest extant group of Protestants, the Waldensians formed communities in the 12th century. By the 15th century Martin Luther would leave the church starting the Lutheran (or Evangelical) Church, and soon after, John Calvin would form the Reformed Church. At the same time that Luther and Calvin were trying to rebuild Christian nations, there was also a radical reformation that sought a level of reform that would include tearing down the barrier between clergy and laity and building a barrier between church and state.

Both the attempts to reform the institutional state church, and the attempt to form a free church that was separate from the state was a response to corruption, manipulative fundraising and preaching, and inappropriate relationships between kings and bishops. Even our word Nepotism came from a practice of several popes, starting in the 11th century, appointing relatives to positions of influence and power. By the time of the Protestant Reformation, this practice was so common that there was competition between the Borgia dynasty and the Medici family for both political and ecclesiastical power — both of these families produced 2 popes in the 15th-16th centuries. The condition was so bad that when Luther visited Rome, he learned that those who had the highest positions in the church were not pastors, nor theologians but politicians and opportunists. The Church had worldly power, so those who wanted worldly power worked their way into positions of power within the church.

The third temptation was when Satan took Jesus to the top of the temple and told him to publicly throw himself down so that he would be saved by an angel. The temptation was a spectacular public reveal that would bring much attention. It is quite tempting to seek attention; many people want fame — they want people to be talking about them.

While John does not talk about Jesus’ temptation in the desert, John does talk about when Jesus’ brothers noticed that Jesus was preaching and healing in small villages, and they advised him to go to Jerusalem for a major holiday, and very publicly reveal Himself to the nation. It is really tempting to seek a bigger venue.

The gospel, however, isn’t about putting on a show, nor is it about ratings, or poll numbers. The gospel isn’t a competition for the biggest crowd — the gospel is simply good news for those who can accept it. Boiled down to as few words as possible, I believe that the good news is the news that Jesus is God with us, that Jesus came to where we are and invited us to walk with Him. I believe that the good news is that Jesus forgives sins, heals broken hearts and souls, and teaches us to forgive as well. I believe that the good news is that the grave could not keep Jesus and that we live in an Easter community where God is a real and present part of our lives. I believe that the good news is that if we walk with Jesus, we end up where Jesus is.

This is good news, but it is not the kind of thing that brings fame; and when Jesus preached, eventually the crowds even left Jesus — but his disciples stayed. When the crowds left, Peter said of Jesus: “You have the words of eternal life” — and this is the good news, crowds or no crowds. Christianity isn’t about fame — it is about being a community that walks with Jesus and has faith that Jesus leads us into the kingdom of Heaven.


Economic Justice: James 5:1-6

Come now, you rich! Weep and cry aloud over the miseries that are coming on you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your clothing has become moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have rusted and their rust will be a witness against you. It will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have hoarded treasure! 4 Look, the pay you have held back from the workers who mowed your fields cries out against you, and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived indulgently and luxuriously on the earth. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person, although he does not resist you.  James 5:1-6 (NET)

Just like in James’ day, we tend to honor those with wealth more than we honor the poor. It’s an age-old problem, and that is, I think, why James brings it up so frequently. He calls the wealthy to humility (James 1:9-11); tells the people at a meeting for worship that if they favor the wealthy worshiper over the poor worshiper, they discriminate and become judges with evil thoughts; and James points out that the poor do no harm, but it is the wealthy who use the law to oppress (James 2:1-7).

When we get to James 5, we read a direct condemnation of the rich: James says that the wages they didn’t pay are calling out against them. James says they have hoarded wealth. James says, “You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter” (5:5). These are strong words.

Some have read James as a revolutionary text, but I think James is trying to get people to recognize one fact that should be common sense: the powerless are not to blame for society’s problems; they cannot be because they have no power.

Jesus taught us that the way we treat those who society casts away is the way we treat Jesus himself. “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Matthew 25:35). This is why the New Testament again and again calls us to view each other with God’s eyes of love. We must allow the Holy Spirit to break down the barriers between us.

Hymn: “They’ll know we are Christians by our love

Prayer suggestion: Jesus, make my heart sensitive to the needs of people. Teach me to see people with your eyes of love.

Published in Fall 2018 edition of Fruit of the Vine

Boasting about tomorrow: James 4:13-17

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into this or that town and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” 14 You do not know about tomorrow. What is your life like? For you are a puff of smoke that appears for a short time and then vanishes. 15 You ought to say instead, “If the Lord is willing, then we will live and do this or that.” 16 But as it is, you boast about your arrogant plans. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows what is good to do and does not do it is guilty of sin.  James 4:13-17 (NET)

Like many pastors, I have a day on my calendar marked, “Write sermon.” This appointment that I’ve made with myself is one that I too rarely keep. Something always comes up. I go to bed at night, thinking ahead to what I will accomplish the next day, but I often wake up to something that needs my attention instead: car trouble, leaking pipes, unexpected calls, and plain old writer’s block.

Isn’t this just how life is? We make plans, but we cannot control the future.

James warns us not to talk about our plans for the next year because we don’t even know if we will survive the night. James offers us a new way of speaking about our hopes and dreams: “If it is God’s will, we live and do this or that.” I know people who use just such language, but I also suspect that James may be utilizing hyperbole. So I’ll remember this: my plans are always tentative, and I have to trust in God because I don’t have as much control over the world or my life as I imagine I do.

Hymn: “I know who holds tomorrow

Prayer suggestion: Lord, tomorrow is yours; help me trust that you are in control.

Published in Fall 2018 edition of Fruit of the Vine

Do not Slander: James 4:11-12

11 Do not speak against one another, brothers and sisters. He who speaks against a fellow believer or judges a fellow believer speaks against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but its judge. 12 But there is only one who is lawgiver and judge—the one who is able to save and destroy. On the other hand, who are you to judge your neighbor? James 4:11-12 (NET)

If we believe that people are created in God’s image, then we should not lie to make them look bad or to gain an advantage over them. It seems so obvious that I almost wonder why James has to say it. We cannot praise God, and yet slander those who are made in the very image of God (Genesis 1:16-17).

Unfortunately, new technological tools such as social media make it easier than ever to put people in a bad light. And it is especially disturbing to see Christians spreading messages suggesting that a group of people is either dangerous to our democracy or in some way less than human.

Jesus taught us that the Law and the prophets are summed up in two commands. Love the Lord your God. And love your neighbor as yourself. “Who is my neighbor?” an expert in the law asks Jesus (Luke 10:29). Jesus answers with a story—the story of a Samaritan who helped an injured man. Both a priest and a Levite had passed by the dying man. But it was the Samaritan who stopped. The hero of Jesus’ story is the stranger, the foreigner, the other. Jesus teaches that if we are to be righteous, we must follow the example of this stranger. Instead of slandering the other, we as Christ-followers are commanded to honor the other.

All human beings are created in God’s image, and the stories we tell about them matter. Is it possible for us as Christians to look at those who are different from us and see neighbors instead of enemies?

Hymn: “Cleanse me, search me, oh God

Prayer suggestion: God, help me to honor people with my speech. Let me be the kind of person who stops what I’m doing to help those in need.

Published in Fall 2018 edition of Fruit of the Vine

The Tongue: James 3:3-12

3 And if we put bits into the mouths of horses to get them to obey us, then we guide their entire bodies. 4 Look at ships too: Though they are so large and driven by harsh winds, they are steered by a tiny rudder wherever the pilot’s inclination directs. 5 So too the tongue is a small part of the body, yet it has great pretensions. Think how small a flame sets a huge forest ablaze. 6 And the tongue is a fire! The tongue represents the world of wrongdoing among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the entire body and sets fire to the course of human existence—and is set on fire by hell.

7 For every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and sea creature is subdued and has been subdued by humankind. 8 But no human being can subdue the tongue; it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse people made in God’s image. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. These things should not be so, my brothers and sisters. 11 A spring does not pour out fresh water and bitter water from the same opening, does it? 12 Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers and sisters, or a vine produce figs? Neither can a salt water spring produce fresh water.  James 3:3-12 (NET)

James is a book filled with practical moral advice, and I believe that most of what the book teaches can be extrapolated from James 3:9, where James tells us that we use the same tongue to praise God and to curse those who are made in God’s image. Images are important; if anybody doubts the importance of images, then consider our flag, a powerful symbol of our nation.

On one hand, the flag is just a bit of patterned cloth. Nothing that I do to the cloth has any impact on the nation it represents, but I could, by mistreating the flag, invoke the anger of my neighbors. We treat the flag with reverence. We have ceremonies for displaying it, for storing it, and for retiring it. The flag is the image of our nation. I cannot praise the nation and curse the flag. Whatever I say against the flag is understood as a statement against the nation. Images are powerful.

Consider all this in light of what James is saying. When we worship God while oppressing human beings created in the very image of God, it is no different. John also witnesses to this truth: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar” (1 John 4:20). Images are important, and how we treat God’s image is a direct reflection of our relationship with God.

Hymn: Love Divine All Loves Excelling

Prayer suggestion: God, please help me to see your image more clearly reflected in the face of my neighbor.

Published in Fall 2018 edition of Fruit of the Vine

Faith and Deeds: James 2:14-19

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can this kind of faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it? 17 So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith without works and I will show you faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that—and tremble with fear.  James 2:14-19 (NET)

Have you ever heard someone say that “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion”? I have trouble with this expression. For example, I have many relationships that have very little to do with my day-to-day life. Relationships are important, but they have little authority over what I do or think or say. Religion is different. It influences every part of my life, including my relationships. More than that, though, religion shapes my identity. Religion is more than belief. Religion is what I do.

This is why it’s important to remember that faith leads to action. I used to think of my faith in terms of what I believed, or in terms of how Jesus saved me from the consequences of my sinfulness. Yes, Jesus saves me from hell, but I dare not forget that I need to be saved from sin in my daily life as well. James writes in 4:17: “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”

Christian faith is more than a belief, and it is more than a relationship; Christianity is something that changes what I do and how I speak. Christianity is not just something that I believe is true. It is part of who I am. James was right when he said that “faith without works is dead,” not because we are saved by our own works, but because Christ works in us and through us.

Hymn: Take my life and let it be

Prayer suggestion: Jesus, what would you have me do today?

Published in Fall 2018 edition of Fruit of the Vine

Pure Joy: James 1:2-4

My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything.  James 1:2-4 (NET)

When I was about 13, I was part of Mid America Yearly Meeting’s Bible Quiz program, and we competed on our knowledge of the contents of James. Preparation included memorizing the book. Now that I’m 42, I find that James continues to be part of my life, especially the opening of the epistle.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds”—words that come to mind whenever something goes badly. When I was a teenager, these words seemed ironic. Joy, as it’s used here, appeared to be a word for suffering. But over the years I’ve learned that James knew what he was talking about, and he meant what he said.

It’s just like the Beatitudes, where Jesus names one hard thing after another and says that those who experience these hard things are blessed. Yesterday, a church I’m involved in lost a member, and I am one of those who mourn: James says, “Consider it pure joy,” and simultaneously I hear Jesus say, “Blessed are those who mourn.”

It takes perspective to consider suffering as connected to joy, but hard experience really can build our faith. I look back on the events that have changed my life. They weren’t easy or fun. But I am changed, and I am blessed.

Hymn: It is well with my soul

Prayer suggestion: Ask God to help you see how the difficulties of the past have opened you to God’s blessings.

Note:  this was published by Barclay Press in their “Fruit of the Vine” Fall 2018 devotional.