by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
Scripture: Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
“You shall not put to the test, the Lord your God.” — Luke 4:12, quoting Deut. 6:16
We are again at the first Sunday of Lent and if you have been preaching as long as I have you recognize the story of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness as an old friend, and you wonder if there is anything to be said that you have not said many times before. However, since the point of preaching is not to say something new but to say something true, I persevere with good heart to take up what especially strikes me and claims my attention this year. It is the final riposte of Jesus to the devil: quoting Deuteronomy 6:16 he says, “You shall not put to the test, the Lord your God.”
The immediate context is the devil’s challenge to Jesus to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple to see if God really meant it when in Psalm 91:11-12 he promised to send angels to prevent injury to His Son. This is an egregious example of how not to quote from scripture, small snippets out of context and applied to whomever happens to be on ones mind at the time, and most glaringly here, reading a metaphor as if it were a literal statement. No wonder it is the devil doing it in our gospel; it is a devilish thing to do, but that has not stopped preachers in all ages from doing the devil’s work in this way. It is beyond our scope here, but compare the way Jesus uses scripture in this story and see the difference between the right and the wrong way to use of Scripture.
The broadest context of his argument with the devil is the question whether Jesus really is the Son of God. Twice the devil begins his propositions with “If you are the Son of God…” (Vss. 3 & 9) trying to insinuate doubt into the mind of the newly baptized and newly commissioned Jesus. Imagine his state of mind having just received the revelation that he is God’s chosen servant; it is no wonder that he needed time alone to think. In this story we have what Luke (and Matthew = the source) thought he thought about.
This story is made up by the tradition but not without historical grounds. Jesus probably told the disciples at odd times what he was going through, how daily he struggled with the temptation to gain the whole world by worshiping the prince of the world, to use miracle to pamper himself and manipulate others. These thoughts are shocking but we are assured that he was human like us and like us tempted by these most preposterous possibilities. The tradition framed the story of these real struggles of Jesus by means of the story of Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years, sinning and repenting and wandering, while Jesus did not sin, needed no repentance, and instead of wandering aimlessly for 40 years prepared him self purposefully in 40 days.
Of course, Jesus was not alone in the wilderness, the devil was on his shoulder and God was there too, but veiled, as in the moment when on the Cross he cried, “My God why have you forsaken me?” In reading this story one cannot avoid trying to answer the question, “Who is the devil?” so let me try. He is a fictional objectification of the impulses and anxieties that afflict us at the points of our deepest awareness of our identity, especially because of the sad fragility of our life and the absolute certainty of death. These factors virtually force us to seek a deathless security of our own by means of the power available to us in this world- wealth, prestige, bonds of love and honor, miraculous mastery of sickness and health, all the things we think we need to live deeply and forever. So the devil is a personification of sin, which in turn is the act and the subsequent state of refusing to let God be our God, by joyfully embracing our identity as His creature. The devil is the emblem of our faithlessness, of our refusal to trust God and to entrust ourselves to His gracious will.
Here in the wilderness Jesus, who is emphatically not a creature but the eternally begotten son, “begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father,” shows the perfect submission of the true creature and so engages the paradox of the two natures. He is divine by virtue of his perfect human submission and that perfect human creatureliness is tantamount to the perfect divine dignity. Thus Jesus is true God and true Man.
I hope you are still with me; I do not wish to mystify you but I cannot refuse to follow the call of this gospel to the worship of the Incarnate God who is Jesus Christ. All stories in all gospels are firstly a summons to worship Jesus, and having done that, if we still have time and energy, we may ask the question we seem always to rush to prematurely, “What does this mean for me in my everyday life?” Well you would only ask that question if you had already missed the point, for what is our everyday life but a journey of adoration as we walk like the disciples of old behind him as he strides to Jerusalem to die for us there? Nevertheless there is a point of immense importance here for us to take along with the glory of the revelation, and it is “Do not test God!”
A friend of mine who gives large sums to charity tells of the ingratitude of many professionals in that field. They seem to have a perpetual “What have you done for us lately?” attitude, and thus test your goodwill all the time. That is ingratitude and that is the devil, the father of lies and ingratitude. The devil tempted Jesus to play the “Sonship” card all the time, to test if God would come through for him and thus prove that he Jesus is really the divine Son. Jesus refused, for this simple reason: testing God in this way is unfaith, lack of confidence, distrust, and the son of God above all trusts the Father.
We imperfect ones might by contemplating the perfect human trust of Jesus the human God, catch as by a contagion more and more of perfect trust and thereby lay down many burdens of anxiety that vex us and tempt us. Jesus did not test his Father; His Father tested him, as He tests us all. Do we trust in times of trouble or do we put God to the test? Think on it; it may be a good addition to your preparation this Lent.