Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
January 22, 2012
JESUS THE TEMPTED
Text: Mark 1:9-15
As soon as Jesus was baptized and heard God’s voice, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased,” the same Spirit that descended on him as a dove “drove,” (drove, Mark says) him into the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan. It is a shockingly abrupt sequence: baptism, blessing, wilderness, temptation, Satan.
But there were things to work out. These temptations were there for Jesus to discern and prove what it meant for him to be about his mission as God’s son in the world.
Princeton theologian Diogenes Allen begins his book Temptation by describing our path as followers of Jesus as a spiritual journey, with temptations at the entrance!
It is often overlooked that Jesus himself made a journey, that throughout his life he himself was moving forward. This was evident to his first disciples as they literally followed him from Galilee, through village and town, until they reached Jerusalem where he was crucified. They also learned that if they were to keep up with Jesus, they had to make a spiritual journey . . . . Our journey begins in an apparently unpromising way – with temptations. We do not usually think of temptations as a place to find help. But there are some temptations which stand at the entrance. There are some temptations which even to recognize as temptations and to feel the conflict of being pulled in two directions, is to have found the gateway to a new path.1
So let’s move to the temptation scene in the wilderness. In Mark it is described on one verse:
He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Matthew and Luke expand Mark’s temptation story. I will draw on all three accounts.
Temptation is often seen as temptation to this sin or that. But it more profoundly has to do with who we are and what God is calling us to be and to do. So with Jesus, so with us. We need to look at these temptations with bi-focal lenses: What did it mean for Jesus to be God’s son; and what does it mean for us as followers of Jesus to be God’s son or daughter? These temptations are about Jesus’ identity and mission and about ours.
The “tempter” in Matthew, Mark and Luke is variously described as Satan, the devil and the tempter. In all cases it is the deepest possible conversation in Jesus’ head. Satan in the Hebrew means “The Accuser.” Jesus calls Satan at one point “Father of Lies.” So let’s see the tempter as the cacophony of accusing and lying voices inside our head and in the world, voices that distract us from our true identity and mission and tempt us to be less, or other, than God has made and called us to be.
The first temptation came when he was “famished” from his forty days of fasting and prayer in the wilderness. The tempter said,
If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread (Luke 4:3).
Jesus answered with a quotation from Hebrew scripture:
It is written, “One does not live by bread alone” (Luke 4:4).
“. . . but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
There are several temptations inherent in this one. It is the temptation to see this life solely in terms of the material, rather than a reality composed of both the material and spiritual, indissolvably so. Matter matters! Else God would not have become matter in Jesus. But it is matter infused with the spirit. We are both matter and spirit, clay and spark.
Physical hunger is important to God. Jesus will feed the hungry. But his mission is more. He will provide a deeper bread, bread for the spirit.
Here is the temptation of materialism, not just consumerism, but the temptation to define life solely in terms of the physical, the material. Jesus said once, “My food is to do the will of the One who sent me.”
It is also the temptation to the miraculous. “Here, Jesus,” says Satan, “be a magician. You’re hungry. Turn this stone into bread.” But the God of Jesus is not that kind of God, and Jesus will not be that kind of Son of God. Jesus did not need to be miraculous in order to prove who he was.
Do you feel the tug within yourself that this temptation puts before us? Will we define our lives solely in terms of the material? Will we acknowledge a spiritual hunger deeper than physical hunger? Will we refuse the spectacular as a way to prove ourselves?
The second temptation (in Luke’s order) happened like this: The devil swooped him up to a place where he could see all the kingdoms of the world. Matthew says “to a very high mountain,” but it was higher than that. It was a place in Jesus’ mind’s eye when he could see all the kingdoms of the world: Jerusalem, Rome, Babylon, Egypt, Persia, India. The devil said:
To you I will give all this authority and glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I will give it to whom I will. If you but worship me it shall all be yours (Luke 4:6-7).
The second temptation is to power and glory, political power and glory. Would Jesus be a political Messiah and deliver Israel from Rome? Would he be a Caesar and set up a true Pax Romana? Would he use the power of the sword to advance his spiritual goals? Would he be about violent justice or a nonviolent justice? Would he use coercive power to advance the kingdom of God on earth? Or would he be a different kind of son/servant/king?
Do we not have the same questions before us? What will we be willing to do to advance the good? Jesus’ mission would include the political realm – that is, the welfare of the whole of society – but it would transcend the political. And it would refuse coercive and violent means.
Jesus answered the second temptation, again, with words from Hebrew scripture:
It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
We have seen this temptation at work in Germany, for example, when the German people – devastated and humiliated after World War I – gave themselves over to Hitler as the savior of the nation. In worship they pledged allegiance to him.
We also see it in a democratic society when people regard the political realm as the final realm and political change as the answer to all our problems. Will Campbell called this “Politics as Baal!” The political realm is not the ultimate realm, and politics can become a false god. Sometimes we confuse allegiance to Jesus with allegiance to a political party.
In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov we have the famous parable of “The Grand Inquisitor.” In it Jesus comes to Seville, Spain during the Spanish Inquisition, where the church and state have joined arms to find and kill all heretics and also to expel all Jews from Spain. Jesus has come to comfort the persecuted and fearful masses. The head of the Inquisition sees Jesus and summons him for interrogation.
He tells Jesus that Jesus made all the wrong choices in the wilderness temptations, that he was offered the three great powers of miracle, mystery and authority, but he turned them down for the sake of human freedom. Jesus wanted us to come to God only in freedom and love. You, the Inquisitor said to Jesus, chose everything “unusual, enigmatic and indefinite.”2
The Grand Inquisitor says he has corrected Jesus’ mistakes. People are too weak and stupid to choose what is right. So now the church and state have joined to command the powers of miracle, mystery and authority. “Why have you come to interfere?” the Inquisitor asks.
Jesus never says a word during the entire interrogation. It has become a soliloquy. The Inquisitor, who had planned to burn Jesus at the stake, decides to release him. Jesus’ only answer? He kisses the Grand Inquisitor on the lips and slips silently out into the night.
In the third temptation the devil took Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and said,
If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, [Now the devil quotes scripture!] ‘He will give his angels charge of you to guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone’ (Luke 4:10-11).
The devil quoting a beloved psalm, Psalm 91:11-12, a psalm speaking our deep trust in God. Satan is using scripture to tempt him. As Shakespeare observed in Merchant of Venice, ‘The devil can cite scripture for his purpose.”
What was the temptation? It is subtle and reaches to the depth of our hearts. We could call it the temptation to security and magical thinking. It is the temptation to live under the illusion that we can control all things and God controls all things. I am thinking unavoidably now of Sydney Owens’ tragic death at twenty-five, and of tragic events in the lives of so many.
The devil quotes a psalm that probes our most fervent trust in God to care for us and to protect us from harm. So we might say, “I trust God to care for me, to be always with me, but can God protect me from physical and emotional harm? Will God spare me from tragedy? Spare my children?”
The temptation to magical thinking goes something like this: If I am good enough, faithful enough, if I love God enough, I will be spared injury, illness, tragedy and untimely death. The devil says to Jesus: If you are the Son of God, jump off the Temple ledge and the angels will parachute you softly to the ground. God will protect you; God will protect you!
The other dimension in the temptation is to choose security over our mission in life. Will Jesus, will you, stay true to your mission in life without magical thinking, instead trusting God utterly with your life and death? No guarantees included?
Jesus could have fled in that final hour, slipped off to France with Mary Magdalene, raised a family and died a natural death. Some think this is what happened. And Nikos Kazankazas in his Last Temptation of Christ suggests that something like this was Jesus’ last temptation – which he refused. But Jesus would stay true to his mission no matter what. To flee would be to make a farce of the kingdom of God he preached.
Jesus answers the tempter’s use of scripture with one last quotation from Hebrew scripture:
It is written, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Here is the end of magical thinking, the end of bargaining. It is abandonment to the Divine Providence, to the eternal love of God, who we trust is redeeming all things, all living, all loss, all grieving, working with us so that all accidents of fate, chance, genetics, injury and illness are gathered into God’s purpose.
In Luke’s Gospel the last sentence foreshadows what is to come and tells honest truth that the most crucial temptations come and come again. Luke said:
And when he [Satan] had finished every temptation he departed until an opportune time.
When Jesus fed the multitude with the multiplication of loaves John records,
Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew to the mountain.
It is the rare politician who by conviction will say: “If nominated I will not run; if elected I will not serve.”
In Gethsemane’s garden, moments before his arrest, Jesus prayed in anguish and trust:
Abba, remove this cup.
But not my will, your will.
He would not flee to safety; he would trust everything to God.
When he was strapped and nailed to the cross some jeered, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself” (Luke 23:37). Others said, “If you are the Son of God come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:40). Others mocked, “He saved others; let him save himself” (Luke 23:35). Are these not echoes of the wilderness temptations?
But Jesus, who won the victory over the original temptations, would reaffirm those choices again and again.
He would offer spiritual food.
He would serve, not rule
He would trust his life and death into God’s hands.
Yes, he would not resort to the spectacular. He would choose mission over security. He would die at the hands of violent power rather than take up violence. He would stay true to his mission as the Son of God and to the mission of the kingdom of God no matter what.
After the temptations Jesus was ready to embark on the mission of the kingdom of God.
And we who follow Jesus on our own spiritual journey meet these temptations all along the way as we seek to be who God has made and called us to be. Sometimes we will succeed, other times succumb, fail and fall. But God will pick us up and dust us off and lead us onto the right paths again.
We will pray every day, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil,” or as the song has paraphrased this line from the Lord’s Prayer: “When temptations come make us strong!” And Jesus will say, as he said to his disciples at the very end: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”
1 Diogenes Allen, Temptation (Princeton, N.J.: Caroline Press, 1986), p. 14.
2 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990), p. 254.