Today we jump back to almost the beginning of the stories of Jesus, to the time just after Jesus was baptized by John in the river Jordan. His ministry in Galilee had not even begun yet. Just days ago, he had received the Holy Spirit and heard the voice of God from heaven saying to him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
But before his ministry as the beloved son of God begins, there is a time of trials and temptations. The Spirit, that Jesus had only just received, leads him out into the wilderness, where for forty days he is tempted by the devil.
The trials he endured there out in the desert, must have included the heat of the burning sun, the loneliness of his isolation, and the pain of an empty stomach. Just the kind of experience that would get most people to a state of overwhelming self-pity. Just the kind of thing that would prompt most of us to do anything, to sacrifice anything to get back to the relative comforts of home, or at least to get a good meal and a cool glass of water.
And while Jesus is in this weakened state, Luke tells us that the devil spoke to him and tempted him three times.
“If you are the Son of God,” the evil one taunted him, “Command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” And Jesus answers with a quote from scripture, from the book of Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone.” Forty days without a proper meal, and Jesus calmly answers, “It takes more than bread to really live.”
Notice the fact that he quotes from scripture. He remembers the wisdom that he learned in the synagogue and at the temple growing up, and he quotes it word for word. And then comes the next jibe from the evil one, as Jesus is offered power and authority over all the world, if only he will bow down and worship the devil.
Jesus’ response is swift and straight to the point. There’s no question, he will not worship the devil, no matter what glory or power it could bring. Jesus says, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” But at this point, the devil seems to catch on to Jesus’ reliance on the words of scripture to help him to determine what is right, so he takes another point of attack. He quotes scripture himself.
As they stand high up on the pinnacle of the temple, the evil one tempts Jesus with the very Word of God from Psalm 91: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘God will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
But Jesus is not so easily fooled. Anyone can take an isolated verse from scripture, pull it out of context, and make it to mean something contradictory to God’s Word as a whole. And he responds, “It is also written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” And finally, the devil leaves Jesus. The temptations are over, at least for the moment.
Another sermon that I read in my study of this text pointed out that Jesus was able to resist the temptations because he knew what was right and what was wrong. He had grown up in a religious home, studied the Torah from his youth, and memorized important passages from scripture. When a tough decision came his way, even in his weakened, hungry, desperate state, he was able to respond with words from scripture that helped him choose the right path.
That sermon went on to encourage us to study scripture, to teach it to our children. When difficult decisions come our way, it’ll be there for us. Like Jesus, we will know right from wrong and be able to choose right, even when it’s tempting not to do so.
But you know, I think it’s rare that we face temptations that are so black and white. It’s not like in the movies, where a little devil with a red cape and horns appears hovering over your left shoulder, and tells you to do something that you know you shouldn’t do. There’s no angel on your other shoulder either, trying to convince you to make the right choice and ignore the devil. The ethical decisions that we often have to make are more a matter of choosing between GOOD and BETTER, choosing between BAD and WORSE, rather than just choosing between GOOD and BAD.
I think I was in grade eight, the first time I really started to think about how to deal with really difficult ethical questions. I wrote a paper on abortion, and I was supposed to argue in favour or against. When I began, I was sure that abortion is always bad, always wrong. But as I read more on the subject, I thought about the question of choosing to abort a child to save the mother. I thought about the situation of a young teenager who had been raped. I thought about poor, desperate women who will resort to a dangerous home abortion if safer methods are not available.
By the time my paper was finished, I hadn’t exactly changed my mind about the concept of ending the life of a child, no matter how young. But I knew that the issue wasn’t as simple as GOOD & BAD. It wasn’t just BLACK & WHITE.
There are countless other examples that I could give you of the complicated ethical questions in our world… like genetic modification or doctor-assisted suicide. A group of about twenty church members just spent a good chunk of the last two weekends studying, discussing, and grappling with questions about human sexuality that our whole denomination is exploring right now.
We became fully aware of The Presbyterian Church in Canada’s current stance of homosexuality, the participation of gay and lesbian Christians in our congregations, the question of ordination to the Ministry of Word and Sacraments, and same-sex marriage. And we became very aware of the fact that many of these questions don’t have clear answers. Even when we honestly and carefully study the scriptures and church tradition, and pay attention to our reason and experience, we do not all come to the same conclusions. These are difficult questions.
But there are also the daily decisions that we all have to make. Many of them don’t feel like decisions at all, they’re just things that we do or don’t do, habits that we’ve gotten into or fallen out of. There’s the way we treat our families, the respect we show or don’t to the people that we meet and interact with in our daily lives. There’s the help that we give, or refuse to give, to people who come asking for our help. There’s the effort that we put into reaching out to the people around us who are in need, or the fact that we barely notice there’s anyone out there beyond our little circle of friends and relations.
It’s not that you did something BAD, when you didn’t notice that your co-worker was sad last week, when you didn’t invite him to talk about it, when you didn’t offer your support. You just could have done BETTER.
And that time last month when you had the fender bender on the highway. You could have made it worse by yelling at the idiot who cut you off, but instead you just calmly checked to make sure that the other driver wasn’t injured, exchanged your insurance information, and went on with life. It was already a BAD situation, but you didn’t make it WORSE.
I am struck by the fact that at the end of this story about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, we read that “the devil departed from him until an opportune time.” In other words, that’s not it for the temptations. The evil one will be back when the time is right.
And I am sure that throughout his short life, Jesus was tempted many more times. Tempted to feed himself first, before being concerned with the hungry crowds. Tempted to take credit for the miracles and healings that he was able to perform, instead of giving the glory to God. Tempted to ask God to save him from the fate that was ahead of him on the cross.
I imagine that Jesus, in his humanity, was probably tempted to take a day off once in a while, tempted to pass by without helping one more desperate person at the end of a long, hard day. He was probably tempted to go back to the normal kind of life that he had lived as the son of a carpenter, before he heard that voice from heaven as he stood in the water of the Jordan river.
And each time the temptations came, we know from scripture that Jesus remained faithful to God and to his calling. He remained without sin. He chose GOOD over BAD, he chose BETTER over just GOOD.
One day, on the Sabbath, Jesus entered the synagogue, as was pretty typical for him, and he began to teach. There was a man there that day whose right hand was withered. In the background, stood the scribes and the Pharisees, watching Jesus to see whether he would cure on the Sabbath, which was against the rules of the Torah.
Luke tells us that Jesus knew what they were thinking. They were trying to trip him up in a complicated ethical question. If you follow the rule of the law, you don’t heal the man, because you’re not supposed to work on the Sabbath. But isn’t it GOOD to heal a person who needs your help, no matter what day of the week it is? So Jesus went to the man and told him to stretch out his hand. The man did so, and everyone could see that it was restored. The man was healed.
If the devil had made an appearance that day, he might have said to Jesus, “It is written: ‘Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.’”
I don’t know if Jesus would have had another scripture verse to quote back at the devil to support his decision. What Jesus did have was a deep, intimate understanding of God’s love and care for humanity. The Sabbath law existed to encourage people to love and honour God by dedicating a day to the Lord, but God would not have us neglect and harm our neighbours for the sake of the letter of the law. To reach out with the love of God to a person in need brings glory to God. With or without a scripture quote, Jesus chose BETTER instead of just GOOD.
When we are facing the everyday decisions that come our way, and even when we are struggling with responses to major ethical questions, I don’t think that memorized scripture verses will be our greatest resource, although they may come in handy for Bible jeopardy. But what will equip us for the temptations and trials will be a deep, intimate understanding of God and our call to live as disciples of Jesus.
This kind of living relationship with God is developed slowly over the years. It comes from regular worship, from committed Bible study, from routine conversation with the God of the universe – what we call prayer. It comes from the experience of making decisions for GOOD and for BETTER. It comes from serving God as we serve our neighbours, and gradually learning how to make that our first priority before our own needs and desires and expectations.
As we begin the Season of Lent this week, it is a time to refocus our Christian lives, to return to the spiritual practices that sustain us and help us to grow closer to God. This Lent, I want to encourage you to pray, to study God’s Word, to talk with other Christians who are trying to follow God’s way, to reflect on how you are living as a disciple of Christ. In this way, God will equip you to choose GOOD over BAD, to choose BETTER over just GOOD.
Remember that third temptation of Jesus, as he stood with the devil on the pinnacle of the temple? The devil said, “Come on Jesus, why don’t you jump off? If God really cares about you, the angels will catch you! Don’t you trust God to take care of you?”
I think that the angels were there with Jesus that day and throughout his life. He didn’t need to test them or to test God, because when he was tempted they did keep him from falling… not from falling off the temple, but from falling into sin.
And we don’t need to test God either. We just need to trust that the angels are with us too, as the psalm reminds us. When there are difficult decisions to be made, we are not alone. God will help us to choose GOOD. And God will help us to choose BETTER. Amen.