Today’s Gospel reading is the classic one for the first Sunday in the season of Lent. As we begin 40 days of Lenten prayer and preparation before the celebration of Easter, we hear about the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting and praying in the wilderness before he began his ministry. Luke’s version of the story is by far the most interesting, as he gives details of the temptations that Jesus might have experienced, and how he managed to overcome those temptations by focussing on God’s Word.
Three times, the devil appears, leading Jesus into temptation. And three times, Jesus avoids being led astray. Since Jesus is so hungry, he is first tempted to turn the stones into bread. But he reminds himself of God’s word: “One does not live by bread alone,” and the temptation passes.
Next, he is tempted to use his power to become the ruler of the whole world. If he bows down to worship the devil, the evil one claims that Jesus can have it all. But Jesus knows another relevant verse: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” He refuses to worship anyone or anything other than God.
The third and final temptation is for Jesus to test God and God’s love for him. The evil one can quote scripture too, and he challenges Jesus to throw himself down from the very top of the temple, in order to see if God will save him. He quotes from today’s psalm: “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.”
Not surprisingly, Jesus does not succumb to the third temptation either, even with the scriptural warrant attached to it. Instead, he quotes his own verse from God’s word as he overcomes this final temptation: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” And the devil, with his temptations, disappears… at least for the time being.
I find it really interesting how the Gospel writer has Jesus quoting scripture in order to avoid temptation and stay on the path of faithfulness to God. How many of us quote scripture to ourselves when we’re feeling tempted? When you’re tempted to swear at the guy next door when his dog digs under your fence again… Are you saying to yourself, “love your neighbour as yourself… love your neighbour as yourself…”
Or when you walk past the Salvation Army kettle again, and go on to a store in the mall where you’re about to spend a pile of money on some luxury that you don’t really need, does a scripture verse pop into your head? “… just as you did it to one of the least of these… you did it to me”?
Or when you’re being tempted by rich food (as so many of us are) is your extra snack interrupted by the memory of something you once read in the bible? …Something about your body being a temple of the Holy Spirit? And is that thought enough to get you up off the couch to get some exercise instead?
As interesting as it might be to try to come up with a scripture verse to help us with every temptation that we might face, it’s probably not the best use of our time. And I have a feeling that knowing a bunch of relevant scripture verses won’t actually help us to be better people. It’ll probably just make us feel more guilty when we give in to our temptations. And it’s not necessarily a particularly meaningful or reliable way of knowing what’s right or wrong anyway. We just saw how the devil could quote scripture too… even as he was tempting Jesus to do something wrong.
I think we need to avoid the kind of proof-texting that assumes that the bible is a straight-forward, easy-to-understand book of answers to all of life’s questions. We can’t work on the presumption that if we have a question, or a situation, or a temptation, that the bible has a nice clear answer for us… if only we can find the right verse. Because the bible is not that kind of book. It’s much more complicated than that.
The bible is an amazing collection of writings from different times and places and circumstances. It includes letters and laws, poetry and songs, stories and parables, myths and proverbs, genealogies, histories, dreams, and visions. It often raises more questions than it answers, and it provides different answers to the same questions, depending on where you’re reading.
Last month our Christian Education Committee invited us to participate in a bible reading challenge, and many of us got out our bibles and started reading. We read some inspiring words and some interesting stories. We encountered some obscure commandments, and made our way through some strange and sometimes disturbing texts. It was a risky thing for the committee to do, actually, because we invited you to spend time reading some really strange and perhaps unappealing texts. And we hoped that at the end of it, you’d still want to keep reading the bible.
The thing about the bible is that it’s the stories of God’s relationship with God’s people. It’s told in many different voices and from many different perspectives. It’s not just a “how to” book about living in relationship with God, but it’s an adventure book that includes all the ups and downs, the failures and the victories, and a lot of reflection along the way. It is both God’s Word to us, and the word of the human individuals and communities that lived these stories, that shared and wrote them down, that collected and edited and preserved them for their children and for all who came after them.
As we begin the season of Lent together, we may or may not find that the scriptures can help us with our particular struggles and temptations. But I think today’s readings point to a source of encouragement and strength for our journey through Lent. The reading from Deuteronomy shares the experience of God caring for, encouraging, and helping God’s people. Jewish people still remember and celebrate God’s powerful presence with their ancestors. They remember how God led their people out of slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the promised land. Though the journey was long and difficult, the stories they tell about it witness to their experience of God’s provision, help, and guidance along the way. Perhaps we can look for God’s encouraging presence in our lives today… especially when we are going through challenges.
The psalmist who wrote Psalm 91 sang about a similar experience of God’s powerful help. He encouraged his listeners to trust God even when they were going through difficulties. “Make God your refuge, and you will survive,” he assured them, “Call out to God for help, and God will be with you.”
Of course, the Gospel story of Jesus in the wilderness is encouraging too. It reminds us that Jesus understands what it’s like to be tempted… that he knows the challenges that we face in trying to live holy lives. And again, the story tells us that God does not abandon us in those difficult times. Even when we feel the most vulnerable and alone, God can help us through.
Whether or not we can quote chapter and verse from the bible to overcome our temptations or our adversaries, Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians reminds us that “the word is very near” to us. It’s not a matter of knowing all the answers or of being perfect. But it’s a simple matter of deciding to live in relationship with God. It’s a matter of acknowledging the truth that the bible witnesses to over and over again in story, in song, and in parable… that we are not alone in this world… that God is right here with us… loving us, and ready to guide and direct and help us on our way through life. Just call on the name of the Lord, and be saved, Paul tells us. Say: “Hey God! I need you!” and receive God’s forgiveness and help and strength for your journey.
As we begin this season together, we have the opportunity to acknowledge our need to God, to turn to God once again… admitting our sin, confessing our mistakes, and calling on God to forgive us, to help us, to strengthen us to live more and more in God’s loving ways. As we come to the table of the Lord today, may these be our prayers. And as we receive the bread and juice, as we welcome Jesus into our lives and hearts again, may we receive the strength of God for our Lenten journey. Amen.