Sermon preached on Feb 21, 2010
Luke 4.1-13 CEV
When Jesus returned from the Jordan River, the power of the Holy Spirit was with him, and the Spirit led him into the desert. For forty days Jesus was tested by the devil, and during that time he went without eating. When it was all over, he was hungry. The devil said to Jesus, “If you are God’s Son, tell this stone to turn into bread.”
Jesus answered, “The Scriptures say, `No one can live only on food.’ “
Then the devil led Jesus up to a high place and quickly showed him all the nations on earth. The devil said, “I will give all this power and glory to you. It has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. Just worship me, and you can have it all.”
Jesus answered, “The Scriptures say:
`Worship the Lord your God
and serve only him!’ “
Finally, the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem and had him stand on top of the temple. The devil said, “If you are God’s Son, jump off. The Scriptures say:
`God will tell his angels
to take care of you.
They will catch you
in their arms,
and you will not hurt
your feet on the stones.’ “
Jesus answered, “The Scriptures also say, `Don’t try to test the Lord your God!’ “
After the devil had finished testing Jesus in every way possible, he left him for a while.
The Bible is a strange book. The people who wrote the Bible and lived in Bible times looked at the world differently than we do. One of the stranger aspects, and you see it in the New Testament, is that the Bible assumes there is a world of spirits beyond our material world. There is a spiritual world that influences us.
This spiritual world forms the background for our scripture tonight. Jesus is led by the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, into the desert. There he will be tested by another spirit, called Diabolos, which is where we get our word diabolical. It’s the devil. And in that testing mention is made of a third class of spirits, angels. So you have a holy spirit, a diabolical spirit and angelic spirits… all inhabiting the world of spirits, a spiritual realm influencing our material reality.
This belief in a world of spirits is foreign to us, or at least to many of us. We are children of the Enlightenment… we are heirs of modern science. We in the Western world hold to an empirical worldview, often whether we know it or not. We trust what we can see and taste and touch. We trust our senses. We look for evidence. And we are suspicious of what is unseen, what is intangible.
We can be grateful for modern science and all its benefits. I am grateful in particular for modern medicine with its treatments and the way it saves lives. These are good things. But for some there is a philosophy behind it, a materialistic philosophy that says that matter is all that is… our material reality is all that exists. We need not subscribe to this philosophy. And actually our faith and our scripture tell us something different. Our faith tells us that matter, the material world, was created by God. Matter is good. And beyond it, there is a spiritual realm, what I am calling a world of spirits. It is also real. Actually, in many cultures around the world, this is how they view things. They don’t hold to our Western empirical worldview. They believe in a world of spirits. And when they come to Jesus, they are most concerned with whether Jesus is more powerful than the spirits that influence their life. They understand the temptation of Jesus.
I remember one day in my third semester of college calculus. I was sitting on the right side of the room. The professor was writing things on the board. Then he set the chalk down and offered us a little philosophical reflection. “We think in terms of three dimensions,” he said, “but mathematically speaking there can be many more dimensions than that. You simply add more variables to your equations. There could be three million dimensions, although we could only perceive a few of them.” Then he went back to the board. His comments blew my mind. I realized, perhaps for the first time, that reality was far more than I could perceive with my senses. There could be much more to reality. So when I come to the temptation story, with its spiritual realm, its world of spirits impacting Jesus, my response is, “Okay… this can be true. My calculus teacher told me so.”
So Jesus is out in the desert. He’s all alone. He’s facing a time of testing by diabolos. In the spirit world there are good spirits and bad spirits. Diabolos is the baddest of the bad spirits. It says Jesus was in the desert, and he didn’t eat for 40 days. I love where it says then, “and afterward, he was hungry.” I bet he was! Actually, we need not take the 40 days literally. It may just be Bible-speak for a long time. Jesus is out there a long time. We do take the 40 days literally in Lent though, and this is where that number comes from. The key thing to notice is that the testing comes after a very long time. In other words, the testing comes when Jesus is weak and vulnerable. The tempter knows and he waits. Diabolos doesn’t test Jesus after a day or two. He waits. He is like a virus that waits till Jesus’ immune system is suppressed, then he strikes.
And isn’t temptation the same with us? It not only comes at unexpected times. It also comes when we are weak and vulnerable, when our immune system is suppressed. The tempter knows us well… he knows our psychology, our experience. He waits till we are vulnerable. And the form of the testing is particular and peculiar to us. It is unique to us. Kathleen Norris tells of a conversation between a young monk and an older Abba in a desert monastery. “Abba, how do the demons fight against us.” A demon must be a junior bad spirit. The Abba replied, “The demons don’t fight against us as long as we are doing our own will. But when we try to do God’s will, then the struggle begins. Then the demons become our wills, and it is these we struggle with.” What a powerful insight! The demons become our wills. Anyone who has ever struggled with an addiction understands the dynamic here… they’re trying desperately to do what is right, but there is this spiritual force trying to push their wills off course. And even for us who have lesser struggles, even for us the fight is real. We try to do what is right, but there seems to be this force outside of us, from a spiritual realm, that seeks to push us toward what is wrong. And it doesn’t matter to me if you think of this world of spirits as symbolic and metaphorical. Okay, that’s fine. But the struggle is still there. The struggle is real. And if you are not struggling, you are not trying to do God’s will.
My wife’s car used to go out of alignment. The wheels on a car are in alignment when they are oriented properly to one another and to the ground. When the wheels are out of alignment, then there is a problem. You could tell when her car was out of alignment. It would want to veer off the road, like it had a mind of its own. You had to hold the steering wheel tightly to keep it going straight. The problem is fixed now, though. I want to use this idea of alignment as an analogy to understand the scripture. Diabolos wants Jesus to go out of alignment. He wants Jesus to veer off the road of God’s way. Jesus’ task is to stay in alignment, to stay in right relation to God, to other people and to his own calling. And just as a mechanic has tools to use to put a car in alignment, so Jesus uses tools to stay in alignment. I am going to mention two of his tools.
First, the obvious tool. It’s hard to miss. Jesus uses scripture. Each time there is a temptation, he has a scripture ready. It’s his protection. For an image, you might think of Jesus doing battle with Darth Vader, and scripture is his light saber. You can hear it go through the air… “Woom, woom.” Jesus use scripture for protection. We can too. This is why we place so much emphasis on scripture in church, in worship and education. Through sheer repetition, we want scripture to be written on our minds and hearts so that it will be there for is in our time of need. By the way… here’s a secret. One of the best ways to learn scripture is through song. Singing scripture songs writes the words of scripture on the heart.
Now for the second tool Jesus uses. It’s far less obvious. It’s easy to miss, and it might take some explaining. It’s emptiness. Jesus uses emptiness to stay in alignment. Think about where he is, out in the desert, a bleak empty landscape as far as you can see. Empty of human voices and human contact too. And the emptiness outside Jesus is mirrored by the emptiness inside him… his stomach is empty. He will not fill his stomach at the tempter’s suggestion. He won’t turn stones into bread. He wants to hang onto emptiness for now. Even more, he will pursue a life and lifestyle empty – empty – of power, prestige and security, which the other temptations pull him toward. He will be thoroughly empty of these things. And he holds onto his emptiness because he knows emptiness brings him a spiritual currency. Emptiness brings him spiritual currency. Only as he is empty can God fill him. Only in his powerlessness can God’s power flow through him.
Each week we have communion, and our communion preparers get it ready. One of the things they do is fill a chalice, like this one. It maybe ridiculously obvious, but they cannot fill a chalice unless it is already empty. If it were filled with sand, they couldn’t fill it. Only an empty vessel can be filled.
Some of you listening to me now are empty. You feel your emptiness. You carry it with you every day. There is an absence, a void, a longing. Something isn’t there that should be there. You live with your emptiness… it’s outside of you and on the inside, just like it was for Jesus. I want to tell you – don’t flee from the emptiness. Don’t try to fill it with something artificial. Let the emptiness be what it is. Because it is an asset for you. Yes, it makes you weak and vulnerable. But your emptiness is also an occasion, an opportunity, for a peace and a presence beyond yourself to come and fill you… fill you in a way that would not be possible apart from your emptiness. Nancy Spiegelberg said it well in a little prayer, “Lord, I crawled across the barrenness to you with my empty cup. I was uncertain even to ask for a drop of refreshment. If I had only known you better, I would have come to you… with a bucket.”
So at the end of the scripture, it says diabolos left Jesus… “for a while.” He’ll be back. The testing will continue. So it does for us. We know this is a lifelong struggle. And our task, always, as it was for Jesus, is to stay in alignment. We can use our tools to do this. Scripture can be our protection. And we can take our emptiness to God in prayer, asking God to fill us with a power, a peace and a presence beyond ourselves. Amen.