A sermon by Jim Somerville, First Baptist Church Richmond, Va.
The First Sunday in Lent
Psalm 90; Luke 4:1-13; Philippians 3:
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He 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.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
This weekend our youth have been participating in “the AmazinGrace,” learning how to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus.” As I understand it Paul was using a sports analogy, he was talking about an actual practice in his day where the winner of a footrace would wait to hear his name called and then he would climb the steps of the stadium to have a laurel wreath placed on his head by the governor, the king, the emperor—whoever was in charge.
So, here’s Paul, forgetting his old life and everything else that lies behind, straining forward, and pressing on toward the goal, the finish line. He wants to finish first. He wants to hear Jesus call his name. He wants to climb those stairs and stand there humbly as God places the laurel wreath on his head. But that’s not going to happen if he slows down, or if he stumbles and falls, or if he gets distracted by everything going on around him. He’s got to stay focused, and he urges the Philippians to do the same.
This is a call to a “purpose-driven life” if you will. I think it’s the perfect theme for a DiscipleNow weekend and it may be the perfect introduction to our Lenten sermon series. It’s called “Teach Us to Number Our Days,” and the title comes from Psalm 90, the only one in the book attributed to Moses, where we are reminded that people don’t live forever on this earth. “The days of our years are threescore years and ten,” Moses says, “and if by reason of strength they be fourscore, yet are their years labor and sorrow; they are soon cut off, and we fly away” (Psalm 90:10). Translation? “You might live to be 70 years old, or even 80 if you’re really strong,” Moses says, “but you’re not going to live forever. Life is hard, and sooner or later it’s going to get the best of you.” Of course Moses was writing 3,500 years ago, when people didn’t live as long, and he wasn’t thinking about First Baptist Church, where our members seem to live longer than most. Still, his point is valid. “Lord, since we’re not going to live forever,” he says, “teach us to number our days” (vs. 12). Another way to say it is, “Teach us to make every day count.” And that’s what we’re going to do in this sermon series: we’re going to try to learn those lessons that will help us make the most of our lives.
The season of Lent is a good time to do it.
We begin this season on Ash Wednesday, where in some traditions the priest makes an ashy sign of the cross on his parishioners’ heads and says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s just a fancy way of saying, “Remember that someday you are going to die.” For that reason it matters how you live. “Teach us to number our days,” Moses says, “that we may get a heart of wisdom.” In other words, “Since we only have one shot at this, help us to get it right.” So, let’s do that. Let’s number our days. And let’s begin with the number 40.
It’s an important number in the Bible. In Genesis we hear that it rained for 40 days and 40 nights when the great flood came. In the story of the Exodus we learn that the people of God wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. 40 days seems to be the Bible’s way of saying, “a long time,” and 40 years is a way of saying, “a long, long time.” So, Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days—a long time—and in that time, Luke tells us, he was being tempted by the devil.
There’s a Baptist religion professor named Scott Shauf who begins his commentary on this passage with a reference to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Do you know that poem? You probably do. It’s a long one that retells the story of how Adam and Eve fell from grace in the Garden of Eden. But Milton wrote a sequel to that poem called Paradise Regained that not so many people know about. It takes as its subject today’s Gospel lesson: Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Shauf says, “Milton rightly saw that in resisting the devil’s temptations Jesus initiated the possibility for humanity to regain the paradise lost in the fall.”[i] And then Shauf pointed out something I had never seen before.
He said that Luke himself wants us to see the contrast between Adam, who gave in to temptation, and Jesus, who didn’t. In chapter three of his Gospel Luke gives us the genealogy of Jesus, beginning with Jesus and working backward until he gets to Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God. And then Luke starts chapter four by saying that Jesus was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil, who says to him over and over again, “If you are the Son of God, then do this, or this, or this.” Jesus is the Son of God, and Adam is the Son of God, but here’s the difference: Adam gives in to temptation while Jesus does not.
You have to wonder why, don’t you? How is that Jesus can resist temptation but Adam can’t? Is it just because he’s Jesus? Does he have some superhuman ability to resist temptation that the rest of us don’t have? I don’t think so. The author of Hebrews says that Jesus was tempted in all the same ways we are, only he didn’t give in (Heb. 4:15). So, what was his secret? That’s what we’d like to know.
Scott Shauf asks us to notice that just after the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness Luke tells us about the time he went to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth and announced what his ministry was all about. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he said, “For he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). The temptation story, Shauf says, “has as a primary point to show us what Jesus is not going to do with his ministry.” The Nazareth story, on the other hand, shows us what Jesus is going to do. In Luke 1:33 Mary was told by the angel that Jesus was coming to establish his kingdom, and what Jesus describes in the Nazareth synagogue is the nature of that kingdom, the kingdom of God.
Shauf says, “His kingdom, of course, is not about the political rule of Israel but rather the reclamation by God of the entire fallen world. So whereas the succumbing of Adam and Eve resulted in the loss of life in God’s presence, Jesus’ resistance of temptation was the beginning of the restoration of life in God’s presence.” If Shauf is right about all this, then Jesus is trying to show us how to get Paradise back, and the way to do it apparently is not to wait until you die so you can go to heaven, but to bring heaven to earth here and now. How? By resisting temptation.
Let me explain.
Take a look at that first temptation. Jesus has been in the wilderness for forty days, Luke says—a long time—and in all that time he has eaten nothing. And so the devil comes to him and says, “If you are the son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Shauf says it’s interesting when you make the comparison between Jesus and Adam to note that the first temptation in the wilderness has to do with eating, just as the temptation in the Garden of Eden did. More broadly, he says, “the temptation is for Jesus to use his authority as the Son of God to meet his personal needs and desires. While this was no doubt a temptation for Jesus throughout his ministry, it is especially during his crucifixion that this would come to the fore again, as he is tempted by the onlookers to save himself from the cross. Just as there the temptation is made in a situation of tremendous personal suffering, so too here the temptation to eat comes in a time of severe hunger, with Jesus having fasted for forty days.” But as he announced in that Nazareth synagogue, his ministry is always focused on others, never on himself.
The second temptation is “a direct appeal to the human desire for power. Jesus is offered the authority and glory of all the kingdoms of the world. For Jesus this was a temptation to embrace what many would have expected of him as the Messiah: political and military might and rule. That Jesus rejects such power is a clear sign that his messiahship, his kingdom, is of a different nature than the common expectations. The contrast with the mission Jesus announces in the Nazareth synagogue is again clear; Jesus’ mission is about saving others, not about asserting worldly power.”
The third temptation, Shauf says, jumping from the pinnacle of the temple, “is the most difficult to interpret,” and even his interpretation isn’t entirely satisfying. He calls it a “cross-avoiding spectacle,” and says that on the surface the devil seems to be tempting Jesus to do something big and showy, a magician’s trick that will lead to fame and riches rather than to service and the cross. But is there something more? The temptation, after all, occurs on the pinnacle of the Jerusalem temple. Is this a foreshadowing of the crucifixion? And does Jesus refuse to jump down off the pinnacle of the temple for the same reason he later refused to jump down off the cross? Because he didn’t come to make a name for himself, but to give himself for the sake of others.
Now, let me get back to what I said earlier, that thing about getting Paradise back by resisting temptation, because some of you got stuck right there and you haven’t budged since. You remember that Paradise was lost because Adam and Eve didn’t resist temptation, right? And I think John Milton and maybe even Luke would say that Jesus took the first steps in getting Paradise back by resisting temptation. But what about us? How are we going to get Paradise back? Well, look at what Jesus did: he spent forty days in the wilderness getting clear about who he was and why he was here. When he comes out of the wilderness he is able to say, in that Nazareth synagogue, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me for he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” After forty days in the wilderness getting clear about his mission he is perfectly clear, and because he is perfectly clear about what his mission is he is also perfectly clear about what it is not: it’s not about serving himself, or lording it over others, or about avoiding the cross. You might say, “That doesn’t sound like Paradise to me!”
Doesn’t it? To know exactly who you are and exactly why you are here, so that you can fulfill your life’s purpose with single-minded devotion, never slowing down, never stumbling or falling, never being distracted by the multitude of little temptations that come your way? That doesn’t sound like Paradise to you? It does to Paul. He says, “Look, I used to have it all, but I found the one thing that is worth everything: I found Jesus. And now I’m running as hard and fast and straight as I can, keeping my eye on the prize. I don’t have time to be tempted, and I certainly don’t have time to give in. I want to cross that finish line first. I want to hear Jesus call my name. I want to climb those steps and let God himself put the crown of righteousness on my head and when he does do you know what that’s going to be?
[i] Scott Shauf, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Gardner-Webb University, Boiling Springs, North Carolina, in his comments on the “Working Preacher” web site (www.workingpreacher.org). I quote him extensively in this sermon, with gratitude for his insights.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.