Lord, Lead Us Not Into Temptation Lk 9:28-43a
Nearly every time Christians gather together for worship we pray, “Your kingdom come; your will be done”. I understand that. We want to live in the world God has always envisioned—a place where everything and everyone is respected, honored, and cared for. And of course we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” to remind us that God is our provider and sustainer. But what about “Lead us not into temptation” (or the newer version “Save us from the time of trial”)? Why is that part of our regular prayer? Do we really think that the God who loves us, who made us in God’s own image, who calls us God’s own through baptism, who forgives and connects us to one another through the Eucharist, and who empowers us daily with God’s own spirit would actually LEAD us into temptation? If not, why do we have to pray that God wouldn’t?
What are we to make of the fact that Luke’s story today begins with this line: “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”? Jesus didn’t accidentally stumble into the devil’s path—he was led by the Spirit into a time of trial and temptation. Why? Truthfully, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, the Good News is that Jesus was not left alone with Satan. He was LED through the desert by the Holy Spirit, beginning to end. As we enter the wilderness time of Lent, it’s a helpful reminder that we don’t have to manage alone. Jesus has taught us to pray for direction, companionship, and counsel through our times of trial.
Of course, Lent isn’t the only time we’ll need guidance and accompaniment. Luke’s story about Jesus’ temptation ends with the ominous line: “When the devil had finished every test, he withdrew from Jesus until an opportune time.” Which is to say, Jesus was not freed from temptation once and for all at the end of his desert experience. Jesus wasn’t done dealing with the devil after this encounter anymore than an alcoholic is done with booze when they stop drinking, or a dieter is done with food when they reach the desired number on the scale.
Martin Luther once wrote, “Temptation is the best school into which the Christian can enter; yet, in itself, apart from the grace of God, it is so doubly hazardous, that this prayer should be offered every day, ‘Lead us not into temptation,’ or if we must enter into it, ‘Lord, deliver us from evil.’” It might feel less hazardous if only temptations showed up as clear-cut choices between right and wrong, good and evil. Unfortunately, they are usually much more nuanced.
None of the temptations Jesus faced seem overtly evil. Why shouldn’t a hungry person turn stones into bread if he’s able? After all, it didn’t seem to be off limits for Jesus to turn water into wine. Why should bread be a problem? Most temptations—for us and for Jesus—show up less as a choice between right and wrong, good and bad, and more as choices between what comes naturally and what is holy. Or as Dumbledore says in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, “Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.”
It’s no accident that this story of the Holy Spirit leading Jesus into the desert comes immediately after Jesus’ baptism, when he and all around heard God declaring, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” This proclamation followed three solid chapters of people talking about who Jesus was and would be. Jesus’ identity was confirmed by Mary, his mother, and his Aunt Elizabeth before he was even born, reiterated by Simeon and Anna in the Temple when he was a baby, and then repeatedly announced by John the Baptist when Jesus was an adult. Over and over, Jesus is named as the appointed anointed One who would bring salvation to his people. Jesus doesn’t do anything or refrain from doing anything in order to be called the Messiah. This is simply who he is.
Is it an accident, then, that the temptations Jesus encounters are aimed at making him question that identity? Satan slithers up and asks, “IF you are the Son of God….” throwing his first dart at Jesus. It’s not about stones and bread. It’s about Jesus’ core being, his authentic self. Each time the devil approaches Jesus in this text, the temptations are for him to be less than who he is. He is tempted to demonstrate his power over others, instead of his solidarity with them. He is tempted to go out on a limb and hope for God’s intervention rather than trusting in God’s promises. The choices aren’t between right and wrong, but between what comes naturally and what is holy.
In her first book, Pastrix, Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber explains the struggle this way:
Identity. It’s always God’s first move. Before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own. But almost immediately other things try to tell us who we are to whom we belong: capitalism, the weight-loss industrial complex, our parents, kids at school—they all have a go at telling us who we are. But only God can do that. Everything else is temptation. Maybe demons are defined as anything other than God that tries to tell us who we are. And maybe, just moments after Jesus’ baptism, when the devil says to him, ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he does so because he knows that Jesus is vulnerable to temptation precisely to the degree that he is insecure about his identity and mistrusts his relationship with God. So if God’s first move is to give us our identity, then the devil’s first move is to throw that identity into question.
Some of you may remember a book (and later a movie) called The Last Temptation of Christ. Nikos Kazantzakis wrote the novel in 1960. The premise is that the last temptation Jesus experiences occurs when he is hanging on the cross, willingly surrendering himself for the sake of those he loves. Considering this “an opportune time,” Satan approaches, tempting Jesus with an invitation to come off the cross and live a normal life. Kazanzakis voices Jesus’ consideration about what that might mean:
He would return to Nazareth to his mother’s house, would become reconciled with his brothers. It was nothing but youthful folly—madness—to want to save the world and die for humankind … He would return to his workshop, take up once more his old beloved craft, once more make ploughs, cradles, and troughs; he would have children and become a human being, the master of a household.
The last temptation is to take the easy way out, to avoid conflict and pain, to doubt God’s support in the midst of hardship. The suggestion that Jesus come off the cross is not a wicked choice, but it is the wrong one. And we all know that Jesus did not succumb to it. He refused to walk away from his calling, and instead fully embraced his identity as Savior and Lord, even though it killed him.
In both Scripture and Kazanzakis’ novel, Jesus, led by the Holy Spirit, overcomes Satan’s undermining of his truest self. Instead of giving in to what would be easy, Jesus insists on doing what is right, even at the highest possible cost. Jesus lives and dies trusting in and exhibiting God’s goodness. Jesus never abandons the world God loves, or leaves us without recourse. Jesus lives and breathes the first commandment: he puts his whole confidence in nothing and no one other than God.
We, of course, are not always so successful. Although Jesus didn’t give in to the temptations to be anything but steadfast and compassionate, Satan knows that tempting us to abandon our truest selves works again and again. I know I’m not the only one here to have been in a place where I’d just as soon coast along instead of continually striving. I bet many of us have experienced the longing to give in to inertia rather than take a difficult or risky stand. It sounds fairly innocuous, the road of the slacker, but there’s a lot more at stake here. Satan challenges us just as he did Jesus: “If you are a child of God … let go of your desire to honor God and to love and serve God’s people when things get hard. You know God wouldn’t want you to be uncomfortable or unhappy. Apathy is so much more convenient!”
The Accuser is my favorite Biblical name for Satan. I most often experience this demonic power as the voice of shame inside me telling me I can’t possibly be God’s beloved child because I’m not good enough. I’m not actively campaigning every moment for justice and peace, serving the poor, feeding the hungry, or in other ways personifying the Christ I claim I love. I tremble with the weighty temptation to think that I am not precious to God because I am not enough—not selfless enough, smart enough, humble enough, faithful enough, and so on. I forget that even Jesus needed time to rest and eat and laugh and hang with his friends. Let’s be honest: what I forget is that I’m not the Messiah. Which is not, in fact, who I am called to be!
So I thank God that Jesus knows from experience what it feels like to be tempted to be other than his truest, most authentic self. It’s how we know we can rely on his understanding and mercy when we cry, “Lead us not into temptation” and “Deliver us from evil!” God knows we can’t avoid temptation; not even God could avoid it! What we can do is hold tight to the promise that the Holy Spirit is accompanying us through the tricky parts.
We are indeed, at our inmost core, God’s beloved ones, precious and important in God’s eyes. We have been given into each other’s care. Together we pray, not for escape, but for companionship when the road gets hard. We remind each other what Jesus has already said to us, in every way possible: “I love you, and I’m right here with you, now and forever.” And that is more than enough.
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 3-10-19” name of the sermon.