These Forty Days

Luke 4:1-13

 © Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

First Sunday in Lent/25th February 2007

On Wednesday we entered the holy season of Lent, these forty days (minus Sundays) leading up to Holy Week.  On this first Sunday in Lent, the lectionary begins with Jesus in the wilderness tempted by the devil for forty days.  In this season that culminates in a cross, we are invited to become pilgrims, to embark on a journey with Jesus, a journey patterned upon Jesus’ own life.  The gateway of this pilgrimage is found in a wild and lonely place. [1] Luke tells us his journey begins in the wilderness, full of the Holy Spirit; Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the barren wastelands beyond the Jordan, flung out into the empty void of nothingness, exposed and vulnerable, alone with nothing to protect him from the temptations of the devil.  That’s where the Spirit of God sends him; that’s where the Spirit can send us.  Surely not beyond the providential care of God, but certainly Jesus is alone for forty days. Fasting and famished, Jesus is forced to confront someone before his ministry can begin.

The devil speaks and tempts Jesus, enticing him in his hunger to abuse his power and turn stones into bread, as if bread is all one needs to survive when one is hungry.  The devil tries to lure Jesus with the promise of glory and authority over all the kingdoms of the world if only he would turn his devotion away from Yahweh.  The devil tries to persuade Jesus to do anything he wants and scripture will back him up.  It’s fascinating here that it’s the devil quoting scripture to Jesus, which should make us all leery wherever scripture is easily hurled around to support one’s perspective.

The devil tempts with power, prestige or glory, wealth and influence, and authority.  In all these, it seems – remarkably – Jesus was somehow susceptible, otherwise these wouldn’t be temptations.  In this he is like us, there’s always the possibility of caving into and giving ourselves over to their influence.  We are all guilty here in one degree or the other, seduced by the desire for power and control – even if it’s just having control over our lives or controlling the life of another.

We’re seduced by glory.  The ego loves to be stroked and affirmed; we all wish to be thought well-of by others, some want or need this more than others.

Then there’s the seduction of wealth and the influence and power that come with having wealth. With wealth comes the freedom of making more decisions for yourself, which means we have more power, more ability to control.  Wealth brings choices.  The frustration and anger of the poor is often because they don’t have any power, can’t make choices for themselves, do not have the freedom not to work.  They have control over little or nothing.

Many like to have authority somewhere.  We all want our little fiefdoms, where we’re in control – whether it’s your kitchen or basement or study, your family or church or cubicle.  We’re tempted by all of these, tempted to have more of whatever we have.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) once said, “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it…I can resist everything but temptation.”  But are power, glory, and wealth inherently bad?  Isn’t it a blessing for people to feel empowered, especially those who have been abused or oppressed – like women for most of history?  Isn’t it a blessing to feel good about oneself, to know that your life has a positive influence over many people?  A little glory is not a bad thing.  Isn’t it a blessing to use our wealth, our resources in generous and life-giving ways?  A lot of good is done in this world through money and even more good can be done if more of it was shared.  So why are these considered temptations?  Because if any one becomes the focus of our lives instead of God, then they are dangerous.  If they become more important than God’s will for our lives, then they need to be renounced.  They are not necessarily bad, but they can get in the way and hinder us from the real purpose of our lives.  Jesus is in the wilderness preparing for what comes next, discerning the purpose of his life.  He can’t allow these distractions to get in his way.  But first, there’s someone else he must face, there’s someone else he must confront.

The person he must face is himself.  This text is about more than Jesus being strong enough to resist temptation.  There’s a tendency in us to read most scripture moralistically, so that what we hear is something like this:  because Jesus resisted temptation and because we’re supposed to be like Jesus, then we have to resist temptation too.  But there’s more going on here.  Sure, we have to resist temptation, but what is really tempting Jesus?  What’s the underlying threat to Jesus?  What is the real struggle or issue here?  His identity.  Who he is.  The first and third temptation begin with the devil saying, “If you are the Son of God…,” and the second one is also related to identity.  “If you are the Son of God…”  Several weeks ago, we explored the connection between knowing who we are as the precondition for knowing what God is calling us to do.  Our call, our ministry, the meaning of lives begin first with the knowledge of who we really are.  It begins with the inner journey; looks at the temptations.  Everyone speaks to the seductive power of the collective to tell Jesus who he is instead of listening to his heart, a heart resting in God.  Each temptation comes from outside him, pulling him away from himself, from his heart.  It was Augustine (354-430) who once prayed, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord.”[2]  So then the crucial question for us might be:  what tempts us or pulls us away from our identity, from our God-identity where our hearts are resting in God?  That’s what should concern us most.

There’s a world of difference between living internally directed and externally directed.  Externally directed means we are being determined, shaped, and formed by the collective, by society.  Our choices are determined by the crowd, by what’s popular.  We worry about what others think or feel about us.  We set our goals and hopes based upon what everyone else around us hopes for.  It means being like everyone else.  Conform.  The devil is an external voice seeking to determine Jesus’ life, pulling him away from his true self, trying to getting him to forget his true self, to doubt who he is, “If you are the Son of God…”

If living externally directed means living for someone else, then living internally directed means living from within, from your heart, claiming your identity, your uniqueness; for from our identity, our true selves (not the false self we conjure up to fit in and be like everyone else), we discover what God is calling us to do and the direction we need to go.  It comes from within.  There is an old Hasidic tale that reveals both the universal tendency to want to be someone else and the ultimate importance of becoming one’s self:  When he was an old man, Rabbi Zusya said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me:  ‘Why were you not Moses?’  They will ask me:  ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”[3]  We’re not called to be someone else but to be ourselves.

Jesus discovers his vocation in the wilderness because he was able to maintain his identity, his sense of himself as the Son of God, and would not yield from that despite the temptation to become someone else.  Without this grounding of his identity in God he would not have been able to carry out his mission – and neither can we.  The writer, Parker Palmer (one of my favorite writers) is helpful here; he’s written a lot on vocation.  “Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to become something I am not.  It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”[4]  These words, I believe, easily could be applied to Jesus – and to us.

In these forty days of Lent, let us resist the temptation to be defined by the external voices.  We are invited to go ‘in here,’ to a time of deep introspection, of going inward to the depths of our being.  How do we do this?  It depends upon what helps you to become grounded in God.  Maybe you need to be praying more, maybe spending more time reading scripture.  Walk through the labyrinth when it’s here this coming week.  Maybe you need to acknowledge your fear of going inward.  Maybe you need to cultivate more silence, turn off the television or radio or music.  Face yourself. Begin journaling.  Record your dreams. Perhaps join us as we read Rick Warren’s book on the purpose-driven life.  Listen to your life.

What’s tempting you, pulling you away from living from within?  What’s hindering you from listening to God speaking in the depths of your soul?  Throughout these forty days, pray for inwardness.  Maybe, maybe even ask the Holy Spirit to take you in the wilderness of your soul.  There you just might discover who you are – again or for the first time.  Listen.


[1] Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin:  “We frequently think of religion as something which we can add to what we already have; but we are to learn that we first must make some renunciations to be in a condition to receive.  It is for this reason that the gateway to the pilgrimage we are to make is the place of Christ’s temptations.”  Diogenes Allen, Temptation (Cambridge, MA:  Cowley, 1986), 19.

[2] From Augustine’s Confessions (397/398), the first Western autobiography and an influential text shaping the West’s concept of the self.  For him, self-knowledge is a consequence of our knowledge of God.

[3] Martin Buber (1878-1965), Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters (New York:  Schocken Books, 1975), 251, cited in Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak:  Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2000), 11.

[4] Palmer, 10.