Sermon from March 6: The First Test

The First Test
Lent I; March 6, 2022
Luke 4:1-13

At the beginning of Lent we usually read this story from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Right after the exhilarating experience of his baptism he heads out into the desert for forty days of fasting and prayer. Note: don’t try to fast for forty days unless you’ve been practicing fasting for a long time. You can do a partial fast for the forty days of Lent, if you’d like. Roman Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent; that’s an example of a partial fast.

But to the point: during Jesus’ fast, the devil tests him. I know: your Bible might say that the devil “tempted” him; they’re the same word. Since you and I normally think of “temptation” as having to do with sex or chocolate, I think it’s more useful to think of this experience as a test. Well, let me amplify by considering something immediate. As we watch what Russia has been doing to Ukraine, I am tempted to wish for something terrible to happen to Vladimir Putin. On Monday Russian businessman Alex Konanykhin posted on LinkedIn that he was offering a $1,000,000 reward for the arrest or assassination of President Putin “for mass murder.”[1] One way to think of my reaction is that I am tempted to hope somebody collects on that. Another way to think about my reaction is that my Christian commitment to pray for my enemies (Luke 6:27-28) is being tested. It’s a temptation; it’s a test, a test of my Christianity.

So let’s talk about Jesus’ experience in the desert as a test. I’ve consistently been told (and perhaps you have too) that it’s a test of whether Jesus is going to remain faithful to his calling. That is, will he use his power to turn stones into bread, to serve his own needs? Or will he use his power to serve others? It’s a test of how he will use his power. Will he worship the devil, take shortcuts to become Lord of the nations? Or will he follow the will of God and come to glory by the road of suffering? It’s a test of his faithfulness. Will he jump off the Temple tower, making a big show? Or will he gather attention by slow and careful work? It’s a test of his commitment to the methods of God. The way I’ve been taught (and it makes sense to me) is that Jesus’ commitment to his calling is being tested.

But another thought crept into my head this week, all hinging on a little word. The devil said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone… If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down…” “If.” It got me wondering: is the devil testing Jesus to see if he will remain true to his calling? Or is the devil testing Jesus’ sense of himself? Is the devil trying to get Jesus to doubt himself? “If you are the Son of God…” but what if you aren’t? Hmm? Did you really hear a voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22) or did you imagine that? You’re hungry; this stone sure looks like a loaf of bread. Try eating that; maybe you really did hear that voice. Or maybe in your hunger you’re imagining that you did. If you are the Son of God…

One of the worst ways you and I are tested is when our sense of ourselves is tested, when the test leads us to doubt ourselves. Am I who I think I am? You may be thinking, “I think of myself as a peaceful person, but I think someone should bomb Moscow. Am I who I think I am?” You may think, “I think I’m a committed Christian, but the way my friend died has me doubting the love of God. Am I as faithful a Christian as I think I am?” Or, “I’m a family person; I am committed to my family and to all I can do for them. But right now I want to be as far away from all of them as possible. Am I really a family person?” Three examples are enough; you get the point. The worst testing, the worst temptations, are not those that get us indulging in pleasures that we think we’re better off avoiding. The worst testing is the test of who we are, what we’re committed to, what we truly believe.

You may have noticed the resource Jesus used to help him with his test: the Scriptures. When the devil tests him, Jesus replies by quoting Scripture. But it’s not a game to see who has the best quotes – after all, while Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy, the devil quotes Psalm 91 – but rather the skillful application of an appropriate resource to the situation. It’s great that Jesus knows the Bible well enough to find a good verse, but it’s even more important that Jesus knows God well enough and knows himself well enough to be able to apply Scripture to his need.

Although the story reads as though the devil said something and Jesus immediately replied with something appropriate, I suspect that may be Luke’s way of summarizing something that actually took much longer. After all, Luke says that Jesus was tested by the devil for forty days.[2] So something that you and I can do during our forty days of Lent is to identify what tests our sense of who we are and spend some time looking for the resources of Scripture that will help us. Perhaps the devil said something to Jesus and he snapped back a reply. Or perhaps a growing doubt gnawed at Jesus during his fast and Jesus prayed and contemplated what he knew of the Law and the Prophets to find what he needed to handle the test. So, for example, if you think of yourself as a peaceful person, but that is being tested, you can search the Scriptures for help not only with your own peacefulness but also your trust in God to handle conflict. That’s, as I say, an example: you consider how you may be tested so you can discern how to handle the test. Jesus had forty days; we don’t have to be finished dealing with our own test when Easter comes, but the forty days of Lent makes a pretty good framework for it.

Luke concludes the story by saying that the devil slipped away in order to wait for another good time to test Jesus. I wonder when Jesus’ next test came. When did the devil try again to sow doubts in Jesus’ mind? To distract Jesus from his calling? Nikos Kazantzakis suggested that the Last Temptation of Christ was when he was on the Cross: the devil tested his resolve by suggesting that Jesus use his power to come down from the Cross, get married, and have a normal life. Jesus passed that test, too. How many other times was Jesus tested? If this is Jesus’ first test, and just before he died was his last test, are any of the other stories we read also tests?

When we pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” a way of thinking about that prayer is “God, we would rather not be tested. But if we’re tested, please rescue us.” When you and I are tested, we can call a friend for help; we can look up resources to know how to respond. We have lifelines, just as in the example of Jesus.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

[2] Yes, Matthew suggests the testing happened after forty days (Matthew 4:2-3), but Luke explicitly says that it takes place for a period of forty days.