An Opportune Time
Text: Luke 4:1-13
After forty long days being tested in the wilderness, it only seems right that Jesus should have been finished with temptation. For Luke, though, evil will not be dismissed so quickly. It will be back. You can count on it. It will return, says Luke, at “an opportune time.”
But I am getting ahead of myself. For there is a back story of the temptation of Jesus that requires a quick look. It is a story has echoes from Eden and follows Moses without food for forty days on the mountain and Israel for forty years in the wilderness eating a lousy diet of miserable manna. It is no accident that last Sunday disciples were basking on the Mount of Transfiguration in all of Jesus’ glory only to walk down into the ash marked and temptation laden forty days of Lent.
Fred Craddock writes: “It is those who are most engaged in the way of God who seem to experience most intensely the opposition of evil. If Jesus struggled, who is exempt?” (Luke, p. 55) I have found that people get irate with God and with the church precisely at the time when life goes south for them. They come to me, saying, “Pastor, I’ve been a faithful Christian, a devoted church member, a good citizen, and I’ve looked after my family. I don’t understand why God is doing this to me?” Well, I don’t believe God goes around punishing us to see how tough we are or to make us tougher. I think that is lousy theology, but I would be lying to you if I said I did not ask that same question over this past horrendous year.
And yet, no one gets a pass from confronting evil, according to Luke, including Jesus. As Luke tells the story, Jesus faces three temptations in the wilderness. Each one reminds me of a line from The Merchant of Venice when Bassanio says, "There is no error so gross but that some sober brow will bless it with a proper text." The duel in the desert is rife with occasions for the Tempter to adorn each temptation with “a proper text,” to misread Scripture for a malign purpose and yet make it sound good.
The temptations facing Jesus are not trivial. No, real temptations are about real life and they lure us to do that about which much good can be said. The Tempter in Eden did not ask, “Do you wish to be as the devil?” It does not take a genius to know that little good would come of that. No, the Tempter asks, “Do you wish to be as God?” Just imagine how much good you and I could do with those credentials.
The first temptation Jesus faces in the wilderness is one that churches aspire to regularly, to turn stone into bread or put more concretely, to feed the hungry. At Cove, no Sunday goes by when we are not collecting canned goods for the Food Bank to feed hungry folks. Today we will receive a special offering to feed refugees fleeing for their lives from war torn Ukraine.
When Jennell and I traveled throughout Israel and Palestine, I gained a whole new insight into the first temptation of Jesus. Everywhere you step in Israel and Palestine, you step on stones. They are everywhere. Just imagine the good Jesus could have done for the poor and hungry of his day by turning all those stones into bread.
In his sermon, “Eyeball to Eyeball with the Devil,” the late William Sloane Coffin writes about the first temptation, “Haven’t we set our sights too low—on a secure life that insures us against harsh reality, that assures us bread? . . . There are many things I have done that I regret. But they are as nothing compared to the good things I regret not having done. To me, it’s not the lives we’ve lived, but our unlived lives that stand out, and that poison our existence.” In the wilderness, Jesus refuses to set his sights too low. He is hungry and he wants the hungry around him to be fed and later he will feed the hungry with precious little bread, but Jesus knows that God wants so much more from him and so much more from us.
In the second temptation, the Tempter offers Jesus the power to replace the heavy-handed, oppressive political rule of Rome with genuine justice. Take this deal, Jesus, and finally there will be a world leader who is not a small-minded bully, a demonic despot, but one who rules equitably, with wisdom and mercy. Choose Door Number Two, Jesus, and you can spend your entire ministry dishing out compassion and mercy and lead all the world on the justice road. Despite all the good he could do with such authority, Jesus knows that it is God alone who executes justice and that ultimate authority belongs to God and God alone, so he again he turns the Tempter down.
The third temptation hints of where Jesus’ final temptation will take place – in Jerusalem. The Tempter tells Jesus to leap off the holiest site in Jerusalem, the Temple, and let God’s angels catch him on the way down. Luke does not say but I suspect that later, outside Jerusalem, the Tempter also whispered in Jesus’ ear: “Climb down off that cross.” “Jesus,” says the Tempter, “prove once and for all that you are God’s beloved child and the world’s Messiah. Don’t let anyone mistake your identity. Show everyone that you are God’s super hero.”
Oh, how I wish Jesus would have taken this deal. It would have made my job so much easier. If Jesus had given in to this temptation I could have laid out indisputable empirical evidence on an Excel spreadsheet of why Jesus is really the Beloved Child of God. Just imagine how much shorter sermons would be! In the wilderness, though, Jesus refuses to reduce faith in God to empirical data or cheap theatrics. So, again, on the third temptation, Jesus says to the Tempter, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
It seems like this duel in the desert is over and temptation has been conquered as Luke writes: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from Jesus.” Then, Luke adds these four foreboding words, “Until an opportune time.” The Tempter is not finished with Jesus as we will soon see as Judas sticks freshly minted coins in his pocket and Peter fails in three tries to get his story straight and Pilate executes an innocent man rather than stirring up the crowd.
Lent begins in the minor key of temptation, with each temptation of Jesus being far more substantial than cheating on a test or on fudging on your diet or giving up something for this season that you really have no need for anyway. Lent begins with real temptations that make bold promises that lure us to mistake doing good deeds with following our good God, to settle for lives less than the lives God intends for us to lead, to settle for a church less than God intends the church to be, to settle for anything less than for the beautiful and clean earth, air, and seas that God imagines.
In the one prayer that Jesus will teach his disciples, he insists that every time we pray, we ask God to “deliver us from temptation.” For Jesus knew, and we know as we make the hike through another season of Lent, that temptation awaits us when we least expect it. It lies in wait when we are the most vulnerable. It cozies up to us at just the “opportune time.”
In a moment, we will hear Deep River, played by Linda and Jake in a marvelous arrangement for piano and violin. This African American spiritual, though, was first sung with no accompaniment. It was sung in the gut-wrenching voices of slaves tempted by the promise of survival and even prosperity if only they would obey their masters. When your life and the life of your family depends on it that is a hard temptation to resist.
Instead, often late at night, they would head to the woods, start campfires and sing as way to say No their tempters and to remind themselves who was sovereign over their lives. They would sing to fight the temptation to believe that any plantation was their home and any master was their Lord. They sang:
Deep river, Lord, my home is over Jordan Deep river, I want to cross over into campground You know I want to cross over into campground
My Lord calls by the thunder Trumpet sounds within my soul You know I ain't got long to stay here Oh, I ain't got that much long to stay here
Deep river, Lord, my home is over Jordan Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground You know I want to cross over into campground
Late at night by illegal campfire gatherings, slaves sang their faith alive and in so doing, they resisted the Tempter. They sang because they knew that real temptation always looks reasonable and even prudent. They sang because they knew that temptation did not die in the desert. It awaits us all in our most vulnerable moments, at just the “opportune time.” They sang because they needed to hear each other sing about a God who leads us out of temptation into new life.
So, with Jesus as our guide through the wilderness of our lives and as the enslaved as our inspiration in the deepest darkness of our lives, this Lent, may you and I stare down the Tempter and SING.