counting the days: tempted forty days

Luke 4:1-13

We’re going to consider the story of Jesus’ temptations today,
without ever considering the temptations.
Because that’s the way I do the things I do!

Do you think Jesus went into the wilderness
expecting to be there forty days?
Did he pack for forty days?
He didn’t pack food, did he?
But his toothbrush? Change of underwear?

Did he go knowing he faced forty days
of extensive, comprehensive testing
to earn divine certification
of his Messiah status in the rabbis and prophets guild?
And therefore, out in the wilderness,
being tested with a graduate, summa cum laude,
of the M.V.A. School of Personality
as his interrogator—his examiner,
he counted the days down:
“39 to go … 38 … 37 …
boy, I can’t wait until this is over!”
What do you think?

That’s not the way it reads.
If we start with the last verse, we read,
“When the devil had finished every test,
he departed from him until an opportune time.”
So there wasn’t, doesn’t seem to me,
an expectation of a set forty days of testing,
but, rather, testing that turned out to be forty days—
like the wilderness wandering—an escape
with no real idea of what they were getting themselves into.

Mark writes that Jesus was driven out into the wilderness
and tempted forty days by the devil (Mark 1:12-13)
and offers no more detail than that.
Matthew uses an explicitly religious term
to indicate Jesus fasted for forty days
and forty nights before being tempted (Matthew 4:2)
and offers the same three specific temptations we find in Luke.
So he fasted in preparation, it seems like (Matthew 4:1-11).

But in Luke, we read that he was tempted for forty days
and that he didn’t eat a thing during those forty days.
So Mark, he was in the wilderness tempted forty days.
Matthew, he fasted forty days and was then tempted.
Luke, he was tempted forty days while not eating.
Stick with me now. I think we’re onto something!

Now Jesus could have still been fasting in Luke—
asserting the spiritual discipline with which we’re so unfamiliar—
that particular way of asserting priority,
of assuming a control—
as physical hunger is faced,
and hunger pangs are shaped into the question:
“For what do I hunger most?”

Jesus could have been fasting in Luke,
but it doesn’t say that.
And so the implicit comparison Luke draws is then
less with Moses (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9-11, 18)
and Elijah (1 Kings 19:8)—two great leaders in faith history,
both of whom fasted, as Matthew has Jesus do,
for forty days and forty nights.
Luke’s parallel is less with Moses and Elijah, the leaders—the heroes,
than with the children of Israel—the regular people—us.
Luke parallels Jesus’ with the Hebrew people
who spent those forty years in the wilderness,
and who, when they escaped into the wilderness,
were quite preoccupied with food, even to the point of saying,
“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord
in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots
and ate our fill of bread;
for you have brought us out into this wilderness
to kill this whole assembly with hunger?” (Exodus 16:3)
And the whole assembly murmured as they all seconded that emotion.

Now we’re still at the end,
still looking at that last verse,
and, as we’ve noted before, it’s important,
when the devil had finished every test—
every test—it’s all over, in other words,
Jesus passed,
the devil disappeared …
until an opportune time, it reads.
The devil would return, in other words.
The testing wasn’t over. It would resume.
This was not a once-and-for-all response to temptation—
a once-and-for-all vanquishing of temptation.
Jesus would regularly find himself standing in line
for a renewal of his certification.

Now from the end, from the last verse,
back to the beginning—to the first verse.
Notice the spirit does not lead Jesus into the wilderness,
but leads Jesus in the wilderness—
again, the parallel is with the children of Israel,
who were led by the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day
in the wilderness, right?
(Exodus 13:21-22; Numbers 14:14; Nehemiah 9:19)
The Spirit led Jesus in the wilderness.

In fact, “a literal translation might read,
‘Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan,
and was being led by the Spirit in the wilderness
for forty days as he was being tempted by the devil’”
(Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary
and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel
[New York: Crossroad, 1992]).
So not just led to the wilderness,
and not just led in the wilderness,
but also through the temptations.

If that’s so (this closer association with the children of Israel),
it occurred to me to wonder,
what was Egypt—what was Jesus escaping?
And what was the promised land—what was Jesus anticipating?
Is that making too much of the parallel? Maybe.
I do that sometimes.
Fun to consider though.

Think with me.
Jesus’ story had such an auspicious beginning:
what with angel visits to his kin Zechariah and Elizabeth,
their miraculous pregnancy, the angel’s visit to Mary,
Mary’s song, the Magnificat, the angel and the shepherds,
the heavenly host, the presentation in the temple.
Then we jump to the precocious twelve year old in the temple,
and now the story resumes some eighteen years later.

Now it’s not that Jesus wasn’t doing anything
in the unrecorded years.
After the presentation in the temple (so before the 12 year gap),
we read, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom;
and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40),
and after the story of the twelve year old in the temple
(so before the eighteen year gap), we read,
“And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years,
and in divine and human favor” (Luke 2:52).
It’s not that Jesus wasn’t doing anything
and not that he wasn’t doing important things,
but with his baptism and now this testing in the wilderness,
it’s time to escape Egypt—
escape what has been but preparation—
escape the unending need to get ready.

And thus in choosing to stop preparing—
in choosing to now be and do,
anticipating—looking ahead to—less an arrival, may I suggest,
as a consistency.
Less a place, as a state of being.
Less being present within a specific geography,
as being present to the consistent presence of God-with-us.

So it’s interesting, as we’ve noted before,
our text explicitly says for forty days Jesus was tempted by the devil.
And when they were over (the forty days—
by implication the temptations too, right?)—
when they were over, he was hungry,
and there are those three subsequent exchanges
between the devil and Jesus.

In Matthew, it’s pretty clear,
the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted.
He fasted forty days and forty nights,
then the tempter came to him (Matthew 4:1-3).
But in Luke, he’s been being tempted
throughout those forty days, and then they’re over.

So are these post-forty-day exchanges now something other than temptation?
Or is the story suggesting temptations never end?
They just morph into what the next day and circumstance generates?
Or, you notice our translation uses different words?
It reads that Jesus was tempted throughout the forty days,
then it reads, at the end, when the devil had finished every test.
So is there a difference between a temptation and a test?

Some think of temptation as the negative understanding
and test as the positive of the same experience.
I don’t know that many students who would agree
with the designation of tests as positive!
And for me, test implies more of an evaluative dimension—
there is a grade and a grader.

But, in any case, in the Greek, both words have the same root:
(peirazomenos, being tried; peirasmon, trials).
So forget all those possible distinctions.

And count on it.
Every day.
From the beginning of the story,
to where you find yourself at this point,
to the end of the story—
count every day.
You will be tempted.
To be less than you are called to be.
To underlive. To live less than you were created to.
To compromise.

And Jesus kept counting.
All the days of his living.
Another day of confronting the world,
that glorious ball of confusion,
with God’s alternative story.
Another day of choosing God’s story—
and thus of not choosing the world’s story.
That was the way Jesus lived.
Consistently faithful in choosing to live the story of God.

And that’s Lent, isn’t it?
Counting the days.
And naming and honoring that consistent choice Jesus made.

I’m wondering what discipline that would take for us.
How might we see today as possibility for God’s story
to unfold within us and within our circumstances?
What choices can you make—what can I do—
to make that happen?
How can you highlight the contrast
between the world’s story and God’s?
And without being obnoxious, judgmental, small-minded, rigid, annoying?
How can I draw not anyone else’s attention to this,
but mine?

Let me suggest a couple of tools to help
in this possible commitment to which Lent invites us.
We’ve noted it’s Scripture with which Jesus responds to temptation.
Part of Jesus’ growing in wisdom and in divine and human favor
had to do with learning Scripture.
How could he forget what he had learned so well?
Bible study is so very important.
Another spiritual discipline to go along with the fasting.
Having enough familiarity with the texts
that guidance is offered.
Because you have to know them, to hear them.

But Luke’s gospel, not so much in our particular text today,
but the gospel as a whole, also consistently points to Jesus’ prayer life—
a third spiritual discipline we see incorporated into his living.
In fact, there are seven (!) incidents of Jesus praying
that are unique to Luke (3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18; 9:28-9; 22:32; 23:34),
not to mention four recorded prayers (10:21; 11:1-4; 22:42; 23:34 and 46),
and enough references to Jesus withdrawing to pray,
that you begin to wonder, does Jesus pray whenever he withdraws?
So was Jesus praying throughout these forty days
withdrawn in the wilderness?

And Jesus often prayed before significant decisions or actions.
He was praying when the heavens opened after his baptism (3:21),
he prayed before calling the twelve disciples (6:12),
he was praying during the transfiguration (9:28-9),
it was his praying that caused the disciples
to ask him to teach them to pray (11:1-4),
he prayed on the Mount of Olives
during his last days in Jerusalem (21:37?; 22:42),
he prayed on the cross (23:34, 46).

And in the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, by the way,
he invites us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation” (Luke 11:4)
the same word as used twice in our text today.

So this story in its context in this gospel
indicates three spiritual disciplines:
fasting (possibly), Bible study and prayer.
does fasting sharpen the focus
on the lessons of Scripture
that allow prayer to help Jesus see the contrast
between the story of God and the story of the world?
two stories both awaiting his initiative, his affirmation to unfold?
if so would the spiritual disciplines help us?

I’m not so sure fasting is ever going to catch hold
in our society,
immediate gratification is way too important to us.
Might be good enough reason right there to embrace it.
Though, more importantly, if it was good for Jesus …?
Like I said, not sure fasting is ever going to catch hold.
But I can assure you regular Bible study and prayer
would indeed help us—
help us see the possibilities manifest in our days—
the temptations and the tests.

Don Flowers preached on the transfiguration text this past Sunday,
and pointed out that Jesus was changed while he was praying.
He suggested that’s why we don’t want to pray—
why we won’t commit to prayer.
Because we don’t really truly honestly want to be changed.

I don’t know how many of you embrace
the Lenten spiritual discipline of giving something up.
Again, the idea is a way of bringing what’s most important
into sharper focus.
Whether you have or whether you haven’t,
I would invite you to consider adding something
to your living for these forty days
(any one of these, any combination or all three):
fasting, Bible study and prayer.

And I will email out daily Lenten Scripture lessons
(I won’t email them out daily,
I’ll send out a list with all the daily readings on it).
If you’re not on my email list (so if you don’t get an email today)
just let me know. Email me (you can email me through our church website)
and I’ll get the readings to you.

This takes you to a one page list of the readings you can print
or reference to read in your Bible.
This takes you to a page you have to navigate a bit,
but it will link you to the Scriptures so you can read online.
This is a link to Passport’s Lenten devotions
that are a good seasonal resource.
And this is something I wrote about a way of praying through Lent.

But I offer you as well, with some fear and trepidation,
an observation to consider, if God wants a love you can see,
you can spend your whole life in preparation …
and the church will love you,
and you will be known and admired as a good person, ….

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