St. Luke sets the scene quickly and with attention to the key details. Jesus has been baptized at the Jordan by John and now a new drama is about to take place. Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit leads him to the wilderness. Like Israel before him, Jesus is led to the place of testing and promise. Without any other complications, forty days in this wilderness would provide our Lord with the most demanding exertion and spiritual challenge—he fasts through the entire season. He is famished. But there is a huge complication. During this desert time of fasting and prayer, Jesus is tempted by the devil. Now the stakes cannot be higher. Will Jesus remain secure in his own identity and his mission as the Son of God? Or will he give in, turn away, and fail his Father and his work as the savior of the world? The devil does his best, and with some considerable power, to undo what God has purposed and what the prophets had foretold.
Now at the end of these forty days, the devil cleverly plays on Jesus’ physical weakness and hunger. “If you are the Son of God,” the evil one proposes, “command this stone to become bread.” Focusing attention on just one of the rocks strewn around the place, the devil invites Jesus to use his power to indulge himself on just one loaf of bread. He challenges Jesus to prove his identity as the Son of God by taking care of his own needs after the long fast. So here is the first temptation: continue to rely on the gifts and grace of his Father or turn and use his own power to take care of himself. The devil attempts to seduce Jesus with bread when he is most vulnerable, a simple and savvy temptation! But Jesus’ response is to respond with what is written in Scripture: “One does not live by bread alone.” Immersed in the Holy Scriptures along with the water of his baptism and the outpouring of the Spirit, Jesus turns aside this temptation. No, the crucified and risen Lord will feed his faithful with his body and on Easter Day, Cleophus and his companion will recognize him in the breaking of the bread. But all these stones in the wilderness will remain just that—lifeless rubble.
The devil then takes Jesus up to a high place in the wilderness and shows him “all the kingdoms of the world” in a single moment of time. Jesus is able to see, in one powerful instant, all earth’s kingdoms, their power and their authority. Then the devil tells Jesus, “I shall give you all this power and glory…” He adds the one proviso: “If you worship me.” Here is the temptation, to seduce Jesus into surrendering his identity as the Son of God in favor of being a this-worldly super Vladimir Putin. “Jesus, you don’t need to battle for these nations with armies and tanks and planes. I will simply give them to you.” The return for this favor, adds the devil, is that you worship me. There are two sides to this temptation. On one hand, the devil offers Jesus the power and glory of the leaders of all the nations in all times and places. It would take us a while to watch streaming videos of those old Hollywood blockbusters like Ben Hur to even get a little glimpse of what the devil is offering to Jesus. All of them, every kingdom,…“in a single instant.” Jesus’ response is quick and thoroughly Scriptural. “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.” Only God is worthy of all worship and power and glory. Worshiping any lesser parts of God’s creation is idolatry. Besides, as the Son of God, Jesus is at birth “a light for salvation to the Gentiles and for glory to God’s people Israel,” proclaimed old Simeon in the Temple. Will Jesus be seduced by the devil’s desperate offer? No, worship is due only to God, the maker of heaven and earth.
Now leaving the wilderness, the devil leads Jesus to Jerusalem and makes him stand on the parapet of the Temple. “Throw yourself down,” he commands, and then quotes a psalm to back up his implied argument that God will not let him be hurt,…”If you are the Son of God.” So the devil is wagering that Jesus might have doubts that God is not sufficient to keep Jesus safe. And along with that comes the offer to really become spectacularly famous among the crowds in the Holy City. Instant fame, along with a serious loss in confidence concerning his Father in heaven. Up here on the Temple parapet, the devil attempts to lure Jesus into an act whose motive is self-serving religiosity. In reply to the Bible-quoting fraud that the devil really is, Jesus replies, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” The Lord will not cast himself down from the highest point in the Temple nor will he “come down from the cross” on that hill outside Jerusalem. In the words of a song from the Taizé community,
In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful, in the Lord I will rejoice!
Look to God, do not be afraid. Lift up your voices, the Lord is near;
Lift up your voices, the Lord is near.1
The devil attempts to put Jesus to a profound test—tries to shake Jesus’ trust in God. But as the Son of God, Jesus is resolute and stands firm. Torah insists that God shall not be put to the test. The Son of God is secure in that Word and in his identity as God’s Son.
In our reflection upon this story of Jesus’ temptations, what is immediately apparent is that we are tempted too. For our Lord, the three temptations that the devil concluded his testing of the Son of God were about bread, power, and safety. But for us, the devil’s seductions can be about all kinds of related things. David Lose expands on this array of the devil’s ability to test us:
Bread, power, and safety. But it just as well might have been youth, beauty, and wealth. Or confidence, fame, and security. On one level, we experience specific temptations very concretely, but on another they are all the same, as they seek to shift our allegiance, trust, and confidence away from God and toward some substitute that promises a more secure identity.2
Most of the advertising that is directed towards us attempts to trade in our baptismal identity in Christ for some cheap or expensive substitute for our allegiance to God in Christ. Popularity? Here’s the beer for you, or the clothing style for you, or the car for you. The list goes on. Safety? Well, just select the right home security system. Power? Achieve a higher “influencer” rating” by monitoring your media presence across various networks. In every case, the temptation is to pull away from our relationship to God that is grounded in our baptism. Because Jesus is the Son of God, we are baptized into his death and rising and given the true identity of becoming children of God. It is both wise and serious that the Church continues to ask parents and Godparents to renounce Satan, sin and evil at the baptism of a child. Then, those same parents are asked to affirm the Apostle’s Creed:
Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and was buried, rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?
The child is baptized in Christ and into the faith of the Church. That child’s true identity is firmly established at the sacrament and any other worldly identity is a fraud and a distortion. It remains so for us all.
Jesus has turned aside the temptations of the devil. He is unshakable in his identity as the Son of God and his purposes for us and for the world remain sure. In the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus remains our companion through life and our life together. He will remain our companion through all our trials and temptation, for he has faced them and prevailed. Luke Powery, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, has noted that we have company, “Com-pany” with God. He adds, “that in Latin, com-panis literally means “with bread.”3 Faced with testing and temptations during these Lenten wilderness days? You are baptized and in Christ, you will never be offered a stone in place of the Bread of Life. So we are upheld in never choosing any tempting “stones” in place of the Son of God.
1 Jacques Berthier, Taizé Press, 1991.
2 David Lose, “Identity Theft,” …in the Meantime, March 7, 2019 (accessed Feb. 24, 2022), http://www.davidlose.net/2019/03/lent-1-c-identity-theft/.
3 Luke A. Powery, Were You There? Lenten Reflections on the Spirituals (Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 1