Struggling in the Wilderness of Our Souls

A Lenten Sermon by the Reverend Sharon Delgado

March 1, 1998

Bible Passage:  Luke 4:1-13.

In the past 2,000 years, this story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness has inspired hundreds and perhaps thousands of works of art.  In the drawings and paintings that I have seen, the devil is always so ugly.  I remember one drawing in particular in which Jesus is up on the pinnacle of the Temple overlooking all of Jerusalem, engaged in discussion with a horrible-looking devil, complete with horns, bat-like wings, cloven hooves, and a face with an awful, leering smile.  Pictures like that make you wonder why Jesus would be tempted to even talk with someone so hideous, much less take him up on an offer.

But if you look closely at the passage, you’ll see that it doesn’t say anything about the devil “appearing” to Jesus, only of the devil “speaking” to him. In other words, the voice which tempted may well have been an inner voice, just like that inner voice which whispers to us–enticing, tempting, rationalizing, justifying. And in fact, I understand Jesus’ struggle with temptation there in the wilderness to have been very much like the struggle with temptation that we go through in the wilderness of our own souls.  That is… if we ever really engage in that struggle.  One temptation is to get so caught up in the routines and challenges and distractions of daily life that we never really engage in the spiritual struggle to hear God’s voice and obey God’s will, as Jesus did.

That’s really what the time of Lent is all about.  That’s one of the things that prayer is all about- trying to hear God’s voice and obey God’s will.  We sometimes think of prayer as a way of telling God what we want and trying to get God to do it.  But even more, prayer is about trying to hear God’s voice amidst the din of other voices so that we can hear what God wants of us.   As they say in the eleventh step of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous:  praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry it out.

Engaging in prayer and other spiritual disciplines is engaging in a struggle for integrity, a struggle to integrate our lifestyles with our convictions.    During Lent, and every time we pray, we struggle in the wilderness of our own souls to hear God’s voice and obey God’s will… even in the midst of temptation.

In the Bible, the words “tempting” and “testing” and “trial” are often used interchangeably.  In The Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” Some versions say, “Do not bring us to the time of testing,” or “Do not bring us to the time of trial.”  We wonder about the suggestion that God would lead us into temptation or testing or trial.

But that seems to be just what happened to Jesus in our story this morning.   He was led by the Spirit in the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.  He wasn’t just tempted at the end of the forty days!  Jesus struggled with temptation the whole time, during his whole forty day fast!

Now Jesus wasn’t an ascetic, like John the Baptist, who lived on locusts and wild honey.  Jesus liked good food and drink. Some people later even accused him of being a drunkard and a glutton.  The point for Jesus wasn’t just giving up food for forty days, any more than the point of Lent being just to give something up for forty days.  The point was that Jesus was following the leading of the Spirit. That’s why he went out to the desert. That’s why he fasted.

And that is what Lent is about.  Perhaps you feel led by the Spirit to set extra time aside to pray, meditate, or engage in other spiritual practices during this season.    Maybe you feel led by the Spirit to let go of something that has been getting in the way of your spiritual journey.

But we can be sure of one thing. If we make any kind of a decision to engage in the struggle for spiritual growth, we will experience temptation.  We might not see the point in engaging in that struggle.  Maybe we think that Jesus did it all for us.  But Paul says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”  No one can do it for us, not even Jesus.  The struggle with temptation is part of our growth toward spiritual maturity.

Temptation often presents itself as an attractive and sensible way to meet our needs, or to fulfill our desires, or to give ourselves a well-deserved reward.  Temptation seduces us, and it’s easy to give in.

How was it that Jesus found strength to overcome temptation in his forty day struggle there in the wilderness?  He was somehow able to see that the stakes in the struggle were very high.

Someone has said that sin is turning your back on God’s hopes for you.  For Jesus, this was certainly true.  Each of the temptations he faced struck at the root of what Jesus understood his calling to be.

First , he was tempted to turn stones into bread.  And why not?  Why should he go hungry?  What is the point of self-denial?  Why not at least be comfortable?  What is wrong with material well-being?  But Jesus refused to seek his own physical well-being without reference to the will of God.

The second temptation Jesus felt was to throw himself off the highest point of the temple, expecting God to save him. If he were to perform a miracle like this, he would certainly have a lot of followers.  But Jesus called this “tempting God” or, in another version, “putting God to the test.”  Throwing himself off the temple would be recklessly expecting God to save him from the consequences of his own actions.

How do we put God to the test?  Are there ways in which we In what ways are we tempted to be reckless?  In what ways are we tempted to ignore consequences of our actions and expect God to bail us out?  Of course, it happens in our personal lives, when we think we can have one more drink before we drive home, without it impairing our ability to drive….  that we can eat one more piece of cake, and pretending it doesn’t have calories… overcharging our credit cards, without considering how it will affect our budget later… letting loose with an angry tirade against someone else, without considering the effects it might have, all these can be ways of tempting God.

Running up a four trillion dollar deficit without considering how it might impact our children and grandchildren…. destroying the environment, without considering the effects on future generations…. these ways we are reckless, ways we disregard natural consequences, ways we put God to the test.

The third temptation Jesus experienced was the temptation of worldly wealth and power. He could have set up a kingdom greater than Solomon’s.  Herod would have been no match for him.  So many people would have followed him.  After all, that was the kind of Messiah people were waiting for.  As they say, he “could have had it all.”  It sounded good to Jesus.  The idea of being the leader of a successful, popular movement seemed attractive to him. It was tempting.

Like Jesus, we also are tempted in deep and fundamental ways.  At times we are also tempted to turn our backs on God’s hopes for us.  We are tempted.  But it’s not temptation that does us harm.  It’s not the thoughts or the desires or the impulses that come into our mind that get us into trouble.  It’s the thoughts that we entertain that can lead us astray.  It’s when we start rationalizing and justifying things, in other words, lying to ourselves, that it gets slippery.  And by the time we start planning to give into our temptations, the downward spiral has begun.

There is a saying, “That the birds of worry and care fly over your head, this you cannot help.  But that they make nests in your hair, this you can prevent.” It is true of temptation, too.  We may have thoughts that tempt us, but we don’t have to entertain those thoughts.  We can turn our thoughts elsewhere.

That is what Jesus did.  With each temptation the devil hurled at Him, Jesus responded by referring to God’s purposes for his life.  Each time, he quoted the scriptures, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” “You shall not tempt the Lord your God,” “You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.”  Jesus did not “just say no” to the temptation of the moment.  He said “yes” to the God of eternity.  He surrendered to  God’s purposes for his life.

That’s why it’s so important for us to keep our faith alive, through scripture, through prayer, through worship, through being in communion in meaningful ways with others who want to be faithful to God.  None of these things are easy. But they are means of grace through which the power of God can work in our lives- the power of God that can give us freedom over sin- in spite of temptation.

Our own desires will try to trick us into thinking that we want to live for ourselves and the things of this world.  But if we keep our faith alive, we won’t be fooled or trapped into ways of being that harm us or other people.  We won’t be trapped into patterns of sin.  We won’t be tricked into turning our back on God’s hopes for us.  We will be able to keep it in perspective.  We will remember who we are–beloved children of the God of Love, called to be faithful and to manifest that Love in the world.

Bible Passage:  Luke 4:1-13:  Jesus Is Tested in the Wilderness

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’]

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’]

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. 10 For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you

to guard you carefully;
11 they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

12 Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

13 When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.

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