Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'” 5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” 9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11 and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” 12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
On a beautiful fall day when we were living in Toronto, we decided to go apple picking. Our destination was Chudleigh’s Orchard in Milton, ON. After fifty minutes of driving from Toronto, Junghee turned to me and said, “Hyuk, I think we’re on the wrong highway. By this time, we should already have come to Milton.” I replied, “No, we’re fine. I know where I’m going.” So, I continued on and on until we saw a sign which read, “Niagara Falls, 100 km.” I realized that we were going in the wrong direction. We were on Highway 403 South, not 401 West. So even though I knew we were going in the wrong direction, I was too proud to admit it. I kept driving until suddenly, out of the blue, I saw the most beautiful and transformational sign I had seen in years. The sign read, “U-turns are Permitted!”
The forty-day Lenten journey began just last Wednesday. In this Lenten season, we are invited to reflect on U-turns. In other words, we are invited to a season of repentance. No matter how far down the road of life we travel, whether the road is personal, communal, or even an ill-advised path, U-turns are permitted.
The scripture text for today is the story of Jesus’ temptation. As you probably remember, the season of Lent begins with this story every year. It invites us into an interpretation of the meaning of Lent, a season of repentance, and repentance is, among other things, about overcoming temptations.
The story in today’s scripture is one that the early Christian community talked about a lot; it is the story found in all three gospels about Jesus’ temptations. It is very brief in Mark and longer in Matthew and Luke; it follows immediately upon Jesus’ baptism in all three gospels. We are told that the spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, where Jesus fasted for forty days and was tempted by the devil. At the end of these forty days of fasting, Satan, the devil, the tempter, comes to him.
As we listen to this familiar story again today, I think it is not only a story of Jesus’ temptations, but also of ours. The story invites us to reflect on our own lives. Let us think about how the temptations in this familiar story are relevant to our lives.
The first temptation is about bread. Bread, of course, in this story is more than bread. It is the material basis of desire. In this culture, the good life is to have and consume more. Our culture teaches us that much money brings much happiness. We are being taught by the first temptation to believe that happiness is measured by how much we have. This temptation is very real, very powerful, and of the devil. We are now facing this example of this greed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the toppling of Ukraine’s democratically elected government and the subsuming of the country into Russia’s orbit to acquire its land to expand its own kingdom. I think the first temptation reflects the central value of empire. But, responds Jesus, “we are not to live by bread alone, but by what comes from the mouth of God.”
Then there is the second temptation. “You can have all the kingdoms of the Earth if you will fall down and worship me,” the devil says to Jesus. “You can have all the kingdoms of the Earth.” On a personal level, I hear this as a temptation to wealth, even to power, to stand out as the ruler of the world, like Mr. Putin. On a national level, it is also the temptation of colonialism – the temptation to rule the world. Again, we see this temptation in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Then there is the third temptation. Jump from the pinnacle of the Temple; test God. What kind of option does that represent in our lives? Let me put it in two ways; they are slightly different but recognizably the same. What does this temptation mean? We may do something spectacular or foolish with our lives in the confidence that God will come to our rescue. That’s testing God. That’s mindlessness. Is President Putin doing that?
When we reflect on these three temptations, we might discover a common misunderstanding of God and Jesus. This recognition is very important because misunderstanding Jesus is inevitably to misunderstand ourselves — and vice versa. In this misunderstanding, we cut God down to a manageable size and put God into our pocket where we can claim God’s grace and compassion whenever we want to pull it out. In this misunderstanding of God, God’s grace is addressed only in masculine language, blesses only our country, punishes others, and punishes all believers whose faith is not exactly like ours. The God who demands our loyalty and who alone deserves it cannot be captured in a pocket-sized handkerchief nor privatized into our narrow-minded thinking. According to the United Church’s faith statement, “A Song of Faith,” “God is Holy Mystery, beyond complete knowledge, above perfect description.” This is the God we seek on our Lenten journey.
Lent is the season in which we are reminded of the temptations that face us, not just in this hour, but more comprehensively, across our lives, a season of renewal during which we need to be discerning about the temptations of our lives. In this season, we are called to repent, which means to return to God – to reconnect with the One from whom we came and in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). It means to take God out of our pocket-sized imagination and move beyond our limited understanding to rejoice that God is beyond anything we can ever imagine, conceive or express. Lent is a season of making U-turns. At the beginning of this season, I pray that the Russian tanks will make U-turns and find their way home to end the war. Lent is the season during which we learn once again and learn more deeply than ever before that we do not live by bread alone, that we should not put God to the test and that we are to worship and serve God alone. God is our source of being. Thanks be to God. Amen.