Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 10, 2019
Luke 4:1-13 Commentary
“He ate nothing during those days and at the end of them, he was hungry.” Luke 4:2
This curious line in verse 2 is easy to glide past en route to the real drama to come once the devil shows up to woo Jesus to his side. At best we see this as the tee onto which the devil will place the ball of the first temptation but after that, we forget about Jesus’ hunger as we move on to the heights of the mountain and the Temple.
But what if there is more import tucked into that little line? What if it has something to do with not just the first temptation but all three temptations and, as a matter of fact, with the whole course of Jesus’ ministry?
What if it even has something to do with every last one of us?
What I mean is this: we are told as Luke 4 opens that Jesus is “full of the Holy Spirit” following his baptism. A bit later in this same chapter (at the head of what was a Lectionary passage a few weeks ago in Epiphany) in verse 14 we will again be told that Jesus is filled with the power of the Spirit. That is the kind of thing you expect to read about the incarnate Son of the one true God. But we all know that the mystery of the incarnation is that all that divine power and presence within Jesus did not vitiate his true humanity.
The presence of the divine in Jesus did not result in some souped up human nature. Jesus was no Clark Kent who only appeared to be a mild-mannered person but who underneath was impervious to bullets and such. No, Jesus was the genuine human article through and through. The day will come when the lash will draw real blood from his back. So after several weeks with no food, he was terribly hungry. He was actually verging on the beginning of starvation. It made him vulnerable not just to a temptation to turn stones into bread but to all the other temptations, too. When you’re really hungry, you might also be a little on edge, a little ornery, a little low on patience. Shucks, most of us get that way after a few days of dieting and Lean Cuisine!
In short, Jesus found himself in the kind of circumstance in which the devil sees an opening, and we’ve all of us been there, too. The devil is, if nothing else and as C.S. Lewis reminded us in The Screwtape Letters, an opportunist. We see this reflected even here at the end of this lection: “He left him until an opportune time”
That final line of in Luke 4:13 causes this story to end with a bit of a thud. Make no mistake, Jesus’ victory over the devil was real and significant. But it wasn’t over yet. Mostly in the balance of Luke’s gospel, we will not again encounter so overt a reference to the devil’s temptations of Jesus as we get in Luke 4. But that should not cause us to forget that far from being the END of Jesus’ struggles with temptation, Luke 4 was placed at the head of the gospel so as to set a tone for all that was to follow. The last line here in verse 13 tells us, “From here on out, be aware that the devil will always be knocking on the front door of Jesus’ heart whether or not this gets mentioned specifically.”
But that’s just the point: Jesus was one of us and thus the devil could look for vulnerable moments of opportunity to get at Jesus same as he does for all of us. For centuries people have wondered whether Jesus really could have sinned, really could have given in to the devil here or at one of those more “opportune times” to which verse 13 makes ominous reference. Many of us grew up with the tacit assumption that, of course Jesus could not have sinned. There had to be some divine failsafe built into his humanity that would have snapped and locked into place had Jesus’ human side so much as wavered under the searing heat of a temptation. The divine nature would have overwhelmed the human at that point to prevent disaster.
Theologically, though, the church has long argued against seeing things that way. The orthodox Christology that emerged from Nicaea, Ephesus, and Chalcedon all insist that neither of Jesus’ two natures influenced, changed, or altered the other. Divinity was not watered down, humanity was not supercharged. The human nature did not make him less divine, the divine nature did not make him less human. So we’re left to conclude that if Jesus successfully resisted temptation his whole life long, it was because somehow, by the Spirit’s influence on Jesus in a way that went beyond his having also a divine nature, Jesus as also human really did summon up the power not to give in to sin and evil.
Let me be clear on that: the Holy Spirit as the third Person of the Trinity operated within Jesus’ heart and mind—within his human nature—in a way different and separate from the fact of his having a divine nature as the second Person of the Trinity incarnate. If I am right about this, that would mean the Spirit’s witness to Jesus’ human nature does not violate the orthodox claim that Jesus’ divine and human natures remained separate from one another with neither mixture nor confusion of the natures resulting. The Spirit could speak into Jesus’ human nature—and provide help—in a way that did not bring Jesus’ divine nature to bear in a way that would soup up his humanity after all.
Why might this be significant? Because as we stand at the head of the Season of Lent with this Year C passage, we are reminded of our own sinfulness and mortality—that was the message of Ash Wednesday. We are mortal and shall die. We are sinful and so need salvation. But although we lack what Jesus possessed—namely, a divine nature to co-exist with our human nature—it may turn out that Jesus had no special advantage on the human front beyond what we also have: viz., the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Did the Spirit work differently for Jesus than for us? Is that what accounts for his perfection and our yo-yo like moving back and forth between resisting some temptations only to give in to others? Let’s admit these are difficult questions to probe.
But let’s admit, too, that contained in the Luke 4 narrative is not just a story that can result in our admiring Jesus for his willpower but also a narrative of hope for all of us. If Jesus could get hungry the same as the rest of us (and for the exact same reason), then perhaps he resisted temptation in the same way—and on account of tapping into the same power—that is available to the rest of us. In that case we can preach on Luke 4 as providing not just hope for Jesus but hope for all of us as we are tossed about on many rough seas of temptation, too.
As C.S. Lewis once said, only the person who never yielded to temptation knows the full strength of temptation. If a hurricane roars ashore somewhere, which person will be in the best position to talk about the strength of the wind: the one who was blown over immediately, the one who managed to stay on his feet until the wind hit 75 MPH, or the one who never was blown over, not even when the wind topped out at 130 MPH? Obviously the one who was able to resist the storm’s fullest fury is the one who knows better than anyone what all it took to stay on his feet. So also with temptation: Jesus never wavered. The devil threw everything he had at Jesus, took all his best shots, but Jesus never fell. Jesus is the only realist, Lewis said, because he alone knows the full fury of temptation. Because of that Jesus knows better than anybody how much strength we need. And so, by his Holy Spirit, he gives it.
In this Lenten Season of our lives, it’s well for us to remember how titanically Jesus struggled with sin every day of his life. But there is an application here for also us: if the devil continued to look for more opportune times to get at even Jesus, we can assume as believers today that we are being stalked no less certainly. True, as people of Pentecost we have a major advantage now in having the Spirit dwelling right within our hearts, giving us a power to resist temptation that is wonderful. But let’s never assume that where sin and evil are concerned we face nothing but smooth sailing in life! We live every day from the riches of God’s grace.
We’re lost without it.
Matthew is more overt about this than is Luke, but as commentators have long noted, it is surely significant that every reply Jesus gives to the devil is a quote from the Book of Deuteronomy. In Luke 4 Jesus went where the Israelites once went: out into the wilderness. The desert is a tough place to be. It’s a place of uncreation, of sin and evil and, hence, of raw temptation. The Israelites, however, so often failed their wilderness tests. Jesus would succeed where they failed and so initiate a New Israel. What’s more, Deuteronomy was the book of covenant renewal, charting the way forward for the Promised Land AFTER the time of the wilderness had passed. So by invoking Deuteronomy so consistently, Jesus was not only recapitulating Israel’s wilderness period but was also fulfilling for all of us in the New Israel all the promises of joy, rest, and shalom that the Promised Land stood for. Tucked into Jesus’ replies, in other words, is a whole lot of covenant fulfillment and hope!
It didn’t quite go down this way in Tolkien’s book but in Peter Jackson’s film versions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, we witness the steady, relentless (but often subtle and quiet) attacks of Gollum on Frodo Baggins as Frodo attempts to carry the Ring of power to Mordor so as to destroy it. Bit by bit, innuendo by innuendo, whisper by whisper Gollum wears Frodo down, poisoning him against the truest friend anyone has ever had (Samwise Gamgee) and wooing Frodo to Gollum’s side. Seldom is Gollum overt, seldom does he make anything remotely akin to a bold or obvious move. But he whittles away at Frodo’s determination and seizes on every opportunity to make Samwise look bad in Frodo’s eyes until finally Gollum succeeds in turning Frodo against Sam. Sam is sent packing, leaving Frodo unprotected and now utterly vulnerable to Gollum’s full frontal assault in trying to get the Ring back for himself.
As the devil knows and as one can detect in Luke 4 and beyond, it’s not the big moments of life that bring us down into sin and tawdriness, it’s all the little compromises the devil makes us commit along the way that leads to destruction.
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