An excerpt from Reverend Bill Whitla’s March 6, 2022 homily.
Deuteronomy 26: 1-11 / Ps 91: 1-2, 9-16 / Romans 10: 8b- 13 / Luke 4: 1-13
Right after his Baptism, Jesus is led by God’s Spirit into the wilderness. Luke is drawing a parallel between Jesus and Israel in the Exodus, when God led Israel into the wilderness of Sinai, “testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments” (Deut 8:2).
We must remember that God is with Jesus in the loneliness and isolation and darkness of the wilderness, as God is always with us in these moments and these journeys into isolation—even in moments of the violence of guns in our cities and towns, and the wilderness of war, and the darkness of the genocide of little children and women and girls, and all the other dark places where humanity hides from the light.
Luke says that it is the Devil—that is, the accuser, whether it be conscience or other spiritual stumbling blocks– that asks the three tempting questions. The first and third question do not begin “If you are the Son of God,” but as Paul Achtemeier points out, the Greek “ἐι [ei]” here should be translated, “Since you are God’s Son.” What is at issue is not whether Jesus is really God’s son because even the Devil is willing to concede that. The temptation has to do with how God’s Son should act.
The first temptation is the one that comes from basic human need for food. We have seen that Russia has used this common need yesterday for false propaganda purposes, first bombing the port city of Kherson on the Black Sea, and then filming trucks arriving to give out bread to the bombed inhabitants. Is it really the sacrilege of “Make these bombs into bread”? In Luke’s temptation, there is even more subtlety in the Devil’s words. The Devil does not say, as our translation reads, “make this stone into bread,” but “speak this stone into bread [eipe to litho].” We might wonder if the Devil is making a reference to the creation story of Genesis 1 where God speaks creation into being. This image of Jesus being tempted to speaking a stone into bread is particularly rich. Jesus refuses to do that for himself. Later, he will “speak or pray” a small amount of bread into enough for multitudes, and later still he will speak a bit of Passover matzoh into food for his disciples to endure the Passion, and later still, through our own words echoing his words, Jesus will speak bread into food for our own journey and hunger.
Two years ago, at Holy Trinity, Dave, let’s call him, arrived, a well-known street person, tall and good-looking. A careener. Unsteady on his feet. He wobbled into position for a conversation, asking what the service on Ash Wednesday evening was about. And one of us replied “It’s about the dark places deep inside each of us.” “Ah,” Dave replied, “The dark places. I know about them.” So he asked, “And how are you going to finish?” And one of us said, “I don’t know. Do you have any suggestions?” After a moment or two, Dave responded with the wisdom of experience: “Well, about those dark places, you have to find a way to make them golden.”
So Jesus is tempted by being led into the literal dark place of the wilderness, and the metaphorical dark place of the human soul where we are all beset with devilish voices saying “listen to me, or to me, or to me.” All the competition for allegiance and desire and false power, and everything less than we really are. “The dark places inside each of us” where it is not so much that God is testing us as that we are testing God, as the Devil invited Jesus to do. But how to turn them golden?
The wilderness is a place of struggle, temptation, testing. Here in Luke’s Gospel, holiness is put on trial. Jesus must decide what it means for him to be Son of God, as the voice from heaven had declared earlier at his baptism. Luke’s first readers must have been wondering that too—Since this Jesus is the Son of God, how will he do under severe temptation in the wilderness? How will he do when faced with the devilish accusations of the temple leaders and the Jerusalem mob who want to do away with him? The early readers and hearers of Luke needed the confirmation that Jesus, named by God as his son at his Baptism, is up to the task —and they needed to hear that they too, incorporated into the same baptism, would be up to it too in the face of Roman persecutions. The Devil begins with that proposition: “Since you are the Son of God…”
First, hunger—Since you are God’s Son, speak these stones into bread.
Then, spiritual power—From the top of the Temple, jump, and God’s angels will catch you.
Finally, earthly power—Since you are God’s Son, take all the nations and their power as yours, if you worship me.
Now, what happens to each of these dark places—does Jesus find a way to make them golden? Earthly food is not sufficient to feed our needs, we also need the nourishment of the Word of God—and by his obedience to God, by his allowing Scripture to be spoken again and again through him, Jesus is in fact enabled himself, to become the bread by which we can live—because it is the same as the word which comes out of God’s mouth. So too Jesus is able not to tempt God by hurling himself from the temple tower, but to become the Temple from which he refused to cast himself down. He becomes the chief cornerstone, the new Temple built in our hearts. Finally Jesus becomes, in his death, which we so solemnly mark at the end of Lent, the king of all the kingdoms of the world. As Dave said, “About those dark places, you have to find a way to make them golden.”
Here, in this Eucharist, as the word of God says, is bread set before us, living bread as true nourishment for the dark places in each of us, made golden. Here, the word of God says, is the community that makes up the living and golden Temple, with Christ himself as the chief cornerstone. Here, as the word of God says, is the ruler of the nations, claiming his kingdom within our dark places, making our communal realm golden with his presence, and leading us to reach out to all to welcome them to their place among us. May it be so. Amen.