Luke 4:1-13: Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 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. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 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. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 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, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Church shopping is something many of us do in the course of our lifetimes. In the past, church shopping involved actually walking into the sanctuary and attending a worship service. Nowadays, people check out our website, watch our streaming services, or consult other social media sites to help them evaluate.
There are a lot of factors that go into church shopping. Some are sociological – like moving to a new town, finding a church with people in a similar age range. Other factors are spiritual – seeking a church that shares our beliefs and attitudes, or a church that reminds us of the one we grew up in.
What are people seeking when they visit a church? Why do you any of us decide to become part of a church – whether attending in person, or in becoming a virtual member of our congregation on-line?
Years ago, one of my clergy colleagues tried to evaluate the worship services at his church by devising a questionnaire for the congregation. His church asked the congregation to rate their various acts of worship. How meaningful are the prayers for you? The music? What do you think about the sermons? Do they nourish you? Do they make you think? And people responded, telling him what they wanted and how well the church gave them what they wanted.
Today we are gathered on the First Sunday of Lent. Jesus is a young man, at the beginning of his life of ministry. Today’s reading from Luke is the first time we hear Jesus speak for himself, his first words, the first indication of what he’s facing in life.
In the wilderness “the devil” (also known as Satan) confronts Jesus. Satan sets forth a number of proposals, things for Jesus to do here at the beginning of his life’s work. It’s interesting that everything Satan asks Jesus to do has sort of a religious ring to it.
Everything Satan suggests is, in itself, a pretty good thing. “Command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Isn’t bread good? Don’t people need bread? Don’t we as caring, concerned people have a responsibility to give hungry people bread? Yet Jesus tells Satan that there is something even more life-giving and nourishing than bread — the Word of God.
Next, Satan confronts Jesus with the temptation of power. “The devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority.’” Isn’t power a good thing? Power to do good, power to change the world for the better is a really good capacity to have. Yet political power can be distorted and abused, especially as a way to diminish our common life together.
I was struck by the reflections in The Washington Post this week by the columnist George Will, who noted that “politics” in our nation the last few years has been a sort of daydream focused on presidential politics – of right vs. left, red vs. blue, culture wars, partisanship. Will points out that rather than feeding our self-absorption, the war raging in the Ukraine right now “has reminded people that politics is serious.” Politics — which we often dismiss – is a crucial part of life. Political power is important, and it gets lots of good things done.
But Satan connects political power with worship. When politics is about worshipping our own needs and desires, our fixation on who’s right and who’s wrong, then we’re missing the positive use of power.
So Jesus refuses to participate in this otherwise positive endeavor of power for the sake of good. He says, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only [God].’”
Finally, Satan demands that Jesus throw himself down from the top of the temple unharmed. What if Warren Terrell flung himself off the roof of our church and landed upright? Wouldn’t the image of our church, the branding of our congregation, be easier if we had some irrefutable, visible evidence of divine intervention? How much simpler it would be if we had an undeniable something to show to people who ask, “Where is your God? What’s God gonna do for me? Where’s the evidence? Show me some proof.” Then we’d really have something to show all those church shoppers.
Many of you have probably seen churches with brightly-lit billboards outside their buildings. In an attempt to attract people, some churches post messages that change every couple of weeks. “LONELY? Log into this website and find out more about how our church can help you.” “DEPRESSED? Log in here to get the help you need.” “STRESSED? Call this number, our church is here to help you in your time of need.” In other words, the church is here as the cure for your problems, the solution to what ails you at any given moment. Have you got a problem? Come to our church and get that problem fixed.
This is where we can learn something from Satan. Because when it comes down to it, it’s all a matter of what we worship, what we honor and venerate the most. “I’ll give you power over all the kingdoms of the world. All you have to do is worship me,” says Satan. When we say that our most important need, our most earnest desire is not to be lonely or stressed, we’re really worshipping ourselves and our need, making our pain or longing the most important things in our lives. It’s like we’re saying, “If you’re God’s Son, Jesus, turn these stones into bread, give me a sense of inner peace, help me make it through the week, keep my kids in line, fix my marriage, help me with my financial problems—and then I’ll worship you.”
And Jesus refused. He said, “No.”
Maybe Satan knows that all of life is a struggle about what or whom we worship. Who is the God that you worship? Is “God” merely a projection of our wants and needs? Or is God the One who has plans for us, who makes demands of us, who reminds us of our obligations to God and to one another?
Yes, we believe that God cares for us, that God does meet our needs, that God hears our prayers. Yet we also believe that God changes us, changes our needs, awakens us to aspects of life that we weren’t even aware of without God’s presence.
Our lives in faith should be spent not to put our aches and pains, our needs front and center, not to ask “What good can God do for me at the moment?” Instead, we’re called to ask questions like, What does God want from me? How can I play a role in God’s work, rather than how can I get God to work for me?
We’re not here this morning just to worship, certainly not to worship ourselves. We’re here to worship the God who has been revealed to us in Jesus. God has some very specific, very particular expectations of us. Not everything we want is what God wants. All our ways aren’t God’s ways.
Yes, I’m thankful that we find hope and comfort in God’s presence, and I celebrate all the times that we find nourishment for our souls in worship and in our congregational life. Our church offers encouragement, support, and love for all – what a blessing!
But the church itself isn’t a mechanism for getting what we want out of God. Church is the way God has chosen to get what God wants out of us. God has graciously called each of us, saying not, “How can I help you?” but rather, “Come, follow me. Here’s how you, even with all your faults and limitations, your wounds and your sorrows – here’s how you can help me to help others.”
As we begin our Lenten journey together, may we remember how this season ends — not with the fulfillment of Jesus’ every desire, not with spectacular success. It ends on a cross, with Jesus doing what Jesus did there in the wilderness with Satan — commending himself and his life into God’s hands.
I pray that we may spend these Lenten days as people bending our lives toward God. By coming here to worship, you’re not simply gathering to praise God, then going home feeling better. You’ve come here willing to listen, maybe even to obey – to follow Jesus even if he takes you somewhere you don’t want to go. You and I are here to better serve God and one another. May God give us the strength to do so. Amen.