The First Sunday in Lent, Year C, Trinity Church, Winchester & Christ Church, Alto

“Then the devil took him to Jerusalem” (Lk. 4:9).

Did you notice how Luke tells the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness? The order of the temptations is different in the Gospel of Matthew and in the Gospel of Luke: both are agreed on three temptations, but Luke places the temptation for Jesus to throw himself down from the Temple as the last in the series, instead of placing it second, as Matthew does.

“Stones to bread;” “fall down and worship;” “cast yourself down”: that’s the order that Luke gives us. I think that we can presume that each Gospel writer tells the story as he sees it, so this difference in detail is significant. Matthew ends the series of temptations with the devil inviting Jesus to worship him and to receive all the kingdoms of the world in return. This seems to end the series with the most fundamental test of all: the sin of apostasy, the worship of other gods. It’s a logical sequence, moving from manipulating God, to testing God, to abandoning God.

Luke tells the story of temptation differently, however, with the final temptation ending in Jerusalem. There’s no evidence that Luke believed that testing God was a more fundamental or serious temptation than apostasy, but there’s plenty of evidence in all four Gospels that Jerusalem was the place of Jesus’ final test: that is, his arrest, his trial, his execution. Luke makes this forward glance quite explicit. As our Gospel says today, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Lk. 4:13).

Luke’s version, his story and the way he tells it, has the virtue of connecting this time of testing in the wilderness with the final temptation, which also takes place in Jerusalem. The contest in the wilderness is not a standalone encounter with the devil, but is part and parcel of a more extended engagement, a struggle with evil in the world that only comes to a climax in Jerusalem. As Luke puts it, Jesus’ ministry begins with this contest, immediately after his baptism, and ends with it as well. It’s the contest with evil that takes Jesus to Jerusalem.

This way of telling the story also helps us understand what Jesus is doing in his public ministry. His acts of healing are visible and effective signs that evil is being overcome: not evil in the sense of personal acts of turpitude on any person’s part but rather the evil of the wicked, wicked world that we inherit simply by being members of the human race. When Jesus announces the forgiveness of sins he is bringing healing to those who suffer from the damage that sin inflicts. When Jesus struggles with the demons he’s not contending with figments of the human imagination but with evil itself, the deep shadow of the universe.

Luke’s version also reminds us that what is fundamental for the salvation of the world is what Jesus does in Jerusalem. Luke keeps us centered on Jerusalem, keeps the city in view, even at the very beginning. Lent, after all, brings us to Good Friday, to the shadow of the cross, and then to Easter and the empty tomb. Jesus’ ministry will be accomplished in Jerusalem, as our Gospel last Sunday recalled. The devil may have brought him to Jerusalem but God’s will for salvation cannot be frustrated. He turns even the tricks of the devil to his own good purpose.

For our part, our Gospel today sets the trajectory for where we’re headed this Lent. During this season we will be walking with Jesus to Jerusalem. We too will have our temptations. All of us are subject to besetting sins, the things that cling so closely to us that sometimes we cannot even see them. Now is the time of recognition; the time of healing and reconciliation, the time of forgiveness and renewal.

If we are travelling with Jesus this Lent, then we know how the story ends. We may be on the journey for forty days, but the ending is always the same. We will come to rest in Jerusalem, with death and resurrection. That’s his story and our story as well, for those who have faith in him: hope out of despair, new life out of death.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee