03/10/2019: Wilderness Examination


Luke 4: 1-13
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
March 10, 2019

Sooner or later, every one of us takes a wilderness exam. And we thought exams were over once we finished formal schooling! No, the exams were just beginning! And they always seem to take place in a wilderness. It may appear to be a hospital room, but it is really a wilderness. It may look like your bedroom where you lie awake between 2:00 and 4:00 AM struggling with a problem, but it is really a wilderness.


The point is not to dwell on the exact temptations of Jesus. Ours is not the Son of God exam. Ours is the old Adam and Eve exam, the one that tests how deeply human we are and how we respond to the call to follow the Way of Christ. This story of the temptations of Jesus is always read on the first Sunday in Lent because it reminds us that we all take the wilderness exam. The exam questions are all reality based: they have to do with more bread, more power, and more faith. Lent is our annual tutorial for the wilderness exam.

Lent is not and never has been about self-flagellation; it is about thinking deeply about things that truly matter: what is of ultimate value to you? How does our faith lead us to live in the 21st century? What are the things that I can do that will deepen my love for God and love for my neighbor? How do we reconcile a loving God and human suffering? These are big questions worthy of our best thinking.


Have you ever noticed that the significant exam questions of life often come after some profound religious experience? A baby is born, and we find ourselves asking about the meaning of our life. We say a final goodbye to someone we deeply love, and we find ourselves in the wilderness answering questions about the meaning and direction of our lives. We are offered a job in a different state, and we find ourselves in the wilderness answering questions about what is important to us.

That is the kind of thing described in this familiar story about Jesus. The temptations come immediately after one of the most profoundly moving religious experiences of his life. Look again at the opening words of the story: Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan…. Returned from the Jordan refers to the intense experience he had at his baptism. It was such a moving, emotional, powerful religious experience that he felt like heaven was opened…and a voice came from heaven, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.

Whatever you make of that description, it is clear that Jesus had a profoundly moving religious experience at his baptism. It was a moment of illumination for him. What would we expect after such a powerful spiritual experience? I imagine that most of us would expect a deep sense of peace to fall upon a person after such an experience. We would expect a sense of harmony with the world, a sense of satisfaction with life and confidence for the future. Instead, the very next words in this story describe an excruciating time of testing, a story of inner struggle and pain, 40 days of hunger and temptation and isolation.

Some people may scorn this anthropomorphic description of the Tempter and the imagery of angels sweeping down to save someone who jumps from the pinnacle of the Temple, but these are images, symbols of real struggles that we all have to address. They reflect our wilderness exam questions.


So take up your mental pencil, get out your spiritual blue book, and ponder question #1 for this Lent: what satisfies your deepest hunger? Is it bread, or the form of bread that we call cash? If so, how will you use your bread? How will you invest your bread? How will you enable your bread to continue nourishing people long after you are gone? Bread is much more than flour, yeast, and water. Bread is that which nourishes us.

Question #2 for Lent: how will you employ power? The wily devil says to Jesus, …worship me, and it will all be yours. I can imagine the inner argument: power can be a good thing; look what I can do with all that power! I have never known anyone who argued that he or she wanted more power in order to do bad things. We want more power and authority to do good things with it! It is interesting to me that the Greek word for power in the New Testament is dunamis, the root word for dynamite, something that can be used to destroy or to build.

Alfred Nobel, as you all know, was the Swedish scientist who invented dynamite. You may not know the story of how he established the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1888, Alfred’s brother Ludvig died, and a French newspaper erroneously published the previously prepared obituary of Alfred! The obituary said, le marchand de la mort est mort, the merchant of death is dead, and it went on to say, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” When Alfred read his own obituary and saw himself described as “the merchant of death,” he was thrust into his own wilderness. How could he leave a better legacy than to invent a way to kill more people faster than ever before? From that wilderness exam he signed a new will that created the Nobel Peace Prize, as well as prizes for physical science, chemistry, medical science, and literature. Since his death in 1896, the assets left for the Nobel prizes have grown to the point where the winner of each prize gets about $1.1 million. We likely do not have the resources of Alfred Nobel, but that wilderness question still comes to all of us: how will I employ my power?

Now Lenten question #3: what kind of religion will I practice? Religion is like dynamite: it can be good or bad, used for construction or destruction. What will it be? The biblical story could not be clearer: hosts of people liked spectacular religion, magical religion, religion that attracts the masses. What a temptation that is for anyone involved in religion! It must have been a real temptation for Jesus to practice that kind of religion. But to all three of those temptations he answered with a decided “NO!” Oh, there was a spate of proof-texting for every “No,” but that simple word was the way he answered his wilderness exam questions.

Does it fascinate you, as it does me, that the very first words that Jesus speaks in his adult ministry (at least in Luke’s version) are “No…no…no!”? Maybe there are times in our lives when we do not know what we believe in or exactly how our lives will play out; we just know what we do not believe in and what we will not do! And it can be of great value to affirm those negatives! For the rest of the gospel story, we are told what Jesus affirmed. But here at the beginning, just after his baptism, we are told what he rejected. At some points in our lives, that may be the most important thing we can do!


One more observation about this realistic story: the very last words of the story are these: When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. That last phrase, …until an opportune time… means that the wilderness exam was not over. There was only a break in the testing. There was more to come at an opportune time.

What could be more realistic? The testing continues, and it comes when we are most vulnerable, when we are exhausted and spent, when we are the least prepared to make sound moral or ethical decisions. In other words, the exam continues when we are in our wilderness times.

Lent reminds us that we are not alone. Christ himself experienced the human struggle of the wilderness exam. And when we think we are all alone in our moral and ethical decisions, we discover a divine presence that is even more real than the wily Tempter. When you take a deep breath and fill your lungs with courage, you discover the promise he made to all of us: I will be with you always, even to the end of the world.