All That It Means To Be Human
A sermon on Luke 4:1-13. For an audio recording of this sermon, click here.
Photo by Brandon Hoogenboom on Unsplash.
As many of you know, I grew up in what can be called a “non-liturgical” church tradition.
This is not to say that we didn’t have a liturgy – any fairly predictable pattern of worship is a liturgy – but the kind of liturgy that I grew up with did not emphasize the different church seasons, with all of the layered meaning and tradition that these seasons provide.
As a result, the only thing that I knew about Lent for the first several decades of my faith was that some people “give things up” for Lent.
At different points on my faith journey, I tried out the practice: giving up coffee, or social media, or sugar (that last one might just have been baptizing a diet, if I’m honest).
Despite the mixing of sacred and superficial motivations, I have sometimes found giving things up for Lent to be a meaningful exercise.
The spiritual practice of fasting (whatever I fast from) gives me a new perspective on my own patterns, as well more time and focus for prayer.
But, looking back, I realize how easy it was for my Lenten practices to be more performative than transformative.
My focus was on the discipline, and on the “thing” I was intentionally eliminating from my life. While this was not necessarily a bad thing, it was about my own will and commitment, and as a result it did not translate into a deep experience of dependence on God.
It felt like the point of the activity was the sacrifice.
But as I consider the story of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert – which is the basis for the idea of the Lenten fast – I find a very different understanding of what this season has to teach me, and all of us.
My favorite commentator, Debie Thomas, declares as her summary of the lesson of today’s gospel: “Lent is not a time to do penance for being human. It’s a time to embrace all that it means to be human.”
Let me say that again. “Lent is not a time to do penance for being human. It’s a time to embrace all that it means to be human.”
In the wilderness, Jesus is confronted by just how real his incarnation is, how real the weaknesses and needs of his human life and body are.
Gnawed by the hunger of a body that depends on sustenance from outside itself,
isolated from the supports and companionship of human society,
unprotected from the physical dangers of weather and wild animals,
Jesus leans into the full consequences of what it means to be human for those 40 days of wilderness fasting.
But his challenge is not just to face these realities, it is to embrace them. Debie Thomas draws her conclusion about the meaning of Lent by exploring how the Tempter tries to convince Jesus to shrug off these weaknesses, and the lies he tells in the process… lies we might be tempted to believe.
The most obvious weakness that Jesus encounters is his hunger:
He goes 40 days without a single bite of food, so it’s no surprise that by the end of that time, he is – truly – famished. His body is screaming at him that if he does not eat, he will die. This is TRUE.
The lie with which the Adversary tempts Jesus is that he should not have to experience hunger.
“If you are the Son of God” begins the temptation… if God has really claimed you and loves you, then you have the right to eliminate your hunger in whatever manner presents itself to you.
It’s a subtle twisting of the very real need that Jesus is experiencing… a claim that his need is inconsistent with his identity, that only an alleviation of his hunger will prove that he is, indeed, God’s beloved.
But Jesus understands something deeper about hunger than its physical reality.
Hunger is distressing and uncomfortable, and in extremes it can kill us, but that does not mean that it is to be avoided in all circumstances.
Hunger can also be a powerful teacher.
As he submits to the experience of hunger, Jesus learns more deeply how to rely on God, for, “One does not live by bread alone.”
As he allows his hunger to endure, he learns that deprivation does NOT, in fact, destroy him OR his belovedness. However severe his hunger, it has no impact at all on his identity.
And in this endurance, Jesus teaches us to examine our own urges to quench hungers and longings as soon as they appear… especially the kinds of hunger that cannot be satisfied by bread.
The lie used to try to tempt Jesus to turn a stone into bread is the same lie we hear from culture, and advertising, and our own instincts.
If I want it badly enough, I should be able to claim it;
and I should resent whatever law, or circumstance, or barrier keeps me from it;
and if I cannot get it, I can never hope to flourish. I cannot be both “hungry” and fulfilled in my life as it is.
But that is a lie. It’s a temptation to draw us away from our trust and our dependence on God, and to turn us instead toward dissatisfaction, and vain striving, and bottomless appetite.
Hunger is painful, but it does not define who we are.
The second temptation that Jesus faces – the second susceptibility of our shared human nature – is again an assault on identity, this time through the door of ego.
We are accustomed to celebrating Jesus’ humility, so this may seem like a strange weakness to exploit, but stop and think about all that Jesus has surrendered.
He is God, but he surrenders the power and wholeness of that being to be born as a helpless baby. He then lives 30 years of ordinary peasant life, in an unimportant village.
Then, at his baptism, Jesus finally receives affirmation from the heavens when God’s voice announces, “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22) For a moment the veil of insignificance lifts.
But what happens next? God’s Spirit leads him into the wilderness, where he downgrades from obscurity to total isolation.
The Tempter seeks to leverage this apparent abandonment: I see your capability. I am even willing to surrender my authority to you. I would never deny you power and praise. Just look at all the acknowledgement I can offer you.
Of course, Jesus knew the offer was false, but there was a more insidious lie behind the surface.
The underlying lie is the assumption that Jesus’ unnoticed, ordinary life means that God’s declaration of love is what is truly false, because how could God’s Beloved be left to languish?
It’s a lie that worms its way into our human need to be noticed, to be valued and praised.
We can possibly imagine suffering for a good cause, but to do so without recognition? That’s asking a lot.
It’s asking us to reject the world’s way of measuring which lives have value.
It’s asking us to believe that the only value that really matters is the value we hold in God’s eyes.
And, it’s asking us to trust that God values us, even when we don’t see God blessing us.
Those niggling doubts about our value join our disbelief that we can live with unsatisfied hunger, to reinforce the final human reality that we so desperately want to deny: we are vulnerable.
Jesus’s final temptation is an invitation to simply refuse this unavoidable experience of being human.
What other appeal could there be in the temptation to throw himself from the Temple peak?
It’s a dare. A challenge for Jesus to show that he’s not fragile and breakable like all of us weak humans.
It’s an appeal to invincibility, a call to finally reject the human truth that to be human means to be vulnerable to hurt, and pain, and death.
The lie behind the dare, the lie that creeps into far too much so-called Christian theology, is the claim that God’s Beloved could not possibly be both loved and vulnerable. Surely, if God loves you, God will keep you safe.
The temptations all started with an if… “If you are the Son of God.”
That “if” carries through the whole temptation scene… weaving subtle lies into the challenges and offers… suggesting that Jesus needs to prove his Sonship, to prove his Belovedness, and that the only way to do so is to reject his humanness.
And that same “if” creeps into our own hearts when the truth of our humanness makes us question God’s love for us:
When our hungers are not sated…
when our need for admiration and approval is not satisfied…
when we confront our vulnerability and God does not miraculously save us…
because, surely, if we are truly God’s beloved, God wouldn’t make bear the burden of our humanity!
Except, that is exactly what Jesus, God’s beloved Son, did do… he bore the burden of our humanity. He embraced it. He refused to be released from any of the hunger, or insignificance, or vulnerability that we face. He demonstrated his love for us by choosing to be human with us.
And I believe that this is not only the meaning, but also the invitation of Lent – the invitation to embrace all that it is to be human.
The temptation is always to avoid discomfort and to interpret it as judgement.
But we have another option. We can join Jesus on the Lenten journey of embracing our needs, even when they are not satisfied, and discovering that God’s love is there for us, regardless.
Thanks be to God.
Both this quote and many of the ideas that shaped this sermon come from this week’s lectionary commentary at: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=3336