I played with the lectionary so we could read stories from Luke’s gospel in order. That means that this week’s readings come from the first Sunday in Lent, but the gospel follows directly after last week’s story of Jesus’ baptism.

Where are we?

Romans 10:8b-13 comes from the section of Paul’s argument where he’s wrestling with the role of the Jews in the salvation plan God has enacted on behalf of all people. The main thrust of the first part of Romans is how people are saved by faith in Christ, not by keeping the requirements of the Hebrew Law. This chapter begins with a lament over the people of Israel who have not believed in Jesus, countered by scriptural quotations pointing to the need for faith even among the people of Israel. Eventually, Paul will reason through to a way that the people of Israel can be saved.

Luke 4:1-13 is the first narrative after last week’s story of Jesus’ baptism. In the baptism story, a heavenly voice proclaims Jesus to be God’s Son. Then, Luke provides a genealogy of Jesus, through his adoptive father Joseph, back not only to Abraham, but from him all the way back to “Adam, the son of God.” Once that’s established, by divine proclamation and human genealogy, we get today’s story. After this passage, Jesus’ public ministry begins.

What’s going on here?

Romans is far out of context. We won’t hear another word from this book until Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, then it disappears again until next summer. Thankfully, it’s a pretty flexible book, so most of this contextual reading is moot by the time you get to Sunday morning. The opening quotation (from Deuteronomy) almost echoes Paul’s argument from the first chapter that all people naturally have an understanding of God, which must nonetheless be clarified by scripture and ultimately by the person of Christ.

The language about faith, the quotations to reassure us that “Whoever believes in him will not be disappointed,” are sometimes used as something of a threat. We can turn Paul’s argument into a “believe what we say or else,” when what he really meant was to sing praises to God for making it possible for us all to receive grace by putting our trust in Christ. Here Paul is trying to understand how God can be faithful to the covenant with Israel while also making faith the only reliable avenue for people to come to God. He’s a good Jew, staying with the scripture until he’s made some sense of how God can be faithful, even in the face of all these things that seem to point away from faithfulness.

Luke and Acts (both written by the same person) can be thought of as books of the Holy Spirit. That Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit and was led by the Spirit into the desert” is a pattern for how the Spirit works throughout Luke-Acts. In Advent, Mary and Elizabeth were filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied. On Pentecost, the church will be filled with the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues. Throughout the story of the early church, apostles will be led by the Spirit into all sorts of situations.

Fasting and spending time in the wilderness were classic ways of preparing for something or coming into greater connection with God. This could have shades of the penitential way we often think of Lent, but it served just as often in the way that Ramadan serves in Islam: a way to clear away the clutter and focus more intently on the presence of God.

Both Jesus and the Devil quote scripture to each other. Jesus quotes accurately from Deuteronomy, and the Devil quotes just as accurately from a Psalm. No disrespect for the Psalms should be inferred, I’m sure.

Forty is a symbolic number. Days Noah was on the ark, years Moses led Israel in the wilderness, years David and Solomon reigned. Forty means completion, enough. Jesus was in the desert for long enough.

So what?

When we read it alongside Romans, Luke becomes a story about keeping the faith, about Jesus holding onto who he is in the face of the Devil’s challenges. The temptations are familiar to us: relief for our need and suffering; wealth and power; and security. Jesus gives them all up, not because they’re bad things, but because they can be easy substitutes for the awareness of God’s presence.

Having moved Luke’s story out of Lent this year, I’m also finding in it more about guidance and less about temptation. Jesus is never out of touch with the Spirit in Luke. Even on the cross, where Matthew has him cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (a cue to go read all of Psalm 22), Luke instead has Jesus committing his spirit into God’s hands. The Spirit is there.

What are other people saying?

Scott Shauf lays out this story as a contrast to Adam’s temptation in the garden. Whereas Adam’s choice to disobey God led to death for humanity, Jesus’ obedience made it possible for us to have life. This idea is made explicit in Romans (not the passage we’re talking about here, but you never know what’s going to happen between now and Sunday). He also points out that while this story tells us what Jesus won’t do in his ministry, next week’s story tells us what he will.

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