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1 Corinthians 12:1-11; Luke 4:1-13

You know that moment just before takeoff, or just as you’re reaching the top of a roller coaster? You can anticipate that something is happening, and your nerves start to go up. Sometimes they go up a lot. There are plenty of reasons to trust what’s about to happen – airplanes have a great track record, and roller coasters have extensive safety checks – but still, there’s that moment. When the engines spin up, when the lift chain lets go, you’re committed. There’s no going back.

I wonder if Jesus felt that last week, when he came up from the water and heard God’s claim on him. Did his stomach flutter with the realization of what this means? Today’s story strikes me kind of like the takeoff, as the Spirit leads Jesus into something very challenging. We usually read this story on the first Sunday in Lent, because it’s about this 40-day fast. This year, we’re reading stories from Luke’s gospel in order. In this different context, I’m noticing that this story isn’t simply about “temptation,” some urge to behave badly. The word ‘tempt’ is in there, but we might better understand that as testing or proving. This story demonstrates something. It doesn’t demonstrate Jesus’ good behavior so much as the orientation of his heart. At issue is, how solid is Jesus’ reliance on God? The story demonstrates this by giving Jesus a chance to waver.

There are different ways not to rely on God’s presence, to turn away from God. We might assume the one commonly called ‘atheism.’ Really, what we mean there is nihilism, the idea that nothing matters, that we’re all alone in the world and our care, love, and support won’t change anything. But more common than that is idolatry, which theologian Paul Tillich pointed out is a far greater danger than atheism. We all seek a meaningful core of life; idolatry is the problem of putting something other than God there, whether that’s money, status, or power. The question is, where do we find our security? And there’s a particular kind of idolatry: egotism, when we make ourselves the focus of the universe. The Devil’s tests in the gospel reading are all about idolatry, the question of whether Jesus will worship satisfaction, power, or security. The tests are about placing trust somewhere other than God. Faith is not about getting our categories right, and it’s definitely not about behaving perfectly. It’s about trusting what makes life real and worth living.

So that’s what Jesus came to the wilderness to learn: what makes life real? What makes life real is the very same Spirit that sent him there to learn from being proven. Again, ‘proven’ is a better word here than to say that he was “tempted” to do bad things. Sure, we know that people do bad things – and much more frequently than we wish – but those deeds are secondary indicators, the results of putting our loyalty in the wrong place. The core of the problem is the source of our actions. Our actions reveal their source, how we answer what matters. What do we fear? What do we trust? That’s what the Devil proves and tests here. What are Jesus’ highest concerns and most fundamental priorities? What’s most important to Jesus? (Throughout most of the Bible, the devil is more like heavenly quality control than a cosmic bad guy.)

Thinking this way, a good way to respond to testing is not so much to fight it as to ask what it shows us. What do we learn from it? We often scold ourselves for falling off the wagon – when we break our diet, lose our temper, or fall out of touch with our friends – as if God deducts points for it. It’s more productive to recognize what went wrong and trace it back to its source. That reflection usually reveals that something else had us in its sway, like greed, stress, anger, or fear. The beauty is that just noticing this can break the grip of what held us. Remembering that God claims us lets us focus our trust where it belongs, on the boundless love of God.

It’s no mistake that Jesus is tested just after God claims him at baptism. These tests reveal the Spirit, the deep, intimate, tangible presence of God in is life. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, going hungry. He opened himself to the reality that God is more than food. He learned what he was really hungry for. Knowing yourself so deeply means sensing God at the core of who you are, and that claim made at baptism takes on a life of its own.

That reflection happens in a variety of ways. First Corinthians is careful to remind us that the spiritual life works differently for different people, and there’s no single right or wrong way to be. Instead, you can trust the Spirit as it works in your own life. Not that the Spirit always feels trustworthy – not that it always even feels like “God.” Grace in the desert sometimes just feels like the desert. The people at the church in Corinth worried (as some here may) how to listen for God. Are there special tricks? Does it take hard disciplines? Do we have to go walk a labyrinth? Well, maybe, but the answer is simpler. Whatever proclaims that Jesus is Lord, whatever loves God and serves your neighbor, is from the Spirit of God. You can trust it. The Spirit is still at work, teaching us more about love, trust, and hope, teaching us more about God. Thanks be to God.