The Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Thoeni
March 10, 2019
At lunch with a friend several years ago I was having a conversation about his dissatisfaction with his boss. At one point, realizing that most of his concerns were trivial and he really had reason to be perturbed, he flippantly said, “Well you know that I’m the center of the universe.” I told him, “No, no. It only seems like you're the center of the universe because you are sitting so close to me.”
This morning we have heard a Gospel reading about being the center of the universe. Each year, on the first Sunday of Lent, we hear of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness and of his distinct temptations by the devil. We would be wise to understand this passage as a synopsis of temptation.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, but he did not sin. To imagine that these were the only temptations Jesus faced is wrong. Luke hints at this with his oblique ending of this passage saying that the devil, “departed from him until an opportune time.”
These three temptations occur at a particular moment in the life of Jesus. Now, as a grown man, Jesus has been baptized, proclaimed as God’s son at his Baptism, compelled into the desert for forty days of fasting and prayer and now stands at the beginning of his ministry.
Before he begins that ministry he faces three distinct temptations: 1. He is hungry. “You can turn these stones into bread.” The devil taunts him. 2. The devil challenges him to jump from an enormous height. “You will see if God will save you,” the devil says. 3. The devil then offers him all the kingdoms of the world. “I will give it all to you,” the devil tempts him.
But notice Jesus’ responses: 1. Jesus counters that the word of God is more life giving than food. 2. Jesus answers that God should not be tested. 3. Jesus firmly states that God alone deserves worship.
Notice that each of the temptations the devil taunts Jesus to focus on himself. Notice in every response Jesus returns the focus to God. The temptations all have the ring of being the center of the universe. Jesus’ responses all have the point of God being the center.
The beautiful and profound irony in all of this is that Jesus is the center of the universe.
With these temptations, and with Jesus’ responses, we can see the center of the universe humbly shedding his rightful place in favor of obedience to God’s mission.
The implications of this passage are at least two-fold. They tell us the type of savior Jesus would be and they tell us a great deal about the type of lives we are called to live as followers of Jesus.
From the outset Jesus’ focus was faithfulness to God. Paul would later write of Jesus: though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
Though the devil departed Jesus until an opportune time, I strongly suspect the other temptations were very much like the three we have read today: Focus on yourself. In the end, that is the basis of every temptation: Focus on yourself. You are the center of the universe.
And every answer to temptation is the same: God is the center and I am called to focus on God. There is the second implication: what type of lives we are called to live as followers of Jesus. We are called to live the life Jesus led. He was tempted in every way as we are. We are called to respond to every temptation as he did: return our focus to God. Easier said than done. Even our Baptismal Covenant asks us, “Will you…whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” The response the Prayer Book offers is itself one that acknowledges that we are not the center of the universe. The answer is simple and humble and focussed on God,
When asked if whenever we sin will we will repent and return to the Lord, our answer is “I will, with God’s help.” I will, with God’s help.
That is the way Jesus handled temptation and that is the way we should as well. That is the way Jesus offers us forgiveness, and that is the way we receive it. I will, with God’s help. All those years ago, at lunch with my friend, we joked about being the center of the universe. Turns out a more faithful and truer answer would be, “No, no. It only seems like you're the center of the universe because you are sitting so close to God.”