When Jesus was baptized, publicly affirmed by the voice of God, you might think that would be a kind of high point that would be a terrific jumping-off place for something like a preaching campaign or maybe starting a revival.
Instead of Jesus beginning his ministry on a spiritual high point, the Holy Spirit had something else in mind and led Jesus into the wilderness, with the purpose of being tempted by the devil. It’s almost like the spiritual high is not the end-game or the goal. Apparently God’s work is done among the mess of the real world and the challenges of daily life, the experience of physical weakness, and acknowledgement there’s a devil or some spiritual force working against anything good you might be able to do.
Well life has a funny way of sneaking up on you when you think everything’s okay and everything’s going right. And life has a funny way of helping you out when you think everything’s gone wrong, and everything blows up in your face. …Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?
How would you prepare for a showdown with the devil? Maybe surround yourself with all your strength, get a team of family and friends as supporters? Would you grab all your study books, definitely your Bible and start memorizing as fast as you can? Wouldn’t you do everything possible to strengthen your body and mind, eating protein and working out and getting good sleep so you can be prepared?
Jesus did none of these things. He fasted. No food for forty days. In the wilderness. Alone! The Scripture doesn’t say, but I don’t think he took anything with him—no smart phone, no books, not even a change of clothes. How do you think you would feel at that point? Strong and ready to take on the devil?
I mean, life is a mystery. Everyone must stand alone. Jesus did hear God call his name, and maybe it did feel like home. But can Jesus even remember that experience from his baptism, after forty days of fasting, feeling physically worn down?
Of course, that’s when the devil shows up. At the worst possible time. The devil’s like, It’s me, hi. I’m the problem, it’s me.
And the trouble with the devil’s particular mischief is that his suggestions make so much sense. You’re hungry? So create your own bread. Problem solved! The devil isn’t creating obvious destruction; just making gradual destruction look so attractive.
In the creation story that we read, the serpent—who we usually interpret as the same character as the devil—tells the woman the actual truth! You won’t die, but your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. The serpent didn’t lie!
It’s not for nothing that in our liturgy of Holy Baptism, before someone is baptized and even before they confess their faith in God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier—they are asked “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?” If so, respond with “I renounce them.” And then “Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?” “I renounce them.” And finally, “Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?” “I renounce them.”
It’s important to notice the things that get in the way of trusting God, the things that get in the way of worshiping God, the things that get in the way of understanding God. The sin and fear and ego and humanness.
The big question for us today is this: who will you listen to? Whose voice is in your head? Who can you trust to tell you the truth? Who reminds you of the truth of who you are?
It’s not always easy to remember your belovedness as a child of God, to remain rooted in your beloved identity. That takes some dedication, probably some time and attention, building some good habits, like spending time with Scripture and letting the words really sink in.
When Jesus went into the wilderness to fast for forty days, he definitely didn’t take a Bible with him—the Bible, as we know it, did not yet exist. He may not have had any Holy Scriptures with him at all, but we do know that he studied those Scriptures thoroughly. He knew the psalms, the holy stories, the prophets, and he knew it well enough that it stuck with him even when he had nothing else in his hands. How else could he have known to quote Scripture in response to the devil’s questions?
As it turns out, the devil can just as easily quote Scripture back to Jesus. In the battle of Scripture versus Scripture, which side wins? Jesus doesn’t deny that the devil is quoting actual Scripture, but the question is how are you using Scripture? You can take any words out of context, strip them of their meaning, and twist them to suit your own purposes—that’s how the devil uses Scripture.
Jesus is not interested in testing the truth of Scripture that way—make bread from these stones! Get the angels to save you! Use your power for your own gain! All of the devil’s suggestions are quick fixes, a brief ego trip. Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment, would you capture it? Or just let it slip?
Jesus says: that’s not how a relationship with God works. God is more interested in the long game, the big picture, the maybe-small-but-nevertheless-consequential move toward healing the relationship with humanity which has been broken by sin.
Martin Luther explained Scripture in terms of Law and Gospel. The Law is the parts of Scripture that reveal where we as humans fall short of righteousness. One of the uses of the Law, as Luther put it, is that the Law is like a mirror, reflecting the truth and pointing out the places where we mess up and showing us our need for forgiveness.
But we cannot save ourselves, so we also need the Gospel. The Gospel is the message running throughout Scripture—even in the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament, the Gospel is there too—and the Gospel shows us forgiveness of sins and offers us life and reconciliation in Jesus Christ. We need both Law and Gospel.
But sometimes people don’t get it right. People use Scripture in the wrong way all the time, interpreting stories to suit themselves. Christians who identify as LGBTQIA+ are probably familiar with sections of the Bible that are used as justification to exclude them from full fellowship in Christian community—they call these the “clobber passages,” because these are pieces of Scripture used to “clobber” them, to spiritually beat them up. Some people leave the church, leave God, and never return.
If Scripture is being used to exclude people, that’s not the proper use of Scripture. If you’re curious to learn more about how we as Lutherans interpret these parts of Scripture about sexuality and gender identity, there’s a helpful resource from ReconcilingWorks: Reconciling Scripture for Lutherans. This goes through several parts of Scripture in the Bible that are often used to exclude LGBTQIA+ people, and offers new ways to consider these words from Scripture, as well as offering Scriptures that can purposefully be inclusive.
Another place of problematic interpretation shows up in the story we read this morning from Genesis, about humans giving in to the temptation to sin. This is one of those passages in Scripture which is used later on in Scripture to justify the silencing of women. Entire denominations are fine with this interpretation, and some are still debating it, notably our siblings in the Southern Baptist Convention who recently removed some congregations from their fellowship because those congregations were ordaining women as preachers and pastors.
You can probably guess that I don’t find that Scriptural interpretation compelling, and neither does our denomination in the ELCA, and neither does this congregation, since you were the ones who called me here to be your pastor. But in case anyone ever asks why I think it’s okay to preach, even though I’m a woman and there’s a place in Scripture that says women shouldn’t be allowed to do this, my simple answer is this: I had to decide who to listen to. Do I follow some brief reference in the Bible? Or do I follow the call of the living Christ? I decided I would rather risk being wrong than risk being disobedient to God.
Besides, you can look again at that Genesis story about the serpent and the temptations and Eve. In an article in Sojourners magazine, Natalie Wigg-Stevenson points out that what Eve was seeking was wisdom. There’s nothing wrong with desiring wisdom. Now, as the story goes, her methods for gaining wisdom did not work, and she listened to the advice of the serpent, who did not have her best interests at heart.
Also notice: the serpent was offering a quick fix for wisdom. There is no quick fix for gaining wisdom. Be wary: if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Who will you listen to? Will you open yourself to Scripture, let God’s Word sink in and interpret you? Will you listen for wisdom, for the leading of the Holy Spirit, resisting easy answers and quick fixes? Will you get so comfortable in the sound of God’s Grace that you being to hear echoes of God’s voice among the words of modern-day poets like Alanis Morissette, Taylor Swift, Madonna, or Eminem?
Who will you listen to? There’s more good news: you’re not alone in this discernment! You’ve got the whole Body of Christ around you, all of us made siblings in baptism. You’ve got hundreds of years of Biblical interpretation and reflection, Martin Luther and other helpful wisdom guides. And not least of all: you’ve got the Holy Spirit. The same Holy Spirit who led Jesus through the wilderness, that same Holy Spirit is with you, too.
And the Holy Spirit might even say, as Bon Jovi once sang, we’ve got each other, and that’s a lot. For love, we’ll give it a shot. Whoa! We’re halfway there! Whoa! We’ve livin’ on a prayer.
 Alanis Morissette, “Ironic”  Madonna, “Like a Prayer”  Taylor Swift, “Anti-Hero”  Profession of Faith, liturgy of Holy Baptism, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 229.  Eminem, “Lose Yourself”  See 1 Timothy 2:11-14  Natalie Wigg-Stevenson, “The Complexities of Wisdom,” Sojourners, February/March 2023, page 47.  Bon Jovi, “Livin’ on a Prayer”