Teach Us to Number
Our Days: 40 Days in the Wilderness
A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist
February 17, 2013
The First Sunday in Lent
Psalm 90; Luke 4:1-13; Philippians 3:
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the
Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.
He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was
famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this
stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, “One
does not live by bread alone.”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of
the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and
all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to
anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus
answered him, “It is written, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only
him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle
of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself
down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning
you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you
will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus
answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When
the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune
This weekend our youth
have been participating in “the AmazinGrace,” learning how to “press on
toward the goal for the prize of the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
As I understand it Paul was using a sports analogy, he was talking
about an actual practice in his day where the winner of a footrace would
wait to hear his name called and then he would climb the steps of the
stadium to have a laurel wreath placed on his head by the governor, the
king, the emperor—whoever was in charge.
So, here's Paul, forgetting his old life and everything else that lies
behind, straining forward, and pressing on toward the goal, the finish line.
He wants to finish first. He wants to hear Jesus call his name.
He wants to climb those stairs and stand there humbly as God places the
laurel wreath on his head. But that's not going to happen if he slows
down, or if he stumbles and falls, or if he gets distracted by everything
going on around him. He’s got to stay focused, and he urges the
Philippians to do the same.
This is a call to a
“purpose-driven life” if you will.
I think it’s the perfect theme for a DiscipleNow weekend and it may
be the perfect introduction to our Lenten sermon series.
It’s called “Teach Us to Number Our Days,” and the title comes from
Psalm 90, the only one in the book attributed to Moses, where we are
reminded that people don’t live forever on this earth.
“The days of our years are threescore years and ten,” Moses says,
“and if by reason of strength they be fourscore, yet are their years labor
and sorrow; they are soon cut off, and we fly away” (Psalm 90:10).
Translation? “You might
live to be 70 years old, or even 80 if you’re really strong,” Moses says,
“but you’re not going to live forever.
Life is hard, and sooner or later it’s going to get the best of you.”
Of course Moses was writing 3,500 years ago, when people didn’t live
as long, and he wasn’t thinking about First Baptist Church, where our
members seem to live longer than most.
Still, his point is valid.
“Lord, since we’re not going to live forever,” he says, “teach us to
number our days” (vs. 12).
Another way to say it is, “Teach us to make every day count.”
And that’s what we’re going to do in this sermon series: we’re going
to try to learn those lessons that will help us make the most of our lives.
The season of Lent is a good time to do it.
We begin this season on Ash Wednesday, where in some traditions the priest
makes an ashy sign of the cross on his parishioners’ heads and says,
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
It’s just a fancy way of saying, “Remember that someday you are going
to die.” For that reason it matters how you live.
“Teach us to number our days,” Moses says, “that we may get a heart
of wisdom.” In other words,
“Since we only have one shot at this, help us to get it right.”
So, let’s do that. Let’s
number our days. And let’s begin
with the number 40.
It’s an important number in the Bible. In Genesis we hear that it
rained for 40 days and 40 nights when the great flood came. In the
story of the Exodus we learn that the people of God wandered in the
wilderness for 40 years. 40 days seems to be the Bible's way of
saying, "a long time," and 40 years is a way of saying, "a long, long time."
So, Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days—a long time—and in that time,
Luke tells us, he was being tempted by the devil.
There’s a Baptist religion professor named Scott Shauf who begins his
commentary on this passage with a reference to John Milton’s
Do you know that poem?
You probably do. It’s a long one
that retells the story of how Adam and Eve fell from grace in the Garden of
Eden. But Milton wrote a sequel
to that poem called Paradise Regained
that not so many people know about.
It takes as its subject today’s Gospel lesson: Jesus’ temptation in
the wilderness. Shauf says,
“Milton rightly saw that in resisting the devil’s temptations Jesus
initiated the possibility for humanity to regain the paradise lost in the
And then Shauf pointed out something I had never seen before.
He said that Luke himself wants us to see the contrast between Adam, who
gave in to temptation, and Jesus, who didn’t.
In chapter three of his Gospel Luke gives us the genealogy of Jesus,
beginning with Jesus and working backward until he gets to Enos, the son of
Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.
And then Luke starts chapter four by saying that Jesus was led by the
Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil, who
says to him over and over again, “If you are the Son of God, then do this,
or this, or this.” Jesus is the
Son of God, and Adam is the Son of God, but here’s the difference: Adam
gives in to temptation while Jesus does not.
You have to wonder why, don’t you?
How is that Jesus can resist temptation but Adam can’t?
Is it just because he’s Jesus?
Does he have some superhuman ability to resist temptation that the
rest of us don’t have? I don’t
think so. The author of Hebrews
says that Jesus was tempted in all the same ways we are, only he didn’t give
in (Heb. 4:15). So, what was his
secret? That’s what we’d like to
Scott Shauf asks us to notice that just after the story of Jesus’ temptation
in the wilderness Luke tells us about the time he went to his hometown
synagogue in Nazareth and announced what his ministry was all about.
“The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he said, “For he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and
recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
The temptation story, Shauf says, “has as a primary point to show us
what Jesus is not going to do with
his ministry.” The Nazareth
story, on the other hand, shows us what Jesus
is going to do.
In Luke 1:33 Mary was told by the angel that Jesus was coming to
establish his kingdom, and what Jesus describes in the Nazareth synagogue is
the nature of that kingdom, the kingdom of God.
Shauf says, “His kingdom, of course, is not about the political rule of
Israel but rather the reclamation by God of the entire fallen world.
So whereas the succumbing of Adam and
Eve resulted in the loss of life in God’s presence, Jesus’ resistance of
temptation was the beginning of the restoration of life in God’s presence.”
If Shauf is right about all this, then Jesus is trying to show us how
to get Paradise back, and the way to do it apparently is not to wait until
you die so you can go to heaven, but to bring heaven to earth here and now.
How? By resisting
Let me explain.
Take a look at that first temptation.
Jesus has been in the wilderness for forty days, Luke says—a long
time—and in all that time he has eaten nothing.
And so the devil comes to him and says, “If you are the son of God,
command this stone to become bread.”
Shauf says it’s interesting when you make the comparison between
Jesus and Adam to note that the first temptation in the wilderness has to do
with eating, just as the temptation in the Garden of Eden did.
More broadly, he says, “the temptation is for Jesus to use his
authority as the Son of God to meet his personal needs and desires.
While this was no doubt a temptation for Jesus throughout his
ministry, it is especially during his crucifixion that this would come to
the fore again, as he is tempted by the onlookers to save himself from the
cross. Just as there the
temptation is made in a situation of tremendous personal suffering, so too
here the temptation to eat comes in a time of severe hunger, with Jesus
having fasted for forty days.”
But as he announced in that Nazareth synagogue, his ministry is always
focused on others, never on himself.
The second temptation is “a direct appeal to the human desire for power.
Jesus is offered the authority and glory of all the kingdoms of the
world. For Jesus this was a
temptation to embrace what many would have expected of him as the Messiah:
political and military might and rule.
That Jesus rejects such power is a clear sign that his messiahship,
his kingdom, is of a different nature than the common expectations.
The contrast with the mission Jesus announces in the Nazareth
synagogue is again clear; Jesus’ mission is about saving others, not about
asserting worldly power.”
The third temptation, Shauf says, jumping from the pinnacle of the temple,
“is the most difficult to interpret,” and even his interpretation isn’t
entirely satisfying. He calls it
a “cross-avoiding spectacle,” and says that on the surface the devil seems
to be tempting Jesus to do something big and showy, a magician’s trick that
will lead to fame and riches rather than to service and the cross.
But is there something more? The temptation, after all, occurs on the
pinnacle of the Jerusalem temple. Is this a foreshadowing of the
crucifixion? And does Jesus
refuse to jump down off the pinnacle of the temple for the same reason he
later refused to jump down off the cross?
Because he didn’t come to make a name for himself, but to give
himself for the sake of others.
Now, let me get back to what I said earlier, that thing about getting
Paradise back by resisting temptation, because some of you got stuck right
there and you haven’t budged since.
You remember that Paradise was lost because Adam and Eve didn’t
resist temptation, right? And I
think John Milton and maybe even Luke would say that Jesus took the first
steps in getting Paradise back by resisting temptation.
But what about us? How
are we going to get Paradise back?
Well, look at what Jesus did: he spent forty days in the wilderness
getting clear about who he was and why he was here.
When he comes out of the wilderness he is able to say, in that
Nazareth synagogue, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me for he has anointed
me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and
recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed
and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
After forty days in the wilderness getting clear about his mission he
is perfectly clear, and because he is perfectly clear about what his mission
is he is also perfectly clear
about what it is not: it’s not
about serving himself, or lording it over others, or about avoiding the
cross. You might say, “That
doesn’t sound like Paradise to me!”
Doesn’t it? To know exactly who
you are and exactly why you are here, so that you can fulfill your life’s
purpose with single-minded devotion, never slowing down, never stumbling or
falling, never being distracted by the multitude of little temptations that
come your way? That doesn’t
sound like Paradise to you? It
does to Paul. He says, “Look, I
used to have it all, but I found the one thing that is worth everything: I
found Jesus. And now I’m running
as hard and fast and straight as I can, keeping my eye on the prize.
I don’t have time to be tempted, and I certainly don’t have time to
give in. I want to cross that
finish line first. I want to
hear Jesus call my name. I want
to climb those steps and let God himself put the crown of righteousness on
my head and when he does do you know what that’s going to be?
Somerville © 2013
[i] Scott Shauf,
Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Gardner-Webb University,
Boiling Springs, North Carolina, in his comments on the “Working
Preacher” web site (www.workingpreacher.org).
I quote him extensively in this sermon, with gratitude for