Scripture Readings: Psalm 32; Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” The first Sunday in the season of Lent always draws us into the wilderness. Into the wilderness with Jesus …the place where Jesus spends 40 days and 40 nights fasting…and afterwards, we are told, he is famished. Understandably so…and because of the fast, most likely also physically and mentally beyond tired. He is alone and vulnerable. And in this hungry, tired, vulnerable state, Jesus is confronted by the tempter. The tempter who skillfully attempts to wear Jesus down with wilderness questions about who he is…all the while attempting to place doubt in Jesus’ mind.
The tempter places temptations before Jesus that are tricky and deceptively quite appealing… especially when one is hungry, tired and alone. As one writer put it, the tempter tempts Jesus to take care of himself…to save the world no matter the cost…and to prove his faith in himself, apart from God. The tempter attempts with everything he has to have Jesus question his identity as God’s beloved son. To have Jesus question his vocation…his divine vocation to be the Saviour. To have Jesus reply on his own divine power and to forget that God is God, that God will provide what he needs, and that God alone is worthy of worship. The tempter, during this wilderness experience, tempts Jesus to question who he is, and what he knew lay ahead. He says to Jesus: you can live apart from God…you can acquire fame and fortune apart from God…you can have all the power apart from God. Just do it. When you consider the temptations, the tempter was ultimately suggesting to Jesus that there was no need for him to go to the cross. Do these things now, and you can avoid the cross later.
Jesus was led into the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry, just after his baptism. It was at Jesus’ baptism that his identity as God’s son was confirmed. As soon as Jesus was baptized, a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And then…whoosh…Jesus is led by the spirit into the wilderness. Full of the Spirit, and with God’s voice from heaven still fresh in his ears…he begins his wilderness experience. Alone in the wilderness he hears no other voices… until after fasting for the 40 days and nights…he hears the tempter’s voice. If you are the Son of God, the tempter says. If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread. And then…if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. Not once, but twice the tempter attempts to put doubt in Jesus’ mind. If you are the Son of God. And then when the first two attempts fail, the tempter says: All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me. The tempter attempts to get Jesus to deny God – the one who called him Beloved – to turn away from that truth and to worship the one who claims to have power…but in fact is powerless before God.
The temptations in the wilderness are attempts by the tempter to have Jesus question himself. How do you know you are God’s Son? Really…how do you know? Wouldn’t it be better to know for certain? The tempter puts Jesus through the paces with some tough wilderness questions about himself – about his identity. The tempter tempts Jesus with temptations that weren’t illegal or violent. Turning stones into bread isn’t a bad idea. It’s useful. After all, Jesus was hungry. He needed to be fed and nourished. Who cares if a couple of stones are turned to bread? And consider the world’s real hunger. Bread was tangible. It could do good. And then what’s wrong with a bit of a spectacle. People love an amazing performer. Perhaps he should test God’s love for him, and claim God’s protection, by throwing himself off the top of the temple. People would be impressed. And what is sinful about a son calling on the protection of his father? And wouldn’t it be great to claim all the kingdoms of the world…as the rightful ruler, after all. What’s wrong with having it all?
Ahhh, the tempter says. Just imagine! Turn stone to bread, jump from the Temple, worship me…and you will never know doubt again. You will know. You will be sufficient on your own. Life will be good! It will be easier and better! Just worship me.
Ahhh, temptations. The temptation to make it easy. I came across the following poem written by Chip Camden and entitled Temptations. The words invite us to consider the choices that were before Jesus – to be obedient to God, or choose the easier way. “Creature comforts. And why not? All you have to do is give up a few rocks. These sun-baked stones that burn your hands and cut your feet could soon become a desert treat! Stop being so hard on yourself! Fame. All yours for the taking. All you have to do is leave this lonely wilderness. Head right to the center of the noisy crowd. Drop in your branding clear and loud. Start showing what you've got! Power. Not as easy, but well within your reach. All you have to do is want it more than anything. Make it your top priority. Your one and only deity, instead of your strange, silly God of suffering, solitude and silence.”
The tempter put choices in front of Jesus. Feed me. Deliver me. Prove yourself to me. Voices telling him to take advantage of his position as the Son of God…voices crying out to him to take care of his own needs first and foremost…voices pulling him away from that inner voice he most needed at a time when he was so vulnerable. But as tempting as the tempter tried to make each temptation sound…Jesus didn’t fall for any of them. Jesus stood firm. The tempter tried to make Jesus do what seemed entirely reasonable and good – but to do so for all the wrong reasons. After each temptation, Jesus could have reached for the tangible, the extraordinary, and the miraculous. But instead, Jesus chose deprivation over power. He chose vulnerability over rescue. He chose obscurity over honour. The path for Jesus was one of teaching…preaching…healing …and reaching out to those in need, not just having kingdoms handed to him. The path for Jesus was not filled with shortcuts. It was filled with an agonizing journey to the cross. Jesus said no to the temptation to replace his reliance upon God…to demand God take action…to live without God. Jesus said no, and he chose to say no by expressing his devotion to God. Jesus understood and lived the great commandment to love God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” When it comes right down to it, the three temptations are all attempts by the tempter to have Jesus break the commandment to love God. Quoting from the Book of Deuteronomy chapters 6 through 8, Jesus responded: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Do not put the Lord your God to the test. Away with you, Satan! for it is written, Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Well, the wilderness experience was more than trying, but it was finally over. At this point in the story, Matthew tells us that angels came and waited on Jesus. Jesus had been through the wringer, and even though he was hungry and tired, the wilderness experience – full of wilderness questions about his identity – all served to make him stronger than he had been before. With each temptation Jesus became stronger. In the wilderness Jesus discovered that even as hungry and tired as he was…even as bleak and as lonely and as hopeless as it appeared…that God was with him. Throughout his time in the wilderness God was there.
In the wilderness, Jesus was questioned…and he answered all three temptations with responses that we would do well to heed. Jesus’ answers to the wilderness questions draws our attention and devotion to God. The one who is the Creator and source of life. The one who loves us without reservation. The one who longs to give us ever lasting life.
During the season of Lent, we intentionally enter into Jesus’ wilderness experience. It is a time
when we seek a closer relationship with God and we seek to spend more time in God’s Word, in prayer, listening for God’s voice. It’s also a time to respond to God’s love by showing kindness and compassion to friends and neighbors in need…and even strangers. To reconcile yourself perhaps with someone with whom you have a long-standing feud. Write a letter – really, write a letter – to an old friend. Spend time outdoors enjoying God’s creation and meditating in God’s presence. Take time for daily devotion. In the midst of whatever activities you take on, take time to focus on Jesus – and learn from his example. He saw through the temptations and refused them. We too are sometimes tempted to do the right things in the wrong way, or for the wrong reason. We all face decisions…large and small…that require us to make a choice. Will our choice reflect our trust in God, and will we like Jesus, remember who and whose we are…and act accordingly?
During the season of Lent, when we place ourselves intentionally in the wilderness, it is a good time to ask wilderness questions. Questions such as: God, where do I need to trust you more? God, how and where can I serve you? God, what changes do I need to make day by day in my relationship with you and my neighbours? As a congregation we can ask the same wilderness questions on a corporate level. God, where do we need to trust you more? God, how and where can we serve you? God, what changes do we need to make day by day in our relationship with you and our neighbours?
Wilderness questions challenge us to examine who we are as disciples…followers of the one who was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil…but was not defeated. Jesus knows the wilderness and knows our pain and weakness. As we journey through the wilderness this Lenten season, we need to remember to look to Jesus who was and is not defeated. And we need to remember that no matter the wilderness question – when we are tempted to go it alone – that we are never alone. We are God’s beloved children and we can find comfort and strength in the sure and certain knowledge that the Word of God will feed us, the power of God will uphold us, and the worship of God will strengthen and direct us. Thanks be to God for God’s presence and abounding grace…and for wilderness questions. Amen.