What does it mean when Jesus is tested in the wilderness? Would that we should fare as well!
This sermon is quite a bit different from how it was written, therefore, please listen to the sermon rather than read it. The sermon notes which are included for convenience.
Sermon delivered at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Berkeley.
March 5 - 1st Sunday in Lent
"The Wilderness". Text is from Matthew 4:1-11
Good morning to you my sisters and brothers in Christ, saints and sinners, children of God.
These words from Matthew herald us into our Lenten journey. As soon as Jesus is Baptized by John the Baptist in chapter three of Matthew, he is brought into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit where he is to meet the devil for testing. There he fasts for forty days and is understandably quite hungry at the end of that time. The devil, also named the tempter or tester here, then presents him with three different tests.
Jesus' hunger sets the stage for the first test. The devil issues a challenge that is as much a dare as anything. Turn stones into bread so that Jesus may fill his stomach and be satisfied. Of course, Jesus could have done this at any time in the last forty days, why decide to do it now in order to prove a point? He tells the adversary that we are not simply sustained by food but by God's divine word.
Then comes the great test of faith. To leap from the top of the temple and allow the angels to catch him. But Jesus replies from scripture again, that one does not put the test to God.
Finally, the devil tempts Jesus with great power on earth, if he would only bow down to the devil. Jesus sends Satan on his way with the words of the first commandment, at which time the devil goes, to be replaced by angels who tend to every one of Jesus's needs.
I say testing and tempting both, because the underlying Greek word, πειράζω, can mean either of those, or even to make a proof of. This is not so much temptation in the conventional sense. In fact, there is little doubt on anyone's part that Jesus was going to pass all of the tests that took place in the wilderness. God has already at the baptism said to all that this was his son. The devil knows all of this. In no way would Jesus be found wanting from any of these.
But look at our other texts for today. In the Genesis reading, we've find the forbears of humanity, Adam and Eve, who God has commanded not to eat from the tree of knowledge, and yet Adam watches as his mate is convinced of the fruits edibility by the serpent and then takes it from her while she offers it to him, and he says absolutely nothing against it. And when God comes looking for them, they are hiding, and Eve blames the serpent while Adam blames Eve, both of them failing the test, while caught with their pants down... or rather with fig leaves on, neither of them willing to accept culpability for the crime. And thus humans became sinful.
Paul in our letter from Romans goes to great length to distinguish Adam's sin from Jesus' righteousness. Indeed, while Adam's single crime brought sin into the world, Jesus's act of selflessness accounted for all of the world's violations.
And so, by virtue of these tests or temptations or proofs that Jesus clearly would not have done anything but pass with flying colors, we are shown the epitome of righteousness. The one human, and we cannot forget that Jesus was fully human, was unblemished by sin, and set apart from the rest of humankind. Jesus was not tempted and could not fail. And therefore left into the hands of angels.
We altogether find ourselves easily make the mistake of comparing ourselves to Jesus, as if our Lenten promises of fasting, almsgiving and prayer could possibly compare to the time that Jesus spent in the wilderness. When we human beings find ourselves describing our time spent in the wilderness, we may talk about having been lost for a period, or being punished for some indiscretion. Maybe we've been rejected by our families and been forced to account for our own lives somehow, maybe we've found ourselves in a derelict condition, a spiritual void. I know that I've described my years spent away from the church, some nearly 2 decades of my life, as a time in the wilderness, searching for a meaning to my faith and life. I even have the Greek words from Mark's very abbreviated wilderness from chapter 1 verse 15: "And He was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him," as if those words can possibly account for my time lost and separated from church. A time when I not only was tempted regularly but yielded to temptation consistently and suffered as a result of it.
But Jesus is neither lost, nor he is not being punished. This is an assessment that the Son of God is now prepared to begin the ministry and take on the heavy mantle that will be given to him. The hard yoke we read about later on.
But how many of us can even hope to resist temptation so willingly, by ourselves? How many of us even perfectly keep our Lenten disciplines of fasting, prayer and almsgiving, or for that matter whatever else we give up or take on for the duration of Lent. How many of us make New Year's resolutions to lose weight or give up smoking or drinking only to find ourselves carrying on the same behaviors as soon as we have our first week moment, as soon as temptation comes along. We fail because we are human beings.
So while we cannot take the narrative of Jesus time in the wilderness as a guide for our own periods of abstinence, the hope is there because Jesus Christ has in fact already met this moment. We have hope for our own well being because Jesus has himself been in the wilderness for forty days of starvation and has emerged and met the temptation head on. We can fight off desires that call to us to old behaviors because Jesus has already put the devil in his place and sent his bags packing. Because even if Jesus did not demonstrate power on account of Satan, he did in fact make power happen and exorcized the devil from his presence after the final temptation failed. And Jesus takes on those moments in our lives and helps us to be better people as a result of it.
But the good news, my fellow people of God is that what took place in the wilderness with the three temptations would show up later on in our gospel in different ways. Jesus denies himself the power to make bread from stones to end his starvation, yet later on he makes a few loaves and fish into a feast for thousands of hungry people. He won't test his faith in God by throwing himself from the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem, but trusts God up until the end while dying on a tree on a hill called Golgotha. Jesus refuses the power that Satan offers to rule over kingdoms in the world, but he promises his followers that they will be citizens of kingdoms of heaven and rules over the world today as our sovereign.
And that we can be comforted that this, our Lord and Savior, has given us a glorious future, free from death and the wages of sin, in heaven beyond.