Still soaking wet from His baptism in the Jordan, “…Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting 40 days and 40 nights, He was hungry.”
With these words St. Matthew instructs us as we gather for this first Sunday in Lent. And what St. Matthew proceeds to tell us is a multilayered story about Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. At its deepest level this temptation account echoes with the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden, and of the serpent’s proposal that they be like God.
The next layer in this account is the saga of Israel’s 40 years of wandering and being tested in the wilderness. Perhaps more personally connected to Jesus’ experience is that of Moses who was with the Lord God for 40 days and 40 nights, during which time he neither ate nor drank. Moses, too, was taken up a high mountain and shown all the Promised Land as far as the eye could see. And there Moses died.
So St. Matthew tells us this episode of Jesus’ desert struggles, in part, to highlight Jesus’ connection to our forebears in Eden, to the history of Israel, and to the old prophecy that God would raise up from among His people one like Moses.
However, the impact of these temptations lies not so much in their echoes of the earlier Biblical records. After all, most of us today can read this account without any need for a detailed commentary in order to understand what’s going on. This account speaks so directly to Christians whose own faithfulness, like our Lord’s, is forged and fashioned again and again and again in the fiery desert places of life. Faith is refined, not by moments of glory, but by a perpetual return to the testing fire.
Notice this well: Jesus is not tempted because He has somehow departed from the path of God’s will. Jesus is there in the desert because that’s where He has been led by the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit takes all the faithful there: into the wild desert regions for testing. It’s the disciple, not the less-than-faithful Christian, who struggles, who gets put to the test. The less-than-faithful, well, they always find the easy way.
One of the hardest things to get past in this account, is that St. Matthew does not create a cartoon here of Jesus debating some horned, red-colored creature with a fiendish face and the aroma of sulfur. Nor the more contemporary portrayal of a devil in a black hooded cloak, who remains in the shadows. Very likely it all takes place in the light of day, with a devil who is impeccably dressed and a little too good looking.
But what he looks isn’t the important thing here. It’s what the devil personifies in this text…that’s the issue. He personifies the will of God! Or, to be more accurate, he personifies a subtle distortion of the will of God. What Jesus struggles with here is the ministry that lies before Him. What tests Him is the very thing for which His baptism has anointed Him. He is being tempted to achieve those ultimate, very good goals for which He has come into the world…by means of something good and much, much easier than a cross! Three times! And all three temptations present Jesus with immense possibilities for doing good.
Remember the offer the serpent made to Adam and Eve in the Garden? “You will be like God.” Well, what’s wrong with that?! Isn’t that exactly what a person of faith is supposed to want to be? Like God? There’s no hint of sin in the suggestion. Likewise, Jesus is presented with three excellent offers: “Command these stones to become loaves of bread.” In a world of unbelievable hunger, why not? “Throw Yourself down” from the pinnacle of the temple. In a skeptical world easily bored with sermons and Scripture Readings, why not a bit of spectacular entertainment? “I will give You” the kingdoms of the world and their glory. In a world of contentious politics, war, oppression, and disregard for life, why not give it to Jesus and let Him do something with it?
You see, the temptations are not a test of Jesus’ personal morality. This wilderness experience is a contest over very the shape and nature of Christian existence. Jesus has come to preach good news to the poor and release to the captives. He has come to heal, to cleanse, to forgive. He has come to restore humanity to God by a cross and resurrection. So of course, He will be opposed…right from the get-go.
The forces which thrive on human misery, which reap a profit at others’ expense, will try anything…even good things…to turn Jesus and His followers…away from such ministry. Anyone who engages in the work of Christ discovers real fast, real hard, that there are others on the field who play by very different rules!
Yet…in the end…Jesus survives His temptations; He meets and He bests His opposition. He moves out into the ministry laid before Him. And how does Jesus survive? How does He overcome these temptations? Not simply by quoting some Bible verses, although as He shows that the Scriptures are an enormous source of strength for Him. But His victory does not come by spouting some Bible verses.
Nor was Jesus’ victory in the wilderness achieved by denouncing these tempting offers laid before Him. On the contrary, over the course of His ministry He does these very things; He feeds the hungry with enough bread to feed thousands. He performs wonders, spectacular, startling wonders among the people. His work in those three short years had and continues to have enormous impact on this world.
The temptations themselves were not temptations to do evil or simply to indulge a bit of naughtiness. What happened there in the desert, how His victory came about, is that Jesus recognized the temptations for what they were. Every one of them was a test to be like God, a test to be Son of God and not the man, Jesus of Nazareth. For as St. Paul puts it, He “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant.” Jesus is there in the wilderness as a servant, not as the divine Son. He is there as the second Adam, not the immortal King of glory.
So Jesus does not use the power of the Spirit to claim exemption from this path. He doesn’t lay claim to His rights as God’s only-begotten Son in order to avoid the painful difficulties of what lay ahead…betrayal, suffering, and death. He placed Himself into each test as The Servant for our sake. And this serving, suffering, dying Jesus is vindicated when the Father raises Him from the dead.
It is a potent reminder in our day. A Church too fond of power and place and the acclaim of the world, a Church bedazzled and bedeviled with glory as the world understands glory, is a Church no longer walking with Jesus. Baptism…Wilderness…Cross…Resurrection. That’s the path which shapes the Church, the followers, of Jesus Christ.
So beginning here, St. Matthew will go on to teach us that testing never ceases in this world. It didn’t for Jesus until His dying breath! Nor will it for us until we draw our last breath.
Because Christ is with us by faith, He in us and we in Him, we together become the target of temptation again and again and again; not simply the stereotypical temptations to be naughty…but the deadly serious sort of temptations to take a path different from the path of Jesus’ cross and resurrection, a way that is different from following the dying and rising Christ.
Over these next Sundays in Lent we will hear of these temptations in their various guises…the temptation to try and limit God; the evasions of the obvious; turning a blind eye to what we prefer not to see; and on the final Sunday before Holy Week, the temptation—the oh-so-prevalent temptation these days—to despair, to give up, longing to improve this world and yet witnessing over and over the futility of our human efforts.
Each and every temptation we face as Christians is a temptation of Christ in us. It is, at heart, the temptation for us to be God, rather than letting God be God, and us His servants by grace through faith for Christ’s sake. It’s always a temptation to choose the easier way, skipping the cross to go directly to glory. So we begin our season praying, “Lead us not into temptation.” But with Christ, by the end, our prayer has become, “Deliver us from evil!”