Featured image by John Theodor, Shutterstock, a photo of the Judean wilderness.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Wilderness Temptation of Jesus
The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is an apt reading for this first Sunday in Lent as we focus on repentance—and perhaps fast—for 40 days and nights in the wilderness of our temptations just as Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness of His temptation. These 40 days and nights of Jesus should immediately have us consider Israel’s story in three major events, and not exactly in chronological order.
The first event that should come to mind is when Moses communed with God on Mt. Sinai without food or drink for 40 days and 40 nights in Exodus [34:28]. During this time, he wrote the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments. This took place after the event of the golden calf incident, and in Deuteronomy 9[:18] Moses tells the Israelites that he went before the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights neither eating nor drinking because of the sin they had committed. And so, before He begins His Gospel ministry, we can say that Christ repeats Moses’ fasting experience because of all the sin we commit. He suffers what we suffer day in and day out.
As the root of all suffering, Satan tempts Jesus. His threefold temptation is to challenge Jesus as the Son of God. He prompts these temptations with saying, “If You are the Son of God.” So, in his first temptation, he tempts Jesus to announce His independence from God. But Jesus responds with God’s Word, “Man shall not live from bread alone,” from Deuteronomy 8[:3]. This reminds us of the second event in Israel’s story: the wandering in the wilderness.
The manna the Israelites ate came from the Word of the Lord. All our needs—even something as basic as food—comes from the Word of the Lord. God’s Word gave life at the beginning of all creation and His Word continues to give life in all the earth. The food that farmers grow and the food we buy at the grocery store all come to us because the Word that creates life has given it growth to be found in our fields, stores, refrigerators, pantries, and dinner tables. All life owes its existence to God’s Word; every breath you take is because of God’s Word.
Then in his second temptation, Satan invites Jesus to become his son by offering Him all the kingdoms of the earth. The irony of this is that the devil offers Jesus the entire kingdom of the earth, which Jesus rejects, and Jesus receives authority over the entire kingdom of the earth anyway! As is recorded at the end of Matthew [28:18], Jesus reveals to His disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.” Satan did not have the authority to give Jesus the kingdoms of the earth; that authority belongs to God the Father, the Maker of heaven and earth, who gave this authority to His only-begotten Son just before He ascended to rule over His kingdom on His heavenly throne, as He is doing to this day.
Satan knew he had no authority to give Jesus the kingdoms of the earth. The devil is a really good liar. What he really wanted was for Jesus to worship him. Jesus not only rejects Satan’s so-called authority, but He also rejects him altogether, quoting the Great Shema—or the great commandment—from Deuteronomy 6[:13], which is just restating the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Or as the Great Shema says, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.” Luther gives the explanation that all of us should have memorised, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”
As Jesus had already demonstrated quite well in the previous temptation, saying that man shall not live by bread alone, His fear and love and trust is in God His Father alone. The people of Israel were reminded numerous times in Deuteronomy and various other times through the Prophets to fear, love, and trust in God and serve Him only, but as we well know, they failed spectacularly. Thus, by resisting the devil with the Word of God, Jesus accomplishes what Israel—and we—have failed to do: perfect obedience to God. Saint Augustine called this recapitulation—that Jesus, in the wilderness of 40 days and 40 nights, repeats Israel’s wilderness wandering and accomplished both what Israel failed to do in the wilderness of their 40-year wandering and what they continually failed to do since then: fearing, loving, and trusting in God with all His heart, mind, and strength. Jesus refuses Satan’s offer to become his son and instead affirms His Sonship in the Holy Trinity.
So, what does it look like to fear, love, and trust in God above all things? The prophet Samuel tells us. In 1 Samuel 7[:3], he emphasises the Great Shema, “‘If you are returning to the LORD with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the LORD and serve Him only.'” Fear, love, and trust in God looks like putting away all your false gods and serving Christ alone rather than these idols. What might this look like in your life? For some, it might look like bringing your kids to church on Sunday rather than forsaking the Word of God to go to their sports game. For others, it might look like dropping a drug addiction, going to rehab, and returning to the Lord for forgiveness and sustenance. And still for others it might look like keeping your mouth shut rather than gossiping. Or trusting God’s Word of protection more than the word of the CDC. The list is endless.
Finally, Satan makes one last attempt. In his final attempt, he presumes to speak for God by attempting to use God’s Word against Jesus. A clever scheme! Satan essentially says, “See? Your own Word says that Yahweh will send His angels concerning you lest you fall.” But Jesus sees straight through his cunning. Satan overlooks one crucial factour when he quotes Psalm 91: this psalm promises God’s protection to those who are faithful to Him. Satan was essentially tempting Jesus to act as though He were obeying God when in fact, He would’ve been disobeying God. Jesus sees straight through Satan’s lie, and knowing this, He quotes from God’s Word again, “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test” [Deuteronomy 6:16]. Notice that Jesus does not reject what God’s Word says. Satan quoted directly from Psalm 91; Jesus can’t deny its truth. What Jesus essentially says in resistance is, “Yes, the Word does say that, but the Word also says you shall not put the LORD your God to the test. Do not test Him, or you will find that He will permit you to fall.”
This Word of the Lord always reminds me of the reverence my mother has earned and deserves. She is one of the sweetest, most caring, and selfless women you’ll ever meet. But when you’re raised by an Afro-Puerto Rican woman, you learn very quickly not to test her patience. Most of the time, she’ll give you a look that will strike the fear of God into you, and you know that you’re about to get slapped upside the head. Many times, when I tried her patience as a kid, she would say, “Don’t test me!” and that was enough for me to fear her and stop. If I didn’t, though, I very soon regretted it with a sudden slap upside the back of my head.
So, I learnt very quickly not to test the wrath of an angry black woman! By way of analogy, do not test the wrath of an angry God! Like children, we might think we can get away with something and trick God, but like your mother, He always knows. He always finds out. Knowing this, Jesus refused the temptation to worship Satan and instead worshipped and served God only. And so, Satan finally gives up, and he leaves Jesus “until an opportune time.” That opportune time would be the betrayal of Jesus and His Passion.
Again, Satan prompts these temptations as a direct challenge to Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. He begins and ends with, “If You are the Son of God,” essentially saying, “Are You really the Son of God?” Satan knew He truly is God’s only-begotten Son, but his modus operandi is to get people to question the Word of God, doubt it, and then forsake it. Satan’s challenge, then, reminds us of the third event as our final consideration: the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden. In the Garden, Satan launched a strikingly familiar challenge to Adam and Eve, “Did God really say…” Satan challenged the Word of God in the Garden, Adam and Eve doubted it, and then they forsook it, introducing death into the world. Satan challenges Jesus, the second Adam, with a similar challenge, repeating the Garden temptation, and Jesus masterfully resists the devil’s attempts to deceive the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word made flesh, and He brings life to those who believe, thereby undoing the death Adam brought into the world.
Our Wilderness Temptation
The devil therefore challenges you to consider who Jesus is. Last Sunday, Pastor Bakker preached well from Hebrews 3 and Luke 9 to consider Jesus, and just this past Ash Wednesday we read from Matthew 16 where Jesus challenged His disciples in a heavily populated pagan region, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter, through God the Father and His Holy Spirit, confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And the lectionary goes for the hat trick to challenge us a third time about Jesus’ personhood. Satan’s words challenge you to consider Jesus: who is He to you? Do you acknowledge Him as the Son of God just as God the Father did on the Mount of Transfiguration, which we observed last Sunday? Or do you consider Him as something significantly less than who He truly is? Many people consider Jesus only to be a great moral teacher, failing to realise that He is the great moral teacher because He is the Son of the Living God, who Himself was involved in creating the very fabric of the universe and, indeed, right morality.
Some Christians believe He was not truly the Son of God but merely a human being who achieved moral perfection. Or that He was not the Son of God when He was born but was merely “adopted” as God’s Son when He was baptised. In other words, He was a normal human being whom God adopted as His divine Son at His Baptism rather than His being the Son from eternity and the far simpler reason that His Baptism was the public confirmation that He is the Christ, the Messiah, which is then doubly confirmed in His wilderness temptation as Jesus reaffirms His Sonship in the face of Satan’s challenge. Consider, then, who He is as the Son of God, especially today concerning what He accomplished in His temptation—that He undid our original sin in the Garden.
The Holy Spirit’s leading Christ follows directly after the Epiphany of His Baptism, who was with Him during His temptation through God’s Word. The same is true for you. All of you have been baptised, and in those waters, you received the promise of the Holy Spirit just as He descended upon Christ in His own Baptism. You have the Holy Spirit with you wherever you go, especially in the wilderness of temptation, even when it doesn’t feel like it. How does He help you resist it? With the Word of God. Because Christ is the Word made flesh, when you consider the Word of God, you also consider Jesus.
For example, when tempted with any sexual sin, consider God’s Word like 1 John 2:16, “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.” Psalm 119:37 is also helpful, “Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in Your ways.” Also consider the words of Jesus as He has taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer.
Or when you’re angry and you really want to get back at someone with a hurtful remark, biting sarcasm, or even violence, consider Psalm 4[:4], “Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent,” which St. Paul repeats in Ephesians 4:26-27, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.”
When Satan tempts you with lies that you are not forgiven, even though you have repented—no matter what that sin may be—again consider the Word of God. Such as 1 John 1:8-9, which we confessed earlier, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Proverbs 28:13, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.”
From our epistle reading today, “‘The Word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart…’ because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in Him will not be put to shame'” [Romans 10:8b-11]. In other words, consider Jesus—the Son of God who died and rose again for you and presently rules for you—and because you believe this and confess it with your mouth, such as in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, you are saved from death, the devil, and all those sins he tempts you with and uses to challenge the assurance of your salvation in Jesus the Son of God.
Lastly, consider the Sacraments in your wilderness of temptation, for which Psalm 23 is especially helpful. “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters” [vv. 1-2]. The Lord has laid you beside the still waters of Baptism, and most of you when you were babies. Consider what His holy Word has done to you in, with, and under those waters: the remission of your sins, the promise of the Holy Spirit who guides you throughout this wilderness we call life, and adoption as His sons and daughters.
The psalmist also writes, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” [v. 5a]. The Lord prepares a Table before you today with Christ’s true body and blood in the elements, the Word made flesh, who feeds you forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights in His wilderness temptation, and He neither ate nor drank. And yet, during your own wilderness temptation—especially during these 40 days of Lent—you never have to go hungry, for the Lord prepares for you food and drink that gives you life everlasting.
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.