Lent Week 1: Jesus in the Wilderness

lent05This year for Lent we are going to walk through some readings that are traditional for each week of the season.  (Okay, I know.  I’m just barely getting this in under the wire.  Deal.)  Today’s reading comes from Matthew 4 and is the familiar story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness.

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.  After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.  “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down.  For it is written:

” ‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up on their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot
against a stone.’ ”

Jesus answered him: “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  “All this I will give to you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan!  For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ ”

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

–Matthew 4:1-11

Jesus went out into the desert and fasted forty days and forty nights.  This is where we get the forty days and forty nights of Lent, and it is the major emphasis of the Lenten season.

By passing through the Jordan at his baptism and then heading out into the desert, Jesus recapitulated Israel’s journey to the Promised Land, but in reverse.  The forty days of Jesus’ fast parallel the forty years of Israel’s journey through the wilderness.

The devil came to Jesus at the end of his forty days of fasting, precisely at the time he knew Jesus would be at his weakest.  If he was ever going to have a shot at successfully tempting Jesus, surely it would be right after Jesus had had nothing to eat for forty days straight.

Sure enough, the devil’s first temptation to Jesus concerned food.  “Tell these stones to become bread.”

Classic temptation here.  Play to the physical appetites.  Throughout human history, people have shown that they will do anything for bread.  We will sacrifice our freedom, even our unborn children, to whoever promises to keep our bellies full.  But to live this way is not to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Look at what the devil was asking Jesus to do here.  He was asking him to create bread in ways that go completely against God’s creative modus operandi.  Jesus would have had to command the stones–stones which He Himself had created at the beginning of time, which He had spoken into existence as God’s creative Word (John 1:3, 10)–to give up their identity as stones and become something else entirely.  He would have had to annihilate those stones and cause the matter to reconstitute itself as bread.  God just doesn’t play that way.  When Jesus needs bread in the wilderness, he multiplies it, as you will see if you continue reading Matthew’s gospel.  He does not “transubstantiate” stones into bread.

“But come on.  It’s only a few stones.  Who’s going to miss a few stones in the midst of all this godforsaken country where it’s nothing BUT stones?”

Jesus didn’t bite.  “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.  He refused to use his divine power in order to meet his own needs in that moment.

So now the devil stepped up his game.  He took Jesus all the way up to the tippy-top of the temple in Jerusalem.  No idea how they got there straight from the middle of the desert.  No idea how Jesus and the devil managed to stay upright while standing on that narrow spot.  Not important for us to know.

That devil was a crafty one.  He quoted some Scripture to Jesus, a snippet of a Psalm.  “He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”

This was a temptation of faith.  Does Jesus, the Word in the flesh, trust the word of his Father?  Or would he put it to the test?  Would he jump down and see if the angels really did come to lift him up?

But that wasn’t how Jesus rolled.  Angels would come to minister to him, as we see from the reading, but not here and not now.  Jesus came to be lifted up, but not on a temple with angels carrying him.  He came to be lifted up on a cross.  And there would be no angels to catch him that afternoon.  He would face death alone, with nothing but trust in his Father.

In the interest of full disclosure, the psalm the devil quoted was Psalm 91, verses 11 and 12.  But the psalm goes on to read, “You will tread upon the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent.”  The serpent–a reference to the devil and the form he took when he first appeared to Adam and Eve.  The devil knew what was coming–this crucified Savior would tread upon him and trample him.  And he didn’t want to go there.  Don’t blame him.

Jesus matched Scripture for Scripture faithfully.  “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”  To test the Word is to tempt God.  Never a good idea.

So now the devil took Jesus up to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and all their splendor.  How they got up there, we don’t know.  How the devil managed to get all the kingdoms of the world into Jesus’ view from that spot, we don’t know.  It’s not for us to know.  How it happened, doesn’t matter.  That it happened, does.

This was the temptation to fidelity.  Would Jesus remain faithful to God and to his destiny?  The devil was proposing a very appealing shortcut.  Just bow down to me, he said, and all this will be yours.  Who needs Calvary?  Who needs the cross?  We can skip all that nastiness and go straight through to what you really came for, which is to rule over all the world.

This temptation was unique to Jesus, yet it is one which all Christians face, and the Church as well.  A Kingdom without a cross.  Jesus was offered all the kingdoms of the world and all their splendor.  But we exchange our worship for significantly less.  For Jesus this was an opportunity to bypass Calvary and the cross.  But the end does not justify the means.  “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”

In facing the devil, Jesus recapitulated Adam’s encounter with the devil.  Adam faced the devil in a garden.  He had Eve his wife at his side.  He was surrounded by all sorts of trees that were good to eat.  The devil came in the form of a serpent, a form that would be pleasing to man.

Jesus, the second Adam, faced the devil all alone.  He was in the middle of a desert, a huge space devoid of anything remotely good to eat.  He had no one at his side.  We don’t know what the devil looked like when he appeared to Jesus, and we probably don’t want to know.

Jesus’ temptations were greater than those faced by Adam.  Where Adam fell, Jesus stood.  Where Adam failed, Jesus succeeded.  Where Adam succumbed, Jesus resisted.  Where Adam’s disobedience brought sin and death into the world, Jesus’ obedience and eventual death brought forgiveness of sin and life into the world.

For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

–Romans 5:19