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Sunday, March 1, 2020 – Lent 1
“Then the devil left him, and angels came and waited on him.” That’s the end of the story. Put yourself way out in the desert in Jesus’ shoes. Instead of it being Jesus, it’s the same story, but you’re the one who’s out there.
You’ve fasted to the point of being utterly famished, no food for 40 days. The devil comes when you are at your weakest. What’s God doing to help you through this impossibly hard trial? You gut it out. You stay faithful to God. You stay true. Finally, the devil gives up for the time being and departs. And then the angels come with assistance. If it were me in Jesus’ place, I would have wanted help much earlier.
Following Matthew’s story, we have just seen Jesus raised up out of the waters of the Jordan river. Dripping wet from his baptism, he then saw the Heavens opened, the Holy Spirit came down, and a voice from Heaven, God the Father, said, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17).
This did not happen when I got baptized. Do you remember your baptism? Mine came in summer of 1981, and in my memory, it has a mystical quality, but nothing like what we see in Matthew 3. The Holy Spirit and the voice of God the Father combine to validate the arrival of God the son. It’s a trinitarian moment and an incarnational moment all in one!
But then, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. No navy SEAL training can compare with the ordeal Jesus had to endure in preparation for his ministry. Forty days of fasting left him famished. Add to that that he was way out in the wastelands. Out there, you need sustenance so you have the energy to make the grueling hike back to civilization. He didn’t soften the edges of his life to make the extreme fast more bearable. He didn’t situate himself in comfortable surroundings. He fasted to the point of collapse while desert walking. At his weakest, that’s the point the devil showed up.
The devil’s temptations of Jesus recall the serpent’s visit to Eve in Eden, found in Genesis chapter 3.
The serpent asked Eve, “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’” (3:1)? From that very minute she was in trouble because of what she didn’t do. She did not say, “Hey, God, help me here. I don’t know this serpent and He’s calling your promises into question. What do I do?” She didn’t do that. She looked at that serpent and she thought, “I got this.”
She explained to the serpent that God gave plenty of fruit trees and that they were only to avoid the one in the center of the garden for if they ate from that one, they would die. The serpent said, “You will not die.” Again, Eve didn’t say, “Hey, God, help me. This thing just told me something different than what you promised.” She didn’t do that. Instead, she started thinking about the serpent’s ideas. “Your eyes will be opened. You will be like God. You will have knowledge of good and evil.”
On her own, apart from God, Eve decided to deal with the serpent’s temptation. Before long, she was thinking the serpent’s thoughts. She didn’t tell him how things were in the garden and in the world. She saw how good that fruit looked and she took a bite. As the juice ran down her chin, she discovered what people have discovered ever since. In temptation, there’s some truth. Her eyes and Adam’s eyes were opened, just as the serpent said they would be. However, the man and the woman gained their new knowledge apart from God. They immediately saw each other in new ways. In communion with God, they saw one another as beautiful creations there to be loved. Acting apart from God, they saw in each other a nakedness that needed to be covered up, hidden. Then, they tried to hide from God. They had never felt the need to do that before.
That serpent didn’t do anything special. He just told half-truths that lured the first humans away from God’s full truth. Their own lack of trust in God did the rest. Eve, didn’t trust God’s word enough to resist the lie embedded in the temptation.
Adam and Eve were living in paradise, Eden, when they fell. Jesus, ravaged by unbearable hunger, found himself in desert wastelands. He would later on say these words to his disciples in Matthew 7, “Is there any among you who, if your child asks for bread will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish will give a snake? If then, you who are evil, know how to give good things to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (v.9-11). He trusted that God would provide him what he needed.
The devil’s first temptation is “if you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (v.3). We just heart at the baptism which happens right before this hungry desert sojourn that a voice from Heaven declared him to be God’s Son. The devil calls that into question and then tells Jesus to do what Eve did: act apart from God. He didn’t tell Jesus to ask God for food. He told him to command the stones to become bread. Jesus trusted that his father would give good things. He declares he needed the word of God for life as much as he needed food in his belly.
Next, Jesus allows himself to be led. The Holy Spirit had led him out to be tempted. So, Jesus faces the temptation. The devil leads him to the highest point in the Jerusalem, the hilltop where the temple sits. Jesus is told to fling himself off the pinnacle of the temple, a suicide jump. Quoting Psalm 91, the devil tells Jesus angels will save him. It’s not a complete a lie. As we already read, at the end of this story, angels do come to help him. But not yet!
The devil is using scripture for his own means, something we do all the time. In political arguments or in church conflicts, we see our opponents as God’s opponents. It’s “them” vs. “us,” and we always cast our side as the side of scripture. We totally ignore the fact that our opponent uses the same Bible to defend a position opposite ours. We’re not supposed to use the Bible. The devil did that with this second temptation. We are to submit to the God we meet in the pages of the Bible. The Bible is not here to support our positions. The Bible is to be a way the Spirit forms us in the image of Christ. Jesus knew he was in the desert to be tested. He wasn’t there to test God. He trusted God and resisted the devil.
In his third effort, the nefarious tempter brought Jesus to the top of a high mountain and from there gave him a vision of all the great kingdoms of the earth. If Jesus bowed in worship before the devil, all these kingdoms would be given to him. Whether the devil could deliver on such an absurd offer is beside the point. Jesus knew the first commandment: we shall have no other gods before the Lord our God. We worship him alone. There’s nothing the evil one could offer that would deter Jesus from his singular devotion to glorify God. He trusted that worshiping God is better than possessing power.
Note too, God had given Jesus a mission – to die for the sins of the world. Jesus would eventually be recognized as king of kings and lord of lords. But first, he had to save the world. The devil had him skipping the cross and going straight to the throne. Jesus rejected this deception trusting that God’s story is the better story.
Finally, the devil left the scene, and then the angels came to take care of all Jesus’ needs. As I said, were I in Jesus’ shoes, I would have been just as happy to have the angels show up at the very beginning. Jesus modeled confidence and faith in God’s plan even when trust appeared to be difficult.
In baptism, we are adopted as sons and daughters of God, and the Holy Spirit takes up residence in us. Do we believe this? If we say we do, then do we also believe this is for the best? Do we trust this story for our lives is true and do we trust that it is best life we can have?
In the desert, on the hillside, Jesus put all his trust in the heavenly father. We might think, ‘well he, he’s Jesus. We’re not.’ That’s true. But we have this advantage. We know where the story leads. He defeated the devil and resisted temptation. Later on, the night that he knows he will be arrested, the devil tempts him again. Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, in human flesh. Being fully human, the abandonment by his disciples broke his heart. The coming trial and crucifixion scared him. The devil played on this and in anguished prayer, Jesus asked for another way. We know God did not offer another way, and so Jesus went to the cross to take our death on himself.
We also know a few days, later, resurrected, he walked out of tomb. On the cross he defeated Satan and sin. In resurrection, he defeated death. Just as he took our death on himself, he shares his resurrection with us. We can be strengthened by this promise when the devil comes to tempt us, if we believe the story and trust that the Holy Spirit is with us.
That’s where the trust Jesus demonstrated transfers to us. In this crazy political season, Democrats and Republicans are trying to sell a number of different narratives to the American public. Advertisers sell narratives which put the product or experience they’re selling at the center of the story. All these peddlers of stories want you to believe that the story they tell is the one you need to be in. You need to adjust your life to live out that story.
What I’m suggesting is that Jesus, even flattened by hunger as he was, rejected the devil because he rejected the devil’s narrative. He did that because he trusted that God’s story is the better story. As we close, I invite you to think about this. For your life, is God’s story the better story? Do you believe your hope for a happy, blessed life will be found walking the pathway of Jesus? One thing is clear. It can’t be both. We cannot walk the way of the politician or the way of the propagandist or the way of the advertiser and walk the way of Jesus? We have to decide which narrative we’ll embody.
Don’t come and say all the ways the way of Jesus is opposite of the politician you oppose. Notice all the ways the way of Jesus opposes the politician you’re voting for. Then you’ve really cast your lot with the Savior. You can still vote for whomever. As citizens, we should participate in our democracy. We do it remembering our eternal destiny is to live as subjects in the eternal kingdom of God under the merciful, just rule of King Jesus. That story defines us and determines how we live.
Decide which narrative is yours, the story will you live into. Take this time to pray, asking God to help you trust the story he has for you.