5 March 2017
“Forty days and forty nights, thou wast fasting in the wild; forty days and forty nights tempted, and yet undefiled.” Hymn 150 begins. We have officially started the season of Lent. The gospel passage for today sets us firmly in the season of Lent and it fits the beginning of Lent so very well. We are told that Jesus is led into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. The number forty in the Bible is symbolic of a time of transition, and this story comes as the transition for Jesus between his baptism by John in the river Jordan and the beginning of his ministry throughout the region of Judea. Jesus is led by God into the desert for some transition time to test and strengthen his call to ministry and his identity. This passage calls to mind another transitional testing period in the wilderness – the time the Israelites spent in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. However, we know full well that the Israelites failed the testing they experienced there. They did not trust God and so they had to wait forty years before they could enter the Promised Land. However, we will see that Jesus doesn’t fail his test.
The other important number in this passage is the number three. Three is a magic number!, says School House Rock and so it is in the Bible. Human beings tend to like the number three. In public speaking courses, I was always taught that three is the easiest number to remember and thus, it is best to keep arguments, examples, and lists to the magic number of three. Certainly, three also has a very solid place in Christianity, being Trinitarian as we are.
In the gospel passage today, we see Jesus tempted by Satan three times. The word, “Satan,” literally means "Adversary" and was the ancient term for the prosecuting attorney in a court of law, so naturally, Satan was going to put Jesus through some tough questioning. After Jesus spends forty days and forty nights fasting in the wilderness, Satan finds him and puts him to the test. He questions him and as much as anyone can pin down the intentions of the devil, it seems that Satan is trying to do three things. Satan was trying to have Jesus doubt himself, his vocation, and God. Satan was trying to hijack Jewish tradition by taking over the special places where we find God at work, the desert, the holy city, and the mountaintop. Satan was trying to tempt Jesus into committing selfishness, distrust, and idolatry.
In order to see these things more clearly, and to see what Matthew is showing us about Jesus’ identity, we are going to dive into each of Satan’s tests.
First, the tempter comes to Jesus, after forty days and forty nights of fasting, when Jesus is especially famished and probably willing to kill for a good full meal, and says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Here is where doubt enters the equation. Satan doubts that Jesus is the Son of God and puts the burden of proof on Jesus. While there really isn’t a question here, just a demand, Satan effectively asks Jesus for proof that he is who God said that he was. Jesus doesn’t give in. Satan also chooses a temptation that holds a lot of significance for Jesus. In the coming chapters of Matthew, Jesus does multiply bread so that everyone might be filled in the feeding of the five thousand. Turning stones into bread for himself would be wasteful and selfish, since he would probably be only able to eat one loaf anyway. Turning stones into bread would also bypass the human labor involved, which becomes the work and vocation of humanity in the Genesis story where Adam and Eve are thrown out of the garden. So Jesus tells Satan no, he says, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus puts his faith in God, who led him out into the wilderness in the first place. God will get him through.
Second, the devil takes Jesus to the top of the pinnacle of the temple of the holy city, to a view point with which to see all of Israel, and says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Again, Satan starts with the big IF. If you are the Son of God, which puts the burden of proof on Jesus. Satan also knows very well how to quote scripture. If that is the game, as Jesus had quoted scripture to him, then he could play that game. However, Jesus does not need to gain the holy city for himself. Jesus does not need power over Israel. Jesus is already Emmanuel, the Messiah, the Christ. God with us. Jesus knows that his trust rests in God, so he replies, “Again, it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Third, the devil takes Jesus to the mountaintop. We know from our reading of the gospel passage last week of the Transfiguration what it means to go up to the mountain top. There is power and tradition and insight at the top of the mountain. Satan does his best to supplant all of that. The irony is that while Satan offers all the kingdoms of the world to Jesus if he will worship him, all the kingdoms of the world, and much more besides, already belong to Jesus. God has entrusted him with power over all of creation. Jesus knows that Satan wishes him to commit idolatry by worshiping something other than God.
It is interesting to note that the order that the tests appear in Matthew are different than in the gospels of Mark and Luke. Matthew is making a point about the levels of power involved. The devil starts with Jesus himself. Then he moves on to Israel, the chosen people. Lastly, the devil offers Jesus the world. Yet, Jesus does not fall into the trap of feeling the need to justify himself at any power level. Jesus is not insecure. He does not need to prove that he is the Son of God. God has already spoken and Jesus trusts God.
Unlike the Israelites in the desert, who failed to trust God, Jesus puts his faith in God and is faithful. Through the temptations of Jesus we see a man in solidarity with humanity. We see a man who has integrity. We see a man who trusts God. Through Jesus’ example, we know that we can trust God. We are called to serve God, to trust God, not to test God. We are called to stand fast as Jesus did through the trials and tests of this world. At the end of his temptations, Jesus knows more fully his true identity and purpose. He knows more fully that he can trust God. He is given strength for his journey. Because the road to Jerusalem will not be an easy one. May we walk with Jesus this Lenten season, being tested and tempted, but trusting God to the end. Amen.