We have begun the season of Lent, a time of intentional drawing closer to God. In the Early Church is was a time of preparation for the last leg of what could be a three year training time before a person was baptized on Easter. In time, the whole congregation would enter this spiritual discipline both as a sign of support for those preparing to be baptized as well as an opportunity for them to remember their baptism, a time to repair, renew, and/or reset their relationship with God. If they gave something up for Lent, the idea was that they would contemplate about God when they would normally do a particular activity.
Alternatively, you might start something new. Who knows, you might form a new habit, or it could just be for this short set piece of time. There could be shot term Bible studies, a special devotional. You might designate special prayer time. Our worship series is designed to do a couple of things. 1) It is for this six week period, but instead of merely listening to the story, it is designed to bring you in to be a part of the story. We will be doing this with a featured painting or image each week keying in on some aspect of the Scripture passage for that week. 2) You will have some reflection questions to go with each image. These will allow you to consider the scene from different angles or perspectives.
Jesus enters our lives. For the next six weeks, let us intentionally enter the life of Jesus. We will start where his ministry starts with Jesus’ time of testing in the desert. We will go until Jesus goes to meet his destiny in Jerusalem. Let’s zoom in and freeze the frame for a moment. We will have a chance to see what and who we might find there. Maybe we will find ourselves. When we section off a scene and look long into its face, we may see our own lives in the story.
This week’s Scripture passage begins a few verses before Jesus’ time in the desert. It helps us to see why Jesus is in the desert in the first place. John the Baptist has been serving as a herald for Jesus’ arrival. Repent for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near. He has been plunging people in the Jordan River as an outward sign of their repentance. Their turning back toward God. It is like they are beginning their new life with God. Jesus shows up there. He isn’t there to repent, but it is signifying a turning point in his life. He will emerge from the waters ready to begin his new life.
Our Scripture passage begins at Matthew 3:16. We will be reading through chapter 4 verse 11. Or perhaps, you would prefer to look at the picture below as the passage is read.
3:16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
4:1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’[Deut 8:3]”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “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 in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[Psalm 91:11-12]”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[Deut 6:16]”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’[Deut 6:13]”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
Olivia went for a long walk in the woods. She had an exhausting six months, and she needed a break from everything. She had concentrated on nothing but her election campaign since her local party had asked her to consider running for Congress. She had been overwhelmed by the honor and the confidence that the party had in her. She thought of serving the people, her neighbors, her country, and the world. She considered how she could serve all her noble ideals. She only thought of one thing … getting elected. Then, you’ll be able to change the world! Make things better. Turn things around.
In the last frantic days of the campaign, Olivia toured the whole area, shaking hands, giving speeches, spending late nights strategizing with her staff. Running on too little sleep and too much coffee, more handshakes, more speeches, and then the election. She couldn’t believe it. She won by over 10,000 votes. The people wanted her. They had chosen her. It was her day, and victory was sweet.
But now, the adrenaline had worn off, and she needed time alone to think. Walking in the woods the words in her head surprised her. She still had her ideals, but there were other voices as well. Oh, think of the money you will be able to make. Business will want you on their boards, so you can lobby the people in Congress for them. Then, if you keep your head down and don’t make too many waves, you could get in with the right people the power players and appointed to important committees. You could eventually be nominated for a cabinet position. There will be fame and popularity. There will be press conferences and television appearances. Everyone will know your name.
Olivia could hardly believe what she was thinking. This wasn’t like her at all, but there was more. You know that person in the local party organization that has been giving you such trouble. You could get rid of him. You have the power now, and you will have more. You can play the game your way and win!
When we hear of Jesus’ experience in the desert or really the wilderness, we shouldn’t think of it as so different from the kinds of temptations and testing that we go through every day. Jesus hears the words spoken over him, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We shouldn’t be surprised that he was challenged by a whispering voice and forced to recognize it for what it was.
Through this trial Jesus was reliving and encapsulating the experience of Israel. Jesus came through the waters of baptism, like Israel crossing the Red Sea. Then, he faced in forty days and nights, the equivalent of Israel’s forty years in the desert. However, where Israel failed again and again, Jesus succeeded. He proves to be the true Israelite, and he has come to fulfill the task that God had for Israel, to bring light to the nations, but it wasn’t easy.
Look at the picture in your bulletin. There aren’t a lot of places to imagine yourself here. Maybe think of yourself sitting on a rock near Jesus watching this all go on. You see a man who has been in the desert alone for forty days (or a really long time), in the middle of nowhere. No one else is around. He is secluded, impoverished, suffering, weak, and vulnerable. Who or what are these things around him. Is that a fox or a jackal? Does it represent Satan? What about the black birds overhead? Are they the forces of evil, or are they simply waiting for him to die? What do they think? What would you think if you were them watching the scene below?
We see Jesus with a rock in his hand. Is he considering doing what Satan suggested?
The great German pastor, preacher, and theologian Helmut Thielicke tells a story in his book, How the World Began, that illustrates Satan’s tactics.
First he quotes a line from Faust. “The people never know the devil’s there, even though he has them by the throat.” He goes on to say, “Recently I made an interesting experiment in this respect. My students performed volunteer services for several weeks in a camp for refugees and almost every day they put on a [puppet] show for the children. It was my job to play the devil. I wielded a horrible, fiery red puppet in one hand and mustered up a menacing and horrible voice to represent all the terrible discords of hell. Then in tones brimming with sulphur I advised the children to indulge in every conceivable naughtiness: You never need to wash your feet at night; you can stick your tongue out at anybody you want to; and be sure to drop banana peels on the street so people will slip on them. The … effects which I achieved in this role of the devil were enormous and generally recognized in the camp. The children suddenly stopped sticking out their tongues and they also washed their feet at night. They would have absolutely [nothing to do] with the devil. If they had had anything to say about it, the Fall would never have happened. But then, too, the serpent in paradise could not have been the kind of devil that I was. For then he would have had to play the game openly.”
But Thielicke goes on to point out that the real devil is for this very reason never so obvious as his fiery red, sulphur-voiced devil. The real devil always hides behind a clever mask and it is just then, without our even knowing what is happening as often as not, that he does his best work. (Quoted from Helmut Thielicke, How the World Began, Fortress Press 1961, p. 125).
I don’t know about you, but every time I have heard Satan’s suggestions in this passage whether I heard someone else read it or read it to myself, it was always menacing, snide, and surly. “If you are the Song of God …” When you think about it, that could really be pretty easy to resist, like the children who saw the puppet show. But, what if it comes in softly as words of comfort and ease, especially when we are in distress either physically, mentally, or both.
“If you really are God’s Son, surely he can’t want you to go hungry when you have the power to get food for yourself?”
Look at the painting again. When I first looked at it, I had a hard time figuring out who I thought Satan was in it. When trying to select and image there were some where Jesus was sitting absolutely alone on a rock outcropping. There really is no right or wrong answer with this, but as I looked at it, I came to associate that cute little fox with Satan. It doesn’t look scary or menacing does it? It’s just there. Maybe it just wants to help when Jesus is at the end of his rope. That’s when we must be the most careful too. That is when we are most in danger of succumbing to the lure.
But, why? Why did Jesus have to put himself, be put through, this agonizing situation? Satan coming to him when he is his most vulnerable and near the end of his strength is preparing him for the arduous ministry he will undertake over the next several years. He will have to endure the taunts and the temptation to just walk away, but he will do it knowing that Satan has thrown his best at him and he, Jesus, prevailed. The attacks don’t end. Luke’s version adds that after it all Satan “left him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13).
Pharisees will question him. He will have attacks from within his inner circle. We think of Judas at the end, but what about Peter? He correctly answers that Jesus is the Messiah, but in almost the next breath he criticizes Jesus for predicting his death, in effect, tempting Jesus to alter his path. What is Jesus’ response to this? “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block [or deadly trap] to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Mt 16:23). Then, at the end, when he is hanging on the cross, the people are taunting him. You can imagine the menace in the voices now, “Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” (Mt 27:40) Finally, after Jesus has died, we come full circle to God’s original pronouncement when the centurion says, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (Mt 27:54)
Jesus did it. He did it all. Like with Jesus, Satan will come at us when we are the most vulnerable. We must be prepared. We must have a plan, and what better plan than the one that Jesus shows us here. “It is written.” In order to have that defensive weapon. We have to know. We have to be familiar with it. The word of God, the Bible. C.S. Lewis is famous for saying that Jesus is the Word of God (as it is written in the first verse of the Gospel of John), but the Bible is where we learn what words he said, and the words that he referenced in the Old Testament. Incidentally, all of the Scripture that Jesus used in response to Satan’s temptations come from Deuteronomy. The translation of the Hebrew title for that book, The Words.
The temptations and tests that we all face, day by day and at critical moments of decision in our lives may be very different from the ones that Jesus faced, but they have exactly the same point. They are not simply trying to entice us to commit this or that sin. They are trying to distract us , to turn us aside from the path that God prepared for us. God has a mission for each one of us. The enemy, the forces of spiritual wickedness (as they’re called in our baptismal vows), will do everything possible to distract us and to frustrate God’s purpose. If God has welcomed us as God’s children, we will also have whispered suggestions from the enemy. However, as God’s children, we can use the same defense that Jesus did. Knowing our Bible gives us the tools we need. I am terrible at memorizing Scripture passages word for word, but I hope that you feel that I’m at least a little knowledgeable about it. Even if you can’t memorize it, you can ponder it, reflect on it, have its stories and lessons become a part of you. Then, even if the enemy uses Scripture to tell you their lies, you can recognize it and respond accordingly. “It is written …”
By looking at this picture in the midst of Jesus’ testing, by seeing yourself in that picture, we can draw closer to God, to Jesus. We can realize that we recognize his experience. We realize that in some form this can be our experience every day. This is our story too, not just on Sunday morning as we sit back in the pew, but on Thursday nights when we’re deciding what we’re going to watch on TV. Or when we’re in the grocery store. It can be especially true when we experience a setback or a windfall. See yourself in the picture and remember. Remember that there is one who understands those tempting whispers and who will be with you through it all the way.