This morning, I invite us to explore an episode in life where Jesus has to face up to a number of challenges - or "opportunities to suceed" as the management gurus would call them...
Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. An event important enough that Matthew, Mark and Luke all include it. And in reading Matthew's text,we have access to a "master class" in facing up to the difficulties of life. And we need it , because after all, its not when something difficult happens that we need to start thinking about to deal with it, much better to think about it in advance, to get some training in.
And thats just what Jesus does - before he faces the test, he spends time preparing; 40 days and 40 nights fasting in the desert.
There are of course echoes of the history of Israel. The 40 days and nights spent by Moses on the mountain, the 40 days that Elijah spent walking, exhausted after his confrontation with the prophets of Baal. And of the 40 years spent by the people in the desert, following their inability to God in his word and enter the promised land. And therefore this time apart is a time of preparation . Preparation for his public ministry and preparation time for the trials that will come. And Jesus fasted.
I may be wrong, because after 20 years in France I would not claim to know all there is to know about French culture, but it seems to me that the love story between the French and food is pretty intense, so it would easy to misunderstand, and think that the devil has waited a moment of weakness caused by hunger , to sneak up on Jesus. But lets not forget who's in charge here.
Because it was the Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness and God is in full control of the situation. After 40 days of fasting , physically, Jesus might be hungry, but spiritually he is on top form. So at the right time, when Jesus is ready , God allows this confrontation to take place.
And the first two challenges start with the question of identity:
"If you are the Son of God ..."
Jesus has received an affirmation of his identity as the Son of God at his baptism. He saw the Spirit of God coming to rest on him, and everyone heard the voice that said:
"This is my beloved Son, whom it has pleased me to choose. "
Voice affirming his identity as the Son of the Father. Beloved son. Son whose very existence gives pleasure.
In the same way, we too, when we are baptized , are publicly declared as the beloved child of our Father.
But what does it mean to be the Son of God ? For us, as for Jesus, it is one thing to hear the words, but it 's another thing to integrate them deeply in our lives. How will Jesus live out this identity? How we can we live out this identity?
So challenge number 1:
"If thou be the Son of God , command that these stones become bread . "
We need to be a little careful here . The Devil - literally "he who is testing " - is not trying to persuade Jesus to do something illegal or illicit, to steal or kill someone one . He's not even trying to pursuade him to eat too much dessert, rather than his 5 fruit and vegetables a day !
Turn stones into bread. There's nothing sinful about that. Jesus was hungry. He was absolutely able to change stones into bread . After all, he is the Creative Word of God made flesh. And later in his ministry, in his compassion he will multiply bread to give to the crowd. So where is the problem ? Why not do it?
The reason is given in hiss response which is a quote from the book of Deuteronomy, instructions given to the people just before entering the promised land. Moses invites them to remember what they experienced during their time in the desert - problems yes, but also how God took care of them by sending them manna .
Jesus became a human being, and for real . He's not a kind of super-angel disguised as a man. He really is human, and he is really hungry . If every time during his ministry he encounters a difficulty, a small technical problem, if he takes a shortcut by sorting it out by waving a small magic wand - he will end up denying his humanity. But he came as a human being and he is called to live as a human being - God's word yes, but God's word made flesh for us. And so, like all human beings , like the people on the threshold of the promised land, like us in our everyday lives , he is called to trust his Father . If his father did not forget to provide for the needs of the people in the desert, will he not he do the same for his son? And for us? Like the people in the promised land, we live with the temptation to forget our dependence on God, to live as if he's not there, or just to forget him. Like the people of Israel , we need to make an effort to remember all that God has done for us, and all that he goes on doing for us, every dayin the the details of our lives.
Challenge # 1 Jesus 1 0 devil ...
So the devil tries a new approach :
"If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written , He shall give thee with His angels , and they shall bear thee up in their hands to prevent you from hitting the foot against a stone . "
The devil tries to up the ante by supporting his challenge with a biblical quote . This is 91:11,12 Ps . (A little reminder us that everyone who quotes Scripture at us is not trustworthy. ) And again, what's the problem ? Making such a dramatic gesture in a public place will attract attention, add substance to his message - perhaps even allow some to believe that might not otherwise.
But we are again in the field of the easy shortcut. When you read Psalm 91, we soon realize that the devil tore the verses of context : Here are some more verses :
In fact , the psalmist is calling for trust in God, not for circus tricks .
And then there is another resonance here . This is the first time in his ministry Jesus hears "throw yourself down" , but it won't be the last. 3 years later, at the cross, passersby will say " save thyself if thou art the Son of God, come down from the cross."
But neither the devil, nor the spectators in Jerusalem have understood the most important thing - the mission of Jesus includes the cross. It is because he is the Son of God that he will refuse to comme down, and it is because he is the Son of God that he refuses to jump off the temple at the beginning of his ministry. And like him, we are called not to superstition, or the spectacular - but to a faithful life putting one foot in front of the other, every day, doing our best to follow in the footsteps of our master - knowing that his path led him to the cross, and then beyond.
And then, who does the devil think he is, putting the Son of God to the test! So Jesus underlines his refusal with another quotation from Deuteronomy 6: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test. "
Jesus 2 , devil 0
Third challenge :
From the top of a mountain , he sees all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, and the devil says "All this I will give it thee , if thou wilt fall down and worship me . "
"All this I will give you," All the kingdoms of the world and their splendor . And again we can see that there is no harm in what the devil is offering to give Jesus . Authority over all the kingdoms of the world. Who better to wield it ? And in addition we know that Jesus came to establish his kingdom, which one day will encompass the whole world . At the end of his mission on earth he is going to even say "all power is given unto me in heaven and on earth. "
And indeed, there's the problem. All power, all authority will be given to him when he has accomplished his mission, and not before. So the devil is again offering a shortcut - and at an unacceptable price "if you will bow down and worship me." The idea is grotesque, and therefore Jesus delivers his knockout blow : " Begone, Satan! For it is written : The Lord your God you must worship, and it is to him alone you shall serve."
We are still in Deuteronomy, with its repeated warnings against worshiping false gods. The devil is named as the Adversary, and the idea of worshipping anyone or anything other than God firmly rejected.
Andwe need to hear and apply this rejection. Because if there is an error into which human beings fall repeatedly, then it is the worship of false gods . And in the 21st century we're not short of false gods : money, power, success , efficiency , comfort, security ... and all these thing will distract us from the way of Jesus if we give them priority in our lives .
And we also need to hear "Get thee hence , Satan." These are the same words that Jesus will say to Peter when the latter, shocked by Jesus prediction of his death, tells him that it 's just not possible. And if Peter, Peter who lived for several years right next to Jesus, Peter who is always named as the first among the apostles - if Peter can become the voice of the Adversary - then we can too. And Pierre became a spokesman for the devil when he refused to understand that the path to Easter Sunday always goes through Good Friday.
Jesus 3 - and the devil left has the field ....
Because the devel can't understand that in this live, following Jesus , there are no shortcuts. But we can move forward, fixing our eyes on Jesus while remaining grounded in our identity as children of the living God and trusting him.
And I have not forgotten the last little sentence of our text :
"And behold , angels came and ministered to him . "
The food that Jesus refused to create during the first challenge is sent by God. What we need (not necessarily what we want , but what we need) will always be given to us during our journey, by our Father who loves us and cares for us .