Summary: Testing and temptation: Jesus’s encounter with the Devil was a shadow of the cross in the wilderness.
We just heard the reading from Matthew 4. When Matthew wrote his book, he had no idea that there was going to be a chapter break right at that point of his book. So I suggest we take a look at a few verses before Matthew 4 to get a sense of Matthew’s thought pattern. At the end of Chapter 3, we find Jesus dripping wet from his baptism in the river Jordan, basking in the knowledge that he is God’s beloved son and the Father is well pleased with him, and the whole experience has been sealed by the Holy Spirit who descends on him like a dove.
What a moment of great possibility. Jesus is putting behind him his quiet private obscure life as a village carpenter and is, instead, embarking on a public and, ultimately, costly mission. It is in this context that Matthew continues the account with what we call Matthew 4. He has just finished saying, "This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life," and immediately adds, “Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test.”
I am always amazed by the Bible’s clear position on what it is like to live under God’s guidance. At the high point of his life, Jesus steps from the Jordan into the wilderness, not because he was daft, or because he had lost his way, or because he was deliberately masochistic. He went into the wilderness because God’s spirit led him there. When we find ourselves in the wilderness we can wonder if we are far from God. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that it is God’s divine guidance that takes us there.
What sorts of choices are available to us as Christians? What does the way of the cross mean for us? Are there easy choices we are missing out on? Is being a Christian always about choosing the hard way, the slow road? This morning I intend to find with you how we can live out our calling by rejecting the easy choices and seeking, not just a good way, but a better way.
1. What is life like under divine leadership?
Jesus coming out of the Jordan and heading into the wilderness is a picture that must have been pregnant with meaning for Jews reading Matthew’s account because it might have reminded them of their own exodus from Egypt, which we studied last year in St Stephen’s. At that time in history, the people of Israel were headed into a new life as God’s chosen people, having been brought out of captivity in Egypt by God’s miraculous actions on their behalf.
Jesus in the wilderness must have known exactly what the Exodus pilgrimage was like because he was deeply immersed in the Scriptures while going through his 40 days of fasting. Over and over again, the Exodus pilgrim path led to thirst, hunger, and exhaustion. Walking the pilgrim path was not easy for those Israelites. And it was just as demanding for Jesus.
Just as God led the Israelites into the desert, so the Spirit led Jesus in to the wilderness. Jesus was not protected from the wilderness but deliberately exposed to it. “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased.” Would this knowledge turn Jesus’ head?
The Bible tells us that there were no angels around to minister to Jesus during his testing. He was in the wilderness to demonstrate God’s leadership in his life, not so that he could make his own easy choices. Later when faced with death, this experience stood him in good stead. In Matthew 26, we read that Jesus, when in the garden of Gethsemane, fell on his face, praying, "My Father, if there is any way, get me out of this. But please, not what I want. You, what do you want?" Again he prayed, "My Father, if there is no other way than this, drinking this cup to the dregs, I’m ready. Do it your way."
So what is life like under divine guidance? For us, the lesson from this is clear: don’t shy away from the wilderness – it could be the making of you. It is God working in us so that we can say, “not my will, Lord, but yours.”
2. What is life like when faced with devilish temptation?
Temptation, it must be said, would not be temptation if it were not tempting. Jesus’ temptations in Matthew 4 are all the more fascinating for giving us insight on what tempts Jesus.
I used to think the first temptation the devil put before Jesus was to satisfy his hunger. It probably comes from looking at all the chocolate fasts and fat-reduction programmes around me that are presented as Lent fasts. When we give up something for Lent are we thinking of the weight benefits or are we basking in God’s love?