The wilderness – the test of faithfulness
In Jesus’s story, the chronological events, the story of the testing in the wilderness is immediately after Jesus’s Baptism, when Jesus is declared God’s beloved and pleasing son. Jesus goes from the Jordan, and full of the Spirit, follows that divine call into the wilderness prior to beginning his Galilean ministry.
The Gospel text has an interruption between these two events, however. In Luke, we read the story of Jesus’s baptism, and then a genealogy, and then the account of Jesus’s time in the wilderness. Luke tracks Jesus’s lineage back through the heroes of Hebrew Scripture, King David, the first man Adam, and then back to God, the Father. The reader at this point would recognize Jesus’s place in Israel’s history. A history that is filled with flawed characters, and redemptions, as time and again Israel turned from God.
This history continues into Luke’s account of Jesus’s trial in the wilderness. In our text today, Luke draws heavily from Deuteronomy, and its reference, the Book of Exodus. Like Matthew and Mark, Luke records these events as being at the end of 40 days in the wilderness – a number that harks back to the years Israel wandered in the wilderness. That sets the scene for us to compare what we’re about to hear with the story of Israel on the threshold of the promised land, when they hear for the first time the Shema, the uninterrupted prayer that has been on the breath of the Jewish community since Moses bid them farewell, saying:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Remember God, implores Moses, know you will forget, and do everything you can to remember. Perhaps he would say to us today: set three alarms, put a post it on your mirror, write it in Nikko on your hand, repeat it to yourself, write lines, put it on your coffee mug, give your kids an app! Such is the futility, but Jesus will not forget.
Go on Jesus, you shouldn’t be hungry.
Jesus had made 40 whole days of fasting and prayer, all the while being tempted. He is wobbly and feint – literally famished. The devil’s suggestion must have those smooth, round, flat rocks looking a lot like flat bread to Jesus right now.
If you are the son of God, pull a miracle, and prove it. Is God really with you?
For forty years, the people of Israel would ask Moses that same question – is God with us, really? Why are we suffering like this? We’re hungry, we’re thirsty, we’re sick of this weird manna. Why are we not comfortable and successful right now like the oppressors we left? Is God really with us? Prove it.
And so Jesus points back to the story of Israel in his response:
Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.
He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
Jesus remembered God.
To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.
“This trial in the wilderness is hard. The way of God is hard. Why not just take what is your right?” asks Satan. “It’s mine to give. You can have it, just bow down in deference to me”.
This gift of worldly authority and glory really was Satan’s to give; Jesus did not dispute that at all.
So do you need God? asks Satan. Will that get you what you want? Really?
This is the temptation that led the Israelites to demand a Golden Calf to do their bidding? That’s the way to get lost in the wilderness.
Jesus responds instead with the breath of the Shema.
“Worship the Lord your God and serve only him”
The desire to be great in the eyes of the world, and to have the respect of their neighbours, was eventually the temptation that destroyed Israel. They demanded their own kings, who in time destroyed the nation in greed and selfishness and a disregard for their God. Jesus knew to whom to defer.
And as we watch our world, we know that worldly authority is wielded just as the devil wanted in the wilderness – with the same sense of entitlement and selfishness that comes with the rejection of God and good.
Wouldn’t you know it – Satan can use the Bible…
11 For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
Up on the temple top, feint with hunger, the whole world on offer, you can imagine the vertigo setting in, the pull of gravity drawing to collapse forward, knowing angels would capture you, proving your worth and identity, ending this game with Satan.
Satan uses these words, direct from Psalm 91. But like all who abuse scripture, Satan takes these words out of context
The promise of angels was actually a promise of protection from the Devil’s traps.
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler… he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield
The promise of guardian angels is a promise of deliverance from the devil’s ways. It is too easy for us to be led astray by starting with what we want the Bible to say, and then finding the text to match our desire. That is a very dangerous temptation indeed – to convince ourselves God speaks what we desire.
If you are the chosen one, the beloved, the son of God, prove it. Convince me and you can have what you want.
Except that to listen to Satan would be to walk straight into the fowler’s trap. Jesus knew to hide under the wings of his Father, rather than provoke God, to test God’s love, by forcing God to provide him with his own flight.
In this final response, Jesus again quotes Moses’s instructions to Israel as they leave the wilderness – “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Moses was reminding Israel that despite their miraculous release from captivity, and the provision of manna to eat, they complained, asking “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”.
So Moses called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7)
Each temptation presents the same question. Is God with you or not? Are you with God? Jesus trusted that God the Father was with him, and would not put the Lord to the test.
And spent, the Devil departed from Jesus until an opportune time.
Luke uses these allusions to Exodus and Deuteronomy to show that where Israel was unfaithful, and unable to follow God in their own strength, Jesus is the faithful son.
In each temptation, Jesus’s defeat over sin and evil was not by a powerful blow but in refusing to act, in keeping focused on the Lord, his Father, the only God. There was nothing Jesus needed to prove. He was anointed by the voice of God and declared loved. He remembered that the Lord was with him.
The structure of Luke’s Gospel links the trials in the wilderness to another milestone. Immediately after these trials in the wilderness, Jesus begins his ministry in Galilea, returning to Nazareth, where he sits down to teach and reads from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Anointed at his baptism, filled with the Spirit, Jesus defines his ministry using the words of the prophet Isaiah. By overcoming sin and evil itself, looking always towards God his Father, and setting aside the desire for worldly power, independent strength and security, and status, Jesus will bring good news to the poor, release the captives, recover sight to the blind, and free to oppressed. It will be the year of the Lord’s favour.
In the wilderness, Jesus defeated evil by what he didn’t do and didn’t prove, and by what he remembered. He was faithful, and that was the more difficult path. Once and for all, Jesus shows us that God doesn’t anoint the faithful with worldly success, comfort, ease, and acclaim and human approval. God anoints the faithful with the Holy Spirit, wisdom, and perseverance. God’s kingdom is for all of those that are left behind in the human pursuit for the power, wealth, status, and security that comes at the expense of others.
That is good news.
So what can we take away for our own lives, today, this season of Lent? What can we not do, that has a real impact for God’s work here? What can we learn from Christ’s own response to temptation?
What temptation does each of us feel – what are our weak points?
Perhaps we’re distracted from God by the promise of easy bread, by prioritising our comfort before God? If we sit with discomfort for a while, what might happen? What happens when we remember God is with us? Those distractions from our study and prayer – can we see them for what they are? How might we be surprised by the Spirit’s movement if we wait before feeding, clicking, escaping, in comfort, and ask God what we really need?
Or maybe the lure of power and influence is our weak point. Those times we are tempted to control, own, possess, or change or others in our own power, and to our own preference? What happens when we remember God is with us?
Maybe we can catch those moments we want to be right and choose to listen to person in front of us, instead of formulating our next rebuttal? Can we approach with curiosity and leave judgement for God? What better way to show God’s love than to spend time listening to the person in front of us, working to really understand them, just like God listens patiently to our prayers and knows us inside and out?
What if we gave up winning? Or interrogated that desire to compare ourselves with others? That’s not the same as deliberately losing or diminishing ourselves, but rather deciding to not compete with others for the sake of it. How wonderful might it feel to just be sure of ourselves in God. What might God reveal to us if we show that humility?
Or perhaps our temptation is the need to prove ourselves. It’s so human to want proof that we’re loved, and to want others to value us. What if we remember that God is with us?
Perhaps this Lent is the year we remind ourselves who we belong to? To hide under God’s wings instead of jumping, insisting that we be made to fly. What better way to know love than to draw near to God in prayer? To spend time with the one who loves us, returning that love?
This Lent, perhaps we set three alarms, put a post it on the mirror, write in Nikko on our hands, get a printed coffee mug, and give the kids an app – remember God is with you! Because Jesus shows us what happens when we remember – finally, Israel had a hero that was faithful, who stays with God, and the contrast is stark. Let’s set our eyes on Jesus.
In the name of Christ