Mark gives the temptation of Jesus only a few short sentences in his version of the Gospel: The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.
It goes by so quickly in Mark, you almost miss it. Still dripping wet from His baptism in the Jordan, Jesus is cast into the wilderness by the Spirit. Just as Israel emerged from the parted water of the Red Sea to a 40 year wilderness journey to the promised land, so Jesus – Israel reduced to One – begins His journey to the cross. Forty. The number of days the rain fell in the Flood. The number of years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. The number of days Elijah trekked through the wilderness to return to Mt. Horeb. Jesus – God’s Israel, His Servant, His Son.
Matthew and Luke fill in the details. Jesus was hungry. He hadn’t eaten for forty days. He was having His Lent. Don’t you try that at home in yours. This is uniquely His to do. He was tempted by the devil, Satan. Tempted by miracle: Turn these stones into bread. Tempted to test the Word: Throw yourself off the temple. Tempted by religion and power: It’s all yours, Jesus; just bow down and worship me. Tempted in every way we are tempted, except for one thing. Jesus did not sin.
Satan tempted Jesus not to be what His baptism said He was: the Christ, the Son of God. “If you are the Son of God…. You are, aren’t you, Jesus?” So sly, so subtle. A snake in the garden. “Did God really say it? How can you be the Christ if you are rejected and crucified? Is that any way to start a successful religion? Is that any way to reform the masses? Is that any way to solve the problems of this world? Be crucified? That’s not what the world is looking for. They want miracle, they want invincible power, they want celebrity. They don’t call it “American Idol” for nothing! Give them what they want, Jesus. And maybe then, you can give them what you want.”
Why did Jesus have to be tempted this way? Ever wonder? Why go through forty days of hunger, of isolation, of temptation? Why even bother with the devil, that old liar? It goes back to the garden and the threat that was a promise: “I will make enmity between you (the devil) and the woman, between her seed and yours.” There’s going to be war. One on one. In the wilderness. What the devil did to humanity would be undone by God enfleshed in humanity. Where the devil’s lie was successful in getting Eve and then Adam to disobey, he would fail in the second Adam, the new head of humanity.
This is part and parcel of Jesus’ mission to seek and to save. It flows right out of His baptism. Immediately He is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. This is part of the package, to confront the great liar in our human flesh armed with nothing more than what you and I have – the Word of God. Whereas we’re willing accomplices, He is not. He faces the great temptations that warp our lives and turn us against each other and against God Himself. He trusts His Father and the Word. That’s all Jesus has at His disposal in this barren wilderness with the wild beasts all around Him and the devil hot on His heel. Nothing but the Word.
Abraham trusted the Word of God, the Promise that he would be the “father of nations.” He trusted the Word even when God told him to offer up his only son. Can you imagine the anguish of that man? Talk about confusion! God against God. God gives him a son of the promise and then says, offer him up to me on Mt. Moriah.
Abraham trusted the promise, even against the law, God’s command. He took his son, left the servants behind, trudged up the mountain with the wood and the fire and the knife. Oh, and how the question must have burned him like fire, cut him through like a knife. “Father, where’s the lamb for the burnt offering? The fire and the wood are here, but where’s the lamb?” How but by the grace of God did Abraham even manage to say it? “God will provide the lamb, my son.”
Abraham builds an altar, arranges the wood, ties up Isaac, and lays him on the altar. He reaches back for the knife and is ready to slay his son, when Christ calls out from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham! Stop. Don’t touch the boy. Don’t do anything to your son.” Off in the thicket is a ram caught by its horns. The substitute. The lamb for sacrifice. YHWH will provide.
God’s Lamb walks alone in the wilderness – your Substitute – hungry with your hunger, thirsty with your thirst, tempted in weakness to go another way than the cross, to seek another joy than your salvation, to refuse the shame and the pain in favor of power and glamor and cross-less, painless, feel good, be happy religion. But then He would not have been the Lamb of sacrifice. He would not have been tempted as we are. He would not have laid down His life to save you. And you would be like Isaac without a ram, with the law of God dangling over you like a knife.
Trials and temptations will come your way. That is certain. You can expect them. You are baptized, after all. Look at all the trouble Jesus’ baptism caused Him. To be baptized is to live as marked men and women. You bear Jesus’ mark, and the devil hates that. So does the unbelieving world. A servant is not greater than his Master. The cross is always there for the baptized. The very next thing that Mark tells us is that John was put into prison where he would die. And with that, Jesus goes up to Galilee and announces good news: The kingdom of God is near. Repent, believe – trust the good news of Jesus.
“Lead us not into temptation,” Jesus taught His disciples to pray. God doesn’t tempt anyone. That’s the devil’s doing. He does test, as He did Abraham. And He’s promised never to test you beyond what you are able to bear, and in Christ you are able to bear much more than you may even think you are able. That’s the “secret” the apostle Paul learned when he wrote, “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.” In our temptations, we are never alone. Christ is with us, by our side, “with His good gifts and Spirit,” as we just sang. And He’s the One who was tempted for us and did not sin.
The baptized life is not an easy life. Christians are granted no special immunities from disease, no exemptions from suffering, no special passes that allow us to go around the wilderness. You can only go through it, you can’t go around it. The season of Lent symbolizes that for us. Forty days of sober, somber preparation – a fast before the feast of Easter. It is “symbolic” in the sense that we choose the time and the place and even the “suffering,” if you can call it that.
The reality is that our wilderness is this life that we’re in; and the sufferings and temptations are real, not some self-chosen discipline. Were it not for Jesus, we wouldn’t make it. We wouldn’t even take a first step. But there is a promise stretched out like an umbrella over you that reads: “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” You do not walk in this wilderness alone. God does not leave you alone to wrestle with the devil, the world, and your own sinful self. And if God is for you, who can be against you? If God gave His Son for you, if that’s what you are worth to God, do you think He would possibly abandon you in your time of need? If Christ died for your sins, who can bring any charges against you? If God has justified you in Jesus, who can condemn you?
Do you realize what that means? You walk in this world justified by God, forgiven, restored, redeemed by the blood of Jesus who is at the right hand of God interceding for you. The Son of God, the crucified and risen Lord, is interceding for you. “Father, forgive them,” showing His wounded hands and side. There is literally nothing in this world that can drive a wedge between you and God. Nothing. Not trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword, global warming, Islamic terrorists, tsunamis, hurricanes, cancers, stray bullets, clogged arteries, killer viruses, or holes in the ozone layer. Not angels, demons, the present, the future, powers, nothing in the heights or the depths. Not even the worst of your sins can separate you from the love of God in Jesus.
Not when your sins have been washed away in Baptism.
Not when your sins have been forgiven by the word of Jesus.
Not when you have received the broken Body and the shed Blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Not when you have Jesus on your side, the One who resisted the devil for you with a word.
We really do face death all day long, as Paul says. We’d rather not admit. We’d rather live in denial of it. Yet Paul says in all these things – things that signal death, things that the world fears and maybe you do too – in all these things we “hyper-conquer,” we conquer above and beyond conquering, through Jesus who loved us to death and who conquered sin, death, and devil for us. Only in and through Jesus can you say that, because only Jesus conquered death itself by dying on a cross. And the proof of that: His risen body, His empty tomb.
The Lord will provide, as faithful Abraham once said. And He has in Jesus, the sacrificial lamb. And He will provide, through Word and Water and Supper as you make your wilderness way through this Lenten life and on to endless Easter.
In the name of Jesus,