There is vast difference between temptation and testing. God tempts no one. James is clear on that, and we need to be clear on that too. God does not dangle sin in front of our eyes and then dare us to disobey. That’s the work of the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh.
Temptation begins with desire, the heart unbuckled from God. The heart that does not “fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” Inward idolatry. The self curved in on itself. Desire births sin, and sin matured gives birth to death. But don’t blame God for that. It’s in you.
When God told Abraham to offer up his only son on Mt. Moriah as a sacrifice, He wasn’t tempting Abraham to sin, He was testing him. Taking that Spirit-wrought faith which is reckoned as righteousness and putting it through the refining fire to show Abraham and Israel and all of us what it means to trust God’s promise. “Go and sacrifice your son, your only son, the son of the promise, the son you’ve waited for all these long, childless years.” Now that’s a test!
With testing always comes a way out. God isn’t into breaking faith but building it. For Isaac, there was a ram caught in the thicket. A substitute sacrifice caught in the wood. The Jesus-point. That’s where all of God’s testing of faith, in all the trials and pains and sufferings of this life are intended to bring us, to the Jesus-point. To that sacrificial Lamb of God pinned to the wood of the cross in our place. “God will provide,” faithful Abraham said. God did provide. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Immediately after His baptism in the Jordan river, Jesus was “cast out” into the wilderness by the Spirit. It’s a curious way of putting it. “Cast out” is the same thing that happens to the unclean spirits around Jesus. They are cast out into their dry places, like the cursed goat of Yom Kippur (the day of atonement) that was cast out into the wilderness. But here the sinless Son of God, still dripping wet from His baptism, is cast out by the Holy Spirit to the arid wilderness, the place of Satan and the wild beasts.
There He is both tested and tempted. The Spirit casts Him out into the wilderness; the Father tests the Son, proves Him. Is He the faithful Son the Father declares Him to be? Forty days in the wilderness without food or drink will prove it. Israel in the wilderness proved faithless. Now Jesus takes Israel’s place in the wilderness, a one-man Israel, and the Father proves Him faithful.
He is tempted. Weakened, hungry, thirsty, alone, He confronts the accuser. Mark doesn’t tell us the details of that temptaion and so we’ll skip that too this year. Luke will fill us in next year. Today it is sufficient to hear that Jesus was tempted by Satan. Tempted in every way that we are tempted. Jesus takes our humanity in its most weakened state – hungry, thirsty, alone, vulnerable – into the wilderness and faces the full blast of our temptation and in His weakness, He emerges victorious. He conquers in weakness, not strength. The secret power of the cross is revealed here. This Jesus conquers the devil’s might with strength hidden in weakness, in total reliance on the Word.
The pattern is always water to wilderness. From sea to dry land. From the Red Sea to 40 years in the Sinai wilderness for Israel. From the Jordan to the wilderness for Jesus. From the font to the wilderness of your life. Yes, you have a wilderness too. Jesus didn’t go the way of the wilderness so that you could glide along the express lane to the promised land. Jesus is the Way not the Detour.
The wilderness, of course, is this life lived in-between the water of Baptism and the promised land of the resurrection. There are plenty of snakes and scorpions and wild beasts: disease, violence, the forces of nature, the will to power and control. Corrupt governments, crooked boardrooms, adulterous bedrooms. False religions, false beliefs, distorted views of the world, of ourselves, of God. There is greed and arrogance, pride and prejudice, sexual promiscuity and immorality, drunkenness, gluttony, anarchy. There is the sorrow and grief of death and loss.
Into this wilderness we are cast as baptized believers joined to Jesus, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. And right there waiting to pounce, is the old evil foe, Satan, defeated but not yet silenced, chained but still mobile, stalking around like a roaring lion in one of Caesar’s Roman amphitheaters looking for a some isolated, weak, little believer to snatch up and devour. Resist him, by standing firm in the faith of Jesus.
It is a time of testing. God is putting that faith of yours which He worked through the fire, not to destroy it but to refine it, to reveal the 24 karat purity of His work free from the adulterating dross of our works, to prove that He is faithful to His promises and that He will see us through no matter what the circumstances of this life.
This is life under the cross of Jesus, my friends. It is trudging the wilderness way with Abraham up the mountain of Moriah with his son; it is walking with Jesus in the lonely hour of temptation when your only friends are the wild beasts and the angels. But there is good news in this wilderness. We do not walk alone, but together as a body, the body of Christ. We are bound together in Baptism, Body and Blood to walk this wilderness way together. It’s a rule: in the wilderness, there is safety in numbers.
Even more, Jesus Himself walks the wilderness way with us. He’s paved the path ahead of us, and He walks in our midst. He’s conquered the devil. He’s tamed the wild beasts. He’s defeated Death by dying and rising. “He’s by our side upon the plain with His good gifts and Spirit.” The present wilderness is now full of Jesus, waiting for the spring of resurrection and life that Jesus brings.
This time of wilderness testing and temptation may seem like a long time when you’re in the middle of it. Even a few days of suffering seems forever. But viewed from the eternal side of things, it’s not that long at all. Forty days. Like Lent. And Easter draws ever near.
In the name of Jesus,