Wilderness Temptations

Mark 1:9-15 / Lent 1B / 26 February 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

One can only imagine what was going through Father Abraham’s mind and heart that day he trudged up the mountain with a knife, wood, a fire, and his son Isaac, the son of the promise. One can only imagine the heartache, the grief, the anguish when he heard his son Isaac ask his father innocently, “Where is the lamb? Here is fire and wood but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham knew what God had said, he knew what he was prepared to do. And yet Abraham is faithful, full of faith, and says, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for burnt offering my son.” One can only imagine how those words must have rung in his ears with each step up the mountain. “God will provide. God will provide. God will provide.”

Abraham’s faith was being tested. Isaac, his son, was the son of the promise, conceived and born when Abraham and his wife Sarah were well beyond child-bearing years. A miracle baby, and you know how it is with miracle babies. They are uniquely precious to their mothers and fathers. What did Abraham tell Sarah, if anything? Did he lie to her and tell her that they were just going out for a little father-son outing, a hike in the mountains? This was the son that God had promised on oath. This was the son that served as tangible, living proof that God was true to His word. And now God was acting like Molech, the god of the pagans, to whom the Canaanites sacrificed their children. What on earth was God doing? What was He thinking? What could possibly be gained by this?

If I’m walking in Abraham’s sandals, I’m thinking that I must have had the wrong divine number, that this wasn’t God talking to me but the devil himself. And yet somehow Abraham knew that this was the same God who had promised a son in the first place, the same God who had given him the name “Father of nations,” the same God who had said that through Abraham’s seed, all nations of the earth would be blessed. Abraham believed God, he was faithful, full of faith in the promise of that singular Seed that would bless all nations, of whom Isaac was the tangible evidence. And it’s out of that faith that Abraham could say, “God will provide the lamb. He has to. He promised.” And so up the mountain they go, father and son. With the wood, the fire, the knife and nothing more but faith. God will provide.

In the Gospel according to St. Mark, everything is rather abbreviated and happens “immediately,” so much so that you are liable to miss the details. Jesus is baptized by John. The heavens are torn open violently, the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove, and the voice of the Father bears witness, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

And what happens next, “immediately,” upon Jesus’ baptism, what does the Spirit that descended upon Jesus in the water do immediately thereafter? He drives Jesus into the wilderness. Drives him. Literally forces Him violently to go into the wilderness for forty days. Forty days of fasting, no food and drink. Forty days with no visible means of support, where all there are are the wild things, the scorpions, snakes, coyotes, jackals. Forty days of temptation by Satan, the accuser, the liar, the enemy. That’s where Jesus’ baptism takes Him, to direct confrontation with the devil on his own turf, in the wilderness, with no visible means of support, where even the Father and the Spirit appear to be absent, where Jesus has nothing but the Word with which to defend Himself.

Why do we expect the life of faith to be easy? Why do we expect the life of the baptized to be privileged, as kind of soft and easy romp through spiritual suburbia? Why are we surprised when even the slightest interest in God stirs up trouble? I’ve come to warn people to expect trouble when Jesus is involved. I’ve told adults who come to Baptism to watch out for the trouble that will soon follow and not be surprised by it. In fact, you should welcome it with open arms as proof that God is indeed at work in Baptism and that the devil, the world, and your own sinful self utterly hate this whole business. Even if you attempt some sort of renewal and revival of your faith, you can expect trouble. Your spouse, if he or she is unbelieving, will get suspicious of this renewed interest in “religion.” Your children may start to act up. Your friends will give you that squirrel eye look. Oh, yes, you know what I’m talking about . You’ve seen it.

Start praying more, reading your Scriptures more, going to church more regularly and faithfully, putting into practice what you confess and believe, and there will be trouble. I know this isn’t a good way to advertise the faith, but I’m not going to stand up here and lie to you like the TV preachers who promise a life of favors. Tell that to Abraham walking up the mountain fully prepared to put the knife to the throat of his son. Tell that to Jesus, still dripping wet from His baptism left to wander the wilderness and endure the full blast temptation of the Evil One without so much as a divine finger of support.

Why do we even think for a moment that the life of faith in Christ is an easy life? There is a man named Yousef Nadarkhani, a young Christian pastor with a wife and 2 sons who stands convicted of apostasy and is sentenced to die in Iran for the crime of being a convert to Christianity. He was arrested in October 2009 for refusing to put his children into an Islamic school as ordered by the government. His wife was also arrested and tried without an attorney and sentenced to life imprisonment, but she was later released on appeal. They threatened to take his two sons aways from him. They have forcibly tried to get him to convert to Islam to save himself and his family. And yes, I know the Iranians are big on show and want to make a political statement, but the fact is that this man’s death sentence is real and he can be executed at any moment. Tell this man that the life of the baptized is an easy one, that the road of faith is a smooth and easy path paved with the promise of one divine favor after another.

The truth is that the road of faith leads into the wilderness, the place of testing and temptation. It leads up that mountain way where everything you are and have hangs in the balance and you have no good answer to give except “God will provide.” Luther says, when these things happen to you, when you find yourself in the wilderness being tempted by the devil and tested by God, rejoice. God is exercising your faith. God is at work here.

The apostle Paul, no stranger to suffering and hardship, said the same thing in Romans. “We rejoice in our sufferings because suffering produces patient endurance and character and hope that does not fade away.” The wilderness is a place of formation, a place where patient endurance is honed, where character is formed, where hope is annealed in the fire of testing. Christianity is no armchair religion, no idle philosophy, no contemplative escape from the realities of life.

Martin Luther said that when we are attacked by the devil, when we undergo times of trials and temptations and testing, we should rejoice and be glad because God is at work to strengthen our faith. That’s what the wilderness is all about. God led Israel through the baptism of the Red Sea into the wilderness. It turned out to be forty years, an entire generation, in the wilderness. That wasn’t plan A but that’s how it worked out. In the wilderness, God formed His people as a nation and brought them to full maturity so that they were prepared to take possession of the land. The prophet Elijah went through the wilderness back to Mt Horeb in a journey that lasted 40 days and nights where he was sustained completely by heavenly bread and water. And today we hear about Jesus, doing the “Israel thing,” going from baptism in the Jordan to the wilderness for forty days, being driven there by the Spirit, to undergo the same time of testing and temptation.

Mark doesn’t go into the details of Jesus’ temptation, but Matthew and Luke fill it out for us. Jesus was tempted to use His divine power to serve Himself a helping of bread, to turn stones into bread, to do precisely what the Son of God does not do, namely destroy something to make something else and to serve Himself. Jesus was tempted to throw Himself off the pinnacle of the temple and put to test the Scriptures that said the angels would break His fall. Jesus was tempted by all the temporal power and glory of this world, to make His kingdom the kingdoms of this age, all in exchange for a bended knee before the devil. He was tempted as we are tempted, and yet He didn’t sin, even in thought much less word and deed. Three times Jesus was tempted with a full blast assault of the devil, and three times He responded with the Word that put the devil in his place. “One little word can fell him.”

You will be tempted too. Tempted to forsake Christ for something else. Tempted to satisfy your own hunger and appetites. Tempted to test the Word of God. Remember how Eve was tempted. First there was doubt. “Did God really say?” Then she was tempted by her appetites. She saw that the forbidden food was beautiful and delicious and oh so satisfying. Then she was tempted by her reason. It could make you wise, and who wouldn’t want that. And then she bit into the notion of good and evil and being like God sounded like a good thing to her and to Adam and to us.

Alone we would be doomed in our wilderness. We’re no match of the devil. In fact, our old adam, our natural inclination, is to be on the devil’s side. That’s why God must “make enmity,” God must act, God must intervene. That’s why the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness after His Baptism. Not for Jesus’ faith but for ours. Not for Jesus’ sake but for ours. This was the prelude to the cross where the battle was waged in earnest. This was the opening round of a war that would end in Jesus’ hunger and thirst on the cross in the wilderness of Sin and Death where with one last word “it is finished,” He put an end once and for all to the works of the devil.

You too must walk the wilderness way, the way of testing and trial, the way when the devil seems so real and God seems so hidden you would think He was absent. You and I must walk this way to the promised land of eternal life. It’s called the way of faith. And you do not walk it alone. Your Savior, our Lord Jesus, has gone the way ahead of us and will lead us through it. The snakes and scorpions and wolves and jackals pose no threat.

“Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place, no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. For He will command His angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.”

In the name of Jesus,