Jesus Passed the Test
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
After baptism by John, ‘Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness’ accompanied by God’s word (Matthew 4:1). Jesus withstood the devil’s temptations with the power of Hebrew scripture. How often has reading scripture been a source of centering strength and peace for us in the midst of struggle and chaos?
Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Or Psalm 121, “I lift my eyes to the hills from where will my help come?” Or Isaiah 55, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.” You probably have your own beloved passages. Meditation upon scripture can sow calm in a hospital room, nursing home, or living room. It is a sober tonic for those needing to be emotionally present in stressful situations or who struggle to make difficult decisions.
If you already picked up a copy of the Lenten devotional, Free Indeed, this week you’ve been reading Luther’s Small Catechism, beginning with the Ten Commandments. Jesus fought off the devil and temptation with reference to the first two Commandments: “You shall have no other gods”; “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.”
Jesus’ dispute with Satan to corresponds with arguments he will have with the Jewish leaders at the end of his ministry before going to the cross. You could say that conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world is the plot of the whole gospel of Matthew. God is the hidden actor, and Satan is the hidden opponent throughout the gospel. Satan, though defeated, continues to tempt Jesus throughout his ministry (16:23) Scripture and prayer are Jesus’ sword and shield.
While we live in a State without a budget, while families in the neighborhood fear deportation and/or violent discrimination, as the politics of spin gives way to outright lies in our nation’s capital—on top of everything else we are coping with just to keep our families and ourselves together, let scripture and prayer be your sword and shield too!
The wilderness into which Jesus goes is no national park. It is a place of isolation and death. Today’s gospel is a remarkably detailed tour of temptations set before Jesus by an articulate, Torah-toting, scripture-quoting devil. After baptism, the Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the desert for forty days. He goes alone, without fanfare, or survival gear. He doesn’t even have time to pack a suitcase or an extra pair of sandals.
In the ancient imagination, the desert is a place infested with demons. It is an untamed and unknown place entered at great risk. To be in the “wild” was to be where one may become lost or die. This is the root of our word “bewildered,” which goes back to the physical and emotional state of being lost. (Rebecca Lyman. Rebecca is the Garrett Professor of Church History)
In goes Jesus to the desert to be bewildered. Jesus enters a lethal hall of mirrors, where his power and identity will be tested. The devil tempts Jesus to claim what is rightfully his as the beloved Son of God namely, food, safety, and authority. All three of Satan’s tests tempt Jesus to betray his identity and misuse his power. Jesus passes the test.
The devil tempts Jesus to deny who he really is. Later, Jesus will turn a couple fish and five barley loaves into a feast for 5000. But now he refuses to use that same power to transform stones into bread to feed himself. Later, Jesus will walk on water, calm the stormy seas, and pass through the violent mob at Nazareth. But now, he refuses to jump from the top of the temple just to prove himself to the devil. Later, angels will pronounce Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords—the alpha and omega. But here, Jesus refuses to take any shortcuts toward his final goal. Jesus passed the test.
Later, bystanders will repeat the same challenge shouting from the foot of the cross. ‘If you are the Son of God, save yourself and come down from that cross, so that we may believe in you’ (Matthew 27:40). But Jesus won’t jump from the top of the temple. He won’t come down from the cross either. Jesus won’t misuse his power to show off or to benefit himself.
Jesus passed the test. That’s why we can trust him. In our reading from Genesis, as soon as their eyes are opened Adam and Eve sew loincloths to hide their nakedness from each other and from God. In worship today, our lengthy confession leaves us standing naked before God. People may dress for worship in their Sunday best but confession strips all people, revealing the depth of sin and the deep human need all people have for God. Even as we stand naked before God, Jesus clothes us with his righteousness.
In the early 1900s famed explorer Ernest Shackleton led an expedition to travel by land some 1,700 miles across the South Pole. To recruit a crew for the journey he placed the following ad in the local papers: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.”
Historians doubt the authenticity of this story. Maybe it’s a myth. Still, it raises the question, how might an honest ad for the church read? “Servants wanted for hazardous journey. Must be generous in all ways, enduring all things, hoping all things. Must be able to forgive seventy-seven (or more) times. Constant temptation, long months in the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus will travel with you.”
As St. Paul wrote, we struggle while knowing “…that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
Jesus passed the test by being faithful to God. That faith proved to be the strength to overcome the bewildering power of death and the grave, to shatter the bonds of sin and the devil, to fill darkness with light, to drive out fear from our hearts, and to refresh our sin-sick souls. God leads us into life and the abundance of life, beyond mere survival. Because Jesus stands with us in the deserts of our all-too-human lives, we are confident that the Spirit of God walks with us now and in all the uncertain days ahead.