“Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. Then the devil leaveth him…”
Though it is true that we each constitute a personal horizon, it is also true that we share a certain range of vision as Christians. And there are certain landmarks that we mutually profess to be memorials of events that are of the highest significance for all of us. I would like to suggest that a memorialized event is something like a compass. A compass enables us find the right direction and it helps us make progress in that direction. For a compass to be of greatest value one has to regularly, even habitually, read the compass. Along life’s way we have to daily, individually, take a compass reading and as the Body of Christ we are used to gathering on the Lord’s Day for a collective reading. God provided the children of Israel with his own compass as they journeyed to the Promised Land: a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God has provided Holy Mother Church with his own compass in Word and Sacrament. The Old and New Testaments give us a point of reference to take our bearing corporately and individually. But even though the Old Testament is first in origin, it requires the New Testament to understand and appropriate it for our common life in Christ. Our Lord’s Temptation provides us with a case study.
This is the way Matthew has arranged his material: Jesus Christ was born to Mary and shortly after that wise men from the East came looking for the King of the Jews. They first went to Jerusalem where they approached Herod, who showed great interest in their quest. They found Jesus and we know, as readers of the Gospel, that he is the King of the Jews. As the wise men left the Holy Family, they carefully avoided giving Herod any more information. About the same time, Joseph had a dream in which he was told to take his family into Egypt to avoid Herod’s vengeance upon the child. Joseph did as he was instructed. After Herod died the family left Egypt, and the next thing we know Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, at which time God the Father declared him to be “my son in whom I am well pleased.” God the Father’s declaration was outwardly and visually signified by the lighting of a dove upon Jesus head – in a way his coronation as the holy and harmless King of Love. Then the same Holy Spirit that lit upon Jesus’ head drove him into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil.
Now I am not the first to point out how Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness parallels Israel’s Old Testament experience of deliverance from Egypt, the ratification of the covenant, and then her period of testing in the wilderness. Jesus’ quotations from Deuteronomy 6-8, the very description of Israel’s wilderness experience, all the more draw attention to the parallel. So I am suggesting to you that to understand and appropriate the truth of Israel’s wilderness temptation, we have to understand it in light of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness; furthermore Israel’s wilderness experience opens up our understanding of our Lord’s temptation.
If there is anything you can be certain of it is that Israel failed miserably in the wilderness. This past Friday Psalm 78 was appointed for Evening Prayer – a psalm that declares that God made a covenant with Jacob, a covenant that even included Jacob’s unborn children to the intent that they all would put their trust in God. Their forefathers, however, proved themselves to be faithless in the wilderness even after God had set them free from Egypt by his own mighty hand. Even after one miraculous intervention followed another, Israel tempted God and of all things spoke against him:
“Shall God prepare a table in the wilderness?
He smote the stony rock indeed, that water gushed out…
but can he give bread also, or provide flesh for his people?”
Already you can see how Jesus’ temptation answers the Psalmist’s judgment and condemnation that had washed over Israel for centuries. Where Israel failed, Jesus succeeded. Where Israel was unfaithful, Jesus was the faithful servant. That much is true and pretty much obvious, but I want to focus for the moment on how Satan attempted to deconstruct Jesus’ identity as the Son of God by appealing to various culturally prevalent models of power and in each case how Jesus defeats Satan by appealing to the Scriptures.
He first tries to define Jesus as a magician:
“And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.”
This first temptation is not taken from Scripture, but it is a challenge to use his power to satisfy his own real need by performing magic. Nowhere in the Old Testament is there any indication that someone would turn stones into bread, but magicians in that day typically claimed to transform one substance into another to demonstrate their power over nature. On into his ministry we see Jesus’ opponents typically attribute his undeniable power to malevolent forces as if he were a magician.
Jesus did use his divinity to multiply the loaves and fishes for the sake of others, but he never turned stones into bread because that would be magic and magic overturns the sacramental principle, which was the very principle of his incarnate life and the life of the Church. What is that sacramental principle? There are two parts to the sacramental principle: first of all the material creation is not the opposite of the spiritual, but in fact material is spiritual. The great example, the great archetype of that truth is the Incarnation itself. “The Word became Flesh.” The life-giving sacraments of the Church are all based upon the fact that God himself has entered the material creation as a material creature. That leads us to the second sacramental principle: Grace does not destroy nature; grace perfects nature. So the Word by becoming flesh perfects flesh, the Word will turn water into wine, multiply real loaves and fishes, loosen the tongue-tied children of Israel, and give sight to the blind – but he never overturns nature, he always completes nature. The Word became Flesh without destroying flesh.
The tempter’s second attempt to deconstruct Jesus’ identity was to make out him into a deluded visionary:
“Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on the pinnacle of the temple, and saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash they foot against a stone.”
The devil wished for Jesus to presume upon his relationship to the Father, to behave as though the Father were his servant rather than the other way around. Jesus was the Servant of God. In fact Jesus is the suffering Servant of God and he refused to satisfy the tempter’s mocking, but this is the very temptation that comes around again as our Lord dies for us on the cross:
“He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.”
“He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”
But Jesus would not fall for the devil’s temptation nor would he come down from the cross, even though he could have and he specifically asserts that God is not to be put to the test, which alludes back to the behavior of Israel in the wilderness.
Finally, the devil attempted to deconstruct Jesus by identifying him as a political revolutionary, which is exactly the charge brought against him by the Jewish aristocracy in Jerusalem. The devil took Jesus to a high mountain where he could sample the kingdoms of the world and all their glory, and those earthly kingdoms would have included Rome – all this he promised to Jesus, without the high cost of the cross, if he would only worship him.
That, of course, would not be the last time Jesus would hear such a thing since this is precisely Peter’s response when Christ revealed to his disciples that he would be betrayed and killed in Jerusalem. Peter objected and accurately restated Satan’s theology as he attempts to dissuade him from such a pitiful end. Peter too called for a messianic Kingdom without the cross. That day Jesus turned away from his star disciple in disgust and even called Peter “Satan.”
Nothing would be more devastating to Jesus’ true identity than for him to reject his Father’s will. The will of the Father for the Son, at that moment, after his baptism, in the wilderness, involved fasting and hunger for his Son. Jesus loved his Father with his whole heart, soul and mind.
“But he answered and said: It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeded out of the mouth of God.”
The devil tried to draw Jesus away from his path of loving obedience and trust in the Father. In each case our Lord answered the tempter from the Bible and specifically from the book of Deuteronomy 6 through 8, which is the context of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. The temptations are drawn from three events in the life of Israel in the wilderness. The first temptation is linked to Israel’s longing for the fleshpots, the bread, the comfort of Egypt, and they began murmuring against Moses.
Jesus rebuffs the devil’s second temptation with a quotation from Deuteronomy 6:16:
“Thou shalt not tempt the Lord your God.” Israel had demanded signs from God over and over again – a testing of God. “Give us this, give us that,” over and over again.”
Jesus finally defeated the devil at the end of the third temptation with the words of Deuteronomy 6:13:
“Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God and him only shalt thou serve.”
Where Israel was drawn away by fascination with the Canaanite cults and alien gods and their courts of power, Jesus remains true to his Father.
The temptation of Christ in the wilderness gives us a true compass reading for our journey to God, as well as an example of how to resist temptation that would lead us away from God. This is not hard to grasp, but it may be hard to do. As I said Wednesday, any real authentic community of Christ’s love will provide you with opportunities for great personal sacrifice, that is ample opportunities to imitate Christ. How important is to you to follow Jesus? How important is it to be who you claim to be? How important is it for you to grow up? St. Paul places the issue before us all:
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things…”
Put away childish things. Be an adult. Take responsibility. Today as we approach the throne of grace, as we come to the altar of God to receive the body and blood of Christ our God pray he will stiffen our resolve to be the people we claim to be.