Text: Matthew 4:1-11
As you know, today is the first Sunday in Lent, our 40-ish-day period of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and repentance prior to Easter. As is our parish custom, we chanted the Great Litany today and on Ash Wednesday in lieu of a processional hymn. The Litany, or “General Supplication,” is a masterpiece of intercessory prayer, as we cover every possible need in responsive prayer. It was the first prayer to be adapted into English from the Latin during the Reformation. That makes it the oldest part of our Prayer Book. In the old days it was recited or sung every Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday, the two traditional Christian days of fasting, and the day when we would traditionally fast before receiving Communion. In my private devotions, I like to use it as a noontime prayer on Fridays as a remnant of that older tradition.
One of my favorite parts of the Great Litany is found toward the top of Page 55 in our 1928 Book of Common Prayer, when we say:
By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity and Circumcision; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation,
Good Lord, deliver us.
Have you ever paused to consider how it is that our Lord’s Fasting and Temptation can deliver us? Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 4 invites us to reflect on Jesus’ time in the wilderness and our deliverance. Please turn to our Gospel passage in Matthew 4:1, which can be found on page 126 in your Prayer Book:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.
There are a few things we should notice about this setup. First, the “then” should make us wonder what came first. If you turn to the previous chapter, you find that Jesus’ fasting and temptation took place after his baptism. Jesus had just begun his ministry, and he was then led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. This is the second thing we ought to notice: it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the desert, specifically so that he would be tempted by the devil. This was no chance encounter. This was no attack of opportunity. This was a planned engagement on our Lord’s part. He went into the desert looking for a fight as soon as he began his public ministry. Third, we see the actual temptation occurs after 40 days of fasting, when he was all alone.
This is not the first time we see a 40-day fast in the Scriptures. Back in Exodus 34, Moses fasted for 40 days while he was on Mount Sinai receiving the second set of the Tablets of the Law after God relented from killing Israel over the Golden Calf incident. Moses spent those 40 days communing with God and interceding for his people. We also see the prophet Elijah fasting for 40 days when he is heading to Sinai to meet God after the Lord had rescued him from the wicked queen Jezebel (1 Kings 19). This pattern of 40 shows up often in Scripture. Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the promised land, during which time they often failed to resist temptation, and incurred God’s judgement. Noah spent 40 days riding out the rains of the Great Flood in Genesis, during which all of creation seemed to be forsaken, undergoing God’s judgement. Yet, it was through the waters of the flood that God would rescue humanity even as he was indeed passing judgement on our wickedness.
Like Moses, Jesus was fasting on behalf of his people. Like Elijah, Jesus would be the lone righteous man in the midst of wickedness. Like Israel, Jesus would be tempted in the wilderness, but unlike Israel, Jesus would resist it. Like Noah, Jesus would be the firstfruits of new humanity who had been rescued from God’s judgement, even as he would go through God’s judgement.
Let’s look at the specific temptations. Verse 3 in our Gospel:
And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Many of the Church Fathers drew a parallel between the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and our Lord’s Temptation in the Wilderness. The temptation to create bread out of stones is often seen as a parallel to our First Parents’ temptation to eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree. Robert Crouse, a 20th Century Anglican theologian from Canada points out that eating when hungry is certainly not a sin. He writes:
Not that there is anything evil about being hungry and wanting to eat, but the temptation lies in seeing such satisfaction as the purpose of his vocation and the point of God’s kingdom.
In other words, the Kingdom of God is not about our flesh, our satisfaction. Jesus’ mission was not about satisfying the flesh. Indeed, for Christ to make bread out of the stones by his divine power, it would show him to be a Son who distrusts his Father. Rather than trusting in God for his sustenance, Jesus would be providing for himself in his own strength. But Jesus rightly rebukes the Devil with God’s Word, quoting from Deuteronomy that it is God’s Word that ultimately sustains us. Man does not live by bread alone. If God could sustain him in the 40-day fast, surely God would sustain him for a few more hours.
Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
In this second test, Satan also uses Scripture, twisting a passage from Psalm 91 that is about assuring us of God’s goodness and protection, into a temptation to presumption! How often does he continue to do this to us today? How often have you been tempted to sin, and there’s a little voice saying, “It’s OK, don’t you know God will forgive you? Go ahead, it’s no big deal.” But it is a big deal. Sin is always a big deal, and we should never let our assurance of God’s mercy be perverted into presumption. And how often when we give into that little voice does the Enemy then immediately change his tune? Now the voice is saying “How could you do such a thing? God must be really angry at you! Why don’t you run away? You’re probably not even a Christian!” It’s just like when the Serpent said to our first parents: “Did God really say?” It was not long after that we see Adam and Eve hiding from God in shame.
Jesus, though, combated a misuse of Scripture with a proper use of it. Rather than presume on God’s protection, Jesus again quotes Deuteronomy: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” If you listen to a lot of the voices calling themselves Christian today, it’s easy to find calls to test God. It’s easy to find people who will play fast and loose with Scripture in an effort to manipulate or control the Lord. It’s easy to find “name it and claim it” theology today even among those who claim to uphold the bible. And there are similarly a lot of voices claiming the name of Christ who want to build up a distrust of the bible, again, often by twisting its words. I recently read a review of a book by a popular writer and pastor who tries to make the case that the bible doesn’t say what it actually says regarding human sexuality. In her book she claims that the word “holy” means to unify, while “purity” means to separate, and therefore as long as everyone is consenting and feeling good, there is no other God-given standard for sexuality. But both of these definitions are made up out of thin air and ignore everything the bible says about the issue! “Holy,” for example, literally means “separated” or “set apart.” So beware of this kind of thing. God is in control, not us. We submit to him, not the other way around. You shall not put God to the test.
Turn to verse 8 for the final temptation:
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”
This seems to be something of a last-ditch effort on Satan’s part. After all, if the Son of God would not make bread for himself or manipulate God into a display of power, is it really likely that our Lord would bow down and worship a demon? Is it likely that Jesus would be a disloyal Son? Yet, how often do we fall for the Big Lie. Remember how the Serpent tempted our First Parents saying that they would be “like God” if they ate the fruit. And wasn’t the devil’s own downfall the same kind of pride in which he thought he could gain equality to or even displace God? Dr. Crouse writes:
These temptations of Jesus represent the essential forms of all temptation; they are our temptation, and the temptations of the Church. They are the illusions that we can use the divine spirit for worldly ends, that we can make God subject to our whims and idle curiosities, that we can be as absolute as God.
But our Captain, our Lord, overcame the devil. Christ went into single combat with the enemy on behalf of the Church so that we would also have victory over temptation. St. Paul tells us that Christ is the Second Adam. And unlike the First Adam, our Second Adam succeeded in his test. St. Paul writes, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall al be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22). This is our hope. This is assurance, not presumption. If we are united to Christ, we have his life. And this is why we pray in the Litany, “By thy fasting and temptation, Good Lord deliver us.” Adam’s (and by extension our) failure to resist the devil brought us death. Christ’s success against the devil brought us redemption.
We noted earlier that this passage takes place right after Jesus’ baptism. The passage that follows our Gospel reading shows Jesus beginning his ministry and calling the first disciples. In Lent, we enter into ministry with Jesus. In Lent, Jesus takes us with him as he accomplishes his earthly ministry. We’ve just begun the journey, but we know that it will eventually lead Resurrection, even though it must first go to the Cross. This journey isn’t easy, but Christ is with us. Indeed, he went there first, paying our way, paying our penalties, uniting us to himself. The Devil tempted our first parents with empty promises of godhood. And they bought the lie. The irony of it all is that Jesus’ success in being an obedient Son, in resisting the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, meant that the Second Adam would be seated at the right hand of the Father, for ever and ever, and that we, his adopted brethren would be made co-heirs for eternity! Our first parents took the offered shortcut, and it led to disaster for the human race. Our Lord Jesus, on the other hand, took the long road, the road prepared for him by the Father, all to save us and redeem us for our good and his glory. Let’s walk that road with him this and every Lent.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.