Good morning, brothers and sisters. Once again, we're back in the desert with Jesus. These last two Sundays of Lent, we've journeyed alongside him as he was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). Just like Israel, fresh from baptism in the sea, went to live in the desert and was called God's son (cf. Hosea 11:1), so Jesus, fresh from his own baptism and announced as God's Son, went out into the desert. That's where the Spirit often leads God's children – and, having been adopted into the family, our lives are often no different.
But where Israel went into the desert and failed their test, Jesus went into the desert and prevailed against every temptation the devil could muster up. Last week, you might remember, he tempted Jesus with hunger, suggesting to Jesus that being a child of God entitles you to satisfy your cravings (Matthew 4:2-3). The devil said being a child of God means having it your way. But Jesus pointed back to Deuteronomy and saw that being a real child of God means living on more than bread, more than the stuff we crave to consume; it means submitting to our Father's loving discipline, hanging on his word, and trusting him to provide (Matthew 4:4). Jesus didn't give in to the first temptation.
And so now what happens next? “Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple” (Matthew 4:5). Now, how exactly they got there, or whether it was a vision, I don't exactly know. But a later Jewish tradition, and maybe there was one like it around that time, suggested that when the Messiah came, he would announce himself right there – up on the pinnacle of the temple for everybody to see and marvel at. And that's what the devil wants Jesus to do: announce himself with a big, flashy display. If he's really the Messiah, if he's really the Son of God, everything would have to go smoothly – God wouldn't dare let his grand plan of salvation be derailed, would he? And so, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down,” and God will send his angels to catch you in mid-air and keep you safe (Matthew 4:6).
The cultural atmosphere in those days was filled with this sort of thing. In the years before and in the years that were coming, other people were showing up and saying they were the Messiah, they were the Prophet Like Moses. And some of them acted like the devil wants Jesus to act. The later Jewish historian Josephus looked back on those days and wrote, “These impostors and deceivers persuaded the multitude to follow them into the wilderness, and pretended that they would exhibit manifest signs and wonders that should be performed by the providence of God” (Antiquities 20.167-168).
One of those guys was an Egyptian false prophet – the one Paul got mistaken for by the Roman tribune Claudius Lysias in Acts (Acts 21:38) – and the story was that this Egyptian took thousands of followers out to the Mount of Olives and told them that, at his command, the walls of Jerusalem would miraculously collapse, and then they could invade the city (Antiquities 20.169-170). And there was even one false messiah or false prophet who encouraged people to climb with him to the top of the temple and wait for some kind of miracle of deliverance (Wars 6.285). The devil wants Jesus to behave like that, to be like the rest.
And the devil tries to convince Jesus by quoting scripture. If Jesus can quote scripture at him, he must figure, surely two can play that game. And so the devil quotes from the ninety-first psalm, a blessing of protection. The whole thing is an assurance to the righteous that they won't be harmed, that they have nothing to fear, that God won't let anything bad happen to them: “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” (Psalm 91:10-12).
So, the devil reasons, surely the Son of God would qualify to claim that promise. And that's what Jesus should do: jump off the temple, in the sight of everybody, in the confidence that God would send angels to catch Jesus in mid-air – a miraculous display that would get his ministry off to a rousing start.
See, here's the devil's underlying message: “If you're the Son of God, you're special. You aren't like ordinary people. You're entitled to more. If you're the Son of God, you have a claim on God. He owes you special treatment, he owes you miracles. So use that! If you're the Son of God, you can leverage it to your advantage – you can use him for your advantage. And who doesn't like a show? Be the show! If you're the Son of God, be impressive, be daring, make a big splash! If you're the Son of God, you should have plenty of proof for all to see – God owes you proof, so that nobody could possibly doubt. If you're the Son of God, all eyes should be on you right now. If you're the Son of God, show it off.”
That's the devil's understanding of what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God. It's the devil's way of thinking about what it would mean to call God 'Father' – that to call God 'Father' means flaunting it and leveraging it, getting him to back up our agendas with proof and support. And if we're really being honest with ourselves here – and we should be, both because that's the Christian way and because that's the spirit of Lent – don't we sometimes take the devil's cue on this one?
I mean, we want to be impressive. We want people to look at us and be impressed, to marvel in awe at how good and spiritual we are, to be amazed at everything we can do. If people start doubting us, we take it almost as an affront. We get our hackles up, and we want to show them they're wrong. We want to prove ourselves, and we want God to prove himself to us. So when we start thinking that way, we imagine that we can force God's hand. We can get ourselves in a position where God would surely act the way we want him to. We take him for granted. We want God to be useful to us – for him to go ahead and rubber-stamp our plans and our agendas, for him to support our self-defined mission in life, for him to back up our projects and make sure they work out. We count on him to do that.
How many times have you ever done something dumb and banked on God to bail you out of any real consequences from it? (For me, it's half the time I get behind the wheel...) And how many times in your life have you ever surrendered to sin, ever done something deep down you know you shouldn't, but rationalized it as okay because you can always count on God's forgiveness? It's a perversion of the gospel of grace, but if we're being honest with ourselves and with each other, probably all of us have gone down that road at some point in our lives. We've done dumb or even sinful things and figured that God will have our backs anyway, because we're God's children, and bailing us out is what a Father is for.
And so, we figure, we can use – maybe a better word would be 'exploit' – that special relationship to our advantage. We count on God wanting us, maybe we even think God needs us, and we figure that our faithfulness to him is a prize we can use as a bargaining chip. And so with that kind of thinking, we get to a point where we might be in a situation and say in our hearts, “God, if you don't do this, if you don't do that, I won't believe in you any more, I won't love you any more. So if you really love me, if you really look on me as your child, you'll give me proof by doing this, doing that, doing the thing I want you to do.”
Sure, we might not say those words out loud. But that's the inner meditation of our heart in those moments. We hold our faith itself hostage to try and force God's hand. “God, if you don't give me a new job so I can pay these bills, I won't believe you love me anymore.” “God, if you don't make people behave the way I want, I'll leave the church, I won't believe you're there anymore.” “God, if you don't save my mom, my dad, my sister, my brother, my friend, my baby, I won't believe in or love you anymore.” That's the line of thinking the devil is proposing on what it means to be God's child – and it's the same line of thinking that makes us believe that being God's child entitles us to show our relationship off like a fancy accessory.
But when the devil suggests this to him, how does Jesus take it? How does Jesus react? Well, the devil doesn't succeed in tempting him here. The devil doesn't manage to make Jesus defensive, nor does the devil entice him with visions of the admiring awe of the crowds. Jesus may be looking down at the swarming crowds of Jerusalem, but he's still in the wilderness, and still reflecting on the tests Israel flunked in the wilderness over a thousand years before. And Jesus remembers a story of when Israel acted a lot like the devil wants him to act.
It was a time when the Israelites were camped at a place called Rephidim – a place Moses would later nickname 'Massah and Meribah,' “testing and arguing.” And even though the whole point of their time in the desert was for God to test them, Israel got the bright ideas to turn the tables and test their God. See, Rephidim was a dry place. “There was no water for the people to drink” (Exodus 17:1).
Now, the people could have trusted God to give them the water. They could have asked for the water. They could have politely asked Moses to talk with God about the water situation. But instead they tried to bully Moses, and they demanded water. Moses warned them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” (Exodus 17:2). But they persisted, accusing God and Moses of wanting them to die of thirst in the desert – of being cruel and not good, unless they ponied up the H2O pronto.
And there, in the shadow of the pillar of cloud that led their journey, they asked, “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7) – meaning, this pillar of cloud isn't enough proof, because we want catering, and God needs to prove himself, he needs to pass our test, by supplying water here and now. Their attitude is, “Either God gives us water on demand, or there's no God here.” They cannot tolerate the thought of a God who might move in a mysterious way – a God who can't be so easily predicted or pressured.
See, the Israelites had hoped that their questioning, their scarcely veiled threats to hold their faith hostage, would force God's hand – that they could manipulate God into fitting into their agenda. And in doing that, “they tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved,” they questioned whether he could really do it so as to incentivize him to prove himself and pass the test (Psalm 78:18-20). And so “they tested the LORD” (Exodus 17:7), “they tested God again and again and provoked the Holy One of Israel” (Psalm 78:41).
Jesus knows that story. And he remembers what's written in Deuteronomy, reflecting back on lessons learned in the desert: “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. You shall diligently keep the commandments of the LORD your God, and his testimonies and his statutes, which he has commanded you. And you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the LORD, that it may go well with you, and that you may go in and take possession of the good land that the LORD swore to give to your fathers” (Deuteronomy 6:16-18).
Jesus remembers that, and he knows one thing for sure: Trying to 'test' God is not behavior befitting a loving and faithful son. That's not how Israel as the son of God was supposed to treat the Father who led them through the desert, and it's not how Jesus as the Son of God is willing to treat the Father he loves and whom he knows loves him, without any need for stunts. And so Jesus quotes this verse to swat away the devil's temptation: “Jesus said to him, 'Again it is written, 'You shall not put the Lord your God to the test''” (Matthew 4:7).
Jesus refuses to try to 'use' God to his advantage. And make no mistake: that's exactly what the devil's abuse of Psalm 91 is aimed at, and Jesus sees right through it. See, Psalm 91 was probably originally a battle hymn, a prayer that the priests would use to bless the armies of Israel as they prepared to go out and fight. It assured them that, if they were going on God's mission, they would fight under God's protection. It's in those circumstances that God would “cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and a buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you” (Psalm 91:4-7).
That's army talk – and it leads up to the confident assurance of victory over the enemy: “You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot” (Psalm 91:13), something Israel experienced by conquering the promised land under God's direction. But the psalm was never meant to turn God into a talisman to serve Israel's interests. Israel couldn't use the promises of this psalm to go out picking fights with every little tribe they ran across. They had to let God assign the mission – when the wilderness generation tried picking fights with the Amalekites apart from God's presence, they lost miserably (Numbers 14:44-45).
This psalm doesn't turn God into a talisman; it doesn't make him a lucky charm. Treating God like that, using this psalm as an excuse for it, would be putting God to the test. No, the psalm's hope is based on faith, on an actual relationship, and on living a life under God – what the psalmist calls “abiding in the shadow of the Almighty” (Psalm 91:1). They're supposed to treat the LORD, not as an excuse, not as a weapon, but as a dwelling place and a refuge (Psalm 91:9). They have to “hold fast to [God] in love” (Psalm 91:14).
In other words, they have to behave like a faithful son. And while the psalm leads up to victory in conquering the land – treading on the lion and the serpent (Psalm 91:13) – Deuteronomy explicitly says that that's only possible once Israel stops trying to put God to the test (Deuteronomy 6:18-19)! The devilish use of Psalm 91 is self-defeating – if you try to use it that way, you're no longer the kind of person it's for.
Jesus doesn't make that mistake. He doesn't get sidetracked by the devil's abuse of scripture. He holds fast to the wisdom of God spoken for just such a situation as he was now in. And so he knows that a faithful child of God won't treat God like a product to be tested or like a force to be manipulated and harnessed for his advantage. That's not how a faithful child of God actually lives. The devil says that a child of God is entitled to show off. But Jesus, the faithful Son of God, lives instead by humble faith – never once trying to hold his faith, or his Father, hostage. The devil suggests that a child of God can set the terms, can use God for his own agenda. But Jesus, the faithful Son of God, refuses anything that doesn't reflect the Father's agenda, the Father's mission.
The devil says that a child of God should get something out of it – more presents, more protection, more death-defying leaps, more popularity with and adoration from the crowds. But Jesus goes around saying and meaning things like, “the Son … came not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). He didn't come to turn a profit, nor to extort personal gain; he came to be a blessing. And his purpose isn't to use his Father, but to reveal his Father. He isn't here to entertain the masses. He doesn't come with bread and circuses, but with a cross. He most certainly isn't here to show off.
And so Jesus commits to himself, “I will not put conditions on my Father. I will not exploit my relationship with my Father to suit my own needs. I will live by humble faith. I love my Father, and my Father loves me. And so I will patiently trust my Father to ripen his purposes in his time and to be his own interpreter.”
Jesus does not make the mistake of the Israelites at Massah, or of the phony-baloney messiahs before or after him. Jesus is the real deal, and the real deal doesn't act like that. The real deal is a faithful Son of God. And a faithful child of God loves his Father, not for what he thinks his Father can give him, but for who his Father is. A faithful child of God doesn't use his or her faith as a bargaining chip or a prize. A faithful child of God doesn't force his Father's hand; he holds it. A faithful child of God doesn't use God as an excuse to do dumb or sinful things. A faithful child of God doesn't use God as a tool to further his or her own agenda, and certainly not to impress others or show off.
And so neither will Jesus, the faithful Son of God, faithful to pass all the tests Israel failed in the desert, so faithful that he'll “humble himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). And because he was faithful, he did trample on lions and serpents (Psalm 91:13) – on the roaring lion looking to devour us (1 Peter 5:8), and on the serpent who beguiled God's children out of the Garden long ago (Genesis 3:15). Because he was faithful, he did go on to conquer the land with the gospel – and his conquest rages still. Because he was faithful, God answered his call (Hebrews 5:7; cf. Psalm 91:15). And because he was a faithful child of God, he received that last promise of the ninety-first psalm: for God his Father to save him from death and to satisfy him with long life, unending life, in the resurrection (Psalm 91:16). The ninety-first psalm was indeed for Jesus – but not at all in the false way the devil meant.
But now for us – what about us? If you belong to Jesus, he calls you brother, he calls you sister. If you are a Christian, you are an adopted child of God. And so as we go about our journey, we're prone to face the devil and his temptations as well – sometimes quite subtle. So what kind of children of God will you be?
What does that mean to you, to be a child of God? Does it mean getting to show off? Does it mean having God's support for whatever you want to have, whatever you want to do? Does it mean being impressive and mighty? Does it mean acting with impunity and banking on a gracious bailout? Does it mean that God should want to pass your tests? Then you're in hearty agreement with the devil – Lord, have mercy.
Or does it mean a life of humble and unconditional faith – embracing weakness and obedience, but pursuing God's mission to bless your neighbors and your neighborhoods, even at a cost? Then, and only then, are you in hearty agreement with Jesus – the Lord of mercy. “And the God of peace will soon crush Satan,” that roaring lion and deceiving serpent of temptation, “under your feet” (Romans 16:20).
So what does being a child of God mean to you? May all of us find ourselves imitating Jesus, “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the [faithful] Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” and live accordingly (Hebrews 4:14). Hallelujah. Amen.