Sunday, March 31, 2019

Temptation Three: The Quick Fix (Matthew 4:8-10)

The days were dark. Not the sun in the sky, but the whole atmosphere... dark indeed. A 22-year-old young lady – Vibia Perpetua was her name – was one of the latest targets of a local sweep of persecution in North Africa, in what's today Tunisia. She and a few others, including her pregnant maidservant Felicitas, were arrested in the town of Thuburbo Minus and taken to Carthage; for, you see, Perpetua and company had decided they wanted to be Christians, and so they'd enrolled in the introductory training they were supposed to receive before they could be baptized. And so they were thrown into prison.

Perpetua was torn from her husband and from the little baby she'd so recently brought into the world. Her father visited her in jail, trying to talk her into her senses. “Just give up this ridiculous little fad – can't you see what it'll cost you, Perpetua?” But, she answered, she couldn't call herself anything else than what she is – and what she is, is a Christian. Over the next few days, she managed to get baptized; Tertius and Pomponius, the deacons of the local church, arranged for her to see her mother, her other brother, and her little son.

The trial date grew closer. Her father visited again, begging her to reconsider, begging her to go through the motions and give the authorities the little gestures they wanted, a tiny pinch of incense and a few meaningless words. Just a token act of service to the old gods – such a little thing. He was old, he said, and couldn't bear to lose Perpetua! He needed her! And she was putting the whole family to embarrassment – her mother, her brothers, her aunt, her baby. And how would this little baby survive if his mother went through with this? But, she said, “On that scaffold, whatever God wills shall happen. We aren't placed in our own power, but in God's.”

The hearing came. Her father was there, cradling the little baby in his arms, crying out, “Have pity on this baby, Perpetua!” So, too, the judge Hilarianus urged her with the same arguments: “Have pity on the gray hairs of your father, have pity on the infancy of your boy, offer sacrifice for the well-being of the emperors.” Isn't it worth this one quick moment of worshipping the gods to spare your family from suffering? But, she said, she couldn't do it. She persisted in saying, “I am a Christian.” In front of her eyes, her father was thrown to the ground and beaten with rods – all this could be stopped, they said, if she changed her mind and sacrificed! But still she couldn't. And so the verdict was delivered: “Guilty as charged!” And after more attempts by her grieving, weeping dad to get her to give in, she and her fellow Christians were led off to the arena to die.

But it's an almost timeless trial, taking place in every age and every place. I recently read through a collection of the stories of how plenty of the early martyrs died. And the thing is, their judges usually tried to talk them into just giving in – making the gesture of pagan worship and getting on with life. The judges could sound very persuasive, dangling all sorts of benefits as rewards for doing it, or heaping up the threats for not doing it. And throughout history, some of the persecutors have been awfully clever. In seventeenth-century Japan, authorities decided Christianity had no place in the country, and the movie Silence envisions a scene where a missionary, pastor to some of the native Christian converts, has been captured and given a choice. Outside, those who heard the gospel from him are being tortured, and will continue to be tortured – unless he tramples on an image of Jesus and renounces his faith. And the persecutor says to him, it'd be an act of mercy and love to do it. The argument is put to him: Wouldn't Jesus himself do it – reject, for a moment, his God for the sake of others? Wouldn't he lay down, not just his life, but his sinlessness, for his friends? Couldn't apostasy, couldn't false worship, be an act of mercy to save others?

The truth is, we don't have to guess what Jesus would do. He already faced that choice. We have, over the past few Sundays, been considering the forty days when Jesus fasted in the desert. He'd been led there by the Spirit of God after his baptism, so that, as God's child in the desert, he could face temptation and make a choice. And the devil's got one last trick up his sleeve. We've heard the first offer: feed your hunger how you want. We've heard the second offer: massage your ego how you want. But now there's a third offer the devil will make.

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (Matthew 4:8). What a gorgeous vision. The riches of soaring Roman temples, and legions marching in ranks. The exotic splendors of the Parthian Empire in Persia, the divided and embattled Han Dynasty in China under Emperor Guangwu, the miscellaneous tribes of so-called barbarians in northern Europe, the far-flung settlements of native peoples across the sea where we live now – all of it, the devil showed to Jesus as an enticement, as if to say, “Do you want it? I'll step out of the way, you can have it all, you can be king of the world... I just need one little thing from you first.”

The devil said to Jesus, “All these I will give you, if... you will fall down and worship me” (Matthew 4:9). “Just submit one time – you don't even have to mean it – but take a three-second break from serving that God you call a Father, bow to the real boss, and we can go our separate ways, conflict-free.”

That's what the devil is selling here, a trade: the riches and beauty and allegiance of all the kingdoms of the whole entire world for one quick moment of worship. The devil will give up his involvement, his meddling rule, his clutches, to Jesus. The devil offers his conditional surrender. Jesus can rule all the kingdoms, he can guide it, he can reshape it. He can write every law, he can decide every court case. He can have “dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Psalm 72:8) – all his, for the low, low price of one measly bow with a few muttered words of praise and gratitude to the benevolent tempter who sponsored this utopia. The proverbial pinch of incense – and, the devil insinuates, the world hangs in the balance.

And think of all the possibilities! Can you hear the devil plead his case? If you're silent for a moment, can you catch a snippet of the sermon pouring off the lips of this angel of light?

Don't you see, Jesus? Don't you get it? I'll give it up, I'll give it all up! You can take every crown; your name can be shouted in every temple; you can roam the streets bedecked in jewels and gold; you can trade your rugged linens for the finest silks. And you can do it however you please. Do you want to rule with an iron fist? Be my guest! Or do you want to be a kindly shepherd, making everyone happy and – oh, what's that word... – 'virtuous'? Go for it, Jesus! Just think of all the good you could do!

Worship me this once, Jesus, and you can be free from pain and poverty.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and thorns never have to pierce your brow.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and Roman soldiers will adore your face, not spit in it.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and your buddy Simon, the one you'll find back in Galilee and nickname Peter – he'll never be led off to hang on an upside-down cross.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and your little pet John will never be dipped in boiling oil.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and your future devotee Perpetua can live to a ripe old age. She'll watch her baby grow. She'll see grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and her family will be happy, never knowing the torments and heartache that will otherwise be.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and all those tortured martyrs to come – they can live unashamedly, freely, at the tables of the great all the days of their lives.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and there need never be any invading Huns, marauding Mongols, pillaging Vikings.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and all the atrocities of history to come can be stopped in their tracks.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and no one need ever be kidnapped, whipped, treated like property, merely for the color of their skin.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and Pearl Harbor will only be known as a lovely beach.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and the precious citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki need never learn the deadly secrets at the heart of the atom.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and your kinsmen will never scream their dying words in a gas chamber.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and the Tutsis and Hutus will never brutalize each other in Burundi and Rwanda.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and those towers in New York can stand tall and proud forever; for never need there be an al-Qaeda, nor a Taliban, a Boko Haram, an ISIS.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and no one will ever have a reason to invent the word 'genocide.'
Worship me this once, Jesus, and you can stop every pogrom, every lynching, that would ever be.
Think of it, Jesus. No Soviet gulags. No Cambodian killing fields. No dissidents imprisoned in Cuba. No Agent Orange. No sarin gas. No children starving in the streets. No battered wives. No veterans with PTSD. No such thing as human trafficking.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and you can be crowned with every crown. All executive power in every government, at your fingertips.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and the legislatures are yours. Write the laws how you like 'em. Ban what you want banned, permit what you want permitted.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and every court of law will be in your hands. Every decision – yours, and yours alone. No injustice will ever have the final word. No liberty will ever go trampled.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and every media outlet will be in your hands. You can pump your little Sermon on the Mount over the airwaves into every home for a thousand years, Son of Man.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and every laboratory ever to be built will be at your disposal. Train those scientists yourself, and they'll unravel the secrets of DNA before the century's up, and Perpetua will scarcely have been born before a cure for every cancer is on the horizon.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and I'll forever stand aside while you “crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72:4).
As much as I love the chaos and the carnage, I'll trade all the kingdoms of the earth, with all their glory, if you'll give me this one measly moment of your time – one act of submission to me, one word to wipe away all the blood and sweat and tears of history yet to unfold, all the heartbreak and sorrow of generations yet unborn.
Worship me this once, Jesus, and I'll never entice them to mistrust you. I'll never trick them, never hurt them, never hinder them. Teach them your ways, govern them with whatever you call justice – all I ask is this one little thing.
Worship me just this once, Jesus, and you can give them paradise.
You call yourself kind; you call yourself merciful.
Isn't it most merciful to say yes to all that, at the cost of one moment, one word, one bow?
Oh yes, all this and more I will give you, if only, just this once, you'll fall down and worship me.

Hearing that, who among us doesn't feel the strength of the temptation? Who among us doesn't see the appeal? Who among us doesn't have days where we might wish he'd said yes, where we know we'd have said yes had the offer been ours to take? But there's the question again: Is that sort of trade worth it, or isn't it?

For his part, Jesus turns back to the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy, the most important lesson of all. It's a piece of scripture that answers the question of where real life comes from, where we get real joy and real abundance. Jesus, like Joseph and Mary and all their neighbors, would have grown up reciting these words daily: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). These are the words they're meant to carry in their hearts, teach to their children, write on their doors and gates, bind to their hands and foreheads as a sign and a seal – the mark of their God (Deuteronomy 6:6-9). These are the words they mustn't forget when they get the blessings they haven't deserved – when they live in “great and good cities that you didn't build, and houses full of good things that you didn't fill, and wells you didn't dig, and vineyards and olive trees you didn't plant” – then they can't forget that they once were slaves, but the LORD saved them from Egypt (Deuteronomy 6:10-11).

In that day, when they enjoy the beauty and bounty of grace, they need to remember that they have only one God, whose glory outweighs the heavens and the earth. Other so-called 'gods' will try to entice them with all sorts of offered blessings. But they aren't to follow those gods. They aren't to serve or worship those gods. Those gods make pretty-sounding promises, but they poison everything they touch, and their lips are full of lies and invite the wrath of the only God who matters (Deuteronomy 6:14-15). No, no, no: none of the glories, none of the riches, none of the mercies those poison-gods preach compare to the richness and mercy of worshipping the one and only LORD God – “It is the LORD your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name you shall swear” (Deuteronomy 6:13).

That's the key message, right there. He says to worship him, and him alone. It's phrased as an absolute, and it just is an absolute. He says to never, ever take what's his, like rightful worship, and render it to someone else – that's very much a 'thou shalt not.' He says to never, ever withhold our worship from him – it's very much a 'thou shalt,' with no ifs, ands, or buts. Because as much as the poison-gods may dress up their proffered benefits as pleasant and helpful, they're rotten on the inside, and they lead only to death. But the blessings of the LORD are life, and life abundantly, even if they rest on the other side of an old rugged cross.

So Jesus remembers this passage, and he sees that, no matter how persuasive the devil's argument, and no matter how enticing the devil's offer, “it is written: You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve” (Matthew 4:10). It can never be an act of love to repudiate the God who is Love (1 John 4:1). It can never be merciful to abandon the God who whom “belongs mercy and forgiveness” (Daniel 9:9) – the God who lets human history take the course it does with the aim that he might “have mercy on all” (Romans 11:32).

The world the devil depicts is an appealing world, that's true. The fabric of its counterfactual history is missing an immense deal of pain, heartache, sorrow, and ugliness. But it's also missing the cross. And because it's missing the cross, it's missing redemption. It's missing salvation. It's missing the beauty that is brighter than death's shadow is dark. It's a world where our evil is managed, not abolished; where, in the end of a delightful and utopian life, we die in our sins and reap the everlasting fruits thereof. That's the world the devil offers.

And so, just as Perpetua and the rest of the martyrs and confessors refused the trades offered by their earthly judges, Jesus refuses the immensely bold trade offered by the devil. Because, in the end, what the devil calls 'mercy' isn't so merciful. What the devil talks up as a great profit turns out to be, in the end, a net loss. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). That, in the final analysis, is the trade the devil offered – to no avail. How much less the more pitiful offerings the devil makes us for the same price?

In the end, Jesus holds firm to the faith that his Father will give him something better than the devil offers. The first temptation offered bread from stones, but after refusing it, Jesus still got fed. The second temptation held forth the service of angels and public recognition as the Messiah, all by recklessly hurling himself from the roof of the temple to lay claim to God's action. Jesus refused the means, but in the end, he had the ministrations of angels, he's known by billions to be the Messiah, and he's gaining the Psalm 91 victory. And in the end, Jesus receives authority over all the kingdoms of the earth, on the other side of the cross and the tomb: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).

And slowly, step by step, his active rule goes into effect, as he bears and redeems all the sufferings of history whereby the devil may well have sought to taunt him. One day, his rule will be made complete, and there will be a world with both redemption and paradise – where, once purified from our sinful pride, we humbly receive from the tree of life, “and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3:22). And Jesus' Father “will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things [will have] passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Everything the devil tried to induce Jesus to barter away his sinless soul for, he's trusting the Father to give him. He's trusting the Father to answer the age-old prayer of the psalmist: “Give the King your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the Royal Son! … May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth! May desert tribes bow down before him … May the kings of Tarshish and the coastlands render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings bow down before him, all nations serve him!” (Psalm 72:1, 8-11).

The devil offers to answer that prayer in a cheap way, a quick fix, a Band-Aid on the real problem. But Jesus is a faithful child of God. And a faithful child of God doesn't go for the quick fix. A faithful child of God trusts the Father to ultimately provide a real solution, a deep healing – because Jesus' Father is “the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things” (Psalm 72:18) – none of the devil's poisoned counterfeits come close.

But have we learned the lesson Jesus is teaching us? Because the devil so often comes to us, and though he doesn't promise all the kingdoms of the earth with all their glory, still, for so much less, he tempts us to barter away the health of our souls. See, the devil is desperate to interfere with Christ's claims on us, and so he scales down this same temptation and offers it to us:

Go ahead, burn the midnight oil and sleep in. Go ahead, sign up to work Sunday mornings. Skip the fellowship that God commanded you, stay away from his house, withdraw from where your Christ is worshipped, Christian, and I'll keep your bank account afloat, I'll keep your house tidy, just so long as you skip church.
Go ahead, ignore the poor. Go ahead, ignore the hurting. Go ahead, reject the one who speaks different and talks different and looks different and thinks different. Behind that face, don't see the eyes of Christ. Keep away from them, and I'll keep your bodies safe from those threatening strangers.
Go ahead, tone down your devotion. Let that fervor cool. Don't speak up, don't speak out, don't become known as a dissident. Be the 'cool' Christian, the not-so-pushy Christian, the not-so-rigid Christian, the go-along-to-get-along Christian, and I'll trade you respectability.
Go ahead, ignore what scripture says. Live how you want, let others live how they want. More loving that way, isn't it? Let your heart be your guide, sand down the offense of the word you've been given, and I'll make you irresistible.

In all these things, the devil offers us plenty of trinkets and tokens if we'll just withhold our worship from our Father, one way or another. We seldom think that's what we're doing, but these verses this morning lay bare the crafty stratagem whereby the devil's snare is laid (cf. 2 Timothy 2:26).

So what do we want? Do we want the devil's quick fix, or the Father's deep solution? Which will we choose when the choice is offered us, under whatever trickery the devil sees fit to veil it? May we follow the example of Christ our Lord, and learn how better to say with him, “Be gone, Satan” (Matthew 4:10). Amen.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Temptation Two: The Show-Off (Matthew 4:5-7)

He stood on the Mount of Olives, looking over at the city of Jerusalem. Crowds of followers thronged around him. But he was no Prince of Peace. He was no Jesus. Historians never recorded his name. The only thing they call him is “the Egyptian.” A Jew raised in Egypt, who later found himself in the deserts of Judaea. He claimed to be a prophet. He likely claimed even to be the Messiah. And people listened by the hundreds. They found him compelling, convincing. He promised them quite the show. They came to him in the desert, and as they gathered, tbe Egyptian led them up the slopes of the Mount of Olives. He told his followers that he would call on God to display his greatness. That as Joshua marched 'round about Jericho and saw the walls fall, so the Egyptian would just say the word, and the walls around Jerusalem would crumble. Then his followers would rush into the city, storm the Roman garrison, and conquer the city by force. The Egyptian promised quite the show. And that would be proof-positive of who he said he was.

But it wasn't to be. Having heard reports of what was going on, the Roman governor Marcus Antonius Felix led cavalry and infantry alike to the Mount of Olives, catching the Egyptian's followers off-guard. In the fighting that followed, four hundred of the Egyptian's followers died, many fled, two hundred were captured, and the Egyptian escaped into the desert, becoming a wanted fugitive. It wasn't too many years before the military tribune intervened in a disturbance in Jerusalem's temple precincts and thought he'd finally caught the Egyptian. But the prisoner turned out to be some man named Paul instead.

Not quite two decades later, in the middle of a war, another man gathered followers. There was a tradition that the Messiah might announce his arrival from the roof of the temple. And so he declared in the streets of the city that, if people wanted to see the real show, they should join him in climbing onto the temple roof later that day, and would see a miracle promising their salvation. Men, women, even children began to gather on the temple grounds, in the assorted network of chambers all around. But whether the false prophet ever showed up, we don't know. For it was that very day that Roman soldiers set fire to the whole temple precinct, consuming the thousands who'd heeded the would-be deliverer who wanted to show a miracle from the temple roof.

We're told that those were times of false prophets and false messiahs (cf. Mark 13:22). But one thing they had in common was, they promised to put on quite the show. They promised to leverage their special role, their standing in the sight of God, into great displays that would persuade the masses. They would dare great things, risk everything, and win it all. And people by the thousands ate it up.

Four decades before the temple prophet, two decades before the Egyptian, another man went out into the desert just the same. But he went alone. No followers. And by the intrusion of a hostile spiritual force, he suddenly found himself – whether in vision or in the flesh – on the temple roof. “The devil took [Jesus] to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple” (Matthew 4:5). The same spot where, forty years later, a so-called prophet would promise to show off a miracle – and not deliver. But the devil wanted Jesus to deliver. The devil urged Jesus to announce himself as the Messiah through a great public announcement in the form of a great big flashy display. You see, as we heard last week, the devil has a theology of what it means to be a child of God. And in the devil's theology, being the Son of God, being the Messiah, should surely mean being able to count on God's protection, no matter what. So, the devil reasons, no matter what Jesus does, God can be counted on to make sure it goes smoothly. After all, God wouldn't dare let his millennia-long plans get derailed by a misstep, would he? And so, the devil says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” (Matthew 4:6). No one, gathered in the temple courts below, could miss the sight of a man plummeting in their direction. And God would surely intervene.

Having heard Jesus deflect the last temptation with scripture, the devil tries his hand at mimicry, plying Jesus with Bible quotes ripped from context to convince him that God would intervene, God would protect him from the fall, God would make sure the flashy display went off without a hitch. So the devil turns to Psalm 91, which is a blessing of protection. It's a really beautiful passage. But that stolen beauty turns sour on Satan's lips. The message is an assurance to the righteous that they have nothing to fear. “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). Those are the verses from which the devil quotes.

And the devil reasons: “Surely the Son of God must qualify to lay claim to that biblical promise! So then, Jesus, go ahead – name it and claim it. Prove that you qualify. Jump from this temple roof, with the priests and the crowds all watching, and trust that God will do as he said, sending angels to catch you in mid-air. A display like that will get your ministry off to a rousing start. Because, after all, if you're really who you say you are, if you really have title to call God your Father, then you're special. You aren't like ordinary people. You aren't like the riff-raff. You're entitled to so much more. If you're the Son of God, then you have a claim on God. He owes you something. He owes you special treatment. He owes you miracles, if that's what it takes to protect you. And you can use that to your advantage! Make the most of this resource, Jesus! After all, who doesn't like a good show? So be the show, be the spotlight, be the star! If you're really the Son of God, be impressive, be daring, make a big splash! If you are who you say you are, then God owes it to you to back you up with proof so that nobody could possibly doubt a word you say. If you're the Son of God, all eyes should be on you right now. If you're the Son of God, step out in faith and show it off.”

That's the devil's theology of sonship – the tempter's understanding of what it would mean to be a child of God. In the devil's eyes, to call God 'Father' should mean flaunting it as a mark of privilege. To call God 'Father' should mean leveraging it to our advantage. To call God 'Father' should mean getting him to back our cause and bolster our agenda with proof and support. That's what the devil tells Jesus it means to call God 'Father.' And if we're really honest with ourselves here, don't we sometimes take the devil's cue?

I mean, we want to impress. We want people to think well of us. If people doubt our goodness or our ability, we take it almost as an affront. 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 begin to imagine we can force God's hand. We can subtly shift ourselves into a position where we justify the expectation that God will act in the way we predict. And then we can take God for granted. Above all, we want God to be useful to us. We want God to go ahead and rubber-stamp our projects and support our self-defined mission in life, our dreams and aspirations. We want God to back up our plans and make sure they work out. We count on him to do that.

Have there ever been times in life you've done something not quite so bright and just banked on God to bail you out of the potential consequences? I've done that behind the wheel a few times. Or have there been times in life you've gone ahead with something your conscience told you was sinful, something you knew deep down was not the right choice to make, but you rationalized it as no big deal because you could always count on God to forgive you? That way of thinking perverts the gospel of grace, but if we're in a place of honesty, most of us probably have tested those waters at some point in our lives. We've done senseless things, even sinful things, and figured that God will have our backs anyway – because we're God's children, and bailing out the children is surely what a Father is for.

So when we get to thinking that way, we figure we can use that special relationship to our advantage. Or maybe the better way to phrase it is: exploit that special relationship for our advantage. We count so much on God wanting us, maybe even needing us, and so we consider that our faithfulness and service are prizes that God should want to win. And we try to use them as bargaining chips. And so we might pray, “God, if you don't do this thing, I just won't be able to believe in you anymore. God, if you don't do that thing, I just won't be able to love you like I used to. So if you really want my faith and my love, you'll prove your commitment by doing this or that thing.”

We might not say those words out loud. But there are times when that's the inner meditation of our hearts. We hold our faith hostage to try to force God's hand. “God, if you don't give me a new job so I can pay those bills, I won't believe you love me anymore.” “God, if you don't make people behave the way I approve of, I'll leave the church and won't believe you're there anymore.” “God, if you don't save my mom, my dad, my sister, my brother, my son, my daughter, my friend, then I won't believe in you anymore, I won't love you anymore.” That is the next step on the path the devil wants Jesus to step down by stepping off the roof. Because the devil thinks that's what it means to be a child of God – that it entitles us to show off our relationship like a fancy accessory or use it to manipulate God into acting in ways that ratify our preferences.

But when the devil speaks out of that vision, how does Jesus react? Jesus resists the temptation. The devil may press him to prove himself, but Jesus doesn't get defensive. The devil may entice with flattering visions of crowds cheering in adoration, but Jesus doesn't take the bait. Jesus has been facing temptation in the desert, so he's still reflecting on the tests that Israel faced in the desert a thousand years before. And Jesus remembers a story of when Israel, called to live in the desert as a son of God, acted just like the devil now wants Jesus to act.

It was a time when Israel was camped at a place called Rephidim – though Moses would later nickname it 'Massah and Meribah,' “Testing and Arguing.” Israel was in the desert so that God could test them, but it was at Rephidim that they got the dim idea to turn the tables and test their God right back.

Rephidim was a dry place, where “there was no water for the people to drink” (Exodus 17:1). And the people could have waited in trust that God would give them water, without them taking any action to force his hand. Or they could simply have asked God politely for water. Or they could have asked Moses to check with God on the whole water situation. But instead, the Israelite crowds tried to bully Moses. They demanded water, or else. Moses warned them: “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” (Exodus 17:2). But they kept at it. They accused God and Moses of conspiring together against them, wanting them to die of thirst in the desert. They tried to guilt-trip deity and prophet, saying that the both were cruel and mean unless they ponied up the H2O pronto. So there, in the shadow of the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, they had the gall to ask: “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7). The visible sign of his presence was right there, but they insisted that they be catered to. They said God needed to prove himself by their standard in the moment – he needed to pass their chosen test, or else he'd lose the 'prize' of their belief. What they're saying is, “Either God gives us water on demand, or there's no God here.” The Israelites cannot tolerate the thought of a God who might move in a mysterious way, a God not easily predicted or pressured.

The Israelites hoped that their scarcely veiled threats to hold their faith hostage would force God's hand and get them the water they want. They wished to manipulate God into supporting their agenda. And in that attempt, we're told that “they tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved” and by questioning him so as to incentivize him to want to prove himself by passing their test (Psalm 78:18-20). So “they tested God again and again, and provoked the Holy One of Israel” (Psalm 78:41). They got a response, to be sure. But it meant failing their own test.

Jesus knows that story. And he's read in Deuteronomy, how Moses explored the lessons of that day in the desert at Rephidim: “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 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 those words, and from them he sees one thing plain as day: Trying to 'test' God is not behavior befitting a faithful and loving child. That was not how Israel, saved through the waters of the sea to be called the son of God, was supposed to treat the Father who led them through the desert. Therefore, it was not how Jesus, the true Son of God, would be willing to treat the Father he loves and whom he knows loves him. Stunts not required. So Jesus quotes scripture 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. He refuses to reduce God to a tool in the human toolkit for responding to life. He refuses to instrumentalize heavenly realities. And that's exactly what Satan's abuse of Psalm 91 is calling for. That psalm was, in all likelihood, originally a battle hymn that the priests would pray over the armies of Israel as they prepared to march out and fight in the wars of the LORD. And so the psalm assures an Israelite soldier that, if he was going on God's mission, then he would fight under God's protection. It's in those specific 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 armed forces talk. And the blessing blooms in 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). And as Israel conquered the promised land under God's direction, they experienced that psalm's reality. But the psalm was never meant to turn God into a talisman to serve Israel's interests. Israel could not use the promises of this psalm to go out picking fights with everyone they ran across. The wilderness generation tried picking an unauthorized fight with the Amalekites apart from God's presence, and this psalm was definitely not a picture of how things went for them (Numbers 14:44-45). This psalm is entirely conditioned on God setting all the terms.

God is no talisman, he is no good-luck charm. And using the words of this psalm to try to make him one would be an example of putting God to the test. The psalmist's hope is based on an actual relationship of trust, living a life of faith under God. The psalmist himself calls it “abiding in the shadow of the Almighty” (Psalm 91:1). That's how the psalm opens. That's its defining condition. They must treat the LORD, not as an excuse, not as a weapon, not as an instrument, 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, a faithful child of God, or there can be no victory. Moses in Deuteronomy explicitly says that such victory is only possible once Israel stops putting God to the test (Deuteronomy 6:18-19)! So Satan's proposed use of Psalm 91 is self-defeating. Whoever tries to use Psalm 91 the devil's way is disqualified from being the kind of person it's for. And that's the trap into which the devil wants to lure Jesus into falling.

Which is why Jesus doesn't make that mistake. He doesn't let the devil's scripture-twisting sidetrack him. Jesus holds fast to God in love. Jesus cherishes the wisdom of scripture for the situation he's in. Jesus knows that a faithful child of God won't treat God like a product to be tested or like a power to be manipulated and harnessed for human advantage. That's not faithful sonship. The devil says a child of God is entitled to show off. But Jesus, the faithful Son of God, will live instead by humble faith. Jesus will never try to hold that faith hostage. Jesus will never issue God an ultimatum. The devil says a child of God can set the terms. But Jesus, faithful Son of God, refuses anything that doesn't come on God's terms. He wants to march forward on his Father's terms in his Father's mission, and nothing else will do.

The devil says a child of God should get something out of it – more presents, more protection, more popularity. The devil says a child of God can make death-defying leaps and count on God to mute the consequences. But Jesus declares, “The Son … came not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). Jesus didn't come to turn a profit, Jesus didn't come to extort personal gain. Jesus came to be a blessing. His purpose isn't to use his Father, but to reveal his Father. Jesus is not here to entertain. Jesus is not here to dazzle. He comes, not with bread and circuses, but with the cross. He most certainly is not here to show off.

So Jesus commits himself. In quoting Deuteronomy to the devil, what Jesus is saying is, “I am a child of God. And that means I will not put conditions on my Father. I will not exploit that relationship to suit my own needs. I love my Father, and I know my Father loves me. So I will live in faith. I will live in humility. I will live in patience. I will trust my Father to ripen his purposes in his time. He will make them plain.” Jesus doesn't do what Israel did at Massah and Meribah. He doesn't take the path of the phony-baloney messiahs and prophets who came before or after him. Jesus is the real deal. But he's got nothing to prove, so he doesn't act like them. A faithful child of God loves his Father, not for what he thinks the Father can give, but for who the Father is. A faithful child of God doesn't use 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, and a faithful child of God doesn't use God as a tool to further some other agenda or entertain the crowds.

And what a faithful child of God wouldn't do, Jesus never does. He was faithful in every test where Israel failed in the desert. Jesus is so faithful that, when the Father's terms call for it, he'll “humble himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross” (Philippians 2:8). And because he was faithful, he lived out Psalm 91 in his own way. He didn't have to jump off a roof to activate it. He just stuck to the Father's plan, and he did trample on lions and serpents (Psalm 91:13) – that is, on the lion that looks to devour us (1 Peter 5:8) and the serpent who beguiled God's children out of a garden (Genesis 3:15). Because Jesus was faithful, he did go on to conquer the land with the gospel – and his conquest is still being waged through the armies of peace who make up his New Israel, the Church. Because Jesus was faithful, God his Father answered him when he called (Hebrews 5:7; cf. Psalm 91:15). And because Jesus was a faithful child of God, he received the final promise of Psalm 91: for God the Father to save him from death and to satisfy him with long life, indeed unending life, in the resurrection (Psalm 91:16). Psalm 91 was absolutely meant for the likes of Jesus – but not at all in the way the devil meant.

And then there's us. When we are united to Christ through faith, each of us becomes a son or a daughter of God – a child of the same Father whom Jesus called 'Father.' Jesus calls you brother; Jesus calls you sister (Hebrews 2:11). And in our journey, we may well cross paths with the devil and his temptations. They may be bold; they may be subtle. And in that hour, in every hour of temptation, you must decide: What kind of child of God will you be? What does it mean to you, to be a child of God? Does it mean getting to show off? Does it mean having God's support for your plans? Does it mean being impressive and mighty? Does it mean acting with impunity and banking on a gracious bail-out? Does it mean the right to set tests for God to keep your faith? If so, you're in hearty agreement with the devil – Lord, have mercy.

Or, does it instead mean a life of humble faith without conditions? Does it mean embracing weakness, clinging to obedience, pursuing God's mission to bless your neighbors and your neighborhoods, even at a cost? Does it mean patiently waiting for the victory on God's terms, and chasing only the causes he chooses? Then, and only then, might you be in hearty agreement with Jesus, the Lord of Mercy. “And the God of peace will soon crush Satan,” that roaring lion and deceiving serpent, “under your feet” (Romans 16:20). And only through the faithful obedience of Deuteronomy 6 can we as God's children glory in the Psalm 91 victory of the gospel. Our Father's mission on our Father's terms. No stunts.

So, I ask: What does being a child of God mean to you? I hope we may all find ourselves imitating Jesus, “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:5). “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.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Temptation One: The Denial of Denial (Matthew 4:1-4)

The first few days hadn't been so bad. But after that, things had been... a challenge. He looked around. There was nothing. Nothing but rock and dirt and sand, and the occasional tuft of dry grass. He used to hear the wind as it rippled and roared over the plains, down the ridges, through the dry river-beds. But that was before. All he could hear now was the roaring inside, loud as thunder. He was nauseous, he was dizzy, every breath was a struggle. He had never before felt this weak; every movement was agonizing. His tongue clung to the roof of his mouth, and to speak out loud seemed pointless anyway. Each day dragged on endlessly now, feeling like the year it represented. He watched the course of the baking sun – it was blurry, and there looked like two of them – as the sun traversed the blue dome arching overhead. And in his heart, he squeaked out a thanks. It was harder and harder to keep focus. Every cell in his body felt like it was dying. Starvation. Dehydration. He was on the verge. He was weakened to the brink of his demise, stretched to the utmost limits of human toleration. It felt like nothing mattered but the thunder from his emaciated muscles, from the ruptured capillaries in his arms and legs, from his dry and cracking skin, from his vacant stomach. He looked around and scarcely knew where he was. He only had a distant thought that his people, long, long ago, had sat and grumbled while looking at the same round stones over a thousand years before. And an even more distant thought that he remembered it.

He wrestled – tried to recite the stories to himself, give himself something to focus on, a goal, an anchor for life. The words floated through his mind as he mentally grabbed their syllables, one by one. So hard to focus. But it was the whole reason he was out there. He knew he hadn't come there on his own initiative. Had been sent into the wasteland, led on by the flight of the dove, pulled by a familiar presence, walking in the footsteps of a tale he so well knew. He'd bade his cousin goodbye, the crowds goodbye, at the river bank. He knew the voice he'd heard. He recalled what it had said. What it had called him. “Beloved Son” (Matthew 3:17). And he'd known what that meant, and what he had to do. He had a purpose for living. He had to shoulder the burden of a whole nation, a whole species, a whole universe. Retrace their steps, rewrite the story. So out here he was. Starving in the desert, arguing with his body about whether it would be his grave. Oh, he remembered what he'd heard, recalled the voice from up above. But that had been over a month ago. And a hungry body is so, so forgetful.

As he fought his body's inclination to pass out and give up, the world seemed to swirl around him. The stones, hot under the sun, looked so appetizing – like nice, fresh-baked loaves of bread, the kind he used to excitedly wait for his mother to bake in her village hearth. Above them, the air swirled and danced. Hallucinations atop mirages atop double-vision. He shut his eyes, fiercely determined to focus his last ounce of concentration on the words, visualizing the scroll in his hands, reading with the one back recess of his brain that was a refuge from the crashing thunder inside. Until he smelled an approaching presence.

A bright figure, warm and inviting, leaned toward him with a gaze of compassion. A messenger of relief? “You poor man! Why are you doing this to yourself? You'll starve to death out here unless you do something! If you're really the Son of God, just say the word, and these stones will become loaves of bread. Isn't that what you really want now? Bread? Nutrition? Why are you denying yourself what you want and need? What else is being a child of God good for, if not having what you crave, when you crave it? Surely being a child of God means getting your way here and now. What's all this talk of patience and discipline? If you're who you say you are, you're entitled to live, to be free, to be comfortable, to put your own desires first. So go ahead. With a bare whisper, you can fix all this. If you're really the Son of God, just do it. Satisfy your urges. Feed yourself.”

That's what the devil whispered to tempt Jesus, right when Jesus was physically at his most vulnerable. And we have to admit – it's a strong temptation. Not just because it hit him with what his body cried out for most, but because the devil's picture is an awfully enticing one. Pretty often, we fall for the devil's vision, his version of what it should mean to really call ourselves God's children. Here in America, we're enthusiastic for the idolatry of efficiency. We want instant gratification all the time. We don't want to wait. We don't want to have patience. We don't want to be disciplined. Surely we're above those things. We just want to consume. We are always looking for faster, easier ways to get what we want. We pop little trays in the microwave to get food quick – and we sure keep plenty of food around. We sit and flip through hundreds of entertainment options. We get bored easily, when we aren't being catered to. We're commercialized, from the oldest to the youngest. It was already true in the 1950s when Billy Graham accused America of being “materialistic, worldly, secular, greedy, and covetous,” and it's true in 2019 all the same.

See, when we're in church, what's the question we always ask ourselves? “What am I getting out of this?” – we evaluate worship like a product, and if it doesn't sufficiently cater to our tastes, we behave like good little consumers and take our business elsewhere. If it doesn't come with the right accessories, trade it in. And so even worship becomes a consumer good: Does it give us what we crave, when we crave it? Does it amuse and satisfy us? We have preferences, and we want to pick them out of a menu. We're drawn to any message that tells us we can have it our way. We long to have things cheap and have things easy. We're addicted to instant gratification. We're allergic to suffering – we've come to think of it as abnormal. We don't want to hear that we have to suffer. We don't want to think about the end of all flesh. What are we always told in the world? “Life is long, you've got plenty of time to make a change. But life is short, so make the most of each moment, enjoy yourself. What matters is being happy and self-fulfilled and self-satisfied.” That's the way we're prone to think.

And if we're honest, the way we live our lives from day to day, the thing we usually hold of first importance is bread – the basic stuff of material life, the thing we need to consume to see another day. And if life is all about bread, whatever can satisfy your cravings in the moment, whatever you expect will make you feel good, then there's only one thing to do: get it for yourself wherever and however you can. And what this message is saying to us is, 'Being God's child means you're special, you're entitled to just satisfy yourself and not deny yourself. You're God's child,' the reasoning goes, 'so you're worth it. Just reach out and take it.'

This apparent angel of light comes to Jesus in the desert, and that's the 'gospel' he comes bearing: the gospel of satisfaction guaranteed. The gospel of bread-on-demand. The gospel of the day-to-day. The gospel of having it your way. The gospel of health and wealth, respectability and prosperity. The great and glorious news of the TV dinner. The gospel of the American Dream. That's what it means to be a child of God. Or so the devil says. And, of course, the devil is trying to tempt Jesus – and us – to adopt a rather wrong-headed view of things.

But notice how Jesus reacts to temptation. He could snap his fingers and call down fire from heaven to scorch the devil to ash. But it isn't time yet. He could just tell the devil, “Get lost! As God, I'm necessarily sinless, so you're wasting your time.” That's true – Jesus, as God, could not have sinned. He couldn't have surrendered to any sinful temptation the devil offered him – just like a skilled tightrope walker over a sturdy net can't hit the ground. But what stops him from hitting the ground isn't the net; it's that he can walk across the tightrope without falling. What stops Jesus from sinning here isn't his divine nature; it's his obedience to God as a man “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus is determined to face temptation by making use only of what's available to each and every one of us – and so the resource he brings to bear is nothing less than scripture, those words he memorized and on which he meditated.

Remember: When Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the desert for those forty days, Jesus was following in the footsteps of Israel. Israel was called the son of God, but when tested in the desert for forty years, flunked miserably and sinned. And at the close of that wilderness period, Moses summed up the lessons they'd learned in the Book of Deuteronomy. Jesus has gone out to the desert for forty days to do what Israel didn't. Like Israel, he's the Son of God, but unlike Israel, he's not going to flunk this test. He's going to resist temptation. And he aims to do it with the very arsenal of scripture handed to Israel in the desert.

Because when Jesus reads the eighth chapter of Deuteronomy, he finds in there a whole different notion of what it means to be the Son of God. The devil has one theology of sonship, but God through Moses spoke a different one altogether. Deuteronomy presents Israel's time in the wilderness as a test for Israel as the child of God: “You shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2). That's the question here: what's in Israel's heart? What kind of son will he turn out to be? He's heard God's commandments, but will he be obedient? Will he pass the test?

What Deuteronomy reveals is that the journey was not made to be easy. Israel was led to bitter places – “evil places” – by the Spirit. And that was the Spirit's intentional choice, because God had thereby been offering his son Israel a taste of parental discipline: “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God disciplines you” (Deuteronomy 8:5). Not punishment; discipline. Israel was being allowed to go through hardship for the sake of character growth. That's what a father offers a son: occasional deprivation, under loving guidance, for the sake of growth and preparation for life – carefully administered by wisdom. And that's what God was giving Israel here. Moses adds that the intent was to “humble you and test you, to do you good in the end” (Deuteronomy 8:16). It may not have been what they'd have chosen for themselves, but it was meant for their benefit, to build their character and make Israel a more mature son of God.

After this time of testing, this humble fast where they're forced to rely on God's fatherly provision in God's wise time, this season where Israel was forced to walk by faith and not by sight, the plan is that they'll obey the commandments and will “live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the LORD swore to give to your fathers” (Deuteronomy 8:1). And when they do, their fasting will turn to feasting. “For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out of the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing … and you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you” (Deuteronomy 8:7-10).

But first they just have to learn the lesson from their test. And there in this passage is the lesson, the thing God wanted them to learn, wanted to make them know. It's the point of the whole journey. And here it is: “He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD (Deuteronomy 8:3).

In other words, God gave them the gift of hunger, put them in a position to depend on him entirely for food, and then gave them a food they found mystifying, all so that they would learn one thing: that bread is not enough for real life, and it isn't the most important thing. What really gives life isn't bread; what really gives life to human beings is God's instruction, which alone is primary and alone is sufficient. Because God's word is what sent the manna to sustain them, and God's word showed them the way to go, and God's word was food for their souls.

When God first sent them manna, he sent it with instructions. And God explicitly says that even the manna was a test: “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not” (Exodus 16:4). They weren't supposed to try to stockpile it, except for the day before the sabbath, when it wouldn't come. On the first day, second day, third, fourth, fifth days of the week, they were supposed to gather only what they could eat that day. “But they did not listen to Moses. Some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and stank, and Moses was angry with them” (Exodus 16:20). Then on the sixth day, they were supposed to gather a double portion and not look for it on the sabbath – and yet “on the seventh day, some of the people went out to gather, but they found none” (Exodus 16:27).

Israel tried to stockpile it. They tried to steal it. They wanted to get it any way but God's way. They wanted to get ahead, to turn it into a manna-gathering competition. They wanted to hoard, wanted to manipulate, wanted to master. They put their satisfaction and gratification first. They wanted to make their lives easier. They wanted to be more efficient consumers. They didn't want to organize the rhythms of their lives according to the word God spoke. They wanted to live by bread alone. They gave in to the devil's version of sonship.

But “man” – the word in Hebrew is actually 'the Adam' – “does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD (Deuteronomy 8:3). Adam needs more than bread. Adam needs more than shiny fruit, no matter how “good for food” or “delight[ful] to the eyes” or “desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). Adam is more than a machine of meat. Adam is more than a bundle of desires. Adam needs a relationship with God. Adam needs to cultivate his soul. Adam needs to trust God's wisdom, follow in God's ways. Adam needs to keep his hand back and wait for God to send the right food at the right time. Adam only lives because the word of God brings him to life, the word of God sends him food in season, the word of God orders his steps. The word of God, and not food on the plate, is what it's all about. And that goes for any Adam, any human – for Israel, for Jesus, for you and me.

What's most important is God's words, the decrees and instruction and counsel that comes from God's mouth. God's word shows us the way to go and sustains us as we go that way: “So you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him” (Deuteronomy 8:6). God's words give us a life that hunger can't steal, even at its strongest. And so God's word is more important than bread. Bread alone does not add up to a life, no matter how much our society insists it does. But God's words open the gates of life in the land of good and plenty. You can't live by bread alone; you need God's word.

And so when Moses went up the mountain to seek God's word, he turned away from bread so that he could focus on the more important thing. Hear what Moses says: “When I went up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant that the LORD made with you, I remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water. And the LORD gave me the two tablets of stone written with the finger of God, and on them were all the words that the LORD had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of fire on the day of the assembly” (Deuteronomy 9:10-11). Moses disciplined himself. He went up and fasted. Moses patiently accepted God's discipline, because God's word took priority. Moses knew he didn't live by bread alone; he needed every word that came from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3).

So it's this passage that Jesus uses to deflect the devil's temptation, the temptation to deny denial. Jesus doesn't bicker endlessly with the devil, he doesn't try to reach a compromise position, he doesn't take the devil's vision for a test drive. Jesus just retorts back to him, “It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God'” (Matthew 4:4). Jesus has heard the devil's version of what it means to be God's child, but Jesus uses Deuteronomy to show that the truth is much different. The devil says that being a child of God means getting what you want, when you want it. But Jesus sees that being a child of God means being grateful for God's fatherly provision in God's wise time.

The devil says that being a child of God means reaching out and taking whatever bread you can get, because you're entitled to it. But Jesus sees that being a child of God means humbly accepting a life that has to be lived by faith, not by sight; it doesn't mean reaching out and grabbing for more, but holding up open and empty hands for the Father to fill when the Father chooses.

The devil says that being a child of God means prosperity and instant gratification, a life free from discomfort or hardship. But Jesus sees that being a child of God means refusing to take the shortcut, it means turning away from the easy road when God's word doesn't lead down it. It means patiently letting God shape and mold our character, even when it feels like we're starving. It means not grabbing at forbidden fruit or an ill-gotten loaf.

The devil says that being a child of God means living by bread, focusing on whatever it is that satisfies you in the moment, whatever you can consume and control. But Jesus sees that being a child of God means obeying your Father's wise instructions and being sustained by the faith it evokes. Jesus sees that real life is about so much more than bread, and that our sustenance comes on God's demand, not on ours. And so, even when Jesus was at his hungriest, even when Jesus was most tempted to break his fast, Jesus chose to defer to his Father, who would say the word on when and how Jesus would have his hunger satisfied, his bodily needs addressed.

And that's exactly what happened. In the end, Israel left the desert and their sparse manna diet behind, moving into a promised land where they could “eat and be full” (Deuteronomy 8:10), to “eat bread without scarcity” (Deuteronomy 8:9). And in the end, when the devil departed and Jesus' forty days and forty nights were fully concluded, and when Jesus had passed the test that Israel failed, it was God who sent angels to minister to him – and that included satisfying his hunger and restoring his body to health (Matthew 4:11). The devil told Jesus not to deny his cravings, but Jesus overrode them with a higher craving, and as a result, his other cravings were all answered in God's time. Jesus just chose to trust his Father to provide in the time, place, and way of God's choosing. Jesus chose to live by God's word, and not to try to wring life out of bread alone.

So whose vision do we agree with? Because make no mistake: if you're saved, if you're a believer, then you are a son or a daughter of God, for “to all who did receive [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). You gathered here this morning, if you really have received him and really do believe now in his name, are God's children – right here, right now, you are sons and daughters of God. But what does that mean to you? How do you live out being a child of God? Do you live for instant gratification? Do you live to consume? Do you quest after prosperity? Do you insist on the easy road? Do you reach for bread? Then you live out the devil's vision for being a child of God.

Or will you instead follow Jesus? He says to you, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). If that's what you're aiming to do, then learn to accept God's discipline. Learn to trust your Father God to provide for you, in his time and in his way. Listen to his every word; study and meditate on his word, enough so you'll have those words ready to sustain you when the tempter comes your way. Listen to your Father's word, obey his commandments, to walk by faith in his guidance.

Even when it feels like starving, even when it's sweltering, even when all things are dry and the thunder inside is crashing and booming and the other voices whisper, trust and listen to your Father, who will feed and sustain you on things you never could have expected. It may not be what you crave in the moment, it may not meet your “felt needs,” it may not amuse or entertain you, it may even make your body feel empty, but it will fill and grow and stretch your soul in due time. Then, and only then, will we be ready to appreciate God's feast after the fast. That's the life of a child of God. Hallelujah! Amen.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Where the Spirit Leads: Sermon for Matthew 3:13--4:2

It was so hot in the day. It was so cold in the night. Nothing but sand for miles. No food. Precious little water. Scorpions and snakes hiding around every corner. Enemies lurking in their path. Is it any wonder Israel grumbled and complained as they made their way through the wilderness, over three thousand years ago? They started complaining, truth be told, before they'd even fully escaped Egypt. As they stood against the sea and saw the Egyptian army dashing in their direction, they were terrified. They cried out to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you've taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11). But when they stood on the other side, “the people feared the LORD, and they had faith in the LORD and in his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31). Through the waters and into the desert, they found their faith.

That lasted a few days, at least. “They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they couldn't drink the water of Marah, because it was bitter; that's why they called it Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, 'What shall we drink?'” (Exodus 15:22-24). Leaving the Bitter Place once the water was made sweet for them, they camped at an oasis called Elim, but then they left there, too, and came to a new wilderness place (Exodus 16:1). And soon they were hungry, saying to Moses, “If only we'd died by the hand of the LORD in Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3). So God began feeding them with manna from heaven.

By the time they came to Rephidim, “there was no water for the people to drink, so the people quarreled with Moses … The people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, 'Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and out children and our livestock with thirst?'” (Exodus 17:1-3). And so that place was named Testing and Quarreling (Exodus 17:7). Soon after they had water, they had to fight the armies of Amalek (Exodus 17:8-13). All this before they ever made it to Sinai and pledged God their full trust and obedience (Exodus 23:7).

But just as they broke the Law at Sinai (Exodus 32), they didn't do much better after they left it. They continued to suffer; they continued to have hard times. “And the people complained in the hearing of the LORD about their misfortunes” (Numbers 11:1). They got hungry and nostalgic for slavery (Numbers 11:4), saying things like, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost us nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there's nothing at all but manna to look at” (Numbers 11:5-6). Soon after they got some meat from the windfall of quail, they tangled with disease (Numbers 11:33).

As they drew near to their destination, they were filled with fear-mongering and backsliding (Numbers 13:32-33), and the people again cried out, “If only we'd died in the land of Egypt! If only we'd died in this wilderness! … Wouldn't it be better for us to go back to Egypt? … Let's choose a leader and go back to Egypt” (Numbers 14:2-4). They didn't go back, but they got their death-wish (Numbers 14:21-23).

And soon some were disobedient and picked a fight with locals which they badly lost (Numbers 14:44-45). They kept disobeying (Numbers 15:32), and finally there was a great rebellion by hundreds of leaders (Numbers 16:1-2), people who said that Moses had “brought [them] up out of a land of milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness” (Numbers 16:13). More died in the plague that followed (Numbers 16:49).

In time, they came to a place without water, and so the people “assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron” (Numbers 20:2), and they said, “If only we'd perished when our brothers perished against the LORD! Why have you brought the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It's no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there's no water to drink” (Numbers 20:3-5). So that place, too, got named Quarreling (Numbers 20:13).

And their trials went on. Opposition from Edomites, Amorites, Moabites, Midianites. It wasn't long before the people got impatient again (Numbers 21:4), and they said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there's no food and no water, and we hate this worthless food” (Numbers 21:5). And then the snakes came, full of venom (Numbers 21:6). And after being tempted by the delights of the Midianite women and surrendering to them (Numbers 25:1-2), there was a greater plague than either of the first two (Numbers 25:9).

And so they lived forty years in the wilderness – a hot place with no food, no water, plenty of opposition, disease, and danger. It was, they said, “an evil place.” But it wasn't Moses who led them there. The whole way, from before they'd even left Egypt, it was the presence of God going before them: “The LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night” (Exodus 13:21). Wherever they went, “the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys” (Exodus 40:38). “And whenever the cloud lifted from over the tent, after that the people of Israel set out, and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the people of Israel camped” (Numbers 9:17). In other words, both into and through the wilderness, it wasn't Moses leading them or dictating their path; it was God. They were being led into and through the desert by the Spirit.

That was the life of Israel in the wilderness. It's where, as Paul said, Israel was “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink” (1 Corinthians 10:2-3). Reflecting on that trip years later, God remarked, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1). Because that's where God takes his children: to the wilderness. That's where the child of God faces the test, in the desert of temptation. In their case, “with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness,” Paul writes (1 Corinthians 10:5).

And centuries later, that's where their story intersects with where we've been. It seems like forever that we've been exploring the ministry of John the Baptist, the desert preacher. But it was all to get us here. Because what Israel did wrong, Jesus came to do right. Israel had been baptized in the sea as God's son, and so Jesus came to be baptized in the river as God's Son (Matthew 3:13). So when Jesus emerged from the water, “the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased'” (Matthew 3:16-17).

Israel was called the son of God, and so God led them through baptism and into the wilderness. And Jesus was called the Son of God, so where else would he go next? You can guess the next line yourself: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). The goal here is pretty obvious, isn't it? I mean, that's what Jesus meant when he said it was “necessary to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Jesus passed from baptism to the wilderness, the desert of temptation, so that he could be what Israel had failed to be there: a faithful Son of God in the face of temptation. Israel had tried in the days of Moses, but fell to temptation and tumbled to destruction. Even Moses never set foot in the Promised Land. But Jesus would be pushed to all human limits and yet live according to who he was: God's Child.

That was his mission in that moment. But Jesus didn't just make it up. He didn't just get up one day and decide he was going out to the wilderness, to a harsh and lonely place. When he went into the wilderness, he was “led up by the Spirit,” the Gospel says (Matthew 4:1), just like Israel had been led by the Spirit via the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.

That might strike you as odd. If you're like most people, it should. Isn't following the Spirit supposed to lead you to a better life? Isn't the Spirit supposed to take you to nice places, where you can be happy and tell everyone you're fine and it's all good? Isn't the Spirit supposed to steer you away from trouble and keep you safe? Don't things go well when you're following the Spirit? Why else would we follow the Spirit?

That's what we're so prone to think – and yet the Spirit led Jesus to the wilderness. And if following the Spirit will take Jesus to the wilderness, why would it be different for any of God's adopted kids, whom Jesus isn't ashamed to call his brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11)?

Because we're on a journey, too, between the waters of baptism and the place God is taking us. And as we wander along on that desert journey in ancient Israel's footsteps, we might find ourselves in some awfully difficult places – places we're prone to call 'Bitter' or 'Quarreling.' Places where we don't have enough to get by. Places with whole armies standing in our way. Places where we're infected by disease, afflicted by hardship, bitten by things that won't let go. Places where death invades our households and steals those we love. Places where our prayers seem to echo and fade in a vast expanse. Places where everything just disgusts us, and we look at our lives and we say, “I don't have any of this, and I don't have any of that, and what I do have, I loathe as worthless.” Places where we're all dried out and feel lost forever. Places where we lose control and say we hate ourselves. Places where our feet quiver like jelly and there are miles left to go. Places where we can't hear anything but the sounds of the brokenness and yearning within. Places where we just don't know how to cope. The kinds of places Jesus went before us, but where we think we oughtn't have to be.

And when we get to those places, we feel the question burning on our lips and smoldering in our soul: “Why have you brought us out to this evil place? Why have you taken me to this desert, through this dark valley? What am I doing here?” That's the wilderness – a harsh and lonely place, devoid of all the things we're accustomed to falling back on. And when we get to the harsher spots of the wilderness and find ourselves panting and aching, lost and afraid, we have a lot of questions how and why we got there.

Truth is, sometimes we take ourselves there, to misfortunes we don't need. Sometimes the blame falls squarely on our own mismanagement of our life, when we've ignored wisdom and dug our own ditch. We're good at getting ourselves into trouble. But then sometimes it isn't anything you've done wrong. Sometimes you're living your life, you're trying to follow God, and then you look around and it's just sand for miles, too hot by day, too cold by night. And you wonder how you could possibly have gotten there if you were following God! Isn't he supposed to make you lie down in green pastures and lead you beside still waters (Psalm 23:2)?

Well, sometimes, yes. But then sometimes, there's a valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4). Sometimes, the wilderness is exactly where following God will put you. Just like Israel, just like Jesus, sometimes it's the Spirit himself who leads you there, on purpose. Sometimes it's the Spirit of God who'll lead you deeper into the desert, far from the cucumbers and leeks of Egypt behind you (Numbers 11:5), but still far from the milk and honey of the Promised Land yet to be seen (Exodus 33:3; Numbers 13:27).

Let me tell you, if you're following a spirit who never leads you into the desert, never calls you to embrace self-denial and hunger and thirst, well, you may be following some spirit not-so-holy! “Don't believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they're from God” (1 John 4:1). Because the Spirit of God will teach you the truth – and sometimes that'll comfort, but sometimes that'll afflict. Sometimes he'll take you to an oasis and give you what you need, but there are certainly times he'll lead you deeper into the desert, to the desolate wastelands of the wilderness.

Because we need to go there. That's what it means to be a child of God. If you call God 'Father,' expect to camp in the wilderness with your Father. Don't expect the camping trips to be empty of hardships or even of the presence of death and danger. Certainly don't expect them to be free from temptation. We can't grow otherwise: “The Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. … He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment, all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees...” (Hebrews 12:6-12).

We need that time in the desert. I hate to say it, but we need to be deprived, need to be disciplined, need to be tested. For it's by being tested beyond your limits, at the direction of a Spirit who knows better than you where those limits are, that you're made pure and strong and healthy. The desert, the wilderness, is where God always sends his children – be that child Israel, or Jesus, or those newest of newcomers to the family: us.

So yes, the wilderness is, perhaps more often than we'd like, where the Spirit of God leads. There's no way around it. Following the Spirit will lead you deeper into the desert. Following the Spirit will take you to harsh places. Following the Spirit may steer you away from the nourishment you've always known and the allegiance you've always had and the ways you always learned it before. Following the Spirit may lead you to the midst of death and danger. Following the Spirit may take you somewhere you'd call a bitter and evil place, a place that's no good for what you long for and doesn't have what you most want or crave. Following the Spirit will take you past your limits to a place where you can't cope.

And when that happens, you'll be tempted. You'll be tempted to turn back. You'll be tempted to despair and grieve and lament. You'll be tempted to grasp for any fleeting pleasure within your reach, anything to numb the pain or console yourself, anything to appease the hunger and thirst growing inside you. You'll be tempted to just give up all hope and cry out for all things to meet their final end. You'll be tempted to question God's wisdom, doubt his goodness, raise your fist toward heaven and call him your enemy! You'll be tempted to lash out against the nearest scapegoat, like the Israelites did with Moses.

But remember, Paul writes, that “these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Corinthians 10:6). “We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:9-11). Keep following the Spirit. Follow the Spirit even when that path through life swerves deeper into the desert. Don't be surprised to find yourself there, there in the desert of temptation. But don't give in. In the wilderness, where the Spirit leads, is precisely where God calls us to come and seek him.

Our position isn't so unlike theirs. Like them, we're called children of God. Like them, we've passed through a baptism in the sea. Like them, we have the offering of spiritual food and drink from the Lord – first, at the Lord's Table; and second, in the nourishment of his word (like the prophet said, “Your words were found, and I ate them,” [Jeremiah 15:16]); and third, in the pursuit of the Father's will (like the Messiah said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” [John 4:34]). Like Israel of old and like Jesus turning their wrongs into rights, we as well must be led into the wilderness – sometimes finding an oasis, but sometimes wandering over endless dunes to a cracked and dry place where nothing grows. And like them, there we face tests that will make or break us.

And in that day, there's only one question. As children of God, whom do we resemble more: Israel, who failed their test in the days of Moses, or Jesus, who used the arsenal of God's word to stay true to who he was and who endured his temptations without being caught by them? When the Spirit leads you to the wilderness – and I'm sure he has before, and I'm sure he will again – which example will you follow? Because we have a real choice, because we have a great advantage – the risen Christ who overcomes and invites us into his victory.

In this season of Lent, for these forty days, we remember the forty days that ensued when Jesus was led into the wilderness to fast and face temptation; and those forty days remembered the forty years when Israel was led into the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-2). During the course of our forty days and for all the times in life when the Spirit takes us deeper into the desert, persevere. Having seen the great power that the Lord used in your great deliverance, trust in the Father and in his Son Jesus (cf. Exodus 14:31), and in their Spirit who leads you – one God, world without end.

May we as a church follow the Spirit as Jesus did and endure our trials as Jesus did, without sin. “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father: Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1), forif we confess our sins” and turn away from them and follow his Spirit, “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Thanks be to God. Amen.