Once again we find ourselves embarking on the Lenten journey. Lent is the 40 days (minus Sundays) between Shrove Tuesday and Easter Sunday. It is a season to spend time in intentional reflection and consideration of one’s physical and spiritual state. Very often people give up something for this season as a way of making space for the Spirit to offer something new. For many it is a season of fasting. Many people give up food, or a select food item during these weeks. And all of this, the forty days and the emptying and fasting is done in echo of the story of Jesus’ time spent fasting in the wilderness prior to his formal ministry.
This story is found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke – as per usual these three gospels each handle the story slightly differently depending on their theological framework – but they all present this moment in the life of Jesus as pivotal in his transition into ministry. And they all give us the same basic framework – Jesus is led, by the Spirit, into the wilderness where he fasts for forty days and is tempted by the Devil.
Forty is such an interesting number in the Bible. It is used over and over again, in most cases, to symbolize a period of testing or trial. The rainwaters of Noah’s flood lasted forty days and forty nights. The Hebrew people wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, during which Moses spent a period of 40 days up on Mount Sinai in the cloud of God’s presence receiving the word of God for the people of Israel. Over and over you will find 40.
Some of you may recall that I turned 40 years old last year and as a birthday gift to myself I created 40 paper cutouts that explore instances of the number 40 in scripture. I have brought that collection back to the church and it is hanging in the foyer if you would like to peruse it a bit more [the scripture references are also there as well]. And, of course, one of the stories you will find depicted in that collection, in a multi-panel display, is this pivotal story in the life of Jesus.
It begins, as the scripture passage begins:
Jesus returned from the Jordan filled with the Holy Spirit, and she led him into the desert for forty days,
Jesus heads into the desert, a place of wilderness. He goes because the Spirit leads him there, because he is filled with the Holy Spirit. He is filled with the Holy Spirit because it has just been poured out upon him during his baptism:
When all the people were baptized, Jesus also came to be baptized. And while Jesus was praying, the skies opened and the Holy Spirit descended on the Anointed One in visible form, like a dove. A voice from heaven said, “You are my Own, my Beloved. On you my favor rests.”
So here we are with Jesus, post baptism – Jesus’ identity as God’s Beloved has been established – the Spirit of God is upon him – within him – he is filled with it and it is that Spirit that leads him into the wilderness.
A wilderness in which he will fast for forty days.
Jesus ate nothing during that time, at the end of which he was famished.
It is here, in this low, in this valley of physical weakness and hunger that Jesus encounters the Devil who is ready to tempt and test the spiritual nature of this Chosen One of God. And the Devil exploits the opportunity at hand, striking first at the physical hunger of Jesus.
The Devil said to Jesus, “If you are God’s Own, command this stone to turn into bread.”
Let’s consider the beginning of this question for a moment…If you are God’s Own…this is an interesting way of phrasing this first temptation because we have just come off of the story of Jesus’ baptism where a voice from heaven declares:
“You are my Own, my Beloved. On you my favor rests.”
And on top of that, in Luke, right between Jesus’ baptism and this passage of his time in the desert is a genealogical account of Jesus that traces him through Joseph’s line all the way back to Seth, a son of Adam and Eve, the original children of God.
Jesus’ identity has already been fully established.
This statement is not so much if – or prove – you are God’s chosen one. This statement is more of a since you are God’s chosen one. This is a test. It is an examination of Jesus’ intent – much like I was examined last week as part of my ordination ritual when I was asked to declare my intentions and commitments as I entered into a new stage of covenant with the church.
What is really being asked here is: How is Jesus going to be God’s child in the world?
And Jesus answer[s], “Scripture has it, ‘We don’t live on bread alone.’”
Here is Jesus, in a profound moment of wilderness – a place which God has used time and again to shape God’s people. Instead of bowing to the physical hunger that is driving his own self need in that moment, Jesus feeds himself on words of scripture that tell of God’s faithfulness to another set of people in another wilderness time to carry him through the moment at hand.
And what is that time he is referring to? It is another 40 story – the story of the experience of God’s people who journeyed for forty years in the wilderness before their entry into the Promised Land.
Remember how YHWH, your God, led you on a wandering path through the desert for forty years, humbling and testing you, to learn what was in your heart; whether you would keep God’s commands or not. God humbled you with hunger and then fed you manna, which was unknown to you and your ancestors, to teach you that you cannot live on bread alone, but on every word that flows from the mouth of God.
In this moment Jesus is buoyed by the words of story and memory that his community has taught him. He is still physically hungry and yet he is spiritual sated by the hope that the same God who provided for prior wilderness wanderers will continue to be present. Jesus knows this is a persistently present God. The scripture in Deuteronomy that Jesus is clinging to affirms this:
Your clothes did not wear out, nor did your feet swell up during those forty years…So keep the commandments of YHWH; walk with reverence in the ways of God. For YHWH, your God, is bringing you into a good land – a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and in the hills, a land where bread will not be scarce and where you will lack for nothing.
While Jesus takes courage in these words of promise and hope knowing that the coming reign of God will satisfy more than just hunger, the Devil grasps another opportunity to test Jesus’ commitment to that reign.
Then the Devil took Jesus up higher and showed him all the nations of the world in a single instant. The Devil said, “I’ll give you all the power and the glory of these nations; the power has been given to me and I can give it to whomever I wish. Prostrate yourself in homage before me, and it will all be yours.”
Jesus sees the vision, hears what the Devil is offering, power and glory, all for the seemingly low cost of bowing down in homage before the Devil. And as tempting as personal power and glory can be, Jesus shows himself steeped in scripture:
In reply, Jesus said, “Scripture has it: ‘You will worship the Most High God; God alone will you adore’”
This scripture also comes from the Israelites 40 years journey in the wilderness.
You must revere YHWH; you must worship YHWH; and by the Name of YHWH alone are you to swear your oaths.
Commandments such as this were given to the people through Moses, who would spend time in the presence of God on Mt Sinai where God’s presence would descend on the mountain like a cloud enveloping Moses with wisdom and expectations (at least once for a period of 40 days). Moses would then bring the words of God down the mountain and share them with the people to encourage them and guide them towards a life-giving path in the heart of wilderness.
In this exchange, Jesus also uses those words of encouragement and commandment as a tether to remind him and keep him focused on a life-giving path God offers, over and beyond the self-aggrandising opportunity of this brief moment. In this choice we begin to see that Jesus grasps that he is not fully his own being for his own purposes. The ministry he is on the cusp of is not about Jesus for the power and glory of Jesus. It is about who and what Jesus points to: the love, justice, and reign of God.
At this point the Devil begins to understand that Jesus, this new word of God in human form, is fully grounded in the words of God preserved in scripture. And so for the third test the Devil too takes on the language of scripture and the Devil doesn’t just take on the words of scripture, the Devil takes Jesus to the Jewish community’s center of religious power and worship: Jerusalem.
Then the Devil led Jesus to Jerusalem, set him up on the parapet of the Temple and said, “If you are God’s Own, throw yourself down from here, for scripture has it, ‘God will tell the angels to take care of you; with their hands they’ll support you, that you may never stumble on a stone.’”
In using scripture, the Devil goes straight to the Psalms:
Because you have made me your refuge
and have me as your stronghold,
no evil will befall you,
and no disaster will come near your tent.
For I will command my angels
to guard you wherever you go.
They’ll carry you in their hands
so you don’t hurt your foot on a stone.
And upon hearing this, I imagine that it is without hesitation:
Jesus said to the Devil in reply, “It also says, ‘Do not put God to the test.’”
Here Jesus continues with the Deuteronomy 6 scripture he was previously leaning on and he remembers that is also states [verse 16]:
Do not test YHWH, your God, as you did as Massah.
Massah [a word that means testing] being the place where the Israelites (still on their 40 year wilderness journey) quarrelled with Moses and tested God because there was no water for them in the desert where they had made camp. And God, in response to their complaints, had Moses strike his staff against a rock and water poured forth for the people to drink.
Just as the people were quarreling and testing Moses and God, so Jesus and the Devil are having their own back and forth. And both of them are using words from scripture as a source of power and resolve. They are both are quoting holy scripture. But the power of these words is not simply in knowing them enough to speak them – the power resides in how the words are used.
Scripture isn’t made to be slung around in short snippets – or as my professor of the Older Testament in Seminary used to say – it isn’t meant to be ripped out, wadded up and spit at each other. Scripture is part of an ongoing story – it is a small collection of the vast array of on-going stories and encounters that are building the Shalom of God in the world.
It is not enough to just know enough to quote scripture verses, what give words, and in particular scripture, power is listening to and choosing to lean into the underlying life giving meaning behind it.
And that is what Jesus has chosen to do. He confounds the Devil – who chooses to leave Jesus alone – because in this time of testing, Jesus again and again uses the words of scripture to declare what kind of chosen one he will be in the world. This Jesus, even in the harsh and hungry space of wilderness, has his vision fixed on the reign of God he is about to proclaim. A reign of good news, healing, release, and God’s favor for all people.
This is how Jesus will be God’s child in the world; he will lean into the life-giving nature of God’s word, living it out and offering it as good news.
As we embark upon the unknown wilderness of the Lenten journey before us, may we too be lead by the Spirit into spaces that open us to reflection, to consider how we too will be God’s children in the world. May we have the courage to reflect not solely for the sake of ourselves – but for the sake of all of God’s children – how are we going to be the word of God in the world?