4Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Wilderness Boot Camp: Recognizing the Enemy
During America’s long and tragic involvement in Vietnam, one of the chief complaints was that our soldiers could not recognize the enemy! Apart from uniforms and insignia – conspicuously absent in guerilla warfare– the North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese looked alike. There was no way to know if the woman approaching camp was running for her life or running toward them wearing a bomb; there was no way to know if the men standing in the rice paddy were friends or foes. No way to know.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the same situation: Hard to tell whom to trust and whom to fear. Little to distinguish people of the same ethnicity. No way to know.
This morning we return to where we left off last week, with Jesus in the wilderness. We heard, again, Matthew’s account of Christ’s testing – an account written 50 years or so after it occurred. Jesus was “led out into the wilderness by the spirit to be tested by Satan.” I wonder how Christ experienced it at the time – how he would describe it.
I think he might have said this: “After my baptism by John – after hearing the voice of the Father and receiving the spirit of the Father, I was filled with a power that cannot be described, a spiritual adrenaline so strong that I did not know where to begin or what to do first!
But within hours, I was at war with myself. With the power came the doubt, the temptation, the selfishness and evil impulses that were not of God. I had to get away, to think, to pray, to get my head on straight! I had to talk to God alone. So I went into the wilderness, and I did what I knew to do: I prayed and I fasted. At first, the voices of God and Satan sounded alike – hard to separate the two! What if I could change rocks into food? Why, I could feed the world’s poor – the malnourished children, the widows, the orphans, so many of them. What would be wrong with that? What if I could do some miracle that would demonstrate, once and for all, that I was the Messiah? Then surely all would turn to God and worship Him? What would be wrong with receiving the political power to rule vast kingdoms? I would be a just ruler who administered justice and protected my people. Would not any one of these goals advance the Kingdom of God and be a good use of this new-found power?
But, yet, why was my mind and my heart so torn? What was God calling me to do? And why was God not making that mission clear? It was the decisive battle of a lifetime. I had to get things straight before starting out, I had to be alone. I had to think. The only weapons I had were my prayers and the Word of God.”
Nothing in the scripture to suggest that God and Satan showed up in any physical form. God did not speak from a burning bush, Satan did not physically lead Jesus to the temple mount. The region of wilderness to which Jesus retreated was nicknamed “The Desolation” –a flat, desolate, expanse with no mountains in sight and far from the temple in Jerusalem. The struggle that went on was in Christ’s heart, soul, and mind – just as it is for us today.
Fortunately, you and I will never face the extreme testing that Jesus endured. The testing that came to Jesus could only come to one who had very special powers – supernatural powers. He knew this power was an amazing gift, and he could do almost anything with it. But on a much lower level, we should understand that we too are tempted through our gifts. If you are gifted with charm, then you can choose to get away with almost anything. If you are gifted with words, you can use them to justify anything you want to do. If you are gifted with physical beauty, it can become your vanity and obsession. Our strengths – or rather our pride in our strengths—is the very thing that makes us most vulnerable!
In Jesus’ case, he was gifted with the power of God. But driven into the wilderness, even the son of God had trouble recognizing the enemy. I am a vegetable gardener and no stranger to weeds. I hate weeds. Weeds are my nemesis! No sooner do I see my little green bean plant break through the soil do I see a little weed pop up beside it! And the thing is, weeds are devious! The weeds that grow up in the beans look like beans! And the weeds that choke out the carrots, have foliage that looks like carrots. Same with sweet potatoes! To use Bible language, we can’t separate the wheat from the chaff! About the time I compliment myself on my pretty little garden, I discover it is overrun with blood root, and crabgrass, and nettles! So what do we do about separating wheat from chaff, about recognizing the enemy? And about discerning God’s will? We certainly can’t defeat an enemy that we can’t even identify!
I think, we look back again to Christ’s example, and realize that –if the evil impulse is primarily about making yourself more comfortable, making yourself more famous, or making yourself more powerful, then it is not of God.
Put in those terms, we can fully appreciate the degree of temptation. Who doesn’t want to be comfortable – plenty to eat, a roomy, comfortable home, a savings account, a nice car? That’s human, right? And of course, you’ve got the family to think of, and you’ve earned it, and you deserve it, and this is America, etc. etc. So, if you have to cut a few moral or ethical corners to achieve it, why not? If you have to cut back on your support of church and charities, why not? If you have to quietly borrow a little from the business, or from your children’s fund, why not? Turning a few stones into bread isn’t that big of a crime! But Jesus said, “The birds of the air have nests and foxes have dens, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” [Luke 12:17]. The Apostle Paul writes, “ Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, for God has said, “I will never leave you or abandon you.’” [Hebrews 13: 5].
And this little stunt of throwing yourself off the temple and letting God catch you? Doesn’t the Bible say that . . . . I. What’s wrong with getting my 5 minutes of fame? It would be a one-time thing: Let me shine a little, show off a little (even at someone else’s expense) and I’ll give the glory to God. Everyone plagiarizes a little, takes a little more credit than they are due, steps ahead of someone else. It’s a dog-eat-dog world and, sadly, it has to be done! And who doesn’t bargain with God a little: Get me out of this fix this one time, God, I’ll come out smelling like a rose, and I won’t do it again! Save me from this situation, and I’ll make it my testimony – I’ll tell everyone how great you are. And Christ’s answer? “Do not put the Lord you God to the test.”
And what about power? We’re not talking about ruling the world, God, but having a little more control over things. In fact, someone is going to take the helm, and it may as well be me! Sometimes the means do justify the end, and if I play my cards right, I can have that corner office by June. I’m far more qualified for the job, and everyone will be better off! They’ll come around. Funny! Christ said in his sermon on the mount: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Matthew [5:5], and “And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.” [Matthew 20:27].
Do you see how sneaky sin is?? And how readily our minds can justify anything to achieve comfort, fame, or power. But, maybe we need to be reminded of God’s purpose for our lives. And that purpose does not involved comfort, fame, or power. Here it is: You are to love the Lord your God will all your heart, and all your strength, and all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself. You are to be the salt and light of the world. You are to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. And you are to go, therefore, unto all people and disciple them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Christ says “I am equipping you to love and serve others so that they may know me.” This is why I gave you the ability to write, to sing, to lead, to heal, to comfort, to preach, to nurture, to love. This is why I helped you overcome addiction, depression, and doubt. This is why I have seen you through hard times and ill health. If anyone tells you otherwise, he is the enemy.
Does that make it easy? No. Even if we recognize the enemy in our heads, it is still not easy. In his letter to the Hebrews, the Apostle Paul admits, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing. [Hebrews 7: 19]
So it is with us. We keep doing the very things we do not want to do. But remember, we have common sense and we have God. Common sense says stay away from those people and things that cause you to sin. The poet Robert Frost said, “Put a fence around your impulses. And it that doesn’t work, put a fence around the fence.” Wall out those things which cause you to sin. And then go to God – in prayer, in scripture—and stay in that wilderness as long as it takes. Because God will send his angels to care for you. The cavalry will show up! And that’s a promise! AMEN.