Wilderness Trials: Israel, Jesus, You
Invocabit Sunday – March 1, 2020
Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11
The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness always begins the Lenten season – because we hear of the victory of Christ over Satan. It foreshadows Jesus victory over Satan at the cross and grave. But what’s so special about the wilderness? Why does Jesus go there?
To explain why Jesus went to the wilderness to endure Satan’s temptation, we must first look at Israel. Jesus takes the same path as Israel. Once Israel passed through the waters of the Red Sea to escape from the slavery of Egypt, God led the nation of Israel into the wilderness. In Exodus and Deuteronomy, it mentions that God led them here in order to ‘test’ them. But what does the Lord’s testing look like? Or what’s His goal in testing them? Well, God tests them for the sake of faith and righteousness. Testing has a chastening and purifying purpose to it. But it’s for the sake of your sanctification!
God has different tests for the Israelites in the wilderness. Now, the wilderness is a place where there’s extreme lack of water and food. So, their basic needs for survival must come not from their own work – tilling, planting, and nurturing a garden or tending cattle. But as pure gift from God. So, in Exodus 15:25, Moses was given a log to throw in bitter water – the log made the water sweet. Thus, the Lord provided for His people. God tests them saying this: “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to His commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your healer.” Then, in Exodus 16:4, God gives them abundance of manna. Now, manna was nothing especially tasty – it was just bread which came from God. But it was food and sustenance in a wilderness where there was famine. The Lord gave specific instructions to the Israelites on how to collect the manna in the mornings – the Lord was testing them to see if they followed directions or not. In Exodus 20:20, God gives His people the ten commandments, to test their obedience to His will.
So, why does God test in this way? Anytime he tests, He also provides – so what’s the point? Deuteronomy 13:3 gives the answer – “The Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all you soul.” God is testing their love. He’s testing to see if they rely upon God for life, or if they try and take matters into their own hands through disobedience to God’s direction. Of course, Israel fails their tests. They collected more manna than God had told them, because they weren’t sure when God’s generosity would run out. They tried to strike a rock to make water come out of it like what had happened before, but God didn’t tell them to do it that time. They tried to coerce God without His direction and command. Finally, not only did they break the ten commandments, but they completely shattered the first commandment, ‘You shall have no other gods’ when they made a golden calf from their jewelry and worshiped it! The Israelites have completely failed God’s tests, and they’ve delivered themselves into the hands of the tempter.
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus follows the pattern of the Israelite people, going wherever Israel goes. Having been baptized in the water of the Jordan river, Jesus mirrors the Israelite Red Sea crossing. And like Israel, Jesus is led into the wilderness. Now, when the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, the purpose is to be tempted by the devil – so that Jesus can demonstrate Himself as a perfectly obedient Son of God for Israel, and also for us – for we’re all God’s sinfully flawed children.
Since Israel failed their testing period and delivered themselves into the hands of the tempter, Jesus must be tempted in their place, yet without failure, and deliver all disobedient children from the hands of Satan.
The nation of Israel is reduced to one person: Jesus. And Jesus in the wilderness becomes something Israel and us weren’t able to become: a champion. Jesus subjects Himself to extreme fasting and temptation to play the role of champion over Satan.
It’s important to note that our Gospel text preaches Jesus’ work, not necessarily His example. Said another way, we shouldn’t look at Jesus fighting against Satan’s temptation and say: that’s how I should beat Satan at his game! Rather, the message is that we live and dwell under the victory of Christ – He fulfills what Israel, you, and me couldn’t do. He listens to the Spirit who leads Him to such self-denial in fasting, so that his flesh may be subdued, realizing that man lives not by bread alone but by every word which comes from the mouth of God. By submitting Himself to a denial of the bread, Jesus Himself becomes the bread of life through which all His children are fed. Ultimately, Jesus shows that He is the victor over Satan on behalf of the nation of Israel and on behalf of all people.
Like our Hymn of the Day puts it- “A mighty fortress is our God, a sword and shield victorious; He breaks the cruel oppressor’s rod and wins salvation glorious. The old satanic foe has sworn to work us woe. With craft and dreadful might He arms himself to fight. On earth He has no equal.” That is, we cannot defeat Satan on our own. Verse 2 then preaches “No strength of ours can match his might. We would be lost, rejected. But now a champion comes to fight, whom God Himself elected. You ask who this may be? The Lord of hosts is He, Christ Jesus, mighty Lord, God’s only Son, adored. He holds the field victorious!” The victory is Christ’s – He defeats Satan. And we take refuge and strength not in ourselves, but in Christ’s victory over Satan.
So, we can see that our Gospel doesn’t teach Christians to proof text yourself out of Satan’s temptations. That can certainly help, but only for so long. Certainly, Scripture is the sword of the Spirit, slaying the evil one. But remember that Jesus and Scripture are inseparable. Jesus is the Word made flesh after all.
But in the wilderness, Satan attacked Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, saying ‘if you’re the Son of God, turn these stones into bread’ or ‘if you’re the Son of God, thrown yourself down and let your angels catch you’ or ‘you should be the one to worship at my feet.’ Satan wanted Jesus to disregard what God the Father told Him at His baptism: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Satan wanted Jesus to listen to him. Satan wanted to tell Jesus who Jesus should be.
Christians will certainly be attacked by Satan in a similar way. Through baptism, we can call God Father. We can rely upon God to provide everything we need. We can rely upon Him for every spiritual blessing. But Satan wants to challenge our identities as children of God.
But we learn from God’s Word what it means to live as the baptized – arising from our watery graves and journeying into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan, we know we’ll be subjected to the old evil foe. We know we’ll be tempted to question what God has said to us in our baptism, to re-define how a Christian should live, or how we live within the lives God has given us. But as baptized Christians, we live with love and devotion to God and each other – not listening to what the sinful flesh, the world, or the devil have to say about who we are., or who we should be.
Even as Jesus wins the victory over Satan, He prepares us for battle. He tests us, just like the Israelites in the wilderness – but we take comfort knowing that we aren’t left to our own devices for victory, rather we rely upon Christ. And we’re comforted knowing that Christ is with us in the wilderness, always reminding us to remain in Him. For wherever He is, there victory is also.