First Sunday in Lent – Series B (February 22, 2015)
After Jesus was baptized, the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. Threw him out there. Expelled him. Sounds like something a school principal does to a habitually naughty student. Not something the Third Person of the Holy Trinity does to the Second Person. I thought they were supposed to be on the same team.
Well, they are. The Spirit sent him out there to do battle with Satan. This was a divine appointment. Satan’s appearance was no surprise. God is never caught off guard. This was all part of the plan. Jesus was sent to act as faithful Israel. Israel passed through the waters of the Red Sea and spent 40 years in the wilderness. Jesus passes through the waters of the Jordan and spends 40 days in the wilderness. Whereas Israel was unfaithful, Jesus is faithful. And Jesus came to serve as the substitute not just of Israel, but of all mankind. He came to stand up to Satan’s temptations in our place and to prove himself as the faithful Son and perfect Savior.
Mark’s account is very short. We don’t get the details of the various temptations that Matthew and Luke give us. Turn stones into bread. Throw yourself down from the temple. Bow down and worship me. In each case, Jesus answers not with his own divine power, but with the Word of God. He didn’t come to rely on his power as God for his own purposes, but to rely on his Father in heaven. And so he says, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God … You shall not put the Lord your God to the test … You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Matt. 4:7-10).
Those temptations ought to be familiar to each of us. We are often not content with the daily bread God has given us. We often neglect every word that comes from the mouth of God in Holy Scripture. We put God to the test when we do stupid, harmful, reckless things. It might not be like jumping off the high point of the temple and expecting angels to catch you. It’s more like seeing how reckless you can be by sinning against your conscience, almost daring God to see if he means what he says about the faith-destroying effects of willful, perpetual, deliberate sin (Heb. 10:26). And we also have a tendency to put everything else in our life before God, thereby proving that, like the people of Israel, we also have our own Golden Calves.
Matthew, like Mark, tells us that after the temptation in the wilderness angels came and were ministering to Jesus. What does that mean? We’re not really sure. Perhaps they cared for his physical needs after spending so much time in the wilderness, hungry and exhausted. Certainly, Jesus had also felt the full force of Satan’s temptations and stood up to each one of them … unlike you and me. You and I fall so soon, even before we feel the full brunt of temptation’s force.
Mark adds this interesting detail: “And he was with the wild animals.” Now what was that all about? Again, we’re not really sure. I can’t read Mark’s mind, but just like the Transfiguration was a preview of Easter and the Resurrection on the Last Day, I contend that Mark’s description of the aftermath of the temptation of Jesus is a preview of Paradise restored and the peaceful reign of the Messiah that he came to bring.
In God’s perfect creation, Adam was with the wild animals. Lions and tigers and bears (oh, my) were no threat to him. All was peaceful. Along comes Satan. He tempts Adam and his bride to disobey God’s command to not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam falls into sin, bringing death and disorder into creation. It’s no longer perfect. It’s broken. Mankind’s perfect relationship with God is destroyed. Adam’s sin brings separation from God. And that means death in this life, including death from wild animals. Including death at the hands of one’s own brother, as soon occurred east of Eden. And it means death in the life to come, that is, eternal separation from God and his love. Adam is expelled from the Garden of Eden, and God placed the cherubim – angels – with a flaming sword guarding the entrance to the Garden and the way to the Tree of Life.
Centuries later, the promised Savior arrives on the scene. He does battle with Satan, not in a garden, but in the desert. He is the Second Adam who does not fall into Satan’s trap. He remains faithful and obedient to his Heavenly Father. Angels appear not as a threat to keep him away from the Tree of Life, but to serve him. And he is with the wild animals, even as the First Adam was before the Fall. The wilderness with Jesus in it becomes a picture of Paradise, the way things were meant to be. True Man is obedient to his Heavenly Father. True God is served by his creation.
This is also a picture of the future peaceful reign of the Messiah. In Isaiah 43, the Lord describes it this way: “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches” (Is. 43:19-20). And in Isaiah 65, he says, “Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind … The wolf and the lamb shall graze together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food” (Is. 65:17, 25).
A wild beast was caught in a thicket and served as a substitute for Isaac. The Lamb of God was nailed to the Tree of Life on Calvary and served as our substitute. He goes to death. We go free. There he trampled upon the wild animals that signify all evil forces, as we sang earlier, “You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot” (Introit, Ps. 91:13). Back in the Garden of Eden, God declared that dust would be the serpent’s food. The devil would grovel for the rest of his existence until his head would be crushed at the cross by our victorious Savior. Yes, the devil still prowls around looking for someone to devour, but he is a defeated enemy. The serpent has been defanged. In Christ Jesus, he has no power to accuse you of your sin or to defeat you. The victory of Jesus belongs to you. Your baptism is the guarantee of that.
On this side of the veil, though, we still feel the effects of sin. We are both tempted and tested. How can we tell the difference? The word for “tempt” and “test” is the same in the Greek. Take heart in what the Apostle James writes. He says, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:13-15). God gives tests only to strengthen our faith, never to tear us down. Temptations never come from God. They come from Satan, the sinful world around us, and our sinful flesh. Satan wants to use those temptations to drive us to unbelief and despair. God will never do this. He will, though, permit trials in our life to draw us closer to him and strengthen our faith.
But what do we do when real temptation comes? Draw strength from God’s Word. Run to the Sacrament where Jesus is present for you with his Body and Blood to “strengthen and preserve you in body and soul to life everlasting.” Know that you are not left to fight the battle alone. The author of Hebrews, in chapter 2, says, “Because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18). In chapter 4, he says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we might receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16). And Hebrews 12 teaches that a great cloud of witnesses surrounds you, the saints of old, cheering you on from the sidelines. They fought the good fight. They finished the race. They know how difficult it was. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us , looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2).And when that “wild animal” that is our old sinful nature takes over and we do fall to temptation, this does not call for perpetual hand-wringing or self-flagellation. Simply listen to Jesus who says, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Turn from your sin. Trust in Jesus who died for the ways in which you have fallen to temptation. Receive forgiveness in his victory in the wilderness and all the way to the cross and the empty tomb. Come to the altar to the presence of Jesus. This is our Paradise in the wilderness.