Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (St. Matthew 4:1).
The verse which begins today’s Gospel reading simply assumes a reality I fear very few Western Christians actually believe. Have we ever really confronted the idea that Jesus, as soon as He is baptized and publicly set apart as the Son of God, is led by the Holy Spirit into fasting and mortal combat with the most evil creature in existence? St. Matthew tells us the first Trinitarian baptism doesn’t lead to temporal peace or comfort or stability or any of the other modern promises which tear baptism away from the transcendent and eternal and make it sound more like one more experience or possession: as if savvy consumers face a choice between white-water rafting in Aspen or the baptismal slide at Authentic Church USA. But, in today’s Gospel, Jesus, whose path every true Christian follows, immediately moves from the symbolic burial and resurrection of baptism into conflict with the forces of darkness. Worse, it isn’t the Devil who drags Jesus away from the Jordan River; no, it’s the Holy Spirit who drops Jesus into the wilderness to suffer for the sake of His salvation mission. What do we make of this? Isn’t Christianity supposed to be something that makes my life a little easier? Isn’t Christianity supposed to be the product I turn to when I need a pick-me up or a blast of nostalgia or whatever reasoning our “Christiany” culture uses to neuter Christianity and domesticate it into one more place for us to be served? One sees this mindset starkly in the neighborhood message boards on places like Facebook where, in between asking for recommendations for restaurants and dog groomers, people will ask for churches which meet certain criteria like, ‘non-judgmental and with good music.’ One never sees anyone asking to find a church where they can be in the real presence of the Living God or a church where they can live and die in the divinely promised grace of God’s Word and Sacraments. No one asks to find a church where the Holy Spirit will rip them from the comforts of the dying world and place them in holy suffering for the benefit of their eternal soul. Make no mistake, we have been trained to place our tastes and needs above the gracious gifts of God, the experience above the sacrifice, the fake above the real.
It is no accident then that Satan attacks our Lord in the wilderness by pushing on these same buttons—attacking the goodness of a God who would redirect human suffering for glory. After all, Jesus is engaged in the mighty act of proving God’s righteousness wherein He, through His 40 day fast in the desert, is reliving and rewriting our human past. Jesus is the second Adam who this time trusts in His Father, even though He is dying in the unforgiving wilderness rather than thriving in a lush garden. Jesus is the second Moses, fasting 40 days before receiving the law, except this time, the Law Giver Himself will give the new law of liberty in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is the very embodiment of the salvation which comes from Israel, except this time, His wilderness wandering will be a march from victory to victory rather than failure to failure. But the Devil doesn’t care about human history being redeemed before his eyes; no, Satan laughs at it all and offers the same kinds of temptations he offers to us and our children, our parents and their parents. In the same way, a Christian standing firmly in the apostolic tradition lives for Spiritual union with Christ and the Holy Scriptures coursing through his ears and heart, while the average person laughs at such nonsense while gagging on the sex and food and drugs and distractions they blindly believe will bring their lives meaning. Do they know that when they turn to these decaying things instead of the Living God they are merely responding to the same old temptations brought against Jesus in the wilderness? No, of course not, but do we?
Our Lord certainly felt these mighty temptations; He truly is hungry, in fact He is starving, and all He has to do is obey Satan, and He will eat and be comfortable (the highest good of our fallen world), but here again, Jesus is faced with the same questions which so many church shoppers and churchgoers are faced with today: are the promises and sacraments of God enough, or do we need God to prove His love through miracles on demand? If God leads us to testing and conflict, will we turn on Him and demand proof that he loves us—a proof greater than the adoption sealed in our baptism? Jesus answers, ‘No,’ and so He suffers because suffering for the truth is what it means to be God’s Son in this evil world; suffering for the truth is what we ask for when we claim the baptism which separates us from the world as sons and daughters of God—marking us forever as combatants in the war between good and evil. We may not want this fight, and if so, we know where the door is, but don’t think our great enemy will accept our surrender so easily; he knows where we live, and he glories in our pain and misery. Jesus, weak and vulnerable in the sinful wilderness of Adam’s making, leans on His Father’s holy promises; He leans on the truth, and in that moment, as in all moments, it is more than enough.
Our Lord’s defeat of the first temptation should drive us to the House of God to be fed by the Word and Sacraments He so highly values. The second temptation reveals the sinister brilliance of Satan: Jesus preaches God’s word to the Devil, and so Satan preaches right back to Him—quoting from Psalm 91 in a way which shows us that knowing the Scriptures is not the same thing as submitting oneself to their author. We are reminded of St. James’ words, ‘You believe there is one God; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!’ (James 2:19). It isn’t increased knowledge about God which brings salvation; no, the faithful Christian increases his knowledge of God because he wants to know more about the God he loves. But for the truly committed evil creatures, like Satan, they learn about God in order to attack Him more efficiently. As an analogy, think of the mercenary who works out every day and then uses His strength to harm the weak or the abortionist who studies human anatomy in order to more efficiently murder unborn children or the conman who develops his wit and charm to scam the ignorant. Evil is perfectly happy to use our strengths for its purposes, and so here, the Devil again wants Jesus to submit to his demonic commands rather than trust in the sonship God the Father declared at His baptism. This temptation should dispel us of any lingering idea that only good men quote the Bible, but again, when we treat the Bible or Christianity as a product or experience to be manipulated for our own selfish needs, we are merely following the guidance of the Evil One. When we rip verses out of their context and attach beliefs and ideas outside of the guiding oversight of the Body of Christ, we open ourselves up to contemplating something like Satan’s ‘leap of faith.’ Jesus, however, refuses to leap because He has something greater than this blindness; Jesus has the promise and love of His Father, and so He can trust in the protection promised in Ps. 91 without blasphemously testing the Source of all Being. The Father will soon enough show the truth of this Psalm when He raises Jesus from the dead on the third day, and just like for us, the assured hope of the resurrection is all anyone needs to persevere.
It is, however, the final temptation which should really rock us to our core, for Satan—having failed to tempt Jesus through weakness or strength—now rests His rebellious tongue on Christ’s heart. Satan says to Jesus, ‘All these [people] I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’ (St. Matthew 4:9). St. John tells us Jesus came to save the world because He loved the world. Here, the Devil is offering Jesus the chance to save the world without the Cross; Satan is offering Jesus the chance to save all the men and women under evil’s curse without the terrible suffering of Good Friday. All Jesus has to do is worship the fallen angel who smiles when babies die, laughs when women are raped, and glories in all the broken dreams of the damned. That’s it. All one needs to have glory without suffering in this evil world is to worship the Devil, and it should be no surprise to us that most humans sign up for this plan; it should be no surprise that all humans would sign up for this plan without the Holy Spirit remaking us through Word and Sacrament. Whenever we say, ‘The ends justify the means,’ all we are saying is we really don’t believe we need the Cross; all we are saying is we really don’t believe God when He says, ‘Follow me, and I will save you.’ When for whatever reason we choose to be practical and sensible rather than trust in the promises of God, we are simply bending the knee to the Prince of the World rather than its King. Why do we think the first Christians faced death rather than sacrifice a pinch of incense to worship the Roman emperor? Surely, it could be argued, they would have been better served to worship the emperor with this minor gesture so that they could go and live their lives and raise their children in peace. The frightening reality 21st century Christians must face is that the person who makes this argument sounds infinitely more like the Devil than the Man who said, ‘Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve”’ (St. Matthew 4:10). Either Satan takes the things we love and uses them to make us His slaves, or we spit in his face and follow Christ to the Cross. There is no third way, there is only the Way of the Cross.
Christian, Lent is all about clutching the cross Christ gave us more closely to our chests. We carry the cross, we carry the sacrificial love of God, because it is there that Christ defeated Satan forever, and so we need not fear him nor his demonic and human agents. I pray you use these 40 days to search your hearts and find those compromises and false loves which drag you from the full life of the new, righteous humanity. I pray you find them, and with the Holy Spirit’s strength, I pray you kill them all. Trust in your baptismal sign and seal, trust in the promises of God, trust in the victory of Christ. There is nothing else.