Matthew 4:1-11 (New Revised Standard Version)
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying 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.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
It’s hard to believe that it was only a month ago that I was in Israel. I want to thank all of you again who prayed for me and for the group as we travelled. When I returned, several people here let me know how concerned they had been — worried for me as I journeyed through such a conflicted area of our world. I received a frantic text one day while we were there, asking if we were anywhere close to where a rocket, launched from the Gaza Strip, had landed in Israel. But we didn’t even know about it! I think everyone in our group commented at some point during the trip how safe we felt. We didn’t feel anxious or worried.
Well… I say that… but there was actually one big item of anxiety weighing on my mind for the weeks leading up to the trip, and for the first week I was in Israel. Because I knew that on our first Saturday there, February 4th, our itinerary had us visiting the Jordan River. And I was nervous about it, because I was the only ordained Elder on the trip. That meant that if anyone wanted to be submerged in the Jordan River to be baptized or to remember their baptism, it was up to me. I was going to have to go into that River.
Folks, one of the reasons I was so happy to move back to South Florida is that I am a cold weather wimp! I hate being cold. And the average temperature of the Jordan River in February is… 45 degrees!!! Oh man, I knew that it was wrong — just wrong — for a pastor to be praying for people to not want to be dunked in the Jordan. So I didn’t. Not quite. But I did kind of skirt around the issue in my prayers. Which is ridiculous, because God knew what I was really asking.
So, the morning arrived, and like so many of the things that cause us anxiety, there was nothing to worry about. It was a beautiful, chilly day, and our group of 23 pilgrims clambered onto the bus for the trip from Nazareth to the Jordan. No one was interested on going in to the water.
Our tour guide Iyad didn’t take us to the familiar, very crowded tourist area, with its metal guide rails and convenient steps. Instead, our bus turned off the road, and slowly meandered our way down a bumpy dirt road.
The bus stopped at a stand of trees, through which we could see the river. Then, slowly, together we walked down a slick embankment, our feet making the first impressions of the day in the mud, and arrived at the shore of the Jordan.
It was beautiful. Peaceful. Our group, who had been chattering away on the bus ride, was suddenly completely quiet.
As we stood there, taking it in, we read Matthew 3:13-17:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. “The Beloved.” Agapétos in Greek, one who is deeply cherished.
This moment is recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And in each, it marks the beginning of Jesus’ official ministry. And, in each, immediately following his baptism, Jesus journeys alone to the “wilderness” for 40 days, where he prepares his mind and spirit for the challenging tasks that lay ahead of him, and where he is tempted by Satan.
It was another early morning when we drove the distance from Jerusalem to the Wadi Qelt and the Judean desert. Before being in Israel, I had always imagined the scene of Jesus’ temptation to be like the deserts in the American southwest: sparsely dotted with cacti, flat, stretching out to the horizon.
It was still dark when we arrived. We carefully made our way — single-file — down a long ledge, with sharp drop-off to the left down to the dry riverbed. When we reached the end of the plateau, we stopped and watched as the sun rose over the horizon.
It was spectacular.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, we were able to start picking out more and more details of the land around us. It was both more desolate and more beautiful than I had imagined.
I stood — for what felt like hours — looking out over that vista, remembering how, fresh from his baptism, Jesus had not launched immediately, full-tilt into ministry, but how he had been drawn aside for a time of preparation.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all call this place erémos: an uncultivated, unpopulated, deserted, solitary place of deep quiet and loneliness. It was there, in that secluded location, that Jesus was tempted.
Verses 2 and 3 of today’s scripture: He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
Stones. They are incredibly plentiful in the wilderness of Israel. After 40 days of fasting, Jesus was hungry. And so Satan hits him where it hurts the most at the time — his grumbling stomach. “Turn these stones, all lying here, readily available to just reach out and take. Turn them into bread, and satisfy the gnawing in your gut.”
This temptation, it’s not just about being hungry. It’s about putting our physical, temporary urges above everything else. Our culture pretty much feeds into this temptation. If we want it, we should have it. Self-denial? Makes no sense. Why would you choose to be uncomfortable?
There is a popular photography series called “Humans of New York” by a young man named Brandon Stanton. It’s pretty fascinating. He takes pictures of random people on the streets of New York City, and interviews them about their lives. One picture I ran into a while back is of a young woman in a train station.
This is what she said: “I wish I’d partied a little less. People always say, ‘be true to yourself.’ But that’s misleading, because there are two selves. There’s your short term self, and there’s your long term self. And if you’re only true to your short term self, your long term self slowly decays.”
That is exactly what this temptation of Jesus is all about. Jesus is being tempted to choose temporary comfort, and sacrifice the long-term goal.
The next temptation has Jesus being torn away from the wilderness, and placed on the highest part of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The actual Temple in Jerusalem doesn’t exist any longer. It was destroyed in 70AD. At the original site there now stands an enormous Islamic shrine, called the Dome of the Rock. The picture you’re looking at is a scale model at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying 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.’”
You are the Son of God, through whom all things were created. Use your power, your influence, to ensure your perfect security. Don’t let this world harm you, Satan is saying.
Knowing what lay ahead of him, can you imagine how tempting this would have been for Jesus? Because this world? This world would harm him. This world would crush him, torture him, mock him, destroy him, murder him. At any point, he could have stopped it. He could chosen security.
But, instead, he chose to become defenseless. He chose to be vulnerable, to give of himself selflessly.
The third temptation took him even higher.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
The first full day of our time in Jerusalem, we went to the top of Mount Scopus, with a beautiful, panoramic view of the city. Jesus knew that he would be rejected, that his authority would be refused. So Satan showed Jesus the kingdoms of the world, and offers him an easy way out.
Just worship me, Satan says, and I’ll just hand all this over to you. I’ll give you the authority. I’ll give you the power. Just bow down to me, and it’ll all be so simple!
But it’s deeply ironic. Jesus is offered the kingdoms of this world. But Jesus holds within himself the Kingdom, capital T, capital K.
Jesus rejects the offer of temporary, counterfeit authority for the real, lasting authority that comes from relationship with his Father God.
Jesus rejects these temptations that appeal to his very human urges for comfort, security, and authority.
Now, please notice that each of these things are, at their core, good things. A temptation that is purely evil, just completely wrong and harmful — is pretty easy to identify and to turn away from. The ingeniousness of these temptations is that they aren’t all bad!
It is a good thing to care for your body, to eat and drink. God designed us so that we must eat and drink to live!
It is a good thing be secure, to not live in constant fear for your life.
It is a good thing to have a degree of power, to be able to make decisions and to act, to be able to make a difference in the world around us.
But… our culture teaches us to seek comfort, to seek security, to seek authority. At any cost. By following Jesus, by being Christ-followers, we are choosing to actively rebel against all that, seeking instead to follow Jesus.
Comfort. Security. Authority.
At the edge of the rugged wilderness that morning in Israel, as the sun began to warm our chilly bodies, we took Communion. It was one of the most overwhelming moments of the entire trip for me.
Remembering Jesus’ bold refusal to bow to temptation. And also remembering what consequences that refusal had for him.
Jesus, who gave up comfort,
allowing himself to experience pain and to suffer.
Jesus, who gave up security,
putting himself in the hands of those
who could do him harm.
Jesus, who gave up authority,
without a fight
to death on a cross.
And this is what hit me: Jesus went out into that wilderness, into his ministry, his ears and spirit still ringing with his Father God’s love as voiced at his baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Agapétos, a title for Jesus, the Beloved. But, do you know… it’s also the word used for followers of Christ in the New Testament. Agapétos — we are beloved by God. And that, after all, is why Jesus came: to show us how loved we are.
We walk out into our world surrounded by the remembrance of God’s love for us.
We walk through this Lent, this season of self-denial and reflection and repentance, supported by the promise of God’s love.
We walk through our daily lives, at times sacrificing our own comfort, our own security, our own authority, to follow Jesus, because we rest in the comfort, security, and authority of God’s love for us.
And I pray as you walk out into your life today, into this world, that you would hold in your heart the knowledge of the fact that you are agapétos.
You are beloved.