March 1, 202 | Pastor Tim Dean
Today’s Gospel is about the testing of Jesus. It’s no accident that he ends up in the wilderness – the Spirit leads him there. Rather than seeing this as a temptation scene, where the devil is tempting Jesus to this or that sin, I think this is really a story of testing for Jesus’ identity and mission.
In our story from Matthew today, Jesus is being tested, just like the people Israel were tested when God freed them from slavery and led them into the wilderness.
One of the key bible verses in the background here is Deuteronomy chapter 8, verse 2. Moses is speaking to the people on the cusp of entering the promised land. He addresses why they were led into the wilderness in the first place. Moses says, “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart….” (Deut. 8:2)
So just like the Israelites, Jesus is led into the wilderness, to test his faithfulness to God. He meets a prosecuting attorney, Satan. The figure of Satan in the Old Testament, particularly in the book of Job, is the Accuser, one who asks barbed questions like an attorney cross-examining a witness.
Like all tests, there is a point.
For Jesus the test is this: what does it mean for him to be a son of God?
Jesus has just heard the voice of God, in his baptism, calling him God’s beloved. God says, “You are my son,” and then sends him immediately into the desert to figure out what this means. Three tests await him there.
First, Satan says, “Since you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Satan affirms that he is God’s Son, but suggests that he can use this identity for special privileges, like turning stones into bread, or using power to become popular.
Second, Satan challenges Jesus to use his identity as God’s Son to jump off the highest point of the temple. This raises the stakes quite a bit. The tester asks, “Will you, Jesus, do something foolish to prove how much you trust God?”
The third and the final test goes straight to Jesus’ primary relationship. Satan shows him all the kingdoms of God’s beautiful world. The test is: “Doesn’t your identity mean that you can have all the kingdoms and power of the world? All you need to do is bow down and worship me.”
Satan implies that Jesus can forgo worshipping God, and instead bow before him. In facing each of these tests, Jesus counters by returning and affirming his primary allegiance to God. Jesus affirms that he is a human being who belongs to God.
It is God alone who provides food and daily bread
It is God alone in whom Jesus puts his trust; foolish actions like jumping off the temple only jeopardize that trust. And finally, it is God alone who Jesus worships.
Jesus is like the ancient Israelites who are tested in the wilderness, but Jesus passes the tests. His identity is sharpened and strengthened, and his ministry of teaching, healing and serving begins.
There is good news here for us as we begin this time of testing called Lent. The good news is not that we need to become Jesus, and superhumanly fend off the demonic challenges.
The good news is that we have been joined to Christ in baptism, through his death and resurrection. Nothing can sever this primary relationship. Through Jesus we belong to God and God alone.
Through the strength of this relationship, through God’s promises in baptismal waters, we are called to reject all that inhibits this primary relationship with God and our neighbors. We are called to grow in awareness and in thanksgiving for who we are and whose we are: we are God’s people.
Our test in Lent is: what does it mean to be children who belong to God and God alone?
Surely one meaning is that we reject using power and resources to dominate or exploit others. It means that we reject ways of violence that are contrary to Jesus’ path of non-violence and love.
Yet another tragic shooting took place on Ash Wednesday, this time too close to home, at the Molson Coors brewery in Milwaukee. We certainly need to keep in our hearts the employees of this brewery, their families, and those who have lost their lives. We also need to reject a culture of using weapons and violence to deal with anger and conflict.
We don’t know what was going on in the life of the man who lashed out at his co-workers. But it seems like violence became his way of dealing with inner pain and turmoil.
Jesus helps us to see a different way. Jesus helps us to see our primary identity: created, redeemed, loved and cherished by God.
To be a child of God means that we rely on God and God’s community to provide help when we are in trouble. To be a child of God means that we can trust this relationship, and not do reckless actions that hurt ourselves and others. To be a child of God means that we acknowledge God alone as the source of all life.
Testing is the gift of Lent, and test practices in this wilderness help to nourish our relationship with God and others. In praying, we can hear God’s voice of love more clearly. In fasting, we admit our creaturely needs, and see others as needy like us. In giving away money, we realize that we can depend on others on this journey.
In our time of testing, we will realize that Jesus is with us, and even when we mess up or fail, he will not abandon us.
By defining his identity as “Son of God” not by privilege or power, but by obedience to God, Jesus has already begun his journey to the cross. By giving up his life, in love, Jesus shows us what God’s ways look like. And in being raised from the dead, Jesus assures us that he will be with us forever.
As we go out into the wilderness and hear challenging, sometimes pointed questions, we have this promise: we are not alone. We belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. We have a primary relationship with Christ that has stood and stands up to every single test we face.