The First Sunday in Lent: Through Death to Life
First Sunday in Lent: Through Death to Life
St. Matthew 4:1-11
by William Klock
In our Gospel from Matthew 4, the Evangelist tells us:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
It was hot and dry and dusty as Jesus made his way from that fertile strip of land along the Jordan up into the Judean wilderness, into that place that the Old Testament calls Yeshimon, which means “devastation”. It’s a land of sand and broken limestone and shingle. The geological activity of the ages has raised up the strata into ridges that twist here and turn there. Everything in between them is filled with dust and jagged rocks, and broken stone shingles that can easily slide out from under foot. Into that hot and desolate wilderness Jesus walked at the Spirit’s prompting. I expect that when he first set out he found beauty in the desert. There was beauty in the layers of rock in that ridge over there. And look at that boulder over there. I wonder how long it’s been balancing like that. And that first night, the sky was absolutely amazing as the sun set over the rocks and the mountains in the distance. But if you’ve ever gone hiking in the desert you know that novelty wears off. Last week I was watching a video made by a bikepacker I follow. He was bicycling the southern California desert and I watched as he made his way through a canyon in the Anza-Borrego desert. He started out in wonder and admiring everything. Everything was beautiful. And it was only twenty miles to the paved road on other side. He’d be there in no time. But almost immediately he bogged down in deep sand for mile after mile and what he thought might take a few hours turned into all day and into the evening. And it was hot and it was dry and he was covered in sweat. And the novelty was gone. And I knew, because we’ve hiked in that same desert and on the way in it’s all beautiful and you stop to admire everything, but on the way out you’re hot and sweat and dusty, your feet hurt from walking over rocks, and you’re tired and hungry and you just want to get back to the car. And I’m sure Jesus felt something like that the further he walked into that wilderness of devastation. But as he put one foot in front of another, as he wiped the sweat from his face, he thought about his forefathers and their wilderness trek from the Red Sea to the promised land. The Lord, the God of Israel, was about to do something very much like that again. A new exodus. And Jesus was at the centre of it. And so he put himself in the place of his people who so badly needed and who so longed for deliverance. Even if no one saw him in the wilderness, he was acting out a prophecy, repeating the life and story of his people and putting himself in their place.
And he found some spot in the middle of that wasteland, maybe where he found a little spring of water in the shade of one of those twisting ridges, maybe there were a few bushes or even a palm tree for a bit of shade. He arranged some rocks and scrub to make a (reasonably) comfortable place to sit or lie or to kneel in prayer. And he communed with God, meditated on the scriptures, pondered the nature of his ministry which was just beginning, and prayed for wisdom to follow the path his Father had set before him and for the strength and grace to follow it to its end. He was preparing to take the role of Israel up himself, to be and to embody the people of God. Where they had failed to be what the Lord had called them to be, Jesus would be faithful. For years he had meditated on his own miraculous birth, he’d heard how people like Simeon and Anna, even is own mother, had seen in him the fulfilment of the Lord’s promises. He meditated on the Scriptures and there he found his messianic calling and worked out what he was to do and even how it would end—and how that end would really be the beginning. And if there was any doubt in his mind, it was driven away in his baptism. Even though he had no need of repentance, he identified himself with his people as he waded into the Jordan to be baptised by John, and when he came up out of the river heaven had opened, the Spirit had descended upon him, and the Lord had spoken, “You are my beloved Son.” Again, that was Israel’s title, given by the Lord in the exodus, after her baptism in the Red Sea. So, now, like Moses, Jesus seeks the solitude of the wilderness for forty days and nights, waiting for the Lord to speak again. But instead, the devil comes to him. I doubt Jesus was surprised by this, after all, if Israel was tempted in the wilderness, he must also be tempted in the wilderness. Matthew writes:
And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” (St. Matthew 4:2-3)
Again, this is how we should expect the story to develop if Jesus is prophetically re-enacting the story of his people. They were tempted in the wilderness and so is he. The devil leverages his hunger. “The Lord has declared you to be his Son. If you believe that’s who you really are, satisfy yourself and turn these stones into bread.” No doubt, Jesus had spent much of those forty days and nights contemplating what it meant to be the Son of God—and probably also pondering why the Spirit wanted the Son of God to be so hungry. But Jesus was obedient. To embody his people and to follow in their footsteps, being faithful at every step where they had failed, that was the Lord’s plan for him. That was the means by which he would redeem his people.
The devil’s temptation here is subtle. He doesn’t tempt Jesus to disobey the Spirit overtly by leaving the desert. He tempts Jesus to turn the rocks into bread—to remake the wilderness itself. And yet Jesus knew that the Spirit had brought him to the wilderness for a reason and to undermine that, however it was done, was to be unfaithful, to be disobedient. It was to reject his Father’s plan. He rebukes the devil with the words of Deuteronomy 8:3.
But he answered, “It is written,
“‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Jesus appeals to the sermon that Moses preached to the Israelites as they were preparing to march into Canaan:
And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 8:2-3)
There was a reason why the Lord allowed the Israelites to be hungry: it demonstrated their faith in his provision. Were they willing to trust him even when it meant hardship? The Lord taught them that there’s more to life than bread. What good is living today if you miss out on the life of the age to come? The Israelites had failed that test, grumbling against Moses and wanting to go back to the fleshpots of Egypt. Now, where Israel failed, Jesus passes the test. He trusts his Father to provide where he has led and shows that he knows that obedience to God’s call is more important than physical comforts and even life itself. If he can’t endure fasting, how will he endure the cross? And Brothers and Sisters, if we can’t endure fasting, how can we expect to live sacrificially as Jesus calls us to live, giving up everything that is not him in faith as we look forward ourselves to the age to come?
Back to Matthew: The devil tries again, taking a different tack.
Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” (Matthew 4:5-6)
Now the devil tempts him to jump from the highest point in Jerusalem, to force God’s hand. Angels would deliver him and all of Israel would recognise him as Messiah. What a temptation this must have been. During those forty days of fasting and prayer, Jesus contemplated that rejection was going to be a significant factor in his ministry. A few would follow, but Jesus would largely be rejected by Israel—and eventually that rejection would culminate in his death. But what if he could prove to all of Israel that he was the Messiah? What if he could side-step the rejection and go straight to the throne? But Jesus knew that this was not his Father’s plan. If he became King that way, he’d be no better than David. There would be no means of redemption for his people. There would be no Spirit poured out on them to renew their hearts. He would be King, but the Lord’s promises to Abraham, to Moses, to the Prophets would go unfulfilled. The nations would know that Israel had a king who worked miracles, but that was never the means by which the gentiles were to be drawn to Israel’s God. They were to be drawn by the display of his faithfulness to his promises.
The devil throws two bits of Psalm 91 at Jesus. It’s a psalm about the Lord’s protection. It sounds good, but it’s not the whole psalm. Other parts of the psalm qualify God’s provision for his people. The first two verses read:
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
The shelter of the Most High is a wonderful place to find oneself, but to live under his protection requires that we first abide in his shadow. He is our “refuge and fortress”, but we put ourselves in his care as we trust in him. In verse 14 the Lord says,
Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name.
The devil loves to plucked portions of Scripture out of context in order to twist their meaning, reminding us of God’s promises of blessing and care, while neglecting to remind us of the need for faith, for holiness, and for obedience. God’s people show their love for him through obedience. Jesus later said, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). The same goes for Jesus’ relationship with his Father. The Lord’s blessings would come only as Jesus walked in faithful obedience.
Jesus rebukes the devil with the words of Deuteronomy 6:16.
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Where Israel had failed, Jesus is again obedient. Israel had tested the Lord. Jesus, instead, expresses his trust in the Lord’s plan, knowing that only through his rejection will the Lord’s promises be fulfilled.
Now, the devil makes one last attempt at dragging Jesus away from the path to the cross. Look at verses 8 and 9:
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Israel, too, was tempted to idolatry in the wilderness and failed—and failed and failed and failed throughout her history. Jesus is tempted as his people were. “All kingdoms of the world will be yours,” the devil says, “just submit to me.” Jesus and the devil both knew that if the Lord’s promises through the prophets were true, Jesus’ lordship would extend beyond Israel to all of Creation. Gabriel had announced to Mary: “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:33). When the Father had spoken at Jesus’ baptism, he had spoken words from Psalm 2 where we also read of the great King:
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possessions. (Psalm 2:8)
The devil again offers Jesus a shortcut to his throne—a shortcut that would bypass the heart of his messianic ministry. Again, Jesus knew that what would bring the nations to his throne was the redemption of Israel through his death and resurrection and the display of the Spirit’s power in the hearts of his people. In these events the nations would see the greatness and the faithfulness of the God of Israel and they would be drawn to give him glory and to submit themselves in faith to the Lord Jesus. That was to be God’s means of welcoming the gentiles into his presence and into his kingdom. And yet, if Jesus followed the devil’s shortcut, there would be no kingdom—at least not the sort of eternal kingdom in which all was set to rights, in which God himself was king, the sort of kingdom that Israel had always looked forward to as the “age to come”.
No, the Lord had charged his people in the wilderness, saying:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might…. It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you—for the Lord your God in your midst is a jealous God. (Deuteronomy 4-5, 13-15a)
Israel had failed. Even in the wilderness, while Moses was on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments, Aaron had led the people as they made and worshiped a golden calf. Most of Israel’s history was marked by the worship of foreign gods. But Jesus responds to the devil’s temptation with the command God had given through Moses:
“Be gone, Satan! For it is written,
“‘You shall worship the Lord your God
and him only shall you serve.’” (Matthew 4:10)
Where Israel failed, Jesus is faithful. He chooses the hard path of obedience that will bring not only kingship, but also redemption. Jesus was destined not only to be King of the Jews, but Lord of all Creation and conqueror of sin and death. For that to happen, evil had to be concentrated all in one place, to rise up to its full height, to do its worst to Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah—so that God could raise him from death, overturn the false verdict the people had announced, and vindicate his Son. Jesus knew that to restore the life of God to his people, the way to inaugurate the age to come in which all would be set to rights, he must first let evil do its worst—he had to walk the path of rejection, suffering, and death. By his faithfulness, Jesus redeemed those in Israel who were faithful to him. By his faithfulness, Jesus created a new people of God in whom God poured out his Spirit. By his faithfulness, Jesus was declared Lord with power and authority. And because of his faithfulness, the nations have seen the faithfulness of Israel’s God and now give him glory as they—as we—submit ourselves to him in faith.
And now we, you and I, walk in faithfulness to the glory of God. As Lent puts before us the suffering of Jesus and reminds us that God’s life for us came through his submission to death, it reminds us that we, too, must die to self and embrace the narrow path, the way that leads to suffering and rejection, in order to know the life of God and of the age to come. We take our first steps down that narrow path as we repent and turn aside from everything that is not Jesus, as we open our hands and let go of everything that is not Jesus, and then take hold of him with both hands in faith, trusting in him for the forgiveness of sins, for the life of the Spirit, and for life in God’s world set to rights. Lent calls us to set aside our distractions so that we might fix our gaze on Jesus, taking up our crosses and following him.
St. Paul warned the Corinthians in our Epistle “not to receive the grace of God in vain”. What a splash of cold water that must have been. They thought they were doing so well, but Paul rebukes them for tolerating sins that horrified even the pagans; for abusing spiritual gifts, using them selfishly rather than to edify the church; for allowing the values of pagan culture to twist their understanding of the gospel; for abusing the Lord’s Supper—the list is long and troubling. Brothers and Sisters, fast and pray these next forty days that the gospel might permeate ever deeper into our hearts and minds, and let us submit ourselves to the renewing and regenerating work of the Spirit. Let us not receive the gospel in vain. Instead, may we each day die to self that we might emerge the other side of death into the life of God and know his glory.
Let’s pray: Lord Jesus Christ, for our sake you fasted forty days and forty nights: give us grace so to discipline ourselves that our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may always obey your will in righteousness and true holiness, to the honour and glory of your name; for you live and reign with the Father and Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.