If every copy of the Bible were destroyed, and we had only the single page which tells the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, it would be enough.Fyodor Dostoevsky
The story that explains why Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness was even necessary is told in Genesis 3. It is the account of Adam and Eve’s very first sin. And it was because of that sin that God said to Adam: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground. For out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:19)
For those of you who were able to attend Ash Wednesday worship, these words should sound familiar. We heard those same words as we received the ashes on our foreheads: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Ash Wednesday is always an emotional day for me. It is always very moving for me to speak these words to you. I shared in an article this week my memory of my very first Ash Wednesday as a pastor, at my first congregation outside Brooksville, Florida. My children were just 6 and almost 3 at the time, And it was very emotional to place those ashes on their foreheads, and speak those words to them.
In the years since, of course, I have placed ashes on the foreheads of people from every station of life. People who were dying of cancer at the time. People who had recently experienced the death of a loved one. I have placed ashes on babies who cannot even understand what I am doing. I have placed on ashes of people with whom I have had disagreements. I have placed them on people that I have never before met. It is an intimate act, and a poignant one. And it would be heartbreaking, but for one simple fact: the ashes that I place on your foreheads are always placed in the shape of the cross. And because of that, this somber mark becomes a symbol of hope.
Yes, we begin the Season of Lent by reminding ourselves that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. But it is a cross-shaped reminder, done with the conviction that when we bind ourselves to Jesus, we bind ourselves not just to his death, but also to his resurrection.
The Crafty Serpent
Adam and Eve did not have to return to dust, of course. They did so because they disobeyed God. The serpent convinced them that if they ate the forbidden fruit they would become like God. So they ate. And they returned to the dust from which they came.
But Adam and Eve aren’t the only ones who have disobeyed God. They are not the only ones who have faced the devil’s temptations and fallen. After Adam and Eve, there was their son, Cain. Who killed his own brother out of jealousy. By the time Noah came along, God was ready to erase this world and start again. But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord, so we were given another chance. After Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all had their struggles. And Joseph and his brothers, too. When Moses led God’s people into the wilderness, you might say it became pretty easy hunting for the crafty serpent. And once God’s people made it to the Promised Land? Remember Saul? And David?
Over and over again in Scripture, even the heroes of our faith succumbed to the temptations of the devil. There were moments of great faith, to be sure. Moments when God’s people looked the tester in the face and said no. But all too often, sin won out. The devil won out. In fact, ever since Adam and Eve brought sin into the world, humanity has found itself captive to sin, and unable to free ourselves.
To put it simply, we are not strong enough to overcome evil on our own. None of us are. No one throughout history. Except for one.
And that is what makes today’s gospel reading (Matthew 4:1-11) so important. Because it shows Jesus doing what no one has ever been able to do: Locked in battle with Satan at his strongest, and emerging victorious. Resisting his every temptation. Passing his every test. For himself, but also for us.
It is no wonder that the great Christian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky is reported to have said that: “If every copy of the Bible were destroyed, and we had only the single page which tells the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, it would be enough.”
The story of Jesus overcoming the devil’s temptations in the wilderness is enough. Because it shows that, what Adam and Eve could not do in the Garden of Eden, and what God’s people could not do over and over again, and what you and I cannot do on our own, Jesus was able to do. And because Jesus has won the war over the devil, you and I can go to battle against him without fear.
What Did Jesus Do?
So what does Jesus’ victory in the wilderness teach us? As we get ready to go into the wilderness of Lent for these next forty days, what can we learn from Jesus? First, before it ever shows us what to do, it shows us what Jesus did. For us.
You remember when the expression, “What Would Jesus Do?” was popular? I do. It’s a good question. But I also think that another question is just as important to ask: “What Did Jesus Do? What did Jesus do in the wilderness? He defeated sin, death and the devil, for us. It took another battle, of course, on the cross. But Jesus has defeated these powers. He has won the war. And because he has won the war, we can boldly enter the battle against the sin that still clings to us.
That’s what this Season of Lent is all about, after all. We enter the battle against the sin in our life, trusting that Jesus is right there alongside us. We look to him as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. And we learn from him, from his words and from his deeds. We learn what he did, and we try to pattern our life after his.
The Power of God’s Word
So, what do we learn from this story of Jesus in the wilderness? First, the timing of this story is important. It happens right after Jesus is baptized. And I think that teaches us something important. Baptism, this teaches us, doesn’t preserve us from temptation. It prepares us for temptation. By uniting us with Jesus. But, what then?
Then, this story of Jesus in the wilderness shows us how – with his help and with him at our side – we can overcome our own temptations. Let’s take these three temptations in turn.
The first is the temptation to turn the stones into loaves bread. So, Jesus goes into the wilderness, and fasts for forty days, and he is famished. And then the tempter came. That’s usually the case, isn’t it? He waits until we are vulnerable. Sick, or hungry, or tired, or lonely, or discouraged. Vulnerable.
If you are the Son of God, the Devil says (and the Devil knows that Jesus is), command these stones to become bread. What is the temptation here? Is it for Jesus to misuse his power? Or is it for him to be a little selfish? Or is it for him to lose faith that God his Father would provide for Him? Whatever the temptation might be, the way to deal with it is the same: To turn to God’s Word.
Jesus quotes Deuteronomy. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” In times in our life when we are vulnerable, for whatever reason, there is nothing better we can do than turn to God’s Word. God’s Word provides food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, rest for the weary, courage for the frightened, hope for the discouraged, and eternal life for the dying. It offers all that and more. But what it offers to us, more than anything else, is Jesus.
But the Devil Knows the Bible, Too!
I think that’s important to remember. Because today’s Gospel Reading does not just offer us encouragement to stay rooted in God’s Word. It also offers us a word of warning about God’s Word. Simply put, the Devil knows the Bible, too. He quotes the Bible to Jesus in the second temptation. The Devil quotes Psalm 91, a beautiful Psalm that promises God’s protection to God’s people.
If the Devil can quote the Bible, what chance do we have? And that’s why it is important to remember that what the Bible offers us, above all else, is Jesus. The Word made flesh. Who was born for us. And lived with us. And died for us. The one undying gift that the Bible offers us, after all is said and done, is God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
The Final Temptation
OK, there is one more temptation for Jesus. He is taken to a very high mountain, and shown all the kingdoms of the world, and offered them all instantly if he would only fall down and worship Satan. We might not at first think so, but this, too, must have been awfully tempting. Jesus must have known that his quiet, self-giving way of obedience to death on the cross would not be the quickest way to grow the Kingdom of God. How much easier would it have been for him to worship Satan, and be given all the kingdoms of the world? And think of how much good he could do with all that power!
I think this is a temptation that is often repeated in politics these days. It is always tempting to use politics to try and force what we think is right on our world. Politics are important, to be sure, but they are never most important. We are tempted to place our ultimate hope in politics or power, just as Jesus was. But that is not the way of the cross; it is not the way of God. We are to worship the Lord our God and serve only Him.
One day every knee will bend and every tongue proclaim that Jesus is Lord. And one day he will judge all the nations of the earth. But only after he has died for the sins of the world. Only after he has emptied himself of his divinity and become obedient, even unto death. And in the meantime, it is our task to bend our knees and proclaim to the world that Jesus alone is Lord.
Closing – Invitation to Lent
“If every copy of the Bible were destroyed, and we had only the single page which tells the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, it would be enough.”
This is my hope and prayer for you and me this day. That this story is always enough. And that it gives us the courage to face our own temptations, to spend time in our own wildernesses, knowing that Jesus is at our side, trusting that he will never leave us or forsake us, and believing that he has already won the victory. Thanks be to God. Amen