03.05.2017 Preaching Text: “And the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” (Matthew 4:11)
In today’s reading from Matthew we encounter a not unfamiliar situation or experience. Perhaps I should explain.
Here Jesus’ baptism is followed immediately by his “temptation in the wilderness.” In other words, a glorious spiritual high is followed in short order by a period of testing and soul-searching.
Within the church’s liturgical year, this reading follows last week’s transfiguration story. There, too, a glorious spiritual high is followed by an immediate threat, as if on cue.
In last week’s story, Jesus and the disciples are not allowed to stay on the mountaintop, basking in the joy-filled awe of the moment, but are climb back down the mountain, back into everyday life, and, in Jesus’ case, to the cross.
This mimics, in some sense, our own faith journey. In its purest form, there are those who, having recently converted to Christ, attempt to live out their faith with a bit too much enthusiasm, a bit too much triumphalist zeal, those who wear their newfound faith on their sleeve.
Yet, as we know, every life of faith will be tested, whether that faith be newborn or lifelong. No faith shall forever remain unchallenged or untested. It just goes with the territory.
Which is one way of saying that the task of keeping our focus and life-energies on godly things will at some point challenge us to our core. And when challenged, temptations to abandon our faith will abound, especially in times of great distress.
In Matthew’s account, after “40 days and 40 nights” in the wilderness, Jesus finds himself in profound need. (By the way, in biblical symbolism, the number “40” simply means “a long time.”)
It is precisely at this moment that the devil sees an opening. For we know it’s relatively easy to have faith when life is good. In the Book of Job, for example, the devil’s wager with Jahweh is precisely this, that Job will abandon his faith once he experiences genuine loss and deprivation.
For the devil is, we are told, altogether crafty, knowing exactly when and how to exploit our vulnerabilities, as he does here with Jesus. Here he appeals to Jesus’ well-known religious sensibilities. He uses a lot of God-talk and even quotes scripture, something he knows is important to Jesus. It’s not for nothing that the old saying rings true – that the devil is indeed a good theologian.
This, he believes, is Jesus’ weakest point, an area he can exploit effectively. But despite Jesus’ extreme suffering, he rejects the devil’s ploy. Offered food, power, and comfort, all attractive and alluring, Jesus chooses instead to wait.
But for what? For the Lord. He chooses to endure his suffering, deprivation, and perhaps even fear and uncertainty, trusting that God shall indeed save him, when or how he does not know.
Jesus listens to all the God-talk from the devil but counters with godly truths. He stands firm in his belief that this truth will prevail over any and all of life’s momentary afflictions. He is willing to endure in faith.
We all know how this goes. For how often have we been tempted to lose faith and take the easy way out? When faced with those moments when God seems absent, or when to trust in God’s truth seems but mere folly, or when others would persuade us to see things a different way, in all these circumstances, are we fully prepared to stand up for the truth, knowing we very well may suffer for it?
In short, we all are familiar with the wilderness experience, in one way or another. We know too of the many wilderness stories of saints and heroes who defied the odds and stuck to their principles against formidable opposition and hardship.
But, of course, it’s not just storied saints and heroes who face such trials. We all do. As Christians, we will know those moments of soul-searching deprivation and uncertainty, those moments when we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory with little firsthand experience to go on.
It is perhaps especially in these wilderness moments that we need to stick to our principles, stick to our beliefs, stick with the truths born of faith, and, most importantly, stick with the promise God has made to us.
And that promise that is: no matter what befalls us in this life, God is with us (“Immanuel”). With this abiding trust we are free to remain “steadfast and immovable” in its truth, especially when life gets strange and unfamiliar.
For when we experience difficult situations, the tendency is to question basic life-assumptions. Why me? is perhaps the most common one. Or, why has God abandoned me? Or, why have I come down with this illness? Or, why did my loved one die? These are only but a few of the many questions we find ourselves asking in the wilderness.
In these times it’s perfectly natural to wonder whether our faith ever made sense. After all, it doesn’t seem to be doing us a lot of good right now. Maybe we were mistaken. Maybe we just wanted to believe such things. And if God is in fact real, why has he allowed these things to happen to me?
In such wilderness moments we become especially vulnerable to the devil’s wiles. Just as Adam and Eve are attracted to the Serpent’s ploy, we too are drawn to the shiny objects that promise relief, power, enjoyment, even acceptance by the “in-crowd,” objects that distract us from the true life to which God calls us.
Biblical scholars have dubbed Jesus the “New Adam,” meaning that, like the first Adam, he is tempted by the devil’s wiles. But unlike the old Adam, he succeeds where the old Adam fails and refuses to take the bait.
In other words, Jesus models for us a new way of being. The idea is that we needn’t fall prey to the devil’s wiles, even at those points of greatest need or vulnerability. For we would choose the way of the new Adam who effectively resists the devil, and chooses the way of God instead.
In chapter 4 of the Book of James, Jesus’ brother writes: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.”
At the conclusion of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation, after the devil has unsuccessfully pulled out all the stops, Jesus says to him, defiantly, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
At this “the devil left him,” writes Matthew, “and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” Amen.