The Gospel reading recounts the faithfulness of Jesus, who steadfastly resisted all temptation in the desert. After being baptized by John in the Jordan, when heaven was opened, the Spirit of God descended like a dove and landed on Jesus, and a voice from heaven declared, "This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased," Jesus was led by the Spirit not to the temple but to the desert, not to be praised but to be put to the test.
In the desert, Jesus fasted for forty days. Both "fasting" and "forty" are Lenten images. Like Jesus' time in the wilderness, the forty days of Lent are "fast days" in the broad sense of times of discipline and self‑restraint. In biblical terms forty symbolizes fullness—a span of time sufficient to accomplish what needs to take place. In fact, the number forty is a kind of biblical shorthand for much of sacred history. Jesus enduring temptation in the wilderness for forty days sounds all sorts of biblical echoes. Rain fell in the days of Noah for forty days and nights. Moses and Elijah (the Law and the Prophets) each fasted in the wilderness for forty days. Nineveh was given forty days to repent. And, perhaps most important, Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years prior to entering the land of promise. In the early centuries of the church, the forty days before Easter were considered sufficient time for converts to make their final, intensive preparation for baptism. This was a period of prayer and fasting modeled after Jesus' own preparation for ministry in the wilderness, though Jesus' preparation took place after he was baptized.
In the wilderness for forty days, Jesus is tempted by the devil. Regardless of whether or not there is a literal devil, the point is that Jesus struggled with serious and nagging questions about his identity and mission. As we do, both as Christians and as the Church. While the voice from heaven may have declared, "This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased," the tempter counters, "If you are the Son of God!" It's a biblical echo of Eden, where the serpent asks, "Did God really say that?"
All three temptations are attempts to undermine the kind of Messiah that Jesus will be. The devil first tempts Jesus to use his power as the Son of God to feel good, to satisfy his own needs. After forty days of fasting, Jesus is hungry and so the devil entices him to turn stones into bread. If Jesus does turn stones into loaves, Jesus will be the kind of messiah that uses his power as Son of God for his own ends rather than God's. We are reminded that, during the forty years in the wilderness, Israel used their status as God's people to ask God to satisfy their hunger and God provided manna from heaven. But Jesus counters that feeling good and being satisfied aren't enough. We do not live by bread alone. We need the Word of God.
As individuals, as congregations, and certainly as a society, we too are tempted to put our own survival, our own comfort, and our own needs ahead of God's will. Pick a topic to reflect upon in the sermon—worship, outreach, stewardship, social justice, economics, marriage and family relationships. What do we do when our comfort, needs, and survival conflict with God's will? What does our prayer life look like this Lent?
The tempter next entices Jesus to put God to the test by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple so that angels can lift him up in their hands. God is to prove that God is God by doing something miraculous. We are reminded that during the forty years in the wilderness, Israel used its status as God's people to test God by asking God to satisfy their thirst and God provided water from the rock. But Jesus declares, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." The message is twofold. Do not tempt the Lord your God and do not tempt Jesus, God's beloved Son.
We, too, put God to the test. We, too, want God to prove God's identity by doing something miraculous, something Godly. Reflect upon the ways we violate standards of health and safety and count on God to pull us through unscathed. Reflect upon the things we say and do to keep God safely within our understanding. The God I know certainly would or wouldn't. What do we do with our temptation to feel righteous or to feel right? What do we do with our tendency to cling tightly to traditions, doctrines, and practices in order to maintain the delusion that God has given us all the answers? Select an issue for reflection—ecumenism, the interpretation of scripture, gay and lesbian issues. What do we do when our answers and understandings are challenged or rejected? How are we tempted to put God to the test?
Third, the tempter offers Jesus "all the realms of the world and their splendor." Jesus can have the power of the status quo on his side—military might, economic energy, entertainment, instant gratification, celebrity, status, and success. There's only one catch: "Fall down and worship me." We recall that, during the forty years in the wilderness, Israel worshiped after other gods. But Jesus does not. Jesus declares, "You shall worship the Lord your God, and God only shall you serve."
That the devil claims both to posses this power of the world and to be able to hand it over to Jesus reminds us of all the ways the power of our world has been and is severely abused. The temptation is to do what it takes to feel secure. So how do we compromise with the world in order to maintain our place? How do we stack up material success against Christian contentment? Can we get beyond image to character, success to faithfulness? How are we tempted as a nation at war?
Each time the tempter asks Jesus what kind of messiah he will be, Jesus answers, "Obedient." "Obedient." Torn between obeying God and responding to human need, Jesus chooses to obey God. The temptation in this text is to preach "Imitate Christ." But we need to be clear that, though human, Jesus is more than an example to emulate. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is able to resist the power of evil. Jesus is not captive to the enticement of temptation. The good news is that Jesus our obedient messiah defeated the power of evil. Through baptism Jesus' victory is ours as well. In the wilderness, confessing his faith in and obedience to God, Jesus overcame temptation, winning a victory that culminated in his victory over death on the cross. By the power of the Holy Spirit, God empowers us to share in Christ's victory so that we too can overcome the temptations of daily life and remain faithful. As we find ourselves in our own wilderness, the One who was tempted stands ready to strengthen us and bring us triumphant through all trials.
The early church used this story at the beginning of the forty days of preparation for Easter baptism to assist candidates in preparing for their own time of temptation. As the Spirit led Jesus from baptism into the wilderness of temptation, so Scripture and experience tell us that in the world we will encounter opposition to all that is of God. In fact, those most committed to being Jesus' disciples experience evil's temptation most intensely. But it is also our experience that Jesus stands with us in temptation and points the way to victory. Helping our hearers to encounter Jesus in their own wilderness of temptation is the task of preaching on this First Sunday in Lent.
Craig Satterlee, a member of The Litugical Conference Board, is the Axel Jacob and Gerda Maria (Swanson) Carlson Chair of Homiletics at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.