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Trial in the Wilderness

Preached 10 February 2008 at Bolton St James, Bradford 

Matthew 4:1-11

A friend of mine who lectures at a Baptist Theological College says that a preacher should always ask – and answer – two questions about any Bible text upon which he or she is about to preach. “Says who?” and “So what?” “Says who?” challenges us to look closely at the text itself. Who wrote it? What kind of text it is – a parable, a prophecy, a letter, a story. What it would have meant to those for whom it was written.  While “So what?” challenges us to consider its application to us today. What is God saying to us through it? How should we respond?

Well, if I come to this text this morning with those questions, the answer to the first question “Says who?” is clearly Matthew – the tax collector who was called from his customs post to leave everything but his pen and follow Jesus as one of his disciples – and that in itself is very significant. For Matthew is the most fervently Jewish of the four Gospel writers and has a very Jewish agenda in writing his gospel. And it is vital that we understand his agenda if we want to make sense of the stories and teachings that he selects for inclusion in his gospel – including this story of the temptations that we have before us this morning.

One clue to his agenda comes in the very first verse of his gospel … “This is a record of the birth of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Luke – the only non-Jewish Gospel-writer– traces Jesus’ ancestry back to Adam, but Matthew traces it back only to Abraham – the father of the Jewish nation, because, as a Jew, he understands that it was through Abraham and his offspring that all the nations of the earth were to be blessed. It was through the Jewish people – a people specially raised up by God for the purpose – that God planned to put right what went wrong in the Garden of Eden when the parents of the human race turned their backs on God and chose to do things their way.

And Matthew’s agenda is quite simply to show that in Jesus those plans have come to fruition; that, though the Jewish people as a nation have failed to carry through God’s purposes, Jesus has done so. That he is the embodiment of the Jewish people – he is the one true Jew, the fulfilment of all that Israel was meant to be, and the promised offspring of Abraham through whom the fall of Adam and Eve will be reversed, paradise will be regained and all the nations of the earth will be blessed.

And we had this agenda confirmed and underlined for us just a few weeks ago when we heard the story of the Holy Family’s flight from Herod. Matthew records: “So Joseph got up and took the child and his mother and left at night for Egypt. He stayed there until Herod’s death in order to fulfil what was declared by the Lord through the prophet when he said, “Out of Egypt I called my Son.”

“Out of Egypt have I called my Son” is a quotation from the OT book of Hosea, chapter 11, where God says of the whole Jewish people: When Israel was a child I loved him and out of Egypt have I called my Son.” God’s son in the OT is the Jewish nation. And when Hosea records God as saying “Out of Egypt I have called my son” he is referring to the exodus when the entire Jewish nation was led from slavery in Egypt into the wilderness and then into the promised land.

But – with breathtaking insight and understanding – Matthew now takes that text and applies it to Jesus alone.

Matthew himself is a failed Jew. He is a Jew who – before Jesus called him as a disciple – had turned traitor to his own people by becoming a tax farmer for the occupying Roman force … Lining his own pocket at the expense of his fellow Jews by extorting the Roman tribute, plus his own cut. But now, from his perspective as a disciple of Jesus, he sees that all Jews are failed Jews. All have fallen short of their high calling by God their father to be God’s redemptive people … to be God’s son and his light of the world … except for one … except for this amazing Jesus of Nazareth, whom he follows.

There, in flesh and blood before him, in Jesus, he sees the one Jew who does not fall short; who has completely and perfectly fulfilled God’s calling; who is the true Son, the true Light of the World … And it is from that standpoint that Matthew writes his gospel.

And one of the first things he writes is this account of the temptations or testings (testing is the fundamental meaning of the Greek word peirasmos) in the wilderness. Why? Well, because he wants us to understand that although the people of Israel failed their time of testing in the wilderness, Jesus, the one true Israelite, did not fail his.

Because we do not come to Matthew’s gospel with his Jewish mind-set, perhaps we do no latch on to all the parallels between Jesus and the Jewish nation that Mathew draws for us. He doesn’t spell them out because, for a Jewish audience, he wouldn’t need to … but they are there. When Jesus passes through the waters of baptism, Matthew intends us to see also the liberated nation of Israel passing through the waters of the Red Sea fourteen hundred years before. When Jesus has his relationship with God confirmed by the Voice from heaven – “You are my beloved Son” – Matthew intends us to hear also the nation of Israel having its relationship with God confirmed by the Voice thundering from Mount Sinai fourteen hundred years before. And now, as Jesus enters the wilderness of Judea for a period of forty days, Matthew intends us to see the nation of Israel entering the wilderness of Sinai fourteen hundred years before for a period of forty years.

“God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country,” we are told, “though that was shorter. But God led the people around by the desert road” – through the wilderness. (Exodus 13.17). And for why? To see if, like an obedient child, they would do things God’s way rather than their own way. It was vital that they should learn to do so for, unless they were prepared to do things his way, they could never fulfil his purposes for them.

In Deuteronomy 8.2 when the wilderness wanderings are coming to an end, Moses tells the people what it has all been about: “The Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands

And the tragedy of tragedies was that they failed. They just did. Not just by a bit. Not just by a narrow margin, but massively, spectacularly. They proved themselves to be what God called “a stiff-necked people”: wilful, rebellious, disobedient, faithless and intractable in their refusal to do almost anything God’s way. They were no different from Adam and Eve whose disobedience they were supposed to reverse. So they died there in the wilderness of their testing and only their children were permitted to enter the Land of Promise.

But now comes Jesus and he too is led “by way of the wilderness.” The Holy Spirit drives him there, so important is it that he as it were proves himself fit for purpose … ready to be all (and this is Matthew’s point) ready to be all that Israel has failed to be. And, gloriously, at every point, Jesus comes through victorious. At every point he subjects his will to God’s will, chooses God’s way rather than his own way. And in consequence, when the forty days are over, he goes into Galilee in the power of the Spirit with a clear mandate from God to open up the kingdom of heaven – paradise restored – to all who will enter it through him: a kingdom of which the promised land was a mere shadow and type. He goes into Galilee marked out as Heaven’s champion … heaven’s David against hell’s Goliath

This was the beginning of Jesus’ victory over the powers of evil – which are here identified with ho diabolos – the devil – literally “the slanderer” and which translates the Hebrew word satan that  literally means “opponent” or “adversary”. God’s opponent. God’s adversary. The one who slanders God.

Get rid of the horns. Get rid of the tail and the pitchfork. Get rid of the red tights and the cloven hooves. But don’t try to get rid of the great reality of Satan. In the OT, Satan is portrayed neither as the stuff of horror movies nor the stuff of comedy, but as one of the greatest of God’s celestial beings. He is described as being perfect in beauty, the signet of perfection; one whom God placed in Eden along with the guardian cherubim to care for the newly-created parents of the human race; but one whose heart was proud because of his beauty and who corrupted his wisdom for the sake of his splendour. Rebelling against God, he was cast from God’s presence, but then, in his malice and cunning, beguiled our first ancestors into giving to him the power and authority that God had given them, to rule over his creation. And ever since then, through all his minions and agencies, he has been at work in this world, the prince of the power of the air, working to maim, spoil, corrupt and destroy God’s glorious creation and to thwart all of God’s good purposes for humankind.

And Jesus knows him. On one occasion, intriguingly, he even tells his disciples that he watched as Satan fall from God’s presence. And he clearly recognises Satan as the one behind every false thought, every dark impulse, every questioning of God’s revealed will and way. So when, for example, in the final months of Jesus’ ministry, Peter tells Jesus that he mustn’t even think of going to Jerusalem to suffer and die, Jesus looks beyond Peter to the one in the shadows from whom that suggestion has come and says: “Get behind me, Satan.” He resists him then, just as he resists him at the beginning, and just as he will resist him in Gethsemane at the very end – “Not my will, Father, but thy will be done.”

That is what all the testing came down to in the wilderness as Jesus wandered there for forty days, alone, hungry, his head full of conflicting thoughts. Whose will should be done? Thousands of words have been written about the three temptations that Satan dangled in front of Jesus – and I don’t propose to go through them this morning; but they all boiled down to that one thing. Do it your way, Jesus. It will work just as well and cause you a lot less trouble. Do it your way. That’s what all the testing of Jesus was about. That was what all the testing of Israel in the wilderness was all about. And – let’s be clear on this – it’s what all our testing is about too. Whose way will we take: our own or God’s?

Which brings us, I think, to the second of the two questions I started out by saying that every preacher should address. “So what?” So what – that Jesus succeeded where old Israel failed? So what that he passed the test in the wilderness and kept on passing it at every end and turn? So what that he passed the test on the cross itself? So what that there he did indeed conquer Satan?

So … quite simply … isn’t it time that we really began to live as those who are on the winning side? It seems to me that so often we – I – live in a state of defeat … in the kind of frozen helplessness and hopelessness of a battle lost. I look at flaws in my character and personality and deep-down think “I can’t ever change”. I look at stuff going on in society, in the world, in the church, and think “it can’t ever change.

Yet here we are this morning, beginning our journey through Lent, yet again, and knowing, knowing that this victory of Jesus in the wilderness that has been our focus today, ends on Easter weekend, in six weeks time, with the victory of the cross and the glory of the empty tomb and Jesus risen again! It ends with Jesus towering over a fallen Satan as Champion of Israel and champion of the world. It ends in a victory that should be saying NO to every bit of hopelessness and helplessness and defeatism in our lives.

It was always God’s plan to undo the work of Satan through an obedient Son and in the wilderness Jesus became that obedient Son and made the outcome sure. And we need to understand that, in his resurrection, the new creation has begun and that, as Bishop Tom Wright never tires of saying, “We are invited to be part of it: to be plunged into it in baptism, to eat and drink it in the Eucharist, to celebrate it in worship, to explore it in prayer, and most of all to make it happen in the world“.

That’s the great “so what” of the victory of Jesus, begun in the wilderness and completed on the cross. That we are invited to live our lives in that victory, moment by moment, day by day, in whatever roles and relationships and spheres of activity in which God has placed us and to which he has called us. We are invited to be part of the great mopping up operation that heralds the coming of the kingdom. Let’s be clear. The victory of Jesus is not and never was about his opening an escape hatch into heaven so that those who believe in him can get away from this spoiled, ruined world with all its pain and darkness and evil. Absolutely not. It is, on the contrary, about the death-defeating, devil-defeating life and love and power of the victorious Jesus being released into this world and about it filling us and enabling us so that God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done here ON EARTH as it is in heaven.

And so the question I am bound to leave you with this morning, and leave myself with this morning is simply this: Am I going to live this day in the victorious love and power of Christ or not? And if I am, where am I going to start?

Let’s pray …

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