Originally preached at Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church, East Setauket, New York.
My brothers and sisters in Christ,
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil.” We begin our forty-day journey through Lent with Christ’s forty days in the desert. Seems appropriate, doesn’t it? Like Julie Andrews, we start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. Jesus goes up from his baptism in the Jordan to the wilderness country. There, he fasts and prays for forty days and nights while being tempted (tried, πειράζω) by Satan before receiving rest and reprieve from his trials prior to starting his preaching ministry. The shape of Jesus’ forty days serves as a model for what our Lent might look like. Or does it? Perhaps it means something even more.
There is a temptation (ha!) on the part of pastors to preach on Jesus’ forty days in the desert as some kind of guide on how to resist temptation. After all, the Devil tries to lead Jesus astray–perhaps to get him to doubt his Sonship or to doubt his mission–by twisting Scripture and Jesus thwarts him at every turn. We could learn from that. But the thing is, this is Jesus we’re talking about. He is God. The Devil cannot trick him or get him on a technicality. In contests between God and Satan, God always wins. Satan is a creature, God is the Creator. So in the temptation of Christ, Satan is really the one getting the lesson, because Jesus cannot be tempted by what the Devil has to sell. And we can learn from what Jesus speaks back to the Devil for our own fights with temptation, but we won’t always win like Christ does. We have breaking points, where our own pet temptations just look too good to us and where we still give in to them despite our knowing better.
Luke 4:1-13 isn’t necessarily a roadmap for fighting temptation in our lives, but it does show Jesus modeling the shape of Christian life. First, he has been baptized in the Jordan. Having been baptized, he is subjected to attacks by the Devil, trying to lead him away into sin. After being subject to these temptations, he is given respite; the other Gospel writers mention Jesus being ministered to by angels. This is a lot like the shape of our life: we are baptized into Christ, and when we are, a target is placed on our backs. We are subjected to all manner of temptations to sin because as Christians, we know that they are wrong; we struggle with them and wrestle with them until God grants us his rest, either when we die to go to him or when Christ returns, whichever comes first.
But why does that all matter, that Jesus’ forty-day sojourn in the wilderness prefigures our life as Christians? As in so many things, Jesus does everything we are expected to do, but does it perfectly, on our account.
For instance, there is no need for Jesus to be baptized. What sins does he have that need to be forgiven? None at all. But he subjects himself to baptism because he models that for us. Christ is baptized when he doesn’t need to be baptized, just as he dies our death which he does not have to die. He does so for our sake. So Jesus is baptized because his church should be baptized to receive the forgiveness of sins that he brings.
Likewise, Christ undergoes temptation from Satan and triumphs. We, too, must undergo temptation. Washed with the blood of Christ in the waters of baptism, we have a big target painted on our backs. We would be a nice catch for the Devil if he could lead us astray. And so he tries us and tempts us in order to try to bring us down. Indeed, what a fine trophy we would make for his wall! So Satan finds our darkest desires and fantasies, our greatest spiritual weaknesses, and our deepest doubts, and attempts to use them to undermine our faith, to deny him who bought our life. Indeed, one way he does this is by trying to get us to trust ourselves over Jesus, to try to overcome temptation through our own trials alone. And that’s when he strikes.
The Devil tries to get his claws into us. And sometimes he does. But God be thanked, Jesus has overcome Satan for us. He has fulfilled his mission, destroying the Devil’s schemes through his death and resurrection. And because of that, though there are times when the Devil may get the upper hand in our lives, through our faith in Christ’s defeating him, we have Christ’s victory. Whenever we fall in our lifelong struggle with temptation, so long as we cling to Jesus and call on him when we are beset, we know that he shall help us to overcome. And how do we know this? Because of God’s Word. Just as Jesus knows God’s Word and is able to call out Satan when he twists it, when we know God’s Word and the promises it speaks, we can cling to Jesus more tightly, and he will lead us to the final part of our Christian life: respite.
The respite part isn’t so apparent from Luke’s account of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. But after the temptation has ended, Jesus rests until it is time for him to return to town and to begin his preaching ministry. The strife over and battle done, he rests until his next task.
We experience the same thing as Christians. Once we have overcome the assaults of the Devil with the help of Jesus, we gain respite from the constant battle we wage against sin. And what a rest it is, an eternal one! Jesus has won eternal life and rest with him for us, and so when the struggle of life is over, we rest with him. When our fight is finished and the long war against our sinful flesh is won, we will be free from temptation and free from struggle. Joy will be ours forever. Jesus’ rest prefigures our rest. And it’s a rest possible only because of him, because he earned it for us (and we know we cannot earn it for ourselves at all).
So Jesus’ time in the wilderness, beginning with his baptism and ending with his rest following his temptation, is a model for our Christian life. It is the model for our life as Christians. And I suppose it can guide us this Lent, pointing us to be more intentional in our trusting in Jesus, more intentional in our repentance, and more aware of our being baptized children of God who, though the Devil wants to attack us because we are God’s children, will nevertheless triumph ultimately over temptation when we trust in the One who could not be tempted.