Temptation in our desert

March 26, 2014

I hope your Lent is off to a good start. Throughout this season of Lent, we will, for the most part, hear passages from the Gospel of John. But this morning, we hear another passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel, specifically, the passage describing Jesus’ testing in the desert immediately following his baptism. The story of Jesus in the desert appears in all of the gospel accounts except for John, and we hear one of these passages every year on the first Sunday of Lent. Certainly, these passages, like the one we just heard, reflect on the question of temptation. But we can see some additional themes if we look at the passage a little differently. If we hear the biblical allusions and we pay close attention to the references that both Jesus and the tempter make, then this story shows us how Jesus is the new Israel.

In the overarching story of Israel and the exodus from Egypt, the desert plays a key role. The Israelites who come out of Egypt are not ready to receive the gift that God is preparing for them. They had been living among the Egyptians for several generations, and they had been out of touch with God. Then they win this incredible victory by God’s hand, but they are filled with fear and apprehension. And they are filled with pride. Then the come to the desert where they are tested.
The desert is the place where Israel is humbled; they are hungry and thirsty and God feeds them. This is the place where Israel learns to put their whole trust in God; the God who delivered them from Egypt also delivers them in the desert. And the desert is the place where Israel learns to worship God alone; Israel makes the Golden Calf, and God gives them the Law. These are exactly the same temptations that Jesus faces after his baptism.

After fasting for forty days – mirroring the forty years the Israelites spent wandering – the tempter or the tester comes to Jesus. They engage in what appears to be almost a scholarly debate, quoting snippets of Scripture to each other. The first temptation mirrors the Israelites’ grumbling about food. And even though the failed to trust God, he gave them what they needed– water, manna, and the quails. But Jesus puts the focus back on God, that true life comes from him. The second temptation undermines that trust. If God saves us when we really need it, surely he’ll give a demonstration of power just to give us a little confidence? Jesus’ response is no. God doesn’t perform tricks for us. The third temptation the devil gives Jesus is to exchange worldly power for homage, to gain riches and power in exchange for putting riches and power in place of God. Throughout this passage, Jesus passes the tests that Israel failed.
As our season of Lent picks up, this passage asks us the question, where is our desert? Where is our place of testing? For us, it is here in our own community. This is the place where we have the chance to choose God and not give into our temptations. In many respects, the desert is a state of mind and not any place in particular. We don’t need too flee from the world in order to encounter God. We need to open our eyes and our hearts and minds to see the ways that God is present all around us.

Our situation is not unlike the situation of the Israelites fleeing Egypt. God has saved us, but now we need to learn to truly put our trust in him. We are tempted to doubt that we will have everything we need. We are tempted to put God to the test, to make sure that he will be there when we need him. And we are surely tempted every day to find idols to put in place of God. We make idols out of relationships, and material things, you name it, we’ve made an idol out of it. We continually choose to serve other masters in the hope that our desires and aspirations will be fulfilled. Just like the Israelites, we fail these tests and we give into these temptations, and so we are not ready to enter the Promised Land.

Here’s where we come back to the passage this morning. God knows that we will struggle with these temptations, and that’s why Jesus came. He came so that through him, we will be prepared to receive the gift of life promised to all of his children who come to him in faith. We are now three days into our annual journey to the desert. May it be a time when we can come face to face with our own temptations, and let us pray for the grace to learn to simply give them over to God. And so we will come to Easter in humility and joy.

– Michael Tuck+

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