Battle of Wills: Temptation in the Desert
Matthew 4 :1-11
There’s a recent series on Prime Video called “Rings of Power.” It’s set a thousand years before the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. There’s a powerful scene when Galadriel, the elf woman who is one of the main characters, is talking to a man she has gotten close to throughout the series. What she doesn’t know is that her friend is actually Sauron, one of the main bad guys. And in the last episode they have a conversation where Galadriel realizes who he truly is. As a viewer, you see inside Sauron’s head a bit when he talks about desiring peace and wanting to save Middle Earth. You might even start to think he and Galadriel could do good things together as king and queen of Middle Earth when he says “You bind me to the light and I will bind you to power…Together we can save Middle Earth.” Galadriel asks, “Save or rule?” He responds, “I see no difference.” And she says, “And that is why I will never be at your side.”
When I first saw the episode, it reminded me of the passage we just read. Galadriel could’ve told herself that this seemed like a good idea. She could’ve convinced herself that she could handle the power of being an absolute ruler and that she would really improve the world that way. She could’ve reasoned that this was a good move, done for all the right reasons. It took a great deal of wisdom, humility, and restraint for Galadriel not to be seduced by absolute power the way Sauron had been, who was convinced that his rule was best no matter what.
The temptations of Jesus in the wilderness may seem to us like a clear-cut choice between good and evil. But such an understanding doesn’t do justice to what Jesus certainly went through. Satan’s temptation to Jesus wasn’t “Hey if you do bad things, I’ll give you all this awesome stuff.” Obviously, Jesus wouldn’t fall for that. Satan’s challenge was much more subtle and insidious. Satan was trying to get Jesus to forget God’s plan and do things his own way. Rather than trusting God’s way.
The temptation in the wilderness happens near the beginning of the Gospels. Right after Jesus’ baptism where he hears God call him his Beloved Son and sees the Holy Spirit descend on him like a dove. Then Jesus goes out into the wilderness to prayerfully discern what all this means. To figure out his mission and God’s calling. And it is during this sensitive, impressionable time, when Jesus is trying to get a handle on everything he is and is called to be, that the devil comes in and attempts to confuse and tempt Jesus.
Satan’s challenge begins by asking Jesus to prove his identity as the Son of God. “If you are the Son of God,” then turn stones into bread. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself. Later in the Gospels Jesus will miraculously feed thousands of hungry people by multiplying bread and fish. But the issue here has to do with proving himself to Satan, maybe even proving to himself that he is the Son of God. And the issue is also: there’s no hungry people around, Jesus would only be feeding himself. He would be using his powers selfishly. Not to mention, he was fasting for spiritual reasons and the devil’s temptation is to give that up and use his powers to benefit himself. But Jesus answers with scripture, saying “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Thus, Jesus refuses to use his powers to meet his own needs—whether the need to prove himself or to satisfy his hunger.
In the second test, Jesus is challenged with the opportunity to make a name for himself. By jumping off the temple and having angels rescue him. Perhaps within the sight of all the chief priests. The devil even quotes scripture here to prove his point. Now if this doesn’t make us realize our point from a couple weeks ago about interpreting scripture through the lens of love, I don’t know what will. Here’s a clear example of scripture being used for nefarious reasons, demonstrating why we should question anyone citing scripture to support anything unkind or unloving. Even Satan understands scripture can be misinterpreted and used in ways that oppose God’s will. And yet to this Jesus responds with even more scripture, saying “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Using scripture in a way that honors God and refutes the evil one.
Finally, Satan offers Jesus the whole world in return for worship. This one’s not as subtle as the previous two, but the reward was so great that Jesus could have reasoned himself into it. I mean, if Jesus was called to save the world, this might be a good way to do it? Certainly Jesus would be a better king than Caesar or Augustus or any other Roman emperor. The temptation here may have been for Jesus to trust himself more than God. Perhaps Jesus already knew God’s plan would lead him to the cross. So maybe he wondered a bit. Maybe he could make the world a better place as emperor rather than a crucified peasant. Maybe he could get his message out more quickly, touch more lives, help more people. Yes, there were probably some very good reasons for Jesus to take Satan up on this offer. But even to this Jesus does not waver: “Away with you Satan! for it is written ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’”
These temptations of Jesus show us just how good the wrong thing can look. It’s been said that nobody ever knowingly did evil. Maybe there’s a few exceptions to that rule, but even the worst dictators in history convinced themselves that they were doing the right thing no matter obvious their evil looks to us.
Now most of the temptations we face aren’t matters that will save or destroy the world. And they’re not matters where there’s always a clear-cut choice between good and evil. It’s often difficult to discern the right thing to do.
That’s why it’s so important to follow Jesus’ method of confronting temptation: to rely entirely on God. Jesus trusted God’s plan for him even though Satan’s may have sounded like it made more sense at the time. Jesus trusted God to guide him even when he had every right to trust himself instead. Jesus trusted God would be there for him even though it seemed like he was facing Satan alone. And in our lives, we would be wise to follow Jesus’ path of overcoming temptation by relying totally on God.
There will, of course, be times when we can’t live up to the tremendous way Jesus overcame temptation. We will sometimes give into temptation. We will sometimes make the wrong choice. We will sometimes live our lives in a way that does not manifest God’s will. But as we follow Jesus and are filled with the Holy Spirit, God is empowering us to be more Christ-like and to live into our calling as daughters and sons of God as well.
But unlike Jesus, the salvation of the world doesn’t depend on us! Jesus has already overcome sin, death, and the devil. He overcame these great temptations so we don’t have to. Jesus took the path to the cross in order to bring salvation to all. And so, during this season of Lent let us focus on following Jesus. On embodying the same wisdom, humility, and strength that he did in the face of evil and temptation. Not because we need to in order to save ourselves or save the world. But because we have the privilege of growing into mature children of God. Because Jesus overcame sin, we know sin has no ultimate power of over. And our Lenten journey is about learning what Jesus has done for us, and letting what Jesus has done heal us, redeem us, and transform us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.