Anyone who has read much of the Old Testament will see that at times the people of Israel behaved in a way that would try anyone’s patience. They were happy to leave Egypt and then later they longed to be back. They agreed to make a covenant with God and then they asked Aaron to make them a golden calf to worship. So many times they just didn’t manage to be all God had hoped for them. When Jesus arrived as king, he represented Israel and was able to succeed where Israel failed, despite the efforts of Satan to divert him from the right path.
The readings for Sunday, the First of Lent, were Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Matthew 4:1-11. My reflection from the Sunday service follows.
For some of you listening, Queen Elizabeth II is your head of state. For others, the idea of a royal family is fascinating even though you don’t have one yourselves. For some in the UK the wish is to be free of a royal family, seeing it as an expensive luxury which serves no useful purpose. Whatever your point of view or country’s political structures, I think you will be able to appreciate that when Queen Elizabeth greets someone from another country at Buckingham Palace or when she goes to visit another country, she is representing not herself but her country, or the Commonwealth in general.
A sovereign represents their nation and that was certainly the case in Old Testament and New Testament times. Jesus is the descendant of David and was born ‘king of the Jews’ as the wise men said to Herod. As King he represented Israel and in so doing he was able to rectify what Israel had got wrong. God had wanted Israel to be blessed in order to be a blessing to other nations, to be a light to those walking in darkness. In Jesus God’s calling to Israel was finally to be realised.
Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness came straight after his baptism. The people of Israel had passed through the Red Sea as a kind of baptism before they began their new life as God’s special nation. Jesus had been baptised in the Jordan by John and as he rose from the water was assured that he was God’s son, the beloved, the only one.
God told the people of Israel that in leading them in the wilderness for forty years he was humbling them, testing them to see what was in their hearts and if they would obey his commands (Deuteronomy 8:2). After his baptism the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days, one for each of Israel’s wandering years, to be tempted or tested by the devil to see what was in his heart also, whether he was able to humble himself and obey God.
When the people of Israel had only been away from Egypt for a month and 15 days they began to grumble. They wanted to go back to where they had plenty to eat, conveniently forgetting the slavery in which they had lived. They accused God of leading them into the wilderness to starve to death. God responded by bringing them the gift of manna and of quails so that they would know he was the Lord their God. Jesus lived without food for forty days and then the devil focused on his physical desires and tempted him to provide for himself the food his body needed. Unlike the Israelites, Jesus was content to remain physically hungry, feeding on God’s word. Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 8:3 where Moses told the people what God was doing when they were hungry: ‘He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna … that he might make you know that one does not live by bread alone, but one lives by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
The devil wasn’t finished and took Jesus to the highest point for miles around, the pinnacle at the corner of the Temple. Jesus had quoted scripture so the devil did the same, encouraging Jesus to rely on the fact that he was the Son of God and to expect a miracle, testing God to show up and act. This temptation also tried to draw Jesus into pride in who he was, someone whom others ought to notice. The people of Israel had also put God to the test in the wilderness of Sin when there was no water at their camping place. Once more they asked why God had brought them out of Egypt to die. Moses was instructed by God to strike the rock and out came water for them all to drink. Moses named the place Massah, which means testing. God is well able to rise to any test but Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:16 as the reason he was not going to test God: ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah’. Israel could not manage to trust God to provide for them, even having seen him provide meat and bread, but Jesus was able to put his trust in God without testing him.
While Moses was receiving the Law from God on Mount Sinai, the people of Israel very quickly forgot God who had rescued them from Egypt. They asked Aaron to make them a new god, a golden calf, and they bowed down and worshipped it. Perhaps hoping for the same success with Jesus, the devil offered him the whole world, all its kingdoms, if he would but bow down and worship him. The devil probably had no more power to make good his promise than the golden calf had to guide the people of Israel. That didn’t matter. What mattered was whether Jesus would turn from God in the hope of gaining quick power and easy solutions. Jesus was not so easily swayed and once more quoted Deuteronomy (6:13): ‘It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear.’
Where Israel failed, Jesus succeeded. He was tested but did not sin. It might be tempting to us to say that it was easy for Jesus but I don’t think it was. The devil was very subtle in what he said to Jesus and totally reasonable. He didn’t ask Jesus to commit some gross and obvious sin like murdering thousands of people. Instead he took what was good and twisted it. This is how the devil works.
CS Lewis’s devil in the Screwtape Letters tells his nephew how they should work: “Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. … He made the pleasures. … All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasure which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden.”
Eating is good, getting God’s mission on earth noticed is good, having the power and influence to do what needed to be done is good. But there is God’s way and there are our own or the devil’s ways. Jesus was able to keep focused on his God given vocation to be a servant, a human being, a true Israelite, the Messiah. The temptations were designed to turn him away from that calling and thus foil God’s plan to redeem Israel and the world.
Jesus advised his disciples to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves and he showed great wisdom in countering the devil. Eve on the other hand didn’t manage so well. The devil in his subtle way caused Eve to doubt God’s goodness and provision for her. He twisted what she had been told, suggesting God was denying Adam and Eve access to all the trees when in truth he gave only one command to avoid one tree. Having begun to doubt, the forbidden fruit became so alluring that Eve could convince herself and Adam who was watching that God would not mind them eating the fruit. Suddenly the first couple’s plans were better than those of God. The serpent, more crafty than other creatures, had won and the result can still be seen today. Instead of working with God in the ongoing work of creation as they were called to do, people are in conflict with the earth and with God.
The devil hasn’t changed his purposes. He still wants to undermine the calling of each of us which has been given by God and so thwart God’s plans. As with Eve and with Jesus, the temptations will be ever so reasonable. We might be tempted to do the right thing for the wrong reason, or something wrong for a noble reason. We might be shown an unethical shortcut to achieve a great outcome.
Jesus rejected the subtle enticements of the devil to take the easy road. Instead he chose the role of a servant and prepared to face the cross. Can we who follow Jesus expect to walk a different path and still be true to our calling to be light in a dark world?