Connections in the Desert Times
Lent 1/A March 1, 2020
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
The Gospel reading for this morning is an odd bit of Scripture, quite dissimilar from the majority of Gospel literature. To begin, this particular passage is full of symbolism, hyperbole, and imagery. Very vivid images, in fact - so very vivid that we almost can’t help but conjure up the scene of Jesus’ conversation with the tempter as it might appear on stage or screen. Those among us with very lively imaginations, might swear to feeling the searing temperatures reflected off the desert rocks and sand; and the scorching, almost-too-hot-to-breathe heat of the dry desert wind. And how do you picture the devil: in the traditional scarlet red jumpsuit with a pointed tail and horns; or perhaps a more contemporary version?
But even without imagining the scene, it’s still an odd piece of Scripture, because it’s so very surreal. We can certainly accept Jesus going into the wilderness to pray and meditate and contemplate, but what are we to make of the devil tempting him to do magic tricks, or whisking him away and setting him on the pinnacle of the Jerusalem Temple? And then teleporting him – “beam me up, Scotty!” - to a mountain high enough to show Jesus all the kingdoms of the world? And if that’s not enough, when the devil leaves him, a host of angels swoop in and cater to his needs.
Matthew even tells us that it is the Spirit that leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Now, that doesn’t seem quite fair. Whose side is the Spirit on, anyway?
And finally, why is Matthew compelled to tell us this story? With its vivid imagery and surrealism, its allusion to magic and mystical characters, what does it have to do with us? Or say to us?
When dealing with a biblical story that is lifted out of context, it’s always helpful to look at where the passage is situated within the plot line of a particular Gospel. In this case, the story immediately preceding Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is the account of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, with the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and God’s pronouncement that Jesus is the Son of God, with whom God is well pleased. And immediately following today’s passage, Jesus hears of John’s arrest and execution. Then Jesus seems to take up where John left off. With John the Baptist’s exit from the Gospel story, Jesus’ own ministry begins. And now, it is Jesus we hear, not John, preaching to the crowds: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
It’s also helpful to step back, take a wider view, and consider the passage in light of the whole of the Gospel story. In Matthew, we find a very creative writer who makes good use of images and symbols and story progression. Imagery and symbolism are integral parts of Matthew’s writing style, so when we find an odd passage like this, with magic and mystery, images of demons and pinnacles and angels, we – number one: shouldn’t be too surprised by the inclusion of fantastical images; and number two: we may not want to interpret and take it quite so literally. Matthew’s literary style tips us off that we don’t need to picture Jesus quite literally picking up stones and turning them into loaves of bread.
And we must remember that Matthew’s Gospel isn’t a chronological account of verifiable facts and figures. Instead – and this is true of all Scripture - it’s a tale about God’s plan for salvation, and Jesus’ mission and ministry within that greater plan. Rather than a record of events, Matthew attempts to convey a deeper truth regarding just who Jesus is, and what Jesus’ words and actions teach his followers about our Creator, our Redeemer, and our own ministry in the Kingdom of God. So, this passage is less about actual events and more about giving us a glimpse into the person of Jesus. Remember, he’s just been baptized and is now seriously considering the implementation of his ministry by withdrawing alone and taking time apart for prayer. Jesus understood that his baptism was a life-changing, formative event, an event that would propel him into a world that would both celebrate his message and condemn him for it. Baptism should be the same for us. Matthew uses the images of the temptations that follow Jesus’ baptism to help us better understand that connection between Jesus and us, between Jesus’ baptism and ours, his ministry and our own.
There are certainly many ways to consider how that connection works. On a literal level, one way might be to think about the place, the location of the story – why the desert? - and what the temptations in this forbidding place might be saying to us. The setting for Jesus was a real desert, a rocky, barren, lonely, forbidding wilderness. If you’ve ever been to Israel – or any expansive desert landscape - you have a good idea of how desolate and harsh such a place is. People die in deserts, drained of every bit of life and will by the heat, the thirst, and the physical isolation. The desert is a dangerous place – for even a few hours, let alone forty days!
Personally, to me, it has always seemed a huge understatement when Matthew writes: “Jesus fasted forty days and nights, and afterwards he was famished.” Famished! Forty days! Famished? It’s a miracle he wasn’t crazed out of his mind! Little wonder he may be hallucinating! He should have been dead! But I digress . . .
We can also see and understand this barren place as not only a physical location, for Jesus quite probably did go into the desert wilderness to pray, but this desert is also that symbolic place deep within ourselves where we come face to face with God and our humanness. Remember, we’re not supposed to figure out how Jesus lasted forty days in the desert. We’re supposed to come to a better understanding of the ministry and mission of Jesus, and by extension, as Jesus; followers, our own ministry, in relation to the whole story of God’s grand plan for the salvation of his Creation.
And that’s where the temptations come in. Again, this isn’t a story where we’re supposed to focus on what the devil might have looked like, or what it might have been like for Jesus to be transported and set down on the highest point of the Jerusalem Temple. Personally, I’ve always wondered: Didn’t anyone see him up there? But again, I digress – and besides, that’s not the point of this passage . . .
This passage is about relationship – between Jesus and us. It’s about connection – between Jesus’ ministry and our own. Matthew’s point in describing the temptations was to connect Jesus to the ongoing story of salvation that begins with Adam and Eve in Genesis, through the Old Testament prophets, continuing through the Gospels and epistles and early Church, down into our own day. We see this connection in Jesus’ replies to the devil’s temptations. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy, “One does not live by bread alone.” Quoting from a book already ancient in Jesus’ day, and still read today, Jesus is identifying with all of humanity’s universal needs in the here and now, instead of relying on his divine, other-worldly power to change stones to bread. His ministry is to the people of God – then and now; and he accomplishes that by sharing our humanness. Our own ministry should follow in this same vein – share in others’ humanness, meet people where they are.
In the other temptations that follow, Jesus continues to model how we humans should behave. Again, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy when he points out that only God is worthy of our worship. God alone is the sovereign Lord; God alone should receive humanity’s service.
And the last temptation shows Jesus’ faithfulness - his discipleship. Again, he quotes from the Book of Deuteronomy, pointing out that one should not presume to tempt the Lord. This reminds Matthew’s readers that a faithful believer is faithful to God’s commands. A faithful follower knows that God is sovereign Lord and is worthy of homage and service. A faithful disciple keeps the commandments and follows the model for living an obedient and faithful life as written in Scripture.
So, this place, this desert - whether the physical place, or that symbolic space deep within where Jesus understood his connection to God and also to humanity – is a holy place – for God is there. We learn from examining this place in Jesus’ life because we can connect it to that place in our own lives where we struggle with our own relationship to God and our fellow human beings. We can be supported in that struggle by this account. It helps us put things in order. It helps us remember that, when we might be tempted to put something in our lives before faithfulness to God, we must remember that God is our only God, that God is our help and our only salvation, therefore, God – and only God! – is worthy of all our praise and worship and service.
God resides in all the places of our lives – even the dry, barren, foreboding desert places. Jesus connects with us there. And in that connection, our lives are made holy, blessed, and filled with grace.