In his book, Justification, Bishop NT Wright argues that a common mistake of those who engage in theology or interpret the Bible is in making mankind the starting point rather than God and His kingdom. When we do this we make theology all about us rather than about God. Bishop Wright says that this false thinking is like believing that the sun revolves around the earth rather than the other way around. The fruit of this is seen when we come to worship asking “What’s in it for me?” rather than “How can I better serve and please the Lord?”
I believe it best to heed Bishop Wright’s correction as we begin to look at the temptations of Christ because while He did this FOR us, the temptations were not ABOUT us. There is an overarching story or what is called a metanarrative going on here that we must not miss before we begin to apply this Gospel to our lives.
So I ask you to imagine a beautiful 60-inch TV screen (the kind you should not be coveting, especially during Lent). And down in the right hand corner of that huge screen is a small picture, a picture within a picture, showing a similar but different story. The huge screen is the metanarrative, the overarching story. The small picture within the picture is how this story impacts our lives. But alla Bishop Wright, we must always remember that this story is first and foremost about God and His kingdom.
To understand why these temptations were even necessary we must go all the way back to God’s relationship with Israel in order to see Jesus fulfilling what had been left unfulfilled. In one sense it is a shame that we split the Testaments up by calling them the Old and New Testament because that seems to imply that they are two separate stories, but there are not. It is one long beautiful story of redemption that begins with creation of heaven and earth and ends with a new heaven and a new earth.
Earlier in the story God referred to Israel as His son. God told Moses to say this to Pharaoh. “Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve Me.’” (Ex 4:222,23).
But we know by reading the Old Testament that Israel was a prodigal son and not only broke God’s commandments but also even sought after other gods. The prophet Hosea wrote, “When Israel was a child, I loved him and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away, they kept sacrificing to Baals and burning offerings to idols.” (Hosea 11:1,2). One professor I studied under in seminary did a dig in a post conquest village. Supposedly Joshua had conquered the land and driven out the pagans and yet they found a fertility goddess buried in every home. So outwardly they were following YHWH but they had a plan b in case YHWY did not come through.
And yet in His Fatherly love, God called Israel back to Himself through the prophets. Did Israel return? Sometimes. Briefly. But in the end Israel killed the prophets. So in the fullness of time God sends His only begotten Son to be the faithful Son that Israel had failed to be.
The clue that connects Jesus’ temptations with Israel’s unfaithfulness comes from the fact that Jesus quoted Scripture to the tempter from the Book of Deuteronomy. This tied His temptations to Israel’s wilderness story and it is in the time in the wilderness where we see Israel again and again failing the test and missing the mark.
The first temptation of Jesus was that of turning stones into bread. This temptation reflects the episode where God gave them bread from heaven and still they failed to trust Him, always calling out for more. They even grumbled that they missed the garlic and leeks of Egypt and longed to return. But Jesus as a faithful Son chose not to live by His appetites, not by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
The second temptation was for Jesus to put God to the test by throwing Himself from the temple height. This reflects the episode in which Israel put God to the test by complaining that He had brought them out of Egypt only to have them die of thirst at Massah and Meribah. But Jesus as a faithful Son refused to put God to the test.
The third temptation to worship Satan reflects the time when Israel were afraid that Moses was not going to return from the holy mountain and so they made a golden calf and began to worship it. But Jesus rebukes Satan and declares that He will worship God alone. Again we see that where Israel as a son failed God’s tests, Jesus passed them all. He fulfilled all righteousness.
Here is the big picture. Fulfilling the Old Covenant, the story of redemption continues and the kingdom of God is declared to be among us. A New Covenant is pronounced and we are invited into this relationship between the Father and His faithful Son. We are invited as adopted sons and daughters to be heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ and to work with them to make all things new. That was what was going on in the big picture. That is the metanarrative. Let’s now look at the little picture within the picture to see how Jesus’ victory over temptation impacts our lives.
First, the fact that Jesus faced genuine temptations and overcame them tells us that we are not alone and that we have the promise that we can be victorious through Christ.
How often it seems to be the case that the enemy of our souls employs a divide and conquer tactic. You look around in church and see every one happy and assume that they have their lives together and you are assured that you are the only one who is going through it. The more severe the temptation the more we feel that we are entirely alone in this battle and that no one else could possibly understand. Additionally pride prevents us from asking for support and so we battle on in quiet desperation.
But we are not alone. Jesus promised that He would never leave us or forsake us. And what is more, He fully understands what we are facing. Hebrews 4:15 says “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus gets it more than anyone else gets it and so it only makes sense to flee to Him who not only understands but also has the authority to do something about it. We cannot win the battle against temptation alone and the good news is that we don’t have to. If you as a sheep are feeling threatened by a wolf, call on the Shepherd. He has a big crook.
A second way that Jesus’ temptations impact our picture within a picture is how He models for us faithfulness and obedience to the Father. And that by the way is the opposite of the metanarrative of the world.
The overarching theme of our society right now is radical individualism that absolutely decries faithfulness and obedience. We don’t want to hear about the sacrifices that faithfulness demands and we certainly don’t want to hear about submitting our wills in obedience to another, even if He is God. We want what we want and we want it right now.
We shouldn’t be too surprises by this because this metanarrative goes all the way back to the garden. “Did God actually say ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’….You will not surly die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Eve wanted what she wanted and Satan told her to go for it.
In our radical individualism we not only claim that we have the right to do whatever we want to do, and be whoever we choose to be, but we also have the right to demand that all others have to agree with us. If they don’t then we will punish them by taking away their rights.
And since we are in an age of “post truth,” truth is whatever we decide it to be or feel it to be and so there is no objective authority that can tell us that we are wrong. So put away your bibles Christians, we don’t want to hear it.
The call of the world is to accept this metanarrative of radical individualism but Jesus shows us a better way. Think about it. If He had walked in radical individualism He would have failed in all three temptations and we would still be lost in our transgressions.
But He overcame them because He walked in faithfulness and obedience. Further it seems clear from Holy Scripture that He was able to walk that way because His relationship to the Father was rooted in love. He says to His disciples in John 15, “As the Father has loved Me, so have I loved you. Abide in My love. If you keep My commandments you will abide in My love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandment and abide in His love.” Radical individualism only serves to fan the flames of hatred and division. Faithfulness and obedience rooted in love is how the kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven and walls of separation are destroyed.
A third way that Jesus’ temptations touch our story is how He refused to abuse His power and authority. Twice Satan tried to bait Him by starting off with the challenge, “If you are the Son of God….” If Jesus had taken the bait to prove that He was the Son of God it would have involved a misuse of His power and authority. Interestingly He would later use his power and authority to feed 5,000 but He was not going to abuse it by feeding Himself on a dare.
What did Jesus do to keep His power and authority in check? He submitted it to the Word of God. His response when challenged to do something by Satan was to say He would not because, “it is written.” Meditate on that for a moment. If the Son of God, who John refers to as “the Word made flesh” considers Himself to be under the Word of God, how much more should we?
Archbishop Foley does something that is both comical and poignant. When he ordains a man he takes a Bible and thumps him on the head with it and while holding it on his head he looks him straight in the eye and says, “remember that you are under the Word of God.” And so should we and that is how we resist the temptations of the evil one.
Allow me to offer some practical applications from the temptation of Christ as it relates to our Lenten journey.
First don’t put God to the test by making up a Lenten discipline for yourself that would give an archangel heartburn. Don’t set yourself up for failure. The example that I used in my Ash Wednesday sermon was “I will not be angry for 40 days.” It ain’t going to happen. We are a few days into Lent and if you have already found Lent to be an onerous burden then repent of seeking to do something that would put God to the test and move on to a more reasonable discipline. Jesus didn’t try to defy the laws of gravity and neither should we.
Second let Jesus’ model of faithfulness and obedience be a model that you set before your eyes each day. St. Paul tells us in Philippians that He emptied Himself of all of His rights and privileges and humbled Himself to become a servant and isn’t faithfulness and obedience the essence of being a servant? These are the very qualities that Lent is designed to build into us.
Third Jesus defeated Satan by making God the metanarrative. He was not interested in fulfilling His own needs. He was interested in glorifying His Father. He was interested in abiding in the Father’s love. He was interested in bringing honor to His Father by being the faithful Son that Israel had failed to be.
So let’s follow that example and not make Lent about us but about glorifying our Father. Let’s remember that the Son does not revolve around us but we revolve around Him. Amen.