Are you in a desert? Is your spiritual life feeling dry and dusty?
We are currently in lent (사순절), and lent is a season of temptation and a season of desert. Lent is a form of the Old English word lenten, which means ‘spring’. It probably comes from ‘lengthen’, because in spring the days get longer. Lent is one of the oldest traditions in the Christian church, and was originally called 40 because it began on the 40th day before Easter. It has changed a lot in the almost two thousand years since then. But it remains as it started, a time for self-examination and penitence, demonstrated by self-denial, in preparation for Easter.
Lent is a time to particularly remember other special periods of 40. First, the 40 years that Moses and the Israelites spent in the desert. Second, the 40 days that Moses spent fasting on top of Mount Sinai. Third, the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert fasting.
In the final two verses of Matthew 3, Jesus is baptised in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. Our reading today starts with what happened next. Immediately after being baptised, Jesus went out into the desert. This incident closely parallels what happened to Moses and the Israelites immediately after their baptism in the Red Sea.
You may have found that your experience has been similar. Either you had the experience of adult baptism into the family of God, and straight afterwards life got really difficult instead of getting better. Or you have had the lent experience, where the 40 days before Easter each year are a time of temptation and struggle.
Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted there by the devil. For 40 days and 40 nights he fasted.
The reason for this is probably not clear to you. What is clear in the Bible is that God sees 40 as a special number. It appears again and again. It rained for 40 days when a flood covered the world in the time of Noah, for example. By some counts the Bible has 146 such examples.
During that time the devil, or Satan, came to Jesus. Verse three says that Satan spoke to Jesus. Satan said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become loaves of bread.”
This is an echo of the way that Satan tempted Eve when he said to her, “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?”
He starts by trying to sow seeds of doubt. He tries to make Eve doubt what God told her. He tries to make Jesus doubt that he is the Son of God.
And when Satan comes to you during your 40 days in the desert he will start by trying to make you doubt.
He may try to make you doubt God’s word. He may try to make you doubt your own value to God. He may try to make you doubt that God speaks and answers prayer. Whatever area in which he tries to sow doubt, it will be very hard to resist.
Eve failed to resist. Jesus quoted Deuteronomy (Deut 8:3; Deut 6:16; Deut 6:13). One reason for him to choose this book is perhaps that he would have heard it read aloud at least four times and maybe five.
In every synagogue there is a large cupboard, usually covered with a curtain. The cupboard contains scrolls wrapped in embroidered cloth. These scrolls are the Torah, or the five books of the law. Once a year they are taken out and read aloud all the way through. This is done because of God’s instructions in Deuteronomy 31:10–11 – “At the end of every seventh year, the Year of Release, during the Festival of Shelters, you must read this Book of Instruction to all the people of Israel when they assemble before the Lord your God.”
The Festival of Shelters takes place every year. It is also called Sukkot or the Feast of Tabernacles. The festival every 7th year (the sabbatical year) is the feast of Hakhel. Every Jew knew the words of the book of Deuteronomy. The words lived in their hearts and on their lips. Jesus certainly knew them well, being not just a religious Jew but the Son of God. In my research, I couldn’t find out when the Jews went from reading the law once every seven years to reading the law every year.
Twice Satan told Jesus that if he was really the Son of God, he could do whatever he wanted. Twice Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy. He didn’t answer with his own words. You don’t need to answer with your own words either. But you do need to have God’s word in your heart and on your lips when temptation comes.
The third time Satan showed Jesus the entire world and all the people of the world. Satan offered them to Jesus. “I will give it all to you,” the devil said. Satan knows that Jesus came to save the world, and the temptation is an easy way to do this. Of course it is a trick. Satan controls all the people of the world. If he didn’t own them, he couldn’t give them to Jesus. Jesus could have what he came for if …. This is the catch, to get what you want you have to give Satan what he wants. Satan wants to be in God’s place, and to be worshipped as God.
Jesus very sensibly rejected the easy way and quoted Deuteronomy – ‘You must worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’
Even if you have the best of intentions, Satan can twist them around and get you to turn away from God. We have to have the right priorities if we are to succeed in life. As we have discussed in past weeks, it is most important to trust God and obey. It is a matter of life or death.
Satan’s first temptation to us during this desert time is to stop trusting God.
In the garden, Eve was tempted to eat from the forbidden tree. In the desert the children of Israel were also tempted over food and complained about the lack of meat and bread instead of trusting God.
Jesus was fasting in the desert, and Satan again used food to tempt him. Don’t wait for God to feed you, because he won’t, is Satan’s subtle message. Trust yourself instead and grab the food that is in front of you.
Do you have this temptation? Are you in a place where it seems that God isn’t going to give you what you need. Does it feel like Satan is saying just eat what you want. Take it, God doesn’t really care and he isn’t going to feed you. Satan’s first lie is designed to undermine your relationship with God. He seeks to break trust and get you to disobey.
The second temptation is to worship a false god. The Hebrew slaves worshipped a golden calf. Satan wanted Jesus to worship him. He wants us to worship him. This lie encourages us to greater distrust of God by building up our trust in an idol or false god. It leads us into greater disobedience, by encouraging us to obey a false god.
The third stage is to test God. Satan quotes from the Bible to make it seem allowable, but actually to test God is really to show your distrust and disobedience by making God do what you say. Now Satan is saying that God should obey you. It is the ultimate lie.
We all experience these same temptations. It doesn’t mean we are bad people. Eve and Jesus were both sinless. During these 40 days of desert testing, we need to be alert to the methods of the devil and remember how he can be defeated.
He will tempt you. He will lie to you. He will try to stop you from trusting God and obeying God, but the word of God is more powerful than any two-edged sword. Take up the word of God now and you will be able to share in the victory of Jesus. Refuse to doubt. Refuse to disobey.
Make sure you have God’s word and his instructions in you heart and on your lips. It will soon be Easter. Resurrection is coming.