Background Passages: Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13
He stood on the high bank
on the east side of the Jordan River,
looked down at the milling masses,
lining up to be baptized by John.
The butterflies in Jesus’ stomach fluttered,
the stirring of the Holy Spirit within.
For the past 18 years he waited.
Listening for God’s call
to begin the work he was sent to do.
“It’s time, Jesus.”
The voice within urges him on.
Jesus shuffles forward in the meandering line.
Waiting his turn.
Deep in thought.
His sandals sink into the mud,
Toes touch water.
Snapping back to reality,
he looks into the disbelieving eyes of his cousin,
staring back at him.
“Why are you here?”
“I am not worthy…”
“You should baptize me…”
“No, John, you need to do this for me…
I need you to do this for me.”
Rising from the cool waters of the Jordan,
Liquid cascading from his hair and beard,
Jesus wipes the water from his eyes,
Looks up to heaven…
a prayer on his lips.
The clouds break.
A dove descends.
A voice declares his name…
Value and Validation.
A mountain top experience on the floor of a river valley.
Jesus slogs out of the river, climbs the bank,
Retracing his steps to the crest of the hill.
Jesus looks back at the crowd below
Waiting for their shot of redemption
Unaware that redemption stood beside them.
He turns away from his past.
Takes one step into the jagged edge of the wilderness.
Then another and another.
Into the desert to face the life options open to him.
Every step Jesus took into the barren, desolate and deserted landscape led him to a familiar place. I doubt it was his first time in the solitude of the wilderness. A place to ponder. A place to plan. A place to pray. Led by the Spirit as if the Father called to his son, “Let’s go someplace where we can talk.”
In the weeks after the spiritual high of his baptism, he found himself sitting in the shade of a grotto carved into the desert rock by wind and rain, looking back toward the setting sun over Judea…in the direction of Jerusalem where he knew his path would someday take him to the cross.
We call it the “Temptations of Christ” as if this was the first time Jesus faced his own human desires. We want our savior to be immune to the pressure of living up to God’s expectations. As God’s son, we want Jesus to know from the moment he was born that his role would be and how it would play out. We don’t think of him tempted as a young boy to lash out in selfish anger. Tempted as a teenager to disobey his mother’s command. Tempted as a man to stay with the family business rather than take that journey to Jerusalem.
We want to think that Jesus never faced the choices we face. Never faced the litany of options that pull us from God’s will. We want Jesus to demonstrate his rock-solid faith and obedience to God from the moment of his birth until he rose again into heaven.
To lock Jesus in that box of spiritual piety puts him on a heavenly leash, restrained from the possibility of sin. Negating the free will God gave him. Taking those possibilities from him makes his human birth unnecessary. His walk among us a sham. If the cross was not a choice, his ultimate sacrifice loses its meaning.
When Jesus walked into the wilderness, ready to begin his ministry, he faced a world of choices that would determine if he would follow the will of his Father or chart his own course. It was a time for Jesus to prepare himself mentally, emotionally and spiritually for the life ahead. He had to decide what kind of Messiah he would be. The Messiah God sent him to be or the one for whom the people would later clamor.
After weeks of prayer and preparation in the desert where all these possibilities flashed through his mind, Jesus awakens to his ravishing hunger. A voice begins picking at the heart of Jesus, trying to shake his resolve. The stone looks a lot like a biscuit. The voice says, “You’re hungry. To do this work, you’ve got to take care of yourself. Under the circumstances no one would blame you if you were a little self-absorbed. That rock looks a lot like a biscuit. Just say the word…” Jesus knew the power given to him by the Father. The counter argument of sin pushed him to selfishly abuse the God-given power. To place his own desires first in his life.
Yet, Jesus understood that selfishness served as a stumbling block to service and sacrifice. “Man shall not live by bread alone…” The work of God is not about us. It’s about those who need God’s touch in their lives. Living in the image of God demands that we set aside the selfish desires of our hearts and mirror the heart of God.
The voice in his heart says, “God will protect you in all circumstances. Hurl yourself from the temple roof. When the people see that you land unharmed, you will draw a crowd. Then when you preach, they will have to believe.” Jesus understood that we cannot bend God’s will to ours. We cannot force his hand by insisting our way is better. Jesus knew that calling attention to himself by an ostentatious show of power, might attract a crowd, but the faith it bought could not be sustained. “Do not test the Lord, your God…” His plan for our lives remains the perfect plan. Our errant decisions derail what God intended for us. We must avoid dictating the terms of our obedience to a God who knows us better than we know ourselves.
Jesus hears the voice say, “You’ve been asked to do the impossible. It doesn’t have to be that hard. I can set you up as ruler of the world with a snap of my fingers. Bow down to me. I’ll make it happen. No drama. No trauma. No painful sacrifice. Kneel.” Jesus fought the urge to take the easy road. It may have been a daily struggle throughout his ministry. As he began to grasp the magnitude of the sacrifice God asked of him, at a time when he could only imagine the agony that would come, he resisted sin’s easy path in favor of the road less traveled. He chose to connect with the one who offered real power rather than the one whose power was limited. “Get behind me, Satan. Worship the Lord your God and serve him only…”
To be sure, Jesus faced tough choices in the wilderness. We want the temptations of Christ to end in the wilderness, but they didn’t. Throughout his life on earth, Jesus faced the choice to do things differently…right up until the end. Sitting alone in the darkness of Gethsemane, agonizing over that which he knew lay ahead, Jesus fell to his knees. The depth of anguish in the prayer he pray to his God poured from his heart. “Please, take this cup from me. If there is any other way to do this, let’s find it.” When the voice inside him remained silent, he knew God’s way was the only way to bring salvation to a lost world. “Not my will, but yours be done.” A temptation. A choice. A decision.
If our strength to face the temptations we encounter feels weak in comparison to Jesus’ resolve, it is only because our connection to the one who gives that strength is frayed by our own selfish desires. We see it when we try to bend God’s will to serve our purpose. When we choose to follow the path of rebellion…the easy road…rather than rely on the power of God to keep us from stumbling on the rocks along the road he asks us to travel.
Will I live life my way or God’s way? Will I love or reject? Will I serve or demand? Will I help or hurt? Will I give or covet? The decisions we make must reflect his will and not ours. To live in the image of God requires us to make an active decision to do so. Every day. Every minute. With every decision point.
Sin will promise the world. God gives us the freedom to follow or flee. We do or we don’t.
A temptation. A choice. A decision.
Which will it be?