Encounter with Jesus: Jesus and Satan
This Lent, our theme is Encounter with Jesus. Each week, we’ll be looking at some one-on-one conversations that Jesus has with folks – Nicodemus, the woman at the well, Martha of Bethany – and even, today, Satan. And as we listen in on each of these conversations, we’ll have a chance to put ourselves into the conversation. When we encounter Jesus, what does he have to say to us? What do we have to say to him? What is he calling us to do? Or maybe an even more basic question: Do we encounter Jesus? If not, why aren’t we meeting him?
Today we start by listening in on a conversation between Jesus and Satan. In the lectionary, the three year cycle of scripture texts for the church year, Lent always begins with what is known as “the temptation of Jesus.” The scene from Matthew takes place immediately after the baptism of Jesus. We read about Jesus’ baptism together in January. Remember, Jesus is baptized by John, and as he emerges from the Jordan, the Spirit of God descends on him like a dove, and God’s voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We move directly from Jesus’ baptism to Jesus’ time in the wilderness, being tempted by Satan. The text says that Jesus was in the wilderness fasting for forty days and nights, and that at the end of this period he was unsurprisingly famished. I always pictured the wilderness as a kind of wild forest place, but actually the word means desert. Jesus is alone in a desert place, a desolate place, for forty days. Scholars have sometimes disagreed about whether or not Jesus was literally in the wilderness for forty days, and they’ve debated over whether he was truly and completely fasting from food or water that whole time, something that would surely be impossible for any mere human, but I think those questions are missing the point. The number forty in the scriptures is laden with meaning. The flood lasted forty day and nights. The Israelites were in the wilderness with Moses, seeking the Promised Land for forty years. Jesus is in the desert for forty days and nights. It means he was there a long time. And so our season of Lent is also shaped around forty days. Lent is a way we commit to walking with Jesus, trying to join him in this wilderness place and in his longer journey of heading resolutely to Jerusalem and the cross. We begin Lent with this text so that we can begin our walk with Jesus.
Matthew tells us that the Spirit – the Spirit that just marked Jesus at his baptism – the Spirit leads him to the wilderness to be tempted. This experience, this encounter with Satan, is as much a part of his preparation for his public ministry as his baptism was. Not until after these forty days apart will Jesus begin preaching and teaching. After the forty days, when I can only imagine he is exhausted, physically drained, and emotionally raw and vulnerable, Satan comes to him. The text doesn’t describe Satan, and the Bible as a whole offers a lot of different interpretations of Satan. Whatever form comes to your mind, Satan’s purpose is to separate us from God. I’m suspicious of any time we try to use a concept of Satan to remove the responsibility for our sins from ourselves to something else, as in “the Devil made me do it.” But I certainly believe that there are many forces that seek to separate us from God, both within us and around us. Again, focusing too much on the form of Satan misses the point. The point is that Jesus experiences in this encounter three temptations, three opportunities to turn away from the path he’s about to travel.
First, Satan encourages a famished Jesus to turn stones into bread to eat. “If you are the Son of God,” Satan says, and you can almost hear the heavy emphasis on the if, the doubt laced into the words. Jesus responds with scripture: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Then Satan takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, and tells him to throw himself down “if you are the Son of God,” “for it is written,” he says, “’He will command his angels concerning you.’” Satan quotes scripture right back at Jesus, taking words out of context, using them to cause harm. Jesus is not taken in. “It is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” he responds. Finally, Satan takes him to a high mountain, overlooking the kingdoms of the world, promising them all to Jesus if Jesus will worship him. Jesus rebukes him: “Away with you Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God; serve only God.’” Defeated, Satan leaves Jesus alone at last.
What is the meaning of these tests that Jesus faces? Satan urges Jesus to believe that he can’t depend on God, that God won’t give him enough, that Jesus needs more, and has to take it when he can get it. He tries to convince Jesus to test God, to believe that he can’t trust God or God’s love. He tempts Jesus with power, to believe that he needs power of a particular kind – earthly power, power over others, power that comes from being in charge of everything. And yet, I don’t know why any of these things would be particularly tempting for Jesus. Jesus seems to so easily knock down what Satan throws his way. Is he really tempted to say otherwise? To take him up on any of these offers? I can read this passage and almost think, “Gosh, I could have avoided those temptations too!” It seems so easy to see through the motivations of the devil. It seems so clear that Jesus must and will refuse these sham offers of fame and glory and fortune. Did this “temptation” really cost Jesus, or stress him, or push him, or bring him great pain? Was he teetering on the brink of giving in? I don’t see it. I’m skeptical. And yet, for the gospel writers, the passage is clearly important. What are we missing?
Satan doesn’t ask Jesus to do anything that it is outside of his power to do already. The devil encourages Jesus to turn stones into bread for food. Well, we witness in the scriptures Jesus turning water into wine and Jesus feeding crowds of thousands. The devil tells Jesus that he will give Jesus glory and authority over the kingdoms of the world if Jesus worships the devil. But Jesus speaks occasionally of knowing that if God had chosen, Jesus could have been an earthly king with kingdoms to rule – he wouldn’t need this power from the devil. And the devil tells Jesus to test God’s love and care for him, but Jesus has just come from hearing God say directly at his baptism that Jesus was God’s beloved son, that God was well-pleased with him.
So these temptations aren’t tempting because Jesus can’t do them without the devil’s help. They are tempting to Jesus in a different, deeper way. Remember, I said that Satan is what or who tries to separate us from God. And remember that repeated phrase that Satan speaks to Jesus: “If you are the Son of God…” Satan wants to separate Jesus from who he belongs to, and he tries to do it by making Jesus have an identity crisis. What the devil offers is what Jesus already has and already can do, but in a short-cut way that corrupts and twists. What the devil asks Jesus to do is to forget who he is, what he is called to do, whose child he is, what his purpose is. Jesus knows what he’s come for – but the devil is trying to convince him that he can get the same things in a supposedly easier way. Satan is trying to convince Jesus that there’s an easier path to power and glory than the path God has him on. After all, the path Jesus is on includes being abandoned, denied and betrayed by his closest friends, being beaten and tried, and being put to death. Shouldn’t Jesus choose his own path, his plan, instead of God’s? And that is tempting. Satan wants to cut Jesus off from his source, from his true identity, from the grounding he has in his parent, in God who has set him on this difficult path. Thankfully, Jesus knows better. He knows who he is, whose he is. He belongs to God. He is beloved. He is God’s child. And he will follow God’s path.
What about us? Are we tempted to forget our identity? Can we be separated from God, forgetting whose we are? Here is a temptation that seems very real, very hard, ever present. There are so many things that seek to separate us from who we belong to. David Lose writes, “I would argue that temptation is not so often temptation toward something … but rather is usually the temptation away from something – namely, our relationship with God and the identity we receive in and through that relationship ... On one level, we experience specific temptations very concretely, but on another they are all the same, as they seek to shift our allegiance, trust, and confidence away from God and toward some substitute that promises a more secure identity … Consider the media barrage of advertising to which most of us are so regularly subjected. Nine times out of ten the goal of such ads is to create in us a sense of lack and inadequacy, followed by the implicit promise that purchasing the advertised product will relieve our insecurity … People are under assault every single day by tempting messages that seek to draw their allegiance from the God who created and redeemed them toward some meager substitute.” (1)
Lose writes, “You only know who you are when you realize whose you are …Our identity comes from the people with whom we hang out and is always received, rather than created. It comes, that is, always as a gift and a promise. And that’s why it’s so important to [remember] that you only know who you are when you realize whose you are.” (2) Who we are, dear friends, are God’s beloved children. That’s who we are. Don’t be tempted to let anything get in between you and that knowledge.
I’ve been encouraging folks to make a special effort to attend worship and to attend some of the “extra” experiences of worship and community that Lent brings because remembering who and whose we are is easier when we ground ourselves in our faith, ground ourselves in our relationship with God, ground ourselves in the community of faith that is supporting us, encouraging us, trying to walk with Jesus too, like we are. The best thing we can do to resist the lure of separating ourselves from God, forgetting our own identity, is to make sure we stay firmly rooted in God, so that whenever something tries to separate us from God, we’ll be far too secure in God’s promises to be drawn away. Jesus knew who he was and whose he was. Let’s make sure we know too. Amen.
(1) David Lose, http://www.davidlose.net/2016/02/lent-1-c-identity-theft/
(2) Emphasis added. Lose, David,