When I was in college, I helped lead Wilderness Leadership Skills classes that trained other students to lead trips for our outdoor program. We designed the courses so that the conditions and challenges students encountered in their training trips were always more extreme than the challenges we expected them to face on trips they would lead on their own. During these classes, the trip-leaders-in-training took their two class trips to Mt Rogers and Mt Mitchell for winter backpacking, because we knew that if they learned to lead competently in extreme conditions, they would be able to lead confidently in less demanding environments, even if an emergency situation arose.
It is perhaps for a similar reason that Matthew tells us that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism so that the devil might tempt him. In the wilderness, Satan tries to tempt Jesus to act according to a dark and twisted version of who he truly is as the Messiah. Jesus must face temptations to abandon his true calling now, and win at least an initial victory over them, so that when smaller temptations pop up suddenly, in the middle of his work, he will have experience to draw on. In this way, Jesus can stay true to his calling even as it leads him to the cross.
So Satan meets Jesus when he is vulnerable— famished and weak from fasting 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness. Satan tries to seduce Jesus into being self-serving in his understanding of what it means to be the Son of God. “If you are really the Son of God…” he taunts in his first two tests…then make bread for yourself out of these stones. Throw yourself off the Temple, you know God will rescue you.” In other words—use your power to satisfy yourself and show the world how special you really are. Put yourself in the center of it all, Jesus—after all, you are the Son of God. But Jesus does not give in—he draws strength from God’s Word, quoting passages from Israel’s own wilderness wanderings. So Satan tries one more temptation: to have power over all the kingdoms if only Jesus will worship him—it’s a twisted version of God’s promise that Jesus, Son of David, Son of God would one day rule over heaven and earth—a version that skips the suffering and death if only Jesus will worship the devil.
With each temptation, Satan tries to tempt Jesus away from keeping his focus on serving and obeying God. But Jesus does not fall for it. He holds on to a clear understanding of who God called him to be. He refuses to go the way of the tempter, and so he begins his embrace of the way of the cross—the way that would lead to suffering and death. Jesus will not turn aside or be diverted from the path that began at his baptism and would lead to the redemption of Israel and the whole world. He would not be distracted from his calling from God.
A question this poses for us is: will we allow ourselves to be distracted and turned aside from the path laid out for us in our baptism? This 40-day period of Lent is often described as a journey through the wilderness. Many of us have grown accustomed to giving things up or taking up particular practices that we hope will help us grow closer to God. But this week, something happened that made me realize how seldom I really stop to consider, recognize and name the Adversary, the evil, in our midst. If this wilderness temptation story forms our foundation for Lent, then part of Lent should be about preparing ourselves for our own encounters with evil. Last Saturday, I had to face the unexpected truth that my Lenten disciplines of late may have prepared me to say no to the chocolate cake at the birthday party and to limit my time on Facebook, but I was not prepared when evil spoke to me through a voice on the other end of a phone line.
You see, about 11 pm last Saturday night I got a phone call that made me realize just how sinister the devil’s tricks can be, and how easily we can be lured into the darkness.
It was an anonymous phone call from a man threatening to kill someone he said was a good friend of mine. It was a good hook—for though I did not recognize the name of my so-called friend, this man knew my first name and I was afraid not to do what he said when he asked if I was going to help my friend or let her die. I won’t go in to all the details, but eventually, the man told me if I did not describe over the phone certain vulgar, sexual acts I was going to do to him or let him do to me, he would start cutting off body parts of this woman who he said owed him drug money. Panicked by his threats and his counting down from 5, I tried to repeat back what he was telling me to say, but he said it wasn’t good enough. Eventually I hung up. The whole time I was talking to him, I was shaking with fear. I didn’t know who this man was, if he knew where I lived, what he might do, why he had called me and if he really even knew who I was. Now, looking back, I can think of lots of different ways I wish I had reacted and responded—in the moment and afterwards. But at the time, I panicked. In my fear, I forgot who I was. I forgot God’s promises. And I forgot the calling we have to trust God and bear witness to the way of Christ.
Underlying all 3 of Jesus’ temptations—and all of our own—is the temptation to put our trust in the wrong places and things. In moments of temptation, in times when we confront evil, it is so easy for us to think that we are alone and that we must fight as the world does to protect our lives, our security. But as Christians, we are called to put our trust and our hope in God alone. As Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy, “It is written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” In following Jesus to worship and serve only God, we are called to embrace Jesus’ way of the cross. Still, as I discovered on Saturday night, sometimes when we are threatened, we find ourselves trying to put trust in the very things that go against God and God’s ways.
Jesus made very clear that as his followers, we are called to live differently, and to hold on to our lives lightly. My understanding of Jesus’ teachings leads me to believe Jesus never advocated for violence, especially for the sake of protecting ourselves. Looking at Jesus on the cross, I see God revealing a way that overcomes hate and violence not by matching it, but by taking the suffering into his own body and overcoming it with love and resurrection hope.
But learning to live this radical new way requires practice and imagination, and we cannot do it without help from the Holy Spirit. Now when I lived in Durham, (just down the street from Sarah!), I tried to imagine and practice what non-violence might look like if I encountered evil. Often as I walked alone down the street to my house from the bus stop I would practice in my head how I would want to respond if I did get into a bad situation. What could I say to interrupt an attacker’s thoughts and actions, how could I be a creative witness to God in the midst of a violent situation? I’m thankful I was never tested to see how my resolve would have held.
But I have to admit that last Saturday night, with this mysterious phone threat, I was tempted to want to hide behind violence. I had no creative response to try to disrupt the caller’s evil threats. Nothing I said or did pointed to the hope and faith I have in Christ. Instead, I thought: I would feel safer if the police came, bearing a gun, just in case this creep shows up. I was grateful to have my boyfriend JB with me—in part because we could stop, after hanging up the phone, and be in prayer together—praying both for our safety and the safety of the caller and the person he had threatened to harm, whether she actually existed or not. But in large part, I was glad JB was with me because I felt less vulnerable, more protected having a strong man there with me.
In the 45 minutes after that phone call, waiting to hear back from the police, I found myself preoccupied with thinking they could protect me. We have a tendency to go to those we think have most authority and power. And in doing so, we often show that we trust human violence, strength, and power more than we trust God. It is not unlike Jesus’ temptations to take matters into his own hands and thereby avoid the way of suffering and death.
Like Jesus, we are called to live differently than the world around us. We do not get the easy way out. Yes, our society’s responses make sense—build walls and fences, secure fortresses to protect ourselves. Buy guns and be ready to stand your ground if anyone tries to attack you. But is that the way of the One who fasted and prayed; the One who said no to the devil’s temptations and instead embraced the way of the cross? Aren’t we supposed to take seriously what Jesus says in Matthew 16:25: “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them.”
Now, let me be clear. I don’t think Jesus is telling us to throw caution to the wind and go out looking for ways to get ourselves killed. But I believe that Jesus does think it would be better for us to lose our lives yet stay true to the way of God’s kingdom—especially if the alternative is saving our lives by abandoning everything Jesus has taught us to stand for and be about.
Jesus makes this point in another passage—Matthew 10:28: “Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body but can’t kill the soul. Instead, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell.” I used to think maybe that meant don’t fear people, instead fear God—who stands ready to judge us. But that’s not really what the text here says.
I find Tom Wright’s explanation of the passage most helpful and compelling. He says, “Jesus believed that Israel was faced in his day by enemies at two quite different levels. There were the obvious ones: Rome, Herod, and their underlings. They were the ones who had the power to kill the body. But there were other, darker enemies, who had the power to kill the soul as well: enemies who were battling for that soul…during Jesus’ ministry, and who were using the more obvious enemies as a cover. … The demonic powers that are greedy for the soul of God’s people [use our] very desire for justice and vengeance as the bait on the hook. [As] people of the light [we] are never more at risk than when [we] are lured into fighting the darkness with more darkness. That is the road straight to the smoldering [trash heap], to Gehenna, and Jesus wants his followers to be well aware of it. This is what [we] should be afraid of…[those whose darkness can darken our own souls.] God is the one we do not have to fear. Indeed, [God] is the one we can trust with our lives, our souls, our bodies, everything.”
Trusting in this, we are then freed to go wherever the Spirit leads—even if that leads us to harsh, dangerous places. For that is what the wilderness was in Jesus’ day—not the scenic, refreshing respite from urban and suburban life that we think of today. No, wilderness was dangerous—the place where demons lived. Today, the wilderness God calls us to may look very different than the Judean desert. But in fasting and praying, we may find that God is calling us to those wild places where the evils of our society reside, places where evil may well try to tempt us to fight darkness with darkness.
What might that look like? For you all here in Winston, maybe you have felt the Spirit leading you to volunteer for one of the Overflow Homeless Shelters, but since the tragic incident where Richard was attacked, you’ve been afraid. Maybe there’s another program or community where you feel God wants you to be involved, but you’re hesitant because it would mean making yourself vulnerable, or taking a financial risk, or giving up something precious to you. So perhaps this Lent can be for you a time of soul-searching, of fasting and praying and asking God for the strength to overcome temptation and go where the Spirit leads.
It’s always a risk—going out in to the wilderness, confronting the demons of our day—whether it’s those who can hurt or kill us or those who in some other way tempt us away from who we are as children of God. We are vulnerable to give in to evil’s seductions that would have us believe we need to take matters into our own hands. Our feeble minds and hearts make it easy to forget the calling God has placed on our lives, to bear witness by following Jesus all the way to the cross. So, it can often seem impossible to face temptation, to come face to face with evil and not give in to what our instinct tells us, because we are so weak.
But the good news is that the one who was tempted in the wilderness and overcame that temptation, is also the crucified and resurrected one, in whom God’s new life is made available to us, who cannot by our own resources withstand temptation. We pray those words we sang earlier in the service: “When we face temptation’s power, lonely struggling, filled with dread, Christ who knew the tempter’s hour, Come and be our living bread. By your grace protect, preserve us, Lest we fall, your trust betray. Yours, above all other voices, Be the Word we hear, obey.” We go into the wilderness in faith, and God brings us to the other side, so we can “come out the wilderness leaning on the Lord.”
We, like Jesus, are called to fast and to pray, to store Scripture in our hearts and know how to use it. To keep our eyes on God, trusting our Lord for everything. We are God’s people, and when we remember our calling to bring light to the world, it will help us to say a firm No to the voices trying to lure us back in to darkness. This is what Lent is truly about—sharpening our skills, building our relationship with God so that we can live as God’s children, salt and light in a dark world. For God has chosen to transform the world through us, the body of Christ, the Church. Lent is about keeping our imaginations rich with possibility and our hearts open to trusting the unexpected ways we’ll find God at work.
We enter this journey through Lent, through the wilderness where the Spirit leads, trusting that God’s grace goes before us—giving us the power to worship and serve God; to push back temptation and to stand up to the evil of this world because Christ has overcome. Many of you have probably prayed the prayer of confession that is part of the traditional Communion liturgy, when we ask God to “free us for joyful obedience” Freed for joyful obedience is what it means to be truly human. St Irenaeus said it this way: “the glory of God is man (and woman) fully alive”—we are fully alive when we are able to be joyful girls and boys who are not tempted into darkness, but who serve others for the joy it brings—because we have learned it from Christ. So let us seek to be that light this Lent—because the world owes us nothing, but we owe each other the world.
 from Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, p. 25.
 Paraphrase from Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, p. 26-27.
Laura Beach (Pastor, Longtown UMC)