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Testing, Testing, Testing Jesus!

Philippians 2:5-8;  Matthew 4:1-11


The famous French philosopher René Descartes once said, “I think; therefore, I exist.” I’d rather say, “I’m tempted; therefore, I exist.” I am tempted, you are tempted, he or she is tempted, we all are tempted, you all are tempted, they all are tempted – OK, OK!

But why should Jesus, the Son of God, be tempted? Why not? Wasn’t Jesus human, like any one of us? If you asked me for my favorite stories in the Gospels, I’d say, this is one of them — it is so vivid and colorful, but it also stirs up my imagination and brings me much closer to Jesus’s humanity as he struggles with Satan in the wilderness.

And this is spiritually healthy, for sometimes I tend to blow Jesus’s divine nature so out of proportion, I end up diluting it, so to speak, all that’s so human in him – even the possibility of temptation. And then, I wonder, how could Jesus fully comprehend all that I go through life, especially when I must face temptation?


Before we move on, let’s explore two key words in this Gospel narrative: satan and wilderness. The Hebrew word satan means “the adversary” — in the Scriptures, anything, anyone that prevents us from being all that God wants us to be, is called satan. Now, you are free to imagine such a formidable adversary whichever way you like – even the Bible does that!

As a tricky serpent, for instance; or as a fallen angel still holding grudges against God; or as an ugly, scary monster; even as a super-power equal to God, yet evil in nature –but satan in the Bible simply means, “the adversary.”

This term was kept by the early Greek and Latin translations, and over time associated with the Greek diabolos, which literally means “the one who throws something across your way” – like a stone on your path, or a monkey wrench into your works.

Diabolos became devil in English – which sometimes we portray as a frightening demon with long horns, sharp teeth, a twisted tail, and a pitchfork in his left hoof. Yet that is not what Matthew has in mind when he brings Satan, or Mr. Devil, into the picture. I’m sure he uses it as a literary device to get everybody’s attention, and he says nothing about satan’s appearance.

For Matthew, satan represents Jesus’s own struggle with his ego-related, human, instinctive forces claiming both his mind and his heart at a very crucial moment in his life, right after his baptism, when God invites him to hit the road less traveled to meet us right there where need to be forgiven and reconciled.


It seems weird — for Jesus to be called, to be chosen, to be set apart by God, and to be put to test right away. But I don’t think that “being tested” is the best reading.

The way I see it, here in the wilderness both Almighty Father and his chosen Son meet as never before, but not to have Jesus tested, rather to discern together their relationship, God’s blueprint for a new creation, and whether Jesus is ready to move on.

Forty days and forty nights, the “perfect” amount of time — which is what the number 40 means in the Bible — plenty time for such a demanding soul searching.


The second keyword in this narrative is wilderness, which is how the English Bible translates the Hebrew jesimon — a wilderness, a desolation of total devastation and utter solitude.

A barren place, where the hills are dust heaps and the rocks are jagged, where a freezing wind howls at night and absolutely nothing can be found that feeds the body, let alone the soul.

Matthew could have chosen a different setting, perhaps a glamorous, enticing, exuberant spot like the garden of Eden. Instead, he places Jesus in the middle of a jesimon, for that is what life looks like when we must wrestle with life-and-death questions and decisions, and we wonder whether we will be able to overcome.


After so many days and nights of hardships and deprivation, hunger, thirst, and extreme fatigue finally strike. In this overwhelming wilderness, a stone suddenly becomes a loaf of fresh and nurturing bread – and if he is God’s child, then why shouldn’t he have what he wants? If he caves in now that he is facing hunger, thirst, and exhaustion, imagine the fiasco when he must face much bigger challenges?

But despite his formidable hunger, Jesus rebounds with a strong sense of trust and obedience – “Bread would be great, yet my Father has promised me he will never abandon me, and his Promise is much more filling than anything else.”


In those days, Jews believed that when the Messiah came, he would reveal himself from the roof of the holy Temple in the holy city of Jerusalem. Jesus must struggle with the idea that he can be the Messiah his people want, both a popular spiritual guru and a mighty king that will get rid of the Roman occupation and transform Israel into a new superpower.

“Listen, Father” – Jesus could have prayed — “I am available, you can count on me, but more or less like David and Solomon together with all their mighty, never crucified!” Yet once again Jesus’s answer speaks of his unconditional trust and obedience – “Not my way, Father, but yours!”


Jesus finally must struggle with our very human need to be successful, to feel good about ourselves at any price – quite often by compromising the truth, or “for selling our soul to the devil,” as we say. Now Jesus must struggle with the temptation to give up, to get out of that excruciating situation right away, yet he will never betray the best of God in him.

And once again he rebukes the adversary – “Away from me, Satan, for we are to worship the Lord our God, and serve only him!” The straw that breaks the camel’s – I mean, the devil’s back! With another masterful stroke, Matthew provides a “happy ending” – the Son of God sends Satan packing and “suddenly angels come and wait on Jesus.”


Friends, what a better time to return to this moving story than this Lenten season. As you may know, “lent” derives from the word “lengthening,” the “lengthening” or “stretching” of the days,” or “springtime,” for our days see more and more sunlight.

A season of preparation and expectation – a second Advent of sorts — as we begin our journey towards Holy Week with a growing sense of expectation. A time for us to join Jesus in the wilderness so that we can recognize when and how temptation comes to us — when the adversary throws a monkey wrench into our works!

Temptation comes to us in moments when we look at others and feel insecure about not having enough. Temptation comes in our judgements about strangers or friends who make choices we do not understand. Temptation comes to us to have us look away from those in need and to live our lives unaffected by poverty, by hunger, by disease, by loneliness.

Temptation rages in moments when we allow our temper to define our lives or when addiction to wealth, power, vanity, influence over others, or an excessive need defines who we are. Temptation comes to us to help us justify a lie or a sin, even a small lie or a small sin – a demeaning joke, for instance, or a questionable business practice, or a criticism of a spouse or a colleague or a neighbor when they are not around.

TEMPTATION, with capital letters — a constant companion in life, indeed, and Jesus knew the power of it – he knew its appeal for the human heart, and he knew the solution was not simply human willpower.

For temptation is such a formidable adversary – and quite tricky and smart.


What Jesus discovered and experienced in the wilderness during those agonizing 40 days and 40 nights was this –that the great answer to satan is not just our own willpower, but God’s power, not our resolve, but God’s Spirit. Thus, in those inevitable moments when we sense the adversary rising to the surface of our lives, we got to let the power of God take over.

As we said on Ash Wednesday, Jesus’s wilderness should be seen as a blessing –as a golden opportunity to welcome the Spirit and to deepen our relationship with Christ who set us free from our past failings and help us overcome temptation in the future.

May Jesus’s own struggles and answers in the wilderness of life and death empower us and guide us through our own wilderness today and every day.