I invite you to take a few moments with me to reflect on today’s Upper Room Devotional below.
Thank you for sharing this early moment of your day with me, with God, and with the thoughts and words of this reading that I hope you will carry with you throughout the coming day and night.
Matthew 4:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Temptation of Jesus
4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Tim’s Devotional Reflection for Today
At Jesus’ baptism a heavenly voice proclaimed, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Immediately, then, Jesus was led into the wilderness “by the Spirit,” not for a few quiet days away from it all to rest and prepare for his ministry. The time in the wilderness was a time of testing for Jesus just before he began his public ministry.
Matthew, who is always drawing parallels to the Hebrew Scriptures, must have in mind here Israel’s own wilderness wanderings. Once the people of Israel had established their covenant with God, and had received their identity with God, they also found themselves being tested in the hard and harsh wilderness. Matthew specifies that Jesus fasted 40 days and 40 nights before a series of tests. “Forty” was a number commonly used to denote any long period of time. The Israelites wandered for 40 years in the wilderness. [Exodus 34:28] Moses stayed alone on Mt. Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights [Deuteronomy 9:9, 18] Elijah took 40 days to complete his journey to Mt. Horeb. [1 Kings 19:8] By waiting and fasting for the “forty days and forty nights,” Matthew brings to mind the time and events that tested the Israelites during their own time of testing in the wilderness.
We are now more than halfway through the forty-day season of Lent—the forty days before Easter, excluding Sundays. During this season, we focus in a more intentional way on the direction of our lives and the role of spiritual discipline in our lives. It is a time of testing for us, as well—a time for us to test ourselves. It is a time for us to hear and to affirm who we are as God’s beloved children—in a way something like Jesus did at his baptism. And, it is a time to reject claims that we are something less than that—in a way something like Jesus did in the wilderness.
Just as the snake in the Genesis story is smooth and crafty and subtle, so Matthew’s idea of the devil is smooth as silk, suave, and convincing. Evil comes to us usually in that package—attractive and promising.
Jesus’ first test is to turn the stones into bread. Jesus had been fasting for 40 days. Imagine the hunger. But, imagine the power of being able to turn stones into bread. Imagine the power he could wield with the promise of plenty. Jesus rejects that for himself.
In the second test, the tempter says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” But Jesus said, “No” to testing God with such games. He would certainly be famous. He would be known throughout the land. It would be quite a show. Yet, Jesus said “no” to testing God in that way. Notice that the tempter quotes scripture to justify this misuse of power.
The tempter then tested Jesus, saying, “You have the power. You could take control of the world.” Picture the slick tempter with an arm casually tossed around Jesus’ shoulder, saying: “One day all this could be yours, if you’ll just fall down and worship me.” Jesus could have had the richest treasuries and the strongest armies. But instead, Jesus said “No.” “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”
Temptation is a very real part of life: temptation to stray from the values we hold dear, temptation to take short cuts, to avoid struggle, and to find the easy way through. The devils that try to overturn God’s values and destroy life don’t appear in our world today with cloven hooves or pointy tails. No, they’re much more subtle than that! Instead, we worship and give our primary allegiance to such gods as building up our social status, satisfying our craving for new and ever more thrilling experiences, believing that more is always better, needing to feel in control, in charge, and on the top of the heap at all times.
We are tempted by power. What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love.
The question really isn’t whether or not we should have power. We all have some power—some have a lot of power and some have very little, but we all have some power. The question is how we use that power in ways that are good, and true and life-giving. The temptation of power is to exploit people for our own gain, to control people for our own ends and to manipulate people for our own purposes. Jesus had tremendous power and he said no to its destructive use.
We are tempted with having more and more. One of the great temptations we face is the temptation to always have more. Happiness is just around the corner if only we have more things, or more wealth, or the finer things of life. This is the message our society bombards us with. It is so subtle. The image of the tempter early in the book of Genesis is the image of the snake, who is the most subtle of all creatures. Why, because temptation is subtle! The concept of enough is a concept that has fallen out of fashion. Whatever we have, it is not enough! Where can one find enough these days? And, that temptation is so subtle and difficult because it is all wrapped up in such good concepts as hard work, providing for family, making a difference in the world, being able to contribute.
Perhaps the basic temptation is to live as someone else. Inherent in every temptation is the question of who we really are and whose we are. The question hangs in the air around every temptation. For Jesus, it was, “If you are the Son of God…” For us, it is, “If you are a child of God…If you are a follower of Jesus…” Notice the “IF.” The tone of the tempter is “You’re not really the Son of God.” The tone of the tempter is “It doesn’t really matter.”
Someone has said, “The best measure of a person is what you would do if you knew no one would ever find out.” That’s pretty good wisdom, because when you take away all the lust for reward and all the fear of punishment — no one will ever find out — what you do in life grows out of who you understand yourself to be. In other words, Christian ethics grow out of Christian identity; the decisions we make in life are a product of who we understand ourselves to be.
One of the oft-repeated statements about Lent in 2021 is that the whole past year has been the season of Lent—a time of letting go, of giving up what we treasure, of denying ourselves. It has also been a time of clarity about who we are, what we value, and how we care for one another. It is my prayer that, as we move past the pandemic during this next year, we will hold on to that clarity and allow that to shape our lives in the days to follow.
There is a lot of theology woven in to hymns. To enhance today’s reading, I recommend listening to “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days” by Claudia Frances Hernaman (1873). I hope you will take a few moments to let the words of this message and the emotion that always connects us to music connect with your soul. Listen to this hymn on SoundCloud.
Thank you for sharing this early moment of your day with me, with God, and with the words and music that I hope you will carry with you throughout the coming day and night.
I am so grateful for you, for our church, and for the Love that will see us all through this very difficult time. Please stay safe and well and we’ll be together again in spirit tomorrow morning!
Grace and Peace,
Dr. Tim Bruster