Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Put to the Test” Matthew 4:1-11
It had seemed like the natural thing to do. After all, Moses had spent forty days and nights fasting on the mountain of God before he had returned with the stone tablets of the ten commandments. Elijah had humbled himself for forty days in the wilderness after battling the prophets of Baal. He had come away with a new vision for his prophetic work. If it had been right for Moses and Elijah, why not him? No sooner had God’s voice stopped ringing from the heavens above the waters of his baptism, than he felt it—the tug of the Spirit, leading him away from the Jordan’s banks and guiding him high into the hills of the Judean desert.
It hadn’t been easy. The sun was brutal, and even though the grotto was sheltered, the days were far hotter there than in the Galilee, and the nights were surprisingly cold. Some days, the wind blew in from the Transjordan with the harsh whirl of stinging sand. There were snakes and scorpions. One night, jackals howled nearby, dreaming of an easy meal. He saw a sand cat, warily trotting with belly low and enormous ears swiveling for sounds of threat. She paused and blinked at him with amber eyes, a dead lizard dangling from her mouth. “Have you brought me a gift?” he asked before she scuttled away to a hidden den.
He wasn’t sure when he first realized that he was not truly alone. The first temptation seemed so innocuous. “Jesus, I’m famished. When was the last time we ate, anyway? Don’t you need a little something to renew your strength and reinvigorate your prayers? Even the Israelites found a little manna in the desert. Why not turn this stone to bread and relieve our hunger?”
His stomach growled at the suggestion. It would be easy. Anyone who would one day turn five loaves and two fish into a feast for thousands could certainly whip up a tasty treat for two from a stone. Who would know anyway?
But then he thought about his ancestors: the Israelites in Sinai nourished with bread from heaven; Elijah under the broom tree, fed by an angel; Moses on the mountaintop, sustained by God only knows what. He sighed. If there were to be an end to his fast there in the wilderness, it would be up to God and not the rumbling of his belly or the wiles of the Adversary.
The answer to the question, when he found it, came from the Torah, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” He suspected that it would not be the last time that he would be hungry, but he trusted that God would provide. He returned to his prayers.
It didn’t stop. In a dizzy disorienting whirl of color and light, he found that, although he was still way up high, the wilderness was far behind. He looked out over a busy city. A crowded labyrinth of streets marched down a hill, crammed with shops and vendors and pedestrians. A haze of dust and the smoke of cooking fires hung upon the air. On one side, a steep valley fell away to a deep wadi, water-filled and gleaming. Below him were giant flagstones, marble columns, and people, many, many people: pilgrims in travel-worn cloaks, proud scribes in fine robes, threadbare beggars crying out for alms, lordly priests with bejeweled breastplates.
He sat down with a thump, his legs dangling over the edge of the parapet, knowing exactly where he was. He had been dedicated here at 8 days old, the priest wielding a small, sharp, curved knife to mark him as a child of Abraham. He had camped out here when he was only twelve, sitting among the teachers for days, filled with questions and an eagerness to learn and teach. Year after year, he had made pilgrimage here, to remember the Passover, to pay the tax, to offer an acceptable sacrifice. Jesus was in his Father’s House, the Temple in Jerusalem. He had just never seen it from this vantage before, from the very pinnacle.
“Magnificent, isn’t it?” his companion asked with sincere admiration. “You are the Messiah, God’s beloved one. All this is yours by right. Let’s get the party started. Reveal yourself right now in power and glory. Let’s humble those scribes and priests. Let’s liberate those people. Let’s heal those beggars. Let’s clean house. Step out and claim your rightful place. You know what the Psalmist said, ‘God will lift you up.’”
Jesus thought. Below him in the court of the Gentiles, he heard the shouts of moneylenders and the cries of animals to be sacrificed. A display of holy power and protection here and now would do more to affirm his identity as the Messiah than years of preaching and teaching and healing in the hinterlands. Why not put these arrogant priests and self-centered scribes in their places? Why not claim what was rightfully his and restore righteousness to the Father’s House? He could see it.
But as Jesus looked out over Jerusalem’s narrow streets, he remembered the story of his forefather David. The King of Israel, sweat-soaked, half-naked, and exhausted, had sung and danced before the Lord with all his might, bringing the Ark of the Covenant up to the holy city, limping and leaping before God and all the people. Surely, the way of the Messiah was like that, one of complete devotion and absolute humility, not power and pride. The way of God’s Son would be to do God’s bidding and not the other way around. “No,” Jesus answered with a rueful shake of his head, “I’ll not put God to the test.” He bowed his head and closed his eyes.
It wasn’t over. “Come with me,” his Adversary invited. They were back in the wilderness where his companion was leaning in the shade at the mouth of the grotto. With a quick upward jerk of his chin, he pointed to the trail that threaded up the hillside to the very top of the mountain. Jesus rose on wobbly legs, stepped out, and stood blinking in the harsh sun. The air was clear and super-heated, rippling out at the brim of the world. The stones were hot beneath his sandals. ‘Let’s climb,” his friend smiled. Together they threaded their way to the summit, where a broad flat boulder waited like a throne. With a bow and a sweep of his arm, his companion invited him to climb on high. He did.
Jesus caught his breath and took in the world around him. In the distance, the Jordan was a muddy snake winding across the landscape, cutting a narrow green swath through the valley. Clouds on the far western horizon hinted at the presence of the great sea, where the merchants sailed and Leviathan swam. To the north, he caught sight of the silver-blue Sea of Galilee, harp-shaped, nestled beneath the Golan Heights. Far beyond that, the mountains of Lebanon rose with their snow-covered caps glinting in the midday sun. To the south, the salt wastes stepped down to the Dead Sea. Beyond that, yawned the Sinai desert, its saw-toothed peaks and barren sands stretching all the way to Africa. Jesus drank deep the desert air and looked with awe at his Father’s world.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” It was his companion, at his elbow now. “But there is so much grief and poverty, hunger and heartlessness out there. And the Romans, ugh. Why not make it yours? Why not change the way things are? Free the captives, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, heal the sick. It is all yours for the taking. All that is required is just one small thing: a little bending of the knees, the slightest bowing of the head, a few prayers, a little incense burned. Worship me. What are we waiting for?”
Jesus looked out over the beautiful broken world at his feet. He thought about the hurting people he had seen everywhere—hungry, fearful, dirt poor, ground down. What was he waiting for? Why not rise to his friend’s charge and set things straight? Couldn’t the end justify the means?
But as Jesus looked over the Promised Land, gleaming like a green and tan jewel, he remembered that God alone had the power to create this world. God alone had the authority to give this land as a blessing to the people. God alone would be the architect of its salvation, and God alone would determine that path. Whatever it might be.
Unbidden, the words of Moses were on his tongue, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” With an uneasy sense of hard things yet to come, Jesus waved off his tempter. “Enough. Away with you. Get behind me.”
Jesus stood strong in the noonday sun on the summit, his shadow so small that it flitted out only as the wind surged through his linen robe. The sand cat crouched in the shade of a boulder, dozing in the heat with whiskers twitching. Jesus felt clear as the five springs at Jericho, bubbling up from the depths below the sand. He felt empty and open as new amphorae, awaiting the first pressing of the finest grapes from the new harvest. He felt like Moses astride Sinai with two stone tablets. He felt like Elijah stalking off to trouble the Northern Kingdom. He felt ready for what would come.
Audrey West. “Commentary on Matthew 4:1-11” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 10, 2008. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
David Lose. “Commentary on Matthew 4:1-11” in Preaching This Week, March 13, 2011. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Judith James. “Commentary on Matthew 4:1-11” in Preaching This Week, March 9, 2014. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying 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.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Photo Credit: Dennis Jarvis, accessed online at https://www.flickr.com/photos/archer10/34955863901/