Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
(Matthew 4:1-4 ESV)
Do you ever look back on your life with that wonderful perspective of hindsight and take note of how the various moments and decisions you have made link from one to another?
What if I had chosen a different college to attend? Well, if I’d gone somewhere else, I wouldn’t have been in the Carolinas. If I hadn’t been in the Carolinas, I probably wouldn’t have put my application in with Wachovia Bank. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have moved to Charlotte. If I hadn’t moved to Charlotte, I wouldn’t have gone to that birthday party of a workmate, and met that girl from Gastonia. If I hadn’t met that girl from Gastonia, well, I don’t even want to think about that.
There are all those little moments and big moments over our lifetime that, had they gone differently, would have completely changed the course of our journey through life. Jesus lived a life just like ours, and as one comes to the beginning of chapter 4 in Matthew’s Gospel, you find one of those critical moments in his life. In previous chapter, John has just baptized Jesus in the Jordan, and God has spoken and said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Then Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the Wilderness where he will meet Satan.
Clearly, Satan sees that this is a critical time to try and change the course of Jesus’ life, and by so doing, change the course of all humanity for all time. As the Tempter plies his trade in the wilderness he is trying to get Jesus to go a different way than the way God has ordained for him to go, and his primary method of changing the course is to dangle questions before Jesus as to the validity of the statement just uttered by the voice of God in verse 17 of chapter 3. He wants Jesus to question two things.
1. Am I beloved?
2. Am I God’s Son?
Simply put, Satan wants Jesus to question God’s true nature and his own true identity.
If Satan can confuse those two things, those remove all the essential bearings that Jesus needs to negotiate the rugged terrain of his calling. He has no compass. No true magnetic north to cause his compass to operate properly. He is aimless, and it’s only a matter of time before the wilderness (the literal wilderness, but also the wilderness of the corrupted world which is in the hands of the corrupted prince of that world) consumes him and the salvation plan for fallen humanity is thwarted.
It’s a subtle technique that Satan is employing, but that’s usually the way he works. Now, let’s examine the means by which Jesus combats Satan’s temptations and his schemes to bring into question God’s true nature and Jesus’ true identity.
Jesus’ sword is this phrase we see repeated three times in this passage – “It is written.” When the question is raised about God’s love and Jesus’ identity, the answer that snuffs out the flaming arrows of the Enemy comes not from within Jesus but from the outside, specifically it comes from the Word – Scripture.
This is a seminal moment upon which the salvation of the world rests, and the way Jesus survives the temptation to doubt his Father’s love and his own true identity as the Savior is to be guided by the true North, which is the Holy Word of God.
At our house we have these big bottles that we got from Costco filled with vitamins. Now, why are they filled with vitamins? Well, they are filled with vitamins because I keep forgetting to take the vitamins. Why do I keep taking the vitamins? Well, because it isn’t apparent that my life depends on them. Now, I know they are probably good for me, but they are rather large and a bit hard to swallow, and the bottle smells just terrible when you take the lid off.
When we talk about Christian disciplines, and taking up those disciplines, I think we regard these things as sort of Spiritual vitamins. These are good supplements. Yes, they make us healthier, maybe even a good deal healthier, but we don’t see them as things upon which our lives depend.
But here is Jesus, and Satan is tempting him to turn stones into bread. He is tempting him to be self-sufficient because surely he isn’t really the beloved Son of God. His Father doesn’t really care for him. No, he needs to fabricate bread – this very essential staple for life.
Jesus responds, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Jesus refuses bread in favor of the Word of God.
The Word is no supplement, but is in fact the core staple that brings nourishment for life.
Jesus feeds on God’s word, not simply because it is “good for him,” but because it is absolutely essential for him, and it is essential for him because he knows that this life is a life in the wilderness with Satan’s temptations coming at every turn.
Jesus knows that God’s Word alone will give him the clear picture that indeed God loves him because he is God’s son. With that truth as his life giving nourishment a truth that comes to him from an authoritative external transcendent source, he has the strength and the perspective to turn Satan and his lies away.
So, if you are trying to practice the Lenten discipline of taking up the Word, well it isn’t just a good idea that’s negotiable. It’s not a supplement for this season just to give you a boost. Never forget you live on every Word that comes from the mouth of God. That means you die without every Word that comes from the mouth of God.
Now, you may be saying, but I just don’t have a hunger for the Word. I don’t fully understand it. I don’t enjoy it as a result. It’s a pretty hard pill to swallow and sometimes it just plain stinks. I’m not like King David who says in Psalm 119:103, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”
I would say that’s perhaps because you still see the Word as a supplement and don’t necessarily see that you need the Word to survive Satan’s onslaught. You perhaps don’t even recognize the onslaught. That means Satan is hitting his mark.
You feed even when the taste isn’t so sweet, but when the time comes for the Evil One to tempt you and to bring into question whether God loves you and has really adopted you as his child, you will have the weapon you need against him and the strength to live, even in the wilderness. You come through that, and oh how sweet that Word is to your lips.
Don’t you know that when Jesus came to the end of the series of temptations in the wilderness that we read about in Matthew 4, he was holding tightly to that Word that had sustained him and declaring to his Father how sweet it was to him?
So, take up the Word of God. Do it daily as you walk through the wilderness of this fallen world. Even as you pray the Lord’s Prayer and ask him for your daily bread, remember that you do not live by bread alone.
You live by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
[Coming Close is a regular blog by our Dean and Rector, The Very Rev. R. Peet Dickinson, IV]