When you were a small child throwing a fit did your mother ever point to a well-behaving child and say, “Look how nicely Johnny is behaving? Why don’t you behave more like Johnny?” Poor you! Unfavorably compared to someone who wasn’t even your flesh and blood! You probably carried on with your fit, thoroughly unimpressed with Johnny. We do this all the time—unfavorably comparing our bosses to other bosses, spouses to other spouses, our selves to other men and women.
We pull Jesus into this, too. We read the temptation story and think, “Ah, man, I should be better at resisting temptation. Why can’t I just be more like him?” We read Jesus’ time in the desert as a kind of morality play.
But the temptation story is not one of Jesus’ parables. It is not a morality play. The story of Jesus’ temptation is an epic battle between good and evil. The temptation story is not a sweet PBS Saturday morning cartoon intended to teach our children morals. The temptation story is The Lord of the Rings, Rocky, Star Wars.
Jesus is on an epic quest to save humanity. Humanity is enslaved. Not by each other, but by death and by sin. No matter what humans have done, they have not been able to get out of the grip of these evil powers. Death vanquished every human. And sin wrapped its claws around people, too. Sin ruined people’s lives, isolating them from each other and from God. Jesus is going to go into the world and save humanity from both sin and death, but first he has to get ready.
Jesus has been baptized and is about to enter into his public ministry. But before he makes any speeches, before he meets his first disciple, he needs to get ready. In any epic battle movie worth its salt, you get a training montage. Hermione leads the Hogwarts students in drills Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Yoda trains Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. Mr. Miyagi teaches Danny “wax on, wax off” in the Karate Kid. All these “heroes “needed time to prepare.
In Jesus’ case, it is the Spirit who leads him into the desert. The Spirit doesn’t stick around and shadow box with Jesus or make Jesus run laps. The Spirit disappears and leaves Jesus alone. For what Jesus needs to get him through his ministry isn’t physical strength, but spiritual strength. Fighting the powers of sin and death will take every ounce of integrity and steadiness that Jesus has. After forty days of prayer and fasting, the Devil, also described as the tempter, shows up. Now the Devil isn’t particularly hostile here, in fact, he’s almost friendly. After all, the Devil just wants what is good for Jesus, right? If Jesus is really the Son of God, he should enjoy the perks!
First the Devil tempts Jesus to turn some stones into bread. After all, Jesus has been fasting for weeks! And if he is God, he surely has the power to make himself some food. But Jesus roots down into Scripture and reminds the Devil that the only food he needs for his mission is the word of God.
The Devil gets really tricky with his next temptation—since Jesus used scripture to deny the Devil the first time, the Devil throws Scripture back at Jesus. He tempts Jesus to leap off a tall building, telling him that Scripture says angels will protect him. But Jesus resists the temptation to take a foolish risk and again roots himself in Scripture.
Finally, the Devil tries to make a bargain with Jesus. He offers him power and wealth and land and all Jesus needs to do is worship him. But again, Jesus finds within himself the discipline and Scripture he needs to resist. The Devil flees, defeated.
This story gets sin just right, doesn’t it? Sin isn’t a bully, at first. Sin sidles up to us and seduces us. Have you all been following the story Kevin Roose published in New York Magazine? He has just published a book called Young Money. He got to know eight young Wall Street brokers, followed them around and explored their world. On one occasion he snuck into a secret society event and saw all kinds of crazy skits in which the richest men in the world mocked the 99%. At one point he started filming and was thrown out once they realized he was a journalist. He didn’t get beat up. The people who kicked him out got extremely friendly and tried to bribe him into not telling the story. What a great metaphor! Sin tells us we deserve it, that it won’t really hurt anyone. Sin lures us in until it has us firmly in its grasp.
Sin is tricky and insidious and offers us things that appear good. For Jesus to really minister to the people of the world, he had to go through that experience. He had to know what it was like, how hard it is, to resist temptation. Jesus had to learn who he was as a savior. Was he going to use his power to physically strike down evil? Did he need to become big and strong and throw his authority around? No, his authority was rooted in total obedience to his Father. Jesus would show his power by his humility, by compassion, by wisdom. His power would be rooted in his deep understanding of Scripture in light of his loving relationship with his Father.
Jesus uses that deep knowledge of Scripture and connection to his Father when he recruits his disciples, preaches to his followers, heals the sick, casts out demons—in short, in every part of his ministry. Jesus takes this experience all the way to the cross.
Jesus’ ultimate battle with sin and death doesn’t involve him sword fighting the Devil or heroically flying a spaceship into the heart of an alien spacecraft. Jesus’ final battle has him face our sin and rejection and walk right toward us. Jesus continues to walk towards us until we kill him. And then he rises and keeps walking toward us.
In the movie Blood Diamond, a father has lost his son, who has been kidnapped and turned into a child soldier. When he finally finds his child, the child is pointing a gun at the father’s companion. The father recognizes the boy and starts to speak with him. He walks toward him, calls the boy by name and tells him about his mother who loves him and the wild dogs who wait for him. He describes his home, the place where he belongs, all the while walking towards this boy and his raised gun and then the father says,
I know they made you do bad things. You are not a bad boy. I am your father, who loves you. And you will come home with me and be my son again.
The boy drops the gun and the two embrace.
For generations our sin and the power of death kept us separated from our God. But God knew we were more than our sin. He knew that sin enslaved us, keeping our true selves locked away. And so he sent Jesus, who battled for us. While it appeared for three days that sin and death won, on that third day Jesus rose from the dead and claimed us for his own. His was the final word, the final victory. Death and sin are still present, but they no longer hold dominion over us. They cannot keep us from God.
A mere five days ago, I preached to you about Lenten practices and how they draw us closer to God. But the really important message for you to hear is this: Nothing can separate you from the love of God. Not your worst sin, not the worst sin someone does to you, not the death of a loved one, not your death. You can start and break 100 Lenten practices and that will not make God love you less or lessen the power of his victory.
God wins the battle, full stop.