Into the Wilderness

"Christ in the Wilderness" by Ivan Kramskoy
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“The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan. And He was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to Him” (Mark 1:12-13).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
One moment, as Jesus is baptized in the Jordan, He experiences the exhilaration of hearing His Father’s voice of approval from heaven and He sees the Holy Spirit descending on Him as a dove. The next moment, He is in the wilderness, surrounded by wild beasts, and suffering the insults of the devil.
This sudden shift happens in our lives also, doesn’t it. It’s part of the equation of the fallen world: a tension between good and evil. Between God’s power to help us live, and the temptation to live by our own power apart from God. Martin Luther described it this way: “You build a cathedral one day, and the day after you discover the devil has built a chapel next door.
The first sign of our sonship is this struggle to live consistently as a son or daughter of God. Children of God are not immune from temptation or suffering. In fact, God often allows these things to come into our lives for our own good. And status as God’s children, gives us no free passes from Satan, but rather, often paints a bull’s eye on us.
Mark’s account, as we’ve come to expect, is short and to the point. Immediately following His Baptism, even as the Jordan River water still trickled off His head, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. The idea is not that Jesus is forced against His will, or that He is reluctant to go and thus must be driven. The intention is rather the opposite. The strong urge of the Spirit meets the consent of Jesus. Jesus does not go into this 40 days of temptation against His will. But neither does He throw Himself into this temptation of His own accord. We often rashly put ourselves into temptation without thinking it through. Jesus is brought into His temptation by His Father’s Spirit. This means that His temptation must occur, and occur at this very time. It is God’s will to have His Son’s ministry begin with this mighty battle against Satan in person and with the resulting victory.
As Jesus faces Satan, the devil who had caused Adam and Eve to fall into sin and thus brought sin upon the entire human race, Jesus faces him alone; no fellow believers are present to comfort and strengthen him. Wild animals are no source of spiritual help. Jesus must face this battle alone. He is fighting this battle as the substitute for all humans.
The battle is arduous and long. It lasts 40 days with no breathing spells—totally unlike the 40 days Moses had spent on the mountain with God (see Exodus 24:18), totally different from the 40 days Elijah spent on the way to Horeb sustained by the food God had provided (see 1 Kings 19:8). For Jesus, they are 40 days of continuous testing. Matthew and Luke relate three specific attacks of Satan; Mark simply presents the antagonists—Jesus and Satan.
Do not think this battle is relatively simple for Jesus because He cannot possibly sin. As a man, He can suffer hunger and thirst, appreciate power and wealth, and thus He feels the pressures of these temptations. Nor is it simple for Him because He is the Son of God. Though Jesus, during His ministry, often uses His almighty power to heal and to bless, He seldom uses it to defend Himself. He generally faces temptation in the same way you and I must face it—with the Word of God, with the power of the Holy Spirit, leading, guiding, and empowering Him.
This is also not the only time Jesus has to face the devil. Most notably, He will have to chastise Peter’s attempt to keep Him from going to the cross: “get behind Me, Satan,” and bear the agony in Gethsemane as He resists temptation to the point of sweating blood. Yes, Jesus will continue to fight Satan until the moment on the cross when He declares, “It is finished” (John 19:28).
When He wins the battle in the wilderness, Jesus is completely exhausted. It is then that “the angels were ministering to Him.” Noting this, we are moved to remember God sends His holy angels to watch over and minister to us. We learn to pray as Luther did in his morning and evening prayers: “Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me.”
Having bested the strong one, the Stronger One, our Lord Jesus Christ leaves the battlefield qualified to meet every challenger and every challenge. His credentials are perfect: He is acknowledged by the promised forerunner, John the Baptist. He is accepted by the Father and blessed by the Spirit. He meets and defeats Satan. Thus, Jesus enters His earthly ministry, casting out demons, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, making the deaf and mute to hear and speak, proclaiming the Gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.”
Facing and resisting temptations every day, Jesus makes His way to the cross, where He will give His perfect life, His holy precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death, to redeem a world of sinners. To make us children of God through the water and Word of Holy Baptism. To feed you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.
And that is very good news for you who have been baptized into Christ and now live in the wilderness of this fallen world.
You, too, face temptation every day; but you don’t resist it perfectly like Jesus does. Just in case you don’t believe this, examine yourself according to the Ten Commandments. The 4th Commandment is enough: Have you honored and obeyed your parents as you should? Have you made fun of rulers—at the city, state, or federal level? Do you respect all of your teachers all of the time, or mock them behind their back? Do you appreciate the police officer who enforces the speed limit, or grumble that he’s slowing you down?
How about the 6th Commandment? Do you find yourself glued to lusty visions on TV, or enjoying the stupid sexual innuendo that passes for comedy these days? Do you entertain thoughts you should not? Do you honor your spouse in thought, word, and deed if you are married? Do you honor celibacy in thought, word, and deed if you are not?
And, for those of you not stung by those commandments, there’s always the 8th Commandment. When you hear a rumor, do you dismiss it or believe it? Do you put the best construction on things, or do you imagine the worst and spread that story? Do you speak up to protect the reputation of your neighbor?
Those are just three of the easier commandments from the second table of the law. We haven’t yet mentioned the first table, commandments 1-3. Do you fear God’s wrath and love His mercy as you ought? Do you keep His name holy and pray as you should? Do you meditate upon His Word and always keep His commands? Oh, daily you sin much and deserve God’s judgment.
To add a bit more insult to injury, consider this: C. S. Lewis suggests that you don’t know what it means to be really tempted. Why? Because the one who gives into temptation right away isn’t tempted very much. The one who resists temptation a little is tempted more before he gives in. To truly understand temptation, you must resist all temptation always, because then you are truly subjected to its full force. When the sinner says, “That temptation was too much for me,” he displays how weak he truly is, because he has not resisted that much.
Subjected to temptation, you daily sin much. You therefore stand under the wrath of God, and you don’t have enough blood to cover your sins.
That is why, on the first Sunday of Lent, we always return to the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. For one thing, Jesus understands temptation far better than you or I ever will, because He was in all points tempted as we are, yet was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). He does this to be our Savior.
This is important, so key to understanding the temptation of our Lord. Jesus does not endure and resist temptation to set an example, to show you that it can be done. Too often this is how this text is preached: “Jesus did it, so can you.” But born in sin and constantly plagued by the devil, the world, and your sinful flesh, there is no way that you can resist temptation perfectly. If the point of Jesus’ temptation is that you must perfectly imitate Him to be saved, then you will only find despair. You can’t do it. That’s why Jesus did it for you—to do it perfectly, and to give you the credit for His perfect work.
He does this on the way to the cross, where He sheds His blood for you; and by His death your life is won. Now, the Father looks upon His repentant people and says, “When I look upon you, I don’t see your sins—the many times you gave into temptation and followed the devil’s whispers. I don’t see any of that because My Son has switched with you. He’s taken your load of sin onto Himself, and He’s given you the credit for His perfect obedience and resistance to temptation. You’re forgiven, because I see no sin on you that should be judged.”
That’s why Jesus goes into the wilderness. Carrying your load of sin, He resists temptation and gives you the credit for it. Then He returns to be the perfect sacrifice. His blood cleanses you from all of your sins (1 John 1:7).
You are in the wilderness. Here you are tempted every day. Some temptations you identify, fight tooth-and-nail, and still give in. Others come so naturally that you’ve sinned before you know it, or perhaps don’t know it. So what shall you do this day? Hear this Word of the Lord: “The time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
The time has been fulfilled: and “when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Galatians 3:4-5). The price has been paid for your sins. You are God’s dear child!
The kingdom of God is near—near to you. The Lord adopts you, brings you into His kingdom, by the forgiveness of sins. He visits you with this forgiveness by His Word and Sacraments. Are you tempted to believe that He has not adopted you? Then, remember your Baptism, because there the Lord came near and made you His. Are you tempted to believe that the Lord no longer opposes sin? He draws near in His Gospel, declares His cross and forgiveness for you in His Words of Holy Absolution. Are you tempted to believe that He has forgotten you? He draws near to you and places His body and blood into your mouth, for the forgiveness of sins. Oh, yes: The kingdom of God is near you, that you might have salvation.
Therefore, repent and believe the Gospel. Turn from the devil’s lies and confess the truth: You can’t do it, but Jesus did. You couldn’t resist temptation, so He did it for you. You couldn’t atone for your sins, so He shed His blood instead. God did not spare His own Son, but offered Him up for your sins. The perfect sacrifice has been made, and your atonement is complete.
Now go live in the power of the Holy Spirit given to you in your Baptism. Your old Adam has been put to death, so that the new man may arise to live before God in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness forever.
This is the Gospel that, by the grace of God, you rejoice to believe in: You are forgiven for all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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