I once heard about a financial adviser who’d been told by a couple consulting with her that they found it impossible to put any money aside for savings or tithe money for the purposes of God. “We have no debt, but also no savings” the husband said. “We start out by trying to keep current with our bills,” the wife added.
The financial adviser nodded knowingly. “That’s the problem,” she said. “You should pay your bills, of course. But you haven’t adopted the ‘decide beforehand’ method.” She explained that instead of starting with paying their bills, then deciding how much money they had to save or give to God, they needed to “decide beforehand” how much they were going to save and give. Then they could pay their bills and adjust their spending habits accordingly.
She said: “The best way to deal with the unexpected storms that come along is to make your decision before the storms hit.”
Today’s Gospel lesson, Matthew 4:1-11, finds Jesus facing a storm of temptation and testing from the devil. If Jesus hadn’t adopted the decide beforehand method when it came to His relationship with God the Father, He never would have stood the storm, He would have caved into sin, and you and I would still be condemned for our sin, lost to God forever. So, we can say that if Jesus hadn't decided beforehand how He was going to deal with situations like He faced in the wilderness, salvation would have become a lost cause.
Before looking at Jesus in the wilderness, we need to set the stage. In Matthew 3:13-17, which recounts an incident that happened just before the events in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus undergoes John the Baptizer’s baptism of repentance. True, Jesus had no sin for which He needed to repent, but Jesus was intent on connecting Himself fully to the sinful humanity--including you and me--who He came into this world to save. John told Jesus that it was he who should have been baptized by Jesus, not the other way around. But as Jesus explained to the reluctant John: “Let it be so for now. For in this way we shall do all that God requires.” [Matthew 3:15, Good News Translation] Having undergone the baptism that His Father required, God the Holy Spirit descended to Jesus as a dove and God the Father called from heaven to say of Jesus: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” [Matthew 3:17] It was a spectacular moment!
Like the spectacular events that happened some time later on the Mount of Transfiguration, it could have been tempting for Jesus to just stay there on the banks of the Jordan savoring the moment. But Jesus had work to do. And before He did that work, He had to get ready for it.
Turn to our Gospel lesson, please. (You’ll find it starting on page 676 of the sanctuary Bibles.) Verse 1: “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
Why did the Holy Spirit do this? If Jesus had come into the world to offer His sinless life on a cross, wasn’t the Holy Spirit putting that entire mission in jeopardy by subjecting Jesus to these temptations to sin? What if Jesus sinned in the wilderness, caving into His hunger and the taunting of the devil? Why wouldn’t the Spirit just carry Jesus from the Jordan, where He was baptized, and onto Jerusalem for the cross and the resurrection?
As a quick aside, let me give you three quick reasons why Jesus had to undergo temptation. First, as we see from His words to John the Baptist, Jesus had to undergo the same stuff you and I undergo. [Matthew 3:15] All that God required had to happen. If Jesus was never subjected to severe temptation to sin, He couldn’t be said to be sinless. Second, Jesus had to be sensitized to how hard it is for we human beings to resist sin. That way, when we come to our Father in Jesus’ name, He can be an advocate Who understands you and me from the inside out. Hebrews 4:15 says that in Jesus: “...we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” Third, Jesus had to be refined for His mission. The verb, πειρασθῆναι, translated as tempted in our lesson can also be translated as tested.
The devil probably thought that he was in the driver’s seat with Jesus when Jesus arrived in the wilderness. But, in fact, Jesus was there because the Holy Spirit sent Him to be tested, refined. Here, we see that God can use the same events for His purposes that the devil tries to use for his ends.
It's not unprecedented. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph, the dreamer who had saved Egypt and his own people, forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery, telling them, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good…” The brothers acted from evil intentions, but God used what they did to bring good things about, including the refinement of Joseph for his mission of saving a whole region from famine.
The temptations to sin that come to us can be used by God as tests to refine and strengthen our faith and our characters. In 1 Corinthians 10:13, we’re told: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”
In the wilderness, facing temptations that were tests, Jesus learned to rely on His Father to the full extent He needed to rely on Him to fulfill His mission.
If you and I are going to fulfill our missions, fulfill the promise of our lives, and live with God for eternity, we too must learn to rely fully on God when we’re tested or tempted.
So, how did Jesus do this?
He decided beforehand how He would face temptation and He learned to use the most powerful weapon in the universe to do so.
We see this in all three of the exchanges between the devil and Jesus in today’s gospel lesson. But look at just the first one to see what I mean: “The tempter came to him [Jesus] and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” [Matthew 4:3-4]
Every time Jesus was tempted, He responded with God’s Word.
He did that because He had decided beforehand exactly how He would face life’s tests and the devil’s temptations.
Way before He faced off with the the devil, Jesus had stored the Word of God in His heart. He was ready for whatever the devil or the world threw His way, because He had taken time to learn--even memorize--God’s Word.
And even when the devil recited Scripture back to Jesus, distorting it to try to convince Jesus to pull stunts to make God prove Himself, Jesus was ready.
That’s because through His study of God’s Word, Jesus not only knew the Word, He knew His Father.
Jesus was able to resist temptation, face the world’s tests, and fulfill His mission on earth for two reasons: He knew God and He knew God’s Word.
He had decided beforehand that no matter what, He would stick with God and with God’s Word.
The best time to learn how to face tests and temptations is before they happen, not just as they’re threatening to swamp you. Jesus decided before the storm hit to know God the Father and to know God’s Word.
Listen: This is a great Christian congregation.
No church I know has a deeper commitment to mission.
No church I know has a higher percentage of its members who seek after God and take prayer so seriously.
No other church I know would have payed for the salary and benefits of a staffer working at another church, which this congregation did last year.
Living Water has been tested by adversity and tempted to walk away from doing things God’s way. It has chosen God’s way, always, every time.
But we’re in our own building now. We’re growing. We’re comfortable. We feel vindicated in our faith. That’s why this is a spiritually dangerous time for our congregation.
We can expect the devil to attack Living Water. Not a frontal assault (he’s too clever for that), but a nibbling on the edges. He might incite a little gossip here, attack relationships there, create spiritual indifference, cause little disagreements over completely unimportant things. Nothing big. Just a bunch of little things which that jerk named Satan loves to turn into big things.
This is a faithful church and, other than God Himself, the thing the devil hates the most is a faithful church! This is why each of us must internalize the gospel lesson’s call to decide beforehand what we will do when storms hit, when we’re tempted, when we’re tested.
And temptations and tests are bound to come. If the Son of God, God in the flesh, Jesus, was not immune to this reality while on earth, we surely can’t expect to be immune. But even our testing can being God glory. 1 Peter 1:6-7 tells us: “In all this [that is, in your salvation and your relationship with God secured for you through Christ’s cross and empty tomb] you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed [that is, the day Jesus returns].”
If we are to be all that God made us to be and if we are to have life with God, we must know God and we must know God’s Word.
I’m going to repeat that (and know that I’m talking to you, whoever you are): If we are to be all that God made us to be and if we are to have life with God, we must know God and we must know God’s Word.
This is urgent business! You never can tell when life will hit you with another storm. Decide beforehand to be ready.
Decide that no matter what it costs you, you will be committed to knowing God and His Word.
No matter what sins God demands you leave behind, you will be committed to knowing God and His Word.
No matter the effort, you will be committed to knowing God and His Word. If you’re not in a Bible study yet, join one now.
If you’re not spending time in God’s Word on your own a few minutes each day, start now. Start with the gospels of Matthew or John, a chapter a day.
And I invite you to do what I’m starting to do these days, memorize Scripture.
Store up God’s Word in your heart and get to know your Father in heaven with the intimacy that Jesus died and rose to give you. Get to know this Lord Who sent His Son so that all who turn from sin and follow Him are and will be filled with the new and everlasting life of God for all eternity.
Know God’s Word.
Then, you’ll be ready for anything.
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]