1 Lent: A Homily on the Temptation of Jesus

Apostles Anglican Church
Fr. John A. Roop

(Gen 2:4-9,15-17, 2:25-3:7; Ps 51; Romans 5:12-21; Matt 4:1-11)

A Homily on Matthew 4:1-11 — Temptation

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Mt 4:1, ESV).

O God, make speed to save us.
O Lord, make haste to help us.

It is not possible to tempt a thief to steal in the same sense that it is possible to tempt a faithful husband to commit adultery. How’s that for an opening line? Let me say it again, because it’s important to what follows. It is not possible to tempt a thief to steal in the same sense that it is possible to tempt a faithful husband to commit adultery.

When a thief sees an unlocked door in an empty house or an unwatched purse at a restaurant, it is not a temptation, but rather an opportunity to do what has, step by step, choice by choice become second nature to him. There is no inner turmoil, no grappling between motives and counter-motives; there may be a quick assessment of risk or of cost-benefit ratio, but there is no real ethical calculus at play, no moral qualms to work through. To steal is to act in accordance with the real identity the thief has forged for himself. A thief may be tempted to return found money, but he cannot be tempted to keep it.

A faithful husband, however, can be tempted to adultery precisely because faithfulness is second nature to him; it lies near the core of his real identity, and even to momentarily contemplate adultery seems to break faith not only with his wife, but with himself and with God. If the temptation is strong, he will grapple with it as Jacob grappled with God at the Jabbok, and he may emerge wounded and limping. But, please God, he will emerge victorious and blessed.

What I’m sketching out here is a notion of temptation as an enticement away from one’s real identity — the identity that is a second nature — and toward a false identity. A thief cannot be tempted to steal because the chance to steal is an merely an opportunity to exercise and express his real identity as thief, an identity that he has forged with the encouragement and help of the evil one. For those who might be concerned with theological nuance, note that I am distinguishing between identity and nature. By nature, the thief is an image-bearer of God; by identity he is, well, a thief. So, the main point remains: temptation is an enticement away from one’s real identity, one’s second nature, and toward a false identity.

Well, that was fun. But does it matter? It must, I think, because it is integral to the text presented us today in Matthew 4, the temptation of Jesus. There is an unfortunate chapter break at the beginning our text, and unfortunately the lectionary submits to it. But the end of the previous chapter must be taken into account as the necessary context for Jesus’ temptation.

Matthew 3:13–17 (ESV): 13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

This is a proclamation of identity, not the creation of identity. The Logos is the eternal Son of God and, at his conception, the man Jesus — his human nature — was taken up into that eternal identity of the Logos. So, Jesus’ baptism is not the creation of identity, but rather the very public proclamation by God the Father that this man standing in the river dripping wet is his beloved Son; it is the very public anointing by God the Holy Spirit of this man Jesus for his ministry to come. It is baptism and confirmation both in one. We do not know how many people heard the voice of God the Father that day or saw God the Holy Spirit descend: relatively few, I would think. But, the proclamation of Jesus’ identity certainly resounded throughout the whole spiritual realm of angels and archangels, of cherubim and seraphim, of demons and fallen powers. Even the devil himself, our ancient foe, took notice. And what was his first response? To tempt Jesus, to entice him away from his true identity to a false identity: “If you are the Son of God,” was the devil’s constant taunt and refrain throughout the temptations — a questioning and challenging of Jesus’ identity.

Brothers and sisters, that is not Jesus’ story only, but yours and mine as well. When the Celebrant immerses the baptismal Candidate or pours water upon the Candidate three times saying, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (BCP 2019, p. 169), that is both the creation of a new identity and the public proclamation of that identity to the people of God gathered and seen and to the spiritual hosts gathered and unseen — angels of light and demons of darkness. And the devil himself, our ancient foe, takes notice. His sure response will be to tempt that newborn or newly commissioned child and servant of God, as he tempted Jesus, to entice that one away from his/her new, real identity to the old, false identity. That is, in part, why we so desperately need this account of Jesus’ temptation; it is a paradigm for everyone who is “sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever” (ibid), a paradigm of temptation and of victory over it.

Matthew 4:1 (ESV): 4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

There is so much to be said about that brief statement, so much to be pondered and prayed. The Spirit who had just descended upon Jesus now leads him into the place and time of temptation. Clarity matters here, as St. James insists:

James 1:13 (ESV): 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.

God the Holy Spirit is not tempting Jesus, not enticing Jesus away from his true identity, but is rather providing Jesus the opportunity to exercise that identity, to perfect that identity (cf Heb 5:8-9), to vanquish the devil in the power of that identity. The Holy Spirit does not abandon Jesus in his time of testing, but leads him, guides him, guards him, strengthens him, encourages him. And so the Spirit does for you and for me. The Holy Spirit may lead us into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, but the end of that temptation, the purpose of it, is our salvation and victory, not our downfall. And in the midst of temptation, know that God tempers temptation, limits its scope to that which we can bear:

1 Corinthians 10:13 (ESV): 13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

God will provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure the temptation, and not endure it only, I think, but also to triumph over it. And this way of escape is not a mystery. It is what we see Jesus doing when he found himself in the wilderness of temptation. It is clear in this text and in others throughout the Gospels. It is the way of Lenten practice. It is the way of the spiritual disciplines, not for Lent only, but for the whole of the Christian life: fasting, prayer, Scripture.

Matthew 4:2 (ESV): 2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.

Fasting: I fear that I misunderstood this passage for most of my adult life, until I began to take fasting seriously and to listen carefully to what the saints had been saying for two millennia. We read of a forty day fast and immediately think of how weak and vulnerable that must have made Jesus, how susceptible to temptation. But that is — and I say this with all reverence and sincerity — that is devilish thinking, because it is apparently what the devil himself thought. How little the devil as an incorporeal (unbodied) spirit can know about the grace of God ministered incarnationally through the union of human body and soul. How little can he understand that the weakness of the body can strengthen and steel the soul and spirit. Jesus did not fast to make himself weak, but to make himself strong for battle. As St. Gregory the Great wrote, “It is impossible to engage in spiritual conflict, without the previous subjugation of the appetite.” Yes, Jesus’ body was hungry, but his soul was full. Yes, his body was weak, but his spirit was strong. Ironically, the devil tempts Jesus with bread, thinking him weak from fasting. Jesus responds with the word of God showing himself strong from fasting.

It is neither incidental nor unimportant that fasting is a traditional Lenten practice. It is neither incidental nor unimportant that the early church observed Wednesdays and Fridays as regular fast days throughout the year (Didachē). It is neither incidental nor unimportant that the Desert Fathers and Mothers made fasting a foundational spiritual discipline. Fasting is preparation for battle; fasting is armor and weapon in the midst of battle.

The proclamation of Jesus’ identity and the descent of the Holy Spirit were the context and impetus for Jesus’ temptation. Fasting was his preparation for temptation. But, not fasting only. Hear these words from St. Mark’s Gospel:

Mark 1:35 (ESV): 35 And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.

We miss the connection in our English translations between this verse and St. Matthew’s description of the temptation locale. “Desolate place” in St. Mark and “wilderness” in St. Matthew are the same word. Jesus goes to the wilderness to pray; that was his practice. So, it is no stretch to say — and, in fact, I think it is only reasonable to say — that when the Spirit led Jesus up to the wilderness, to the desolate place, to be tempted, there Jesus prayed. The forty days of fasting were forty days of fasting and prayer. What might Jesus have prayed? We need look no further than the Psalms — the Jewish Book of Common Prayer, the Hebrew Hymnal. Can you hear Jesus praying these Psalms in the wilderness preparing for the temptation to come or in the midst of temptation present?

Psalm 1:1–2 (ESV): 1 Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

Psalm 3:1–4, 7a (ESV): 1 O Lord, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
2 many are saying of my soul,
“There is no salvation for him in God.” Selah
3 But you, O Lord, are a shield about me,
my glory, and the lifter of my head.
4 I cried aloud to the Lord,
and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
7 Arise, O Lord!
Save me, O my God!

Psalm 4:1–4, 8 (ESV): 1 Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!
You have given me relief when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!
2 O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame?
How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah
3 But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself;
the Lord hears when I call to him.
4 Be angry, and do not sin;
ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah
8 In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.

It is neither incidental nor unimportant that prayer — not least praying the Psalms — is a traditional Lenten practice. It is neither incidental nor unimportant that the early church embraced the Psalms whole heartedly, incorporating them into prayer and liturgy. It is neither incidental nor unimportant that the Psalms were the very breath of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. St. Augustine said, “He who sings prays twice.” It is no wonder the devil cowers and trembles when God’s people sing the Psalms, pray the Psalms, breathe the Psalms.

Jesus fasted in the wilderness. Jesus prayed in the wilderness. Jesus immersed himself in Scripture in the wilderness, the Word of God incarnate feasting on the word of God written. We know this because every response of Jesus to the devil’s temptation was a word of Scripture. Jesus did not depend upon his own human strength, his own human cleverness, his own human will to overcome the devil; he simply refuted and rebuffed the devil with the word of God: not the twisted word, the distorted word that the evil one offered, but the true, the pure word of God as received from the Holy Spirit. As the Psalmist writes:

9 How shall a young man cleanse his way?*
By ruling himself according to your word.
10 With my whole heart I have sought you;*
O let me not go astray from your commandments.
11 Your words have I hidden within my heart,*
that I may not sin against you (Ps 119:9-11, BCP 2019).

It is neither incidental nor unimportant that reading and reflecting on Scripture is a traditional Lenten practice. It is neither incidental nor unimportant that at the heart of the Book of Common Prayer lies the regular, daily reading of the whole of Scripture in the context of prayer, Psalmody, and worship. It is neither incidental nor unimportant that St. Paul identifies the word of God as the sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:7), the spiritual weapon with which to strike down the enemy and his temptations.

When temptation came to Jesus, when temptation comes to us, it comes as a spiritual attack. Temptation is not a sin; it is an assault. In Jesus’ case, it was an assault from without, from the devil, since in Christ there is no darkness. In our case, it may be without from the devil, or within from our own unruly passions of body, mind, and spirit. Regardless of the source, it is what we do with the assault that determines whether it progresses to sin. We must follow the way of our Lord; we must do as he did in the wilderness, do as the saints for two millennia have taught us. Jesus did not engage with the temptation, did not ponder it or reflect upon it. He did not entertain an extended debate with the devil. Jesus simply refuted the temptation with God’s word. As the Desert Fathers tell us, we cannot keep flies from buzzing around our heads, but we do not need to let them light there. We cannot prevent the assaults of the devil, but we dare not let them linger; we dare not engage them. St. Ignatius recommends a three-fold strategy of watchfulness and action. First, become aware that something is stirring spiritually. Second, understand it for what it is. Third, accept it if from God or reject it if from the devil. Awareness is key. The Desert Fathers and Mothers called this awareness nepsis or watchfulness. It is placing a guard over the senses, a watchman over the mind and heart to prevent temptation from penetrating our spiritual defenses. Be careful what you watch. Be careful what you listen to. Be careful where you go. Be careful what you think about and imagine and dwell on:

1 Peter 5:8–9a (ESV): 8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith.

If one temptation does not induce you to sin, know that another will soon follow. We do not know the full extent of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness; three temptations are given us as a summary of the wiles of the devil: three enticements away from Jesus’ true identity, three seductions of the world, the flesh, and the devil as symbolic of all temptations. We do not know the full extent of Jesus’ temptations, but we do know how they ended. Jesus rebuked the tempter: “Be gone, Satan!” Near the end of his ministry, Jesus said a similar thing when tempted by Satan through the human agency of Peter: “Get behind me, Satan.” And we read this somewhat cryptic but powerful word in Jude:

Jude 9 (ESV): 9 But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.”

Be gone, Satan. Get behind me, Satan. The Lord rebuke you. What powerful responses to temptation, what potent weapons against temptation and the tempter these few words are. They should become part of our vocabulary of spiritual warfare. Our foe is ancient. Our foe knows us better than we know ourselves. We dare not trust in ourselves, in our own devices, but rather in the power and the authoritative word of the Lord: Be gone, Satan. Get behind me, Satan. The Lord rebuke you.

Jesus’ identity was declared at his baptism, and temptation surely followed. And now, we find our identity in him; it was created and proclaimed in baptism. And temptation surely follows. Fasting, prayer, Scripture, watchfulness, and a word of rebuke spoken in the power of the Spirit: these were the weapons Jesus used to vanquish the tempter and his temptations, the same proven weapons that are commended by and bequeathed to us in Scripture and in the great tradition of the Church. May we wield them well to the glory of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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