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The Wilderness Test

The Wilderness Test

A Sermon on Matthew 4:1-11.

I said on Ash Wednesday that the problem that ensnares the world today is the same problem that has plagued humanity since the beginning, namely, our rebellion against God. Part of going through Ash Wednesday and going through the season of Lent is to remind ourselves that even though we are the people of God, we are not excluded from this human predicament of sin. We have to come to God and repent, holding up our brokenness and weakness to him as an offering, so that we can be the people he created us to be and so that we can go out into the world to do the work of his kingdom as his broken-but-healed, weak-but-strong people. And I also said that our repentance takes place as part of a story that starts in the Garden, makes its way through Abram and his offspring, climaxes in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth, and then continues in the Church. It is that same story that is on display in our readings this morning. 

God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden to be his image-bearers, the vice-regents of his creation. Their task was to rule over creation, to govern it wisely, and to expand the Garden over the face of the earth. But Adam and Eve failed to listen to the Word of God. God commanded them not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the serpent twisted what God had commanded, deceived Eve, she and Adam ate, and ever since the world has been subjected to futility–ever since all created things have been under the curse. 

And then God called Abram and promised him that he would bless the entire world through Abram and his offspring, that he would take all that had gone wrong and make it right. The story weaves its way from Abram through the Patriarchs and Joseph until it comes to Moses, who stands before Pharoah and says that the God of heaven and earth has commanded, “Let my people go.” God’s solution to the problem of sin is Israel-shaped. Redemption is to come through Israel, and so he frees his people from slavery in Egypt, baptizes them in the Red Sea, and brings them to Sinai, like Adam and Eve in the Garden, to give them his commandments and to tell them how to live as his people. 

God’s solution to the problem that plagues creation is Israel-shaped, but even as God is on Sinai giving his Law to his people, Israel is following in the footsteps of Adam and Eve. They are rebelling against their creator and worshipping a golden calf at the foot of the mountain, and herein lies the fundamental problem that permeates the Old Testament. God’s solution to the problem that plagues creation is Israel-shaped, but Israel itself is part of the problem. They are just like Adam and Eve. They don’t listen to or obey the Word of God, and this rebellion, which manifests itself at Sinai, flows through the Old Testament from Exodus to Malachi. And so the question remains at the close of the Hebrew Bible: How can God use an Israel-shaped solution to the problem of sin when Israel itself has become part of the problem?

In answer to this question, God steps into the story of human history, unites himself to humanity in general but to Abraham’s offspring in particular, and will be faithful where Israel was faithless. So, when Jesus is led by the Spirit back out into the wilderness, this is not merely an exciting tale where Jesus is tempted by Satan. When Jesus encounters Satan, the whole Gospel is at stake, and the entire narrative of our redemption is at risk. Will Jesus be faithful where Israel was faithless? Will Jesus be faithful where Adam was faithless? And the answer to both questions is a resounding yes. Of course, those questions won’t be answered fulled until the cross where Jesus was obedient to the point of death. But here in the wilderness, as Satan comes and twists Scripture, Jesus succeeds where Israel and Adam failed.

Adam’s sin brought sin and death into the world. Israel’s sin put God’s plan of redemption in jeopardy. But because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, death no longer has the final word in the story of our lives. Death may have reigned, but God raised Jesus from the dead. Despite denying like a criminal, despite dying under a curse, God declared him to be righteous, to be in the right, by raising him from the dead, never to die again, and by seating him at his right hand as the world’s true Lord and King. 

What Paul has in mind is a courtroom. On one side stand all those who put Jesus to death, all those who claimed that he wasn’t who he said he was, all those who doubted him, despised him, and rejected him. On the other side stands Jesus, the one faithful descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the one faithful descendant of Adam and Eve. He was crucified. He died like all the rest of Adam’s descendants. Surely he was faithless too. Surely God would not have let the righteous suffer in this way. Surely anyone who dies on a tree is cursed. Surely the world was right in what they said about him. In this courtroom, God is the judge, and on Easter Sunday, the judge rendered his verdict. He raised Jesus from the dead and declared him to be the righteous one in this heavenly courtroom. And now God offers to all the descendants of Adam and Eve to stand in that declaration of righteousness as a gift. 

God doesn’t say, “Jesus showed you how to earn your salvation, so now go out and earn it.” He doesn’t say, “If you’re good enough, what I did for Jesus, I will do for you too.” He doesn’t say, “If you can earn enough points, you’ll get saved from death too.” He offers all the descendants of Adam and Eve the same declaration of righteousness that he pronounced over Jesus with all its benefits simply if we will place our faith in Jesus Christ.

You see, the logic isn’t: Adam failed, Israel failed, Jesus succeeded, and now we must succeed as well. No, the logic is: Adam failed, Israel failed, Jesus succeeded, and now the benefits of success are offered to the whole world as an act of God’s grace. God has saved the world through Abraham’s offspring.

Adam’s sin brought death, but Jesus’ righteous act, namely, his obedience to the point of death, brought a gift so unfathomable and so incredible that even death pales in comparison. Paul’s point in Romans 5 is that the grace we receive in Christ is greater than the curse we receive in Adam in as much as Christ is more excellent than Adam. If Adam’s sin brought death, then how much more will Christ’s obedience bring life and grace and righteousness. Adam’s sin made the whole world sinners, but through Christ’s obedience, the entire world may now be made righteous, and for those who believe, our end, union with God, fellowship with is Spirit, and enjoying the new creation with Christ forever, is better than our beginning. What we gain in Christ is greater than what we lost in Adam if we put our faith in him who died upon the tree for our transgressions. 

So, in one sense, we are walking with Christ in Lent through his forty days of fasting in the wilderness, and in doing so we are walking the same path that Adam, Israel, and Christ walked before us. But there is a crucial difference for us as we walk through these forty days of Lent. For us who have been set free from sin and have passed through the waters of baptism, the victory has already been won. The test has already been passed. God has already defeated sin, death, and the devil in Abraham’s offspring, Jesus of Nazareth. So when we fast, when we repent, when we get down on our knees and ask God for forgiveness because we still behave like children of Adam, we aren’t trying to earn anything because all we could ever receive is already ours in Christ. We are much more simply letting the Spirit of God work inside us to make us right, to make us the people we already are in Jesus Christ. Remember, it is the Holy Spirit who drove Jesus into the wilderness, and he drives us there as well. The Spirit drives us out into the wilderness so that we can be transformed from children of Adam into fellow heirs with Jesus Christ our Lord.

And that should be our goal in Lent. We aren’t trying to earn anything. We aren’t trying to prove anything. We aren’t trying to show how committed or strong or righteous or devout we are. We aren’t trying to pass a test that’s already been passed or trying to win a victory that’s already been won. We are instead walking the path that Jesus walked, not to earn our salvation, but because we are his disciples, because we follow wherever he leads, and because we believe that the wilderness has something to teach us about being the people of God. The victory is already won. The Promised Land is already secure. The great story of Adam, Abraham, and Christ has reached its climax on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Jesus has defeated Satan, and God has declared him to be righteous. Ours is but to repent and believe, and to follow our Lord and his Spirit wherever they might lead. 

Amen. 

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