It’s no great surprise that John the Baptist might end up confused. Remember how the gospels tell us that from prison he sent some disciples to ask Jesus if He was the Messiah or not? Well, the road to that question started at the their first ex utero meeting.
In the Gospel of John we learn that the Lord told the Baptist that one of the men he baptized would be the Messiah, would be Jesus whom John met while still in the womb. The sign would be the Holy Spirit descending upon the man. The day came. Jesus came asked to be baptized and John baptized Him. The sky tore open, the Spirit descended as a dove, and John knew, knew that this was the promised Messiah, the one sent to give His life for the world and rescue us from the present evil age.
John preached about Jesus of course. The one who was before him. The one carrying an ax to chop down the unfruitful tree. The one coming to separate the wheat from the chaff, bringing not just water, but fire! Now John sees Jesus and it’s time for it all to come true. Except Jesus comes up out of the water and heads off into the wilderness. John could be excused for stammering, “Um, Jesus, hey, wait a minute, where are you going? The sinners are over here! Jerusalem’s that way!” But Jesus keeps going. Out. Into the wilderness.
An unexpected move. Even more unexpected is to hear that He was “led by the Spirit” to do this. Mark’s brief account uses a cruder image that could literally be translated, “the Holy Spirit threw him out into the desert.”
You know why. Most of Christendom knows this story. The Spirit led Jesus out into the desert to be tempted. Not just by hunger and heat, but by the great enemy, who here in Matthew gets three names: the devil, meaning slanderer; the tempter, meaning the one trying to trap Jesus in sin; and Satan, which means adversary or enemy. You know, “the old, evil foe,” of Luther’s famous hymn. And boy does he mean “deadly woe.” He uses all his guile and might to try to get to Christ.
He appeals to His human nature. “These stones, right here, these, the ones you’re walking on, stumbling over, stubbing your toes on, that burn your feet: You’re God. Make them food.”
He tries to get Jesus to commit suicide. “Throw yourself off the temple if you trust God so much.”
He tries to appeal to the typical human short-cut method of ends justifying the means, “Worship me. I’ll give you the kingdoms of the world. Your work will be done.”
Nothing unexpected. We’ve known these things about the devil from the beginning. From his first appearance on the stage he’s tried these tricks. Successfully for the most part, right? He got Adam and Eve to buy in and it was all downhill from there. “All sinned,” as Paul said. And thus, “Death came to all men.”
What we don’t expect is how the devil gets to treat Jesus. He takes Jesus from the desert to the temple pinnacle. He brings Jesus along. He lays hands on Christ. What daring and bravado. And Jesus does nothing. He doesn’t swat the devil’s hands away. He doesn’t say, “I’ve got my own car.” He goes along for the ride.
We keep waiting for Him to pull the trigger though. We keep expecting the unveiling of divine powers. But only the devil shows more than human abilities. The devil swoops him to Jerusalem. The devil shows him the kingdoms of the world. Jesus just takes it all in. As Alice said, “Curiouser and curiouser.”
Finally, when Jesus does dismiss the devil from this particular battle, it’s only so that God’s angels can come take care of Him. Him, the Son of God, the creator of the universe, the creator of the angels, and they relieve Him.
Despite these unexpected things, the expected thing occurred. Jesus didn’t sin. He didn’t even come close. Maybe He looked at the stones the devil refers to, but before you can think about “rye” or “wheat” he says, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” And He probably looked at the ground below, but at the same time said, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” And after seeing all the kingdoms which He Himself established, He didn’t even flinch towards a prayer posture, but said, “Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.”
All these things Jesus did, that the Father did, that the Spirit did, are only unexpected, because we struggle to grasp what we confess in the Creed: “He became fully human.” To wrap our minds around this is well-nigh unto impossible. But He really did. He became like us in every way, and dealt with what we can and should – but don’t always – expect.
I just saw another one of those graphics on facebook dealing with this question, “God, why did you let me have such a bad day?” As you can expect, this imaginary dialogue with God managed to turn the tables on the complaint and let God demonstrate His care and concern through the “bad things” that happened. In other words, with the unexpected things.
God doesn’t just leave us out in a desert, He leads us into the desert, He hurls us out into the desert, to use Mark’s picture. This world is dry and dusty, empty of value and worth at times. It’s hot sand, prickly cacti, and circling birds of prey waiting for us to drop. And there’s never enough of what we need.
That isn’t bad enough, but the devil roams around like a roaring lion. And God lets him manhandle us. He lets the devil touch us. He lets the devil exist. He lets the devil tempt and taunt and accuse, just as He did in the case of Job.
And He doesn’t always step in. Even in the Bible, where we think of miracles happening left and right, they were really few and far between, limited mostly to key moments in salvation history: Moses’ ministry, Elijah and Elisha’s ministry, Jesus’ ministry, the apostles’ ministry. Otherwise, God seems fairly silent for stretches.
All so unexpected. And it causes us to question that commonly held truth: “God won’t give you more than you can bear.” Isn’t death more than you can bear? Cancer? Divorce? Wicked co-workers? A godless, pagan, humanistic society that hates Christianity? A sinful nature hanging around your neck and in your heart? Don’t those things usually overwhelm you? Why does the devil get all the fun, all the power, all the expected things? Could it really be true, the words John Milton put into Satan’s mouth in Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in hell then serve in heaven?”
That is how the devil expects us to respond. And he has lots of evidence to support that expectation. He got Adam and Eve that way. He felt Job would do the same – if God disappeared from his life, did the unexpected, allowed the devil to run wild – then Job would curse God and die. Four billion atheists, unbelievers, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims seem to support that expectation as well. Even within the church, all those preachers saying God will, God must bless you with prosperity or healing or the speaking in tongues communicate this same message.
So maybe we should petition God to rewrite the book and have Jesus go to Jerusalem, not the desert. Or at least, have Jesus call down fire on the devil, or cast him into hell, or levitate off the roof of the temple, or something! Anything!
Instead, God does one more unexpected thing. He hurls our Lord into the desert just to talk. But in doing that, He gives us everything we need. If Jesus had walked to Jerusalem, what would we know about temptation? If Jesus blew the devil away with miracles and wonders, what would we know about deliverance from evil? If Jesus hadn’t made use of the Word, how would we know about the power of the Word?
But there it is, the unexpected thing: it’s the Word. In a sense Jesus could paraphrase Luther, “I did nothing, the Word did everything.” Here we find the unexpected thing to rely on: the Word. We rely on this because this comes from the mouth of the Lord. He says, “Don’t test me. Don’t tempt me. Don’t try me. Serve me only.” Because He established every kingdom by His Word, heck, He established the world by His Word. He parted the Red Sea. He sent the manna and quail. His Word made a bronze serpent cure snake bites. His Word made a virgin pregnant. His Word, nailed to a cross, cured the snake bite of sin. His Word restored the body and soul of His Son – the resurrection of the dead!
And, most specifically to Matthew 4, His Word shot down every flaming arrow of the devil. The Word means we can sing, “Satan, I defy thee; death, I now decry thee; fear, I bid thee cease!” Because God’s Word is that powerful. The Word’s that come from God’s mouth destroy Satan because the Word that came from God’s mouth destroyed Satan, not just here in the desert, but all the way at the cross: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” He appeared in flesh and blood, He wandered into the desert, He faced the devil, seemingly emptyhanded, to do just one thing: “He too shared in [our] humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil.”
That’s the last unexpected thing. The dying and rising. Foolishness apart from faith. Power of God for the salvation of those who believe when the Holy Spirit whispers it into your ear. And it starts here, with Jesus facing the devil just as you do. Hungry. Tired. Worn. With only the Word of God on your side. And He won. For you. Always for you. Amen.