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"It Begins with Who I Am"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on February 26, 2023
By Rev. Dr. Dean Nadasdy, Guest Speaker
Copyright 2023 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Matthew 4:1-11

Our Scripture text is Matthew 4:1-11.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, He was hungry. And the tempter came and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." But He answered, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God.'" Then the devil took Him to the holy city and set Him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down, for it is written, 'He will command His angels concerning You, and 'On their hands they will bear You up, lest You strike Your foot against a stone.'" Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'" Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, "All these I will give You, if You will fall down and worship me." Then Jesus said to him, "Be gone, Satan! For it is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.'" Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to Him.

Let us pray. Lord Jesus, in the desert places of our lives, by Your Spirit, keep us true to our identity. You have called us Your children, and that is who we are. In our desolate places, test us and shape us to be more and more like You. In Your strong Name. Amen.

An Israeli tour guide once asked a Bedouin shepherd why he didn't leave the hard life of the desert for life in the city or for good land where crops could flourish. The Bedouin hardly took a moment to answer. "Simple," he said, "the desert is simple."

The desert is a simple place. Its simplicity leaves little room for distractions. Survival, food, water, and grass for the herd—this is life in the desert. It isn't complicated. This simplicity of the desert has always made it an appealing place for shaping identity. When God called Moses, for instance, to be the leader of Israel, God called him out in the desert. God revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses and Israel out in the desert. Perhaps God can be heard better in the desert where sand and sun and wind and survival mark the landscape of our thoughts. We're told in the Gospels that Jesus often withdrew for prayer to a desolate place.

It makes sense then that when God made Israel His chosen nation in the great exodus story, God chose the desert as a place to test them and shape them into a new nation ready for the Promised Land. Out in the Sinai desert, they would learn to trust God for the water they drank and the food they ate. They were "the children of Israel," God's children. There were moments out there when being an Egyptian slave looked better than being a wandering Israelite. They complained a lot. They murmured about the daily menu. They wondered how long the water would last.

Along the way, it would come down to how much they were willing to trust God and be faithful to His plan. They more than wavered. Even with the very presence of God in the tabernacle and a cloud by day and fire by night signaling God's presence, they still chose to worship the gods of the nations around them: "goofy gods with golf ball eyes," as Old Testament scholar Norman Habel liked call them. Out there in the desert, God tested them and prepared them to be the nation that would take the Promised Land and ultimately give the world the promised Messiah. It all happened out there in the simplicity of the desert, where Israel's identity as the people of God was tested again and again for over forty years.

So it shouldn't surprise us that when it was time for Jesus to begin His ministry, He heads into the desert. At His Baptism, He hears His Father affirm and bless Him as His beloved Son in whom He finds pleasure, The Holy Spirit descends on Him like a dove. They're all there, Father, Son, and Spirit, working together. In His Baptism, Jesus' identity is crystal clear. And then we're told, listen carefully to this, then we're told that "Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil."

Like Israel, so many centuries earlier, God leads Jesus out into the desert for a time of testing. The stakes were the same as they were with Israel. Would Jesus be who the Father said He is? Would He trust His Father for what He needed? After 40 days and nights of fasting, Jesus is hungry and physically exhausted. In the simplicity and clarity of the desert, Satan comes to Jesus with three temptations.

Note too that two of three temptations begin by naming Jesus' identity. Twice, the devil says, "If You are the Son of God." Let's be clear, the devil knows Jesus is the Son of God. The deceiver roots his temptations in that title as if Jesus should go for what is rightfully His, as if to say, "Your Father called You His Son. Your Father is pleased with You. So go for it, Jesus. Take what is Yours. You don't need the Father. You don't need the Father's plan. If you are the Son of God, then act like it. Take Your identity and run with it!"

So, the devil says to a very hungry Jesus, "If You are the Son of God, turn these loaf-like stones into loaves of bread and eat hearty." Jesus responds, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God.'"

So again, the devil says, "If You are the Son of God, jump from the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem and watch God's angels save You on the way down." Jesus responds, "Again it is written, 'You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

In the third temptation: "Bow down and worship me, and I will give all the kingdoms of the world," Jesus responds, "Be gone, Satan! For it is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'"

Do you see it? The test is in Jesus' willing dependence on and obedience to the Father. Would He be the Son of the Father and trust His Father to feed Him in the desert or would He take matters into His own hands? Would He trust the Father to protect Him or put His Father to a test by jumping into midair from the pinnacle of the temple? And would He take by compromise the glory He had been promised by His Father or trust the Father's Word and plan?

It was all at stake out there in the desert. Just as our identity as sinners judged by God is rooted in Adam's disobedience in the Garden, so our identity as forgiven children of God is confirmed by Jesus' perfect obedience in the desert. Adam's failure gives us the sentence of death. Jesus' victory, His unflinching commitment to stay with the Father's plan, gives us life.

"It is written," Jesus says three times in these temptations. He knew the Word. He had it ready as a weapon. It was more than a defensive weapon. It was the Sword of the Spirit wielded as an attack on Satan. Matthew ends his story by saying that "The devil left Him and angels came to serve Him." Luke's account adds that "when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time." That time would no doubt be in Gethsemane where Jesus once again wrestled with His own faithfulness to the Father's will and plan and came out triumphant. There in Gethsemane it would be the same test, "Do I follow the Father's plan or do I strike out on My own? Do I take the cup of suffering or find an easier way on My own?"

American poet Robert Frost once looked at a snow-covered field as if it were a desert place, blank, bleak, and endless in its whiteness. It was 1933 and Frost was going through a very difficult time of illness and depression. In his poem, "Desert Places," he captures the lonely emptiness of difficult times. He writes in the last verse of the poem: "They cannot scare me with their empty spaces, Between stars on stars where no human race is. I have it in me so much nearer home, To scare myself with my own desert places."

Frost is right. We have the desert places so close to home and within us to scare us. Our desert places are often where we falter and question our identity. Am I first a child of God redeemed by Christ or am I my politics? Am I my status, my gender, or my race, my party, or my latest cause? So like Jesus in the desert, in Baptism I may be called a son or daughter of God, but what does that look like? What difference does it make? How much do I need the assurance of my identity as a child of God to get through another day at work or school? Does my identity as God's child mark my ongoing need for God, or is it one among many identities I carry through life, right there with my work, my ethnicity, my talent, my family of origin. My identity as a child of God may work well at church, but what about when I'm making deals or navigating a career or competing for a prize? Who am I then?

Our desert places are also where we let things besides God fill the gaping, empty holes of our identity. We are that way. Give us an empty space and we'll fill it with something. We can end up looking like nomads in the desert in search of an elusive spring or a mirage of wishful thinking. In the desert places, we may fail to see that we will be forever restless until we rest in God's plan and promises. Pascal really had it right, "There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each person which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ."

In our desert places, we're tempted to fill the God-sized hole in our lives with everything but God. Like ancient Israel we create our own idols and worship them. Like Jesus, we're tempted to take our identity, our privilege, and our destiny and trade it all for a little moment of glory. Out in the desert, or inside of us, where the heart of the desert is, there is this desire, this sinful desire to make it on our own, to complain, to question God, to play God ourselves, to grab our own glory. Such desert lives are doomed to be wastelands, where our identity and gifts are squandered because we cannot see God through the haze of a secularized life. God gets a piece of our life, but not all of us, not those parts we keep for ourselves.

For our desert places there is this: "It is written." In 1947 in a cave in the Judean desert at Qumran, a goat herder found a jar holding preserved scrolls of inspired Scripture. Among them was a complete scroll of Isaiah dating from before Christ. Around the time of Christ, the Jewish Essenes had escaped to the desert to find God, live in community, and preserve the written Word of God. What a metaphor for what can happen in the desert places of our lives! There in those very places of fear and testing, God speaks, not just audibly but in writing. When tested, when tried out in the wilderness, there is truth to be found in the Word God speaks, in the Word God writes. That Word shows us again and again our need for God, our emptiness without God. The Word shows us that to be a child of God is to need God daily, sometimes desperately. The Word reveals a Savior who has been tested and not found wanting. Hebrews 4:15-16, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."

We must learn to know our desert places and how to navigate them, "Watch and pray," Jesus once told His disciples, "lest you fall into temptation." So we are self-aware and aware of our surroundings. We watch. While watching, we pray, keeping God close, or better, keeping ourselves close to God. In all of this we are who we say we are, children of God.

Near the beginning of Psalm 119, in verse 11, we get this: "I have stored up Your Word in my heart that I might not sin against You." We hear that verse fulfilled in Jesus' temptation. When Jesus was tempted, He had the Word ready to go. He quoted Scripture at will. "It is written ... It is written ... It is written ..." Oh, I know, that's easy for Jesus, to have the Word set to memory. He even quoted Scripture from the cross! "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Psalm 22:1) and "Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit," Psalm 31:5, which became a bedtime prayer for Jewish children. Sure, Jesus has an edge when it comes to memorizing Scripture. Still, to know who we are in our desert places is to know the written Word, committed to memory, ready to grasp like a sword.

In our desert places, we watch. We pray. We tap into the Word stored in our hearts. In our desert places, we are who God says we are: God's own children. And we remember this One who took no shortcuts to glory when tempted. Instead He stayed who He was and is: the Son of God, obedient to the Father, following the Father's plan, even if it meant taking a cross. Even in our desert places, especially in our desert places, we become more like Christ. Amen.

Let us pray. Lord Jesus, You have shown us the way through temptation to victory. By Your Spirit, lead us through our desert places to reaffirm our identity in You and to pick up a cross once more and know You more clearly, follow You more nearly, and love You more dearly. Amen.

Reflections for February 26, 2023

Title: It Begins with Who I Am

Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to Joining us now, here's Lutheran Hour Speaker, Dr. Mike Zeigler.

Mike Zeigler: Hi, Mark!

Mark Eischer: Thinking about what we just heard in Dr. Nadasdy's message today, how is Jesus' resistance to Satan's temptations a mirror image of the original fall into sin?

Mike Zeigler: Great question. First, I want to say that I appreciate the way Dr. Nadasdy described how the devil tempted Jesus. I think that will give us an insight into how he tempted Adam and Eve. When I've read this passage in the past, I usually hear Satan trying to get Jesus to doubt that He really is the Son of God. I guess that's one way we could hear what the devil's saying to Jesus. But what Dr. Nadasdy did for me in the sermon was think about it from another angle, which is to say that he's acknowledging the truth about Jesus' identity as God's Son, but then He's trying to get Him to apply it in the wrong way. Maybe so it could sound something like, "Because You are this powerful Son of God, then why don't You do something about it? Why don't You strike out on Your own and exercise Your power?"

And so from this perspective, looking back at the devil's temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, maybe it was something like, "Hey, you really are God's pride and joy. You really are the favored creature in the world. You're made in God's image. So why don't you insist on your rights to have more? Why are you letting God say that you can't have this thing that you want to have or you can't know this thing that God says you don't need to know?"

Mark Eischer: Jesus described the devil as the "father of lies," and we really see here how skillful he is in constructing his lies.

Mike Zeigler: Exactly. Sometimes he might tell us bold-faced lies, "God doesn't exist" or "God doesn't love you" or "You're worthless." Sometimes he might tell us lies in that way. But other times he might tell us a half-truth. With Adam and Eve, he didn't just tell them, "Oh, give up, God doesn't love you." He was saying, "You're really special. You're really important. You've got all these talents. You've got all these gifts and smarts. Why are you letting God hold back on you? Why are you satisfied with what you have?"

Mark Eischer: So we've talked about how Jesus experience in the desert reflects Adam and Eve's temptation in the Garden. How might it also mirror that of the Israelites during the Exodus?

Mike Zeigler: As Dr. Nadasdy said in the sermon, the people of Israel were already the children of God at that point. God called Israel His firstborn Son. Even before He broke them out of slavery back in Exodus 4:22, He says, "Israel's My firstborn Son. And that's why He sent Moses there in the first place, to rescue them. So the people didn't have to prove themselves that they really were God's children. Just like Adam and Eve didn't have to prove themselves that they really were made in God's image, God's beloved children. Their problem began when they started to believe the lie that their special status meant that they didn't have to listen to God anymore or that they didn't need God anymore.

Mark Eischer: Sometimes this account of Jesus in the wilderness is presented as a how-to lesson in avoiding or resisting temptation. Jesus quoted Scripture, therefore, we should memorize lots of Scripture so we have all of these arrows in our quiver, so to speak. But isn't it important to remember that Jesus is doing this for us and in our place?

Mike Zeigler: Right. This is one of those cases where it's not an either-or but a both-and. So yes, he is providing us with an example, as Dr. Nadasdy discussed in the sermons, Psalm 119, about having God's Word on your heart. It's just that He's not merely an example. Because if Jesus were merely an example, then as soon as we learned the lesson, then we wouldn't need Jesus anymore. We could just strike out on our own. And now we're back to where the devil had us in the Garden of Eden. The devil's goal is trying to get us to believe that we can just use God's gifts, God's lessons for our own purposes. So we go back and remember that Jesus resisted this temptation not by striking out on His own, but by being completely dependent on His Father.

Mark Eischer: And where we failed, He succeeded.

Mike Zeigler: That's right. Jesus isn't saying, "Take these principles and apply them so that you can have a good and spiritually fulfilled life." Instead, He's saying, "I am the Way, the Truth in the Life. There is life in Me. So stay with Me; be dependent on Me." It's the image of the vine and the branches that He teaches His disciples, recorded in John 15. He doesn't say, "Here's how to plant your own vineyard." He says, "I am the vine. You are the branches. Remain in Me, and My Words remain in you, and you will bear much fruit. But apart from Me, you can do nothing." Apart from Jesus, we're going to fall for the devil's lies every time. But in Him, remaining in Him, we can have life and bear fruit abundantly.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"Jesus Grant That Hope and Comfort" arr. Henry Gerike. Used by permission.

"On My Heart Imprint Your Image" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.

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