First Sunday in Lent
Dear friends in Christ:
Among the most ubiquitous sounds of the 21st century, heard countless times every day, by people throughout the world, is the sound… “click.” These days, the clicking of a mouse and the related tapping of the touch screen are the soundtracks of our daily lives. We get everything with a click — from the news to ordering groceries to checking in with a distant friend.
But while the Web has brought us ease of communication, it’s also shouldered us with the burden of distraction. You can’t read much online without being bombarded with ads or, perhaps even worse, temptations to click on another article that will take you down a rabbit hole you never intended to follow.
Internet users call these temptations “clickbait,” and they refer to any ad or link with a shocking, salacious, teasing headline or photo designed to pique your curiosity and suck you in.
You know what I’m talking about. Headlines such as: “Brady Bunch Secrets That Will Leave You Speechless.” “What ‘Star Trek’ Cast Looks Like Now Is Jaw-Dropping.” “21 Facts About the Amish Most People Don’t Know.”
Click on these and you’ll soon find yourself burning away the hours.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is sent into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. The Devil, as we might describe him today, is a master of clickbait. He’s always trying to distract us from what really matters, and he doesn’t deliver on what he promises, and he plays havoc with us when we’re driven by emotion rather than by faith.
The tempting of Jesus, here in the early days of his ministry, serves as a test of Jesus’ power and calling. Right before this, at his Baptism, God spoke to him and called him his beloved Son. Would Jesus live up to this billing? Could he stand up to the Devil’s wiles?
As his time of testing begins, Jesus fasts. Fasting is its own test—causing a hunger that deeply affects one’s body and mind. Fasting is an activity that is meant to help us grow in discipline, and it’s not easy. In forty days of fasting, Jesus would have been greatly tempted just on his own.
And then the Devil comes in with his bag of tricks. As we see, his clickbait strategy is on full display.
If it appeared on our screens today, temptation number one might sound something like this: “Making bread out of stones? The shocking dietary revolution that will change your life!” To Jesus, the Devil says “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
The Devil appeals here directly to Jesus’ empty stomach. The prospect of food after forty days of fasting would have sounded divine. But the Devil’s words here have additional appeal too. This is even a bigger temptation when seen in context.
Many Jews in Jesus’ day were hoping for a new exodus out of their practical slavery under Roman occupation. They were looking for a messiah who looked a lot like a new version of Moses, complete with God’s provision of manna from heaven. Turning stones into bread would be a sure sign for the people that the messiah they were looking for had finally arrived. Satan tempts Jesus to conform to the people’s expectations.
Of course, we know that Jesus was quite capable of pulling off this miraculous recipe there in the desert. He would soon turn water into wine, so he could certainly turn stones into bread. Elementary. He could even feed 5,000-plus people with just five loaves of bread and two fish.
Jesus understood, however, that this clickbait temptation was about focusing on the product rather than the source. God is the source of all that is good, and God must be acknowledged. God, in these days, had called Jesus to fast. He would provide bread for Jesus, and his people, in due time.
And neither did Jesus need to take a short-cut in revealing to the people his identity as God’s Son. That would take place when needed as well.
Remember the Israelites when they were wandering in the desert? Even though God fed them they eventually got sick of eating manna day after day, and pined to go back to Egypt where the menu had more variety (Numbers 11:1-6). They ignored the fact that God was the one keeping them alive and leading them toward the promised land. Bread alone, we see, isn’t enough to keep people satisfied.
Jesus, therefore, responded to the devil by quoting Moses’ own warning to the people: “[God] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
Jesus listened to God’s Word, not his own desire to take care of things himself. Jesus trusted God’s promises, and did not take matters into his own hands. Jesus knew that the devil’s temptation was to produce a product rather than rely on the ultimate source from whom every good thing comes. Both he and his people needed more than a steady diet of bread — they needed a steady diet of God and His Word to sustain them for the long haul.
What about us?
We’re also tempted to seek the quick and easy route to fill our empty bellies and empty souls. We fill up on products that satisfy our need for a while, but ultimately fail. Jesus invites us to consider that the only thing that will truly satisfy us is the presence of the God who supplies all we truly need. This is why Jesus will later tell his disciples to pray for their “daily bread,” and not bread for a lifetime (6:11). When we feed on the Word of God and the Bread of Life, we are on a diet that brings health for eternity!
Jesus resisted temptation number one. But there was more. Today’s version of temptation number two might be: “Man jumps from incredible height with no parachute. You won’t believe what happens next!” What the Devil says to Jesus is: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.”
The devil’s second clickbait temptation was to get a kind of YouTube video of Jesus jumping off the pinnacle of the temple into the Kidron Valley with no net and no chute (v. 6). The fall would have meant certain death to anyone trying it, but the devil suggests that Jesus could land unscathed. Such a video would have gone viral instantly and ensured Jesus’ celebrity status among all the people, not just the scraggly band of disciples and hangers-on who followed him around.
The devil even tries to bait Jesus by using Scripture, quoting Psalm 91 (v11-12) to pump up the fact that God would provide an angelic safety net for the jump: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”
But, like a lot of clickbait of the semi-religious variety, the devil uses Scripture out of context. Psalm 91 says that God’s protection is for circumstances that befall his people, and not for those who test Him by taking foolish risks, especially when those risks are designed to impress others. Note how the Psalm begins: “If you make the Most High your dwelling, even the LORD, who is my refuge, then no harm will befall you.”
Jesus knows the true meaning of the Psalm. Even so, he decides to respond to the devil’s clickbait by citing Deuteronomy 6:16, which refers to Israel’s testing of God in the wilderness, when they complained about their lack of water. That scripture says: “Do not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.” Jesus says this right to the devil’s face. He doesn’t need to prove anything to this guy. And he is not going to test God.
Does the devil think that Jesus might not believe that the God who was with him in the waters of baptism just a short time ago, was no longer with him now? Does the devil think that Jesus might actually test God’s faithfulness and presence by flinging himself off the temple pinnacle like some kind of crazed flying squirrel?
We can’t know what the devil thought, but we do know what Jesus thought. It was a dumb idea to think that God was not with him.
What about us?
We’re not to test God either. We’re not to design our plans all on our own, without God, and then expect Him to bless them. We’re not to engage in risky behavior and expect God to protect us. And we’re not to bend Scripture to suit our purposes.
Rather, we’re to remember that God is with us. He claimed us as his own in the waters of Baptism. He promises to care for us in the ways he knows to be best. We don’t need to test him. We only need to trust him.
Most tempters would have given up by this point. But not the Devil. He’s the prince of lies, after all. He gives it one more shot.
Clickbait Headline number three might be worded today as something like: “The secret to world domination. It’s easier than you think!” To Jesus, the Devil says: “All these kingdoms of the world I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
“All the kingdoms of the world” have never really belonged to the devil, even though we sometimes call him “the prince of this world.” So, he can’t actually give these to Jesus. Instead, his final offer is to make Jesus the kind of ruler the devil could live with — one who worships him. Sadly, that kind of ruler is the kind of political and military leader the world normally expects — one who exercises power to keep everything in line without needing God’s help to do it. The devil offers Jesus the world as it is and as everyone expects it to be. All he needs to do is to “fall down and worship” the devil and his way of owning and manipulating human hearts.
But Jesus is not interested in the world as it is, and as everyone expects it to be. He will come out of the wilderness preaching the reign and rule of God done on earth as it is in heaven (v. 17). This is a quite different governing system than the devil’s rule.
The devil’s kingdom is a kingdom of darkness; God’s is a kingdom of light. “He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:12-13).
The devil’s kingdom is all about domineering authority; God’s kingdom is about servanthood.
The devil’s kingdom is about coercion, violence and bondage; God’s kingdom is about peace.
The devil’s kingdom is about the “pleasure principle”; God’s kingdom is about holiness and right living.
The devil’s kingdom is based on lies and deception; God’s kingdom is about the truth, which sets us free.
The devil’s kingdom is a culture of death; God’s kingdom is a culture of life.
Jesus said that it is the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers and the persecuted who will inherit this kingdom — those who “worship the Lord [their] God and serve him only.”
When we’re tempted to click on things that promote the world as the devil wants it, Jesus reminds us to turn our attention to the reality of the kingdom and not the devil’s fantasy world. Jesus already rules his kingdom. He simply calls us to join him in making it present, and making it known.
Jesus refused to be drawn in by the devil’s clickbait. He passed his test and went on to teach, heal and battle evil until it was time for him to go to the cross. There he sacrificed himself for the sins of the world, winning salvation for all who turn to him. And while he was on that cross, remember that the Centurion and those in charge were moved to say: “Surely, this was the Son of God.” It’s the cross that truly conveys the message.
In our lives, there are pop-up temptations that cross our paths and appear on our screens every day. That is why Jesus invites us to turn our attention to the wilderness, to the Word and to his wisdom. They’re the only offers that truly deliver!
In the name of Jesus, our Lord and Savior. Amen.