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A Prayer and Fasting Devotional

ThinkstockPhotos-118365690I find myself coming back time and again to the temptations of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. Recently I've been struck anew by the strange, counterintuitive opening line of the story: "Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil." (4:1)

Led by the Spirit (God's presence, in line with His purposes)...into the wilderness (the place of emptiness, misery, loneliness, hardship, where God seems far from our experience)...to be tempted by the devil (exposed to dehumanizing evil). These are not realities we usually associate together. In the center of God's will, in the center of the storm, overwhelmed by the contrast between my experience and desires and God's (purported, but now called increasingly into question) will. 
Of course, one of the major points of the three temptations of Jesus is that he trusted in God, rather than in his own weakened desires and in-the-moment experience, and was thus prepared for the ministry and service to the world that the rest of this Gospel narrates. But obviously Matthew intends the story of Jesus' temptations not in the sense of "thank God Jesus did this hard stuff so that we don't have to!" (as often misconstrued by our impoverished Christian culture), but rather as a template, a paradigm of what our following Jesus will surely entail. Baptism followed by reception of the Spirit and affirmation that we are children of God (conversion; Matthew 3), followed by temptation and suffering in the wilderness, followed by purified hearts that are more fully available to God to serve others unselfishly, followed by vindication and glory (Matthew 5-28)...the outline of the story of Jesus becomes the outline of our stories, the unexpected lens through which we are to make sense of our lives and of our own experience in this world. "Imitate Jesus" is a theme that should resound in our hearts as we read. Certainly this is how the early church overwhelmingly chose to read this section of the Gospels.  

As I was ruminating on Matthew 4, a memorable passage from C. S. Lewis came to mind, burning with fresh power. What a phenomenal summary of this moment in Jesus' story, which we should each fully expect reduplicated in our own lives many times over: 

"Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy's [God's] will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken--and still obeys." (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

The apostle Paul chose to sum up both the story of Jesus in the Gospels and our ongoing story as the people of God in ways that hearken back to Jesus' own temptations that preceded his redemptive service to us and his vindication when God raised him from the dead and seated him at His right hand, ruling over the world in power, glory and authority for our benefit: 

"Have this attitude among yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” 

Therefore [i.e. in light of the pattern of Jesus' story, which is our template!], my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world." (Philippians 2:5-13

We are a death-and-resurrection-for-the-sake-of-the-world kind of people, because that's the story of Jesus in a nutshell. And therefore, we must be an obedient-even-when-it hurts-and-makes-no-sense kind of people. God is not absent from such seasons; in fact, He is probably much more present than in most other times in our lives. We must form, sustain and belong to communities of Jesus' followers in which "and yet still obeys" is valued and pursued unapologetically.  

Nick Nowalk
Teaching Fellow at Harvard
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