Sermon for Lent IA: Jesus goes to Boot Camp
The Lord be with you.
I’ll begin with a quote: “You don’t want the first time that they have to dig deep [to be] when they have to face one of our enemies.” Those are the words of Maj. Gen. Pete Johnson, the commander of the army base at Fort Jackson, SC. He is talking about Boot Camp — Basic Training — specifically, a new program of instruction the Center for Initial Military Training unveiled in 2018 to give soldiers a more “mission-oriented” experience that will make them ready to fight the kinds of wars they anticipate we may face in the years to come.
Major Johnson is emphasizing the fundamental purpose of Basic Training, which is realistic preparation for the challenges soldiers will face. The philosophy is that everything a soldier learns in training, they will have to perform under pressure and be graded on to graduate. To use Major Johnson’s words, they challenge people to “dig deep” now so that they can “dig deep” in the moment of crisis.
Today’s Gospel is the story of when Jesus went to Boot Camp. Like a soldier in Basic Training, Jesus was led by the Spirit, immediately after his baptism, into the wilderness to endure stress testing before he embarked upon his active ministry. Deprived of sustenance, struggling in a hostile environment, his physical, emotional, and spiritual faculties stretched to their limits, he then had to face the enemy and pass the test.
Now, this wasn’t something that Jesus did and then his testing was over. These were the kinds of tests he was going to face throughout the rest of his ministry. Just like Boot Camp. It was preparation for all the tests to come. These forty days in the wilderness equipped him for the ongoing battle ahead, which culminated on the Cross.
The devil first tempted Jesus to trust his own strength and provide for himself rather than trust in God’s care. He had just been baptized, where God had affirmed Jesus as his own beloved Son. But like the Israelites who passed through the waters of the Red Sea, he soon found himself in a barren place, without resources to sustain him. The Hebrew people failed the test. They complained, grumbled, and rebelled against God and Moses. They ended up wandering the wilderness, not for forty days, but for forty years, losing an entire generation in the process. In his test Jesus, however, quoting a scripture reflecting upon that experience, answered the devil by putting his trust in God and his word of promise.
The devil then tempted Jesus to put God to the test by demanding a sign. Once again, we see the Hebrew people and the tests they faced as the newly formed family of God. Having been rescued from Egypt by incredible signs and wonders, when they got into the wilderness they continually pestered Moses for additional signs to prove that God was with them and that God would take care of them. And when Moses went up the mountain and they thought he abandoned them, they fashioned a god for themselves like the gods of Egypt, hoping their new deity would come through for them.
Jesus had seen great signs from God too. God had parted the heavens and sent the Spirit down upon him at his baptism. God spoke to him. Now the devil was challenging him: did God really do those things for you? Where is God now, out here in the wilderness? Come on, demand a sign, make God prove he’s there for you. Jesus once again rejected the temptation and put his trust in the God who is there even when we cannot see him.
There was one more test. The devil offered Jesus the easy way to the top — abandon the mission, give allegiance to me, and I’ll give you the throne. Once again we see echoes of the First Testament story. The Israelites were called to stay separate from the nations, and for this reason — they were called to be God’s priests to all of them, to bring God’s light to them, to show them that the way to life was through trusting and worshiping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Nevertheless, the Israelites kept seeking their own security and position by making alliances with stronger nations. They forsook their trust in God and abandoned their vocation to be a light to the nations in order to achieve power, wealth, and success in connection with the powerful and elite of the world.
Jesus refused this Faustian bargain. His vocation was to be the light of the world by being the servant of all, not by lording it over those he came to save. Even in his physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion, he stayed the course.
And so the devil left him. For a time. Luke’s Gospel says that the devil departed until another opportune time. This wasn’t the end of Jesus’ testing. Jesus would face these pressures over and over and over again in his life and ministry. Even as he hung on the Cross, he heard the mocking words: “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’”
Jesus passed Basic Training. When he faced those initial tests in the wilderness, he dug deep so that he would be equipped to face them in the days and years to come. This is how Jesus became our Savior. Facing and passing the same tests Israel failed, Jesus was confirmed as the True Israel who would become the True Light of the World.
Let me end with a word of application for us from Bible scholar Tom Wright:
The temptations we all face, day by day, and at critical moments of decision and vocation in our lives, may be very different from those of Jesus, but they have exactly the same point. They are not simply trying to entice us into committing this or that sin. They are trying to distract us, to turn us aside, from the path of servanthood to which our baptism has commissioned us. God has a costly but wonderfully glorious vocation for each one of us. The enemy will do everything possible to distract us and thwart God’s purpose.
But…keep your eyes on God, and trust him for everything. Remember your calling, to bring God’s light into the world. And say a firm “no” to the voices that lure you back into the darkness.
• Matthew for Everyone, Part 1, p. 26f
May the word of Christ dwell in us richly in all wisdom. Amen.