“Thus says Yahweh, ‘Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, Let my son go that he may serve me. If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’” Those are the words that God commanded Moses to speak to Pharaoh. Yahweh announced that Israel was his son. This people, now enslaved by the Egyptians, was not like everyone else. Instead, the creator of the heavens and the earth had taken them to be his own. They stood in a unique relationship to him. The nation was his son. And this was no small thing. If Pharaoh didn’t release Yahweh’s son Israel, then Yahweh would kill Pharaoh’s first born son.
Of course, Pharaoh had to learn the hard way that Yahweh meant what he said. He refused to release God’s son Israel, and so Yahweh sent ten plagues upon Egypt while sparing Israel. The tenth and final plague was the Passover. God had the Israelites kill the Passover lamb and mark their houses with its blood. That night God passed through Egypt and executed judgment against the Egyptians as he killed the first born of the Egyptians and their animals. But he spared his son Israel – all the houses marked with the blood of the Passover lamb.
Pharaoh allowed Israel to go, only to change his mind and pursue the Israelites with his army. Trapped between the Red Sea and the oncoming Egyptians, the Israelites despaired. But Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.” God divided the Red Sea as the Israelites walked through the midst of it on dry ground. And then God drowned the Egyptians in the sea.
Yahweh brought them to Mt Sinai, and there he said through Moses, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself.
Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” God declared Israel’s unique status as he brought them into a covenant with him.
God rescued Israel and brought them through the wilderness as they journeyed toward the land he had promised to give them. And how did Israel respond to this unearned status as Yahweh’s son? How did it respond to the gracious rescue and deliverance? They complained that they had no food. Then they complained that they did not like the manna God was giving to them – the bread from heaven. They complained and put God to the test because they had no water. Then Israel refused to enter the promised land when they arrived there. Forced to wander in the wilderness for forty years they kept complaining and disobeying God. And finally, when they did enter the land, how did they act? They did the exact opposite of God’s command. They acted like they were just any other nation as they intermarried with the pagan peoples there and began to worship their gods.
The story of Israel, God’s son, provides the backdrop for the Gospel lesson today. Our text begins by saying, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” What has just happened is that Jesus has been baptized by John in the Jordan River. Jesus went up from the water, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him. And then God the Father said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
As the reader of the Gospel we know that Jesus is the Christ. He is the One descended from King David whom God had promised. Like the other Davidic kings he is also God’s son – he is Israel reduced to one. The nation was God’s son. The king of the nation was God’s son. But as the One conceived by the Holy Spirit Jesus is more than just an adopted son. He is in his very being the Son of God – the second person of the Trinity.
Like Israel, Jesus has passed through the water. And now, like Israel, Jesus is led into the wilderness. The correspondence between these events is not by chance. It is divinely planned. Jesus the Christ is a “do over” for Israel. Israel had been intended to be a light to the nations. But at every turn the nations failed. Israel was an utterly disobedient son.
And so now, God has sent his Son into the world in the incarnation. He has sent his Son to be Israel and all that the nation was meant to be. He has sent his Son to be the means by which God gives salvation to all people.
To do this, he too goes into the wilderness. He is led there to face temptation – to be tempted by the devil. You know the temptations. You hear them every year: Make these stones into bread; throw yourself from the temple and force God to rescue you in a dramatic way; worship me and receive all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.
The three temptations are each based on a question that is directed to Jesus. First, will you serve yourself? Second, will you trust God’s promises or not? Third, whom will you worship? These are the same questions that face us each day. Will you serve your husband or wife, father or mother, brother or sister, or will you serve yourself? Will you trust in God’s promises or will you doubt God, grumble and get angry at him? Will you fear, love and trust in God above all things or will you find other things that are more important – things to which you devote greater time, money and energy?
Jesus faced these things. And in each case he showed himself to be the obedient Son. Though he had the power to create all things he did not serve himself. Instead Jesus said, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus did not force God’s hand by seeking a crowd rousing rescue, but instead carried out the Father’s will as the crowd mocked him on the cross. He did not seek power and glory, but instead was faithful on a path that led him to suffering, death and a tomb.
Israel, God’s son, passed through the water and went into the wilderness. And it was a disaster. Jesus, God’s Son, passed through the water and went into the wilderness and was victorious. He went one on one with the devil, and smoked him. He would not serve himself. He did trust God’s promises. He only worshipped God. He emerged from the wilderness as the winner – the One who was victorious by being humble and obedient to the Father. He remained faithful to his mission all the way to the cross. And by his death there he achieved what Israel never could. He was the true servant of the Lord who bore our transgressions and by whose wounds we have been healed.
Jesus was humble and obedient as he walked the way to the cross. Yet for him this has led to glory and exaltation. He defeated death itself as he rose from the dead on the third day. And now, Jesus has been exalted to the right hand of the Father as the ascended Lord. In the final temptation the devil offers the kingdoms of the world and their glory. But after his resurrection Jesus met his disciples on a mountain in Galilee and said: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
When we listen to Jesus face these temptations, we hear our own failures – the times when we give the wrong answer to the questions about whom we will serve and whom we will trust and whom we will worship. But on that mountain in Galilee Jesus went on to say, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
And here we have good news. Jesus was the faithful Son of God. And through your baptism, God now considers you to be a faithful son or daughter on account of Christ. The apostle Paul said about baptism, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” When God looks at you, he does not see your self-service and doubt and false worship. Instead, he sees Christ the perfectly obedient Son who has atoned for your every sin. And that means that when God looks at you in Christ, he sees a saint. He sees a holy one who belongs nowhere else than in his presence for eternity.
God is right about us. After all, he’s God. The ongoing task now for us is to understand what this means. In Christ we are new creation. The Holy Spirit has given us regeneration in Holy Baptism – we have been born again of water and the Spirit. And so the Spirit provides the means by which we can seek to live as the sons and daughters of God. The status and the life go hand in hand, because it is the Spirit who provides both.
God has made you a son or daughter of God so that now you can seek to answer those questions in the way that we see Jesus do so in our text. Jesus gives the right answer to the question raised by each temptation. And the tool he uses to assist him in this is God’s Word. Jesus uses God’s Word, and so we too need to be in that Word. More than that, we need to be bringing that Word into us as we learn by heart Scripture texts that are there in our mind, ready for the Spirit to take up and use at the right moment.
Today we see Jesus God’s Son succeeding where Israel had failed. Jesus is God’s Son with whom the Father remained well pleased all the way to the tomb. In this way Jesus accomplished the saving purpose of Israel. And on the third day God raised him from the dead as he began the new creation.
Through baptism and faith you now share in the status provided by the Lord Jesus. You are a son or daughter of God. You are forgiven. You are holy. You are a saint. And because this is so we live confidently in this knowledge as we seek to live as what God has made us to be.