This homily was preached on by Father Joseph Gleason on Sunday, March 1, 2015 at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois.
Transcription by Maria Powell of Dormition Text Services
Gospel Reading: Matthew 4:1-11
Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Our God is One.
Imagine being alone in the wilderness without a friend anywhere around, and you’re going one-on-on with the devil himself. You’re being tempted by Satan, the most evil of all the angels, the most powerful of all the wicked demons. Have you ever had a period in your life where you felt like you could relate to that experience – where the devil himself has shown up, where the devil himself is tempting you? You wonder how long it’s going to on, and you’re wondering, “When will it end?” What kind of thoughts go through your mind at times like that? “What have I done to deserve this? What sin did I commit to deserve going through this? Why me, Lord?”
Indeed, when we sin, particularly when we sin willfully, we may go through some very, very tough times that are directly a result of our own sins. So it is a question that must be asked. If you identify some sins that you have committed, and you can see that what you are presently going through is a result of those, then repent of your sins. Call out to God for mercy. Go to confession. The Lord will forgive you of your sins if you confess them with a contrite heart, and in time, He’ll bring you healing.
But as we see in the stories of Job in Scripture and of Jesus here in the wilderness, not all difficult times and not all temptations come as a result of our sins. Indeed, Jesus had already, prior to this point, lived thirty years without sin. That’s impressive – to live on this planet as a human being for thirty years, throughout his entire childhood and early adulthood, thirty years, without a single sin! You’d think after that type of an accomplishment that you’d be free from trouble, that you would deserve for no problems to come your way.
Yet we read something incredible. In Scripture, it doesn’t say, “the Spirit was busy somewhere else, and when the Holy Spirit wasn’t looking the devil attacked and started tempting Jesus.” That’s not what it says. It says, “The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” [Matthew 4:1]. This is exactly what the Holy Spirit led Him to!
There are times, with the righteous, that the Holy Spirit of God will lead a righteous person into the wilderness, into temptation, to withstand an attack from the tempter. Job endured it. Jesus endured it. We read of other righteous men in Scripture and righteous women who endured it.
Now, if you are not facing the devil because of your sins; if you are not facing difficulty, and trials, and temptation in the wilderness because of something you have done wrong, you have to ask:
“If I have been so faithful to God, if I am a good Christian, if I am walking with the Spirit, why would the Holy Spirit lead me into temptation? Why would the Holy Spirit intentionally put me in a situation where I am alone, out in the middle of nowhere, being tempted by the devil?”
I believe the first reason is simply [that it] is a test. God has every right to test us! He already knows what’s in our hearts, but many times, we do not, and other people who are watching do not know. You may see somebody who seems very pious, very righteous, very good on the outside, but you simply have never seen them when they are in trouble – how they lose their temper, how they cuss, how they are mean to everybody around them, how they lose all their patience, how the things of God suddenly do not become very important to them anymore because they only want to focus on how they can solve their troubles.
There [are] other people who may strike you as very quiet, and meek, and perhaps even weak; and you tell yourself, “now that person – if that person ever faces adversity, man, they’re going to be the first to crumble! There’s no way that person could ever stand up to anything.” Yet, when thrown into the heat of adversity, that quiet, meek person that you never suspected had any strength at all is the only one who sees it through faithfully to the end.
[This is] like the three Hebrew children. These young guys, even when faced with the threats of the king, and with threats of torture and death itself, they would not bow the knee to a pagan god.
Esther – just a Jewish girl. Just a girl! There’s no way she would risk her life and put herself in danger of execution by standing up to the king of Persia. Yet, she did. She fasted and prayed for three days, and, risking her life, she went in before the King Xerxes and laid everything on the line to risk her life so that she might bring salvation to God’s people that they would not be executed.
God can see into the heart, but we cannot see into each other’s hearts. The angels and the devils – they cannot see the depths of our hearts. It is through testing that the wheat is separated from the chaff, that the silver and the gold are purified and that the dross is burned away. Through fire, it is revealed what we are actually made of.
If you are made of gold, silver, precious stones, the fire purifies you, and the heat and the light from the fire makes you shine like the stars in the heavens; it only makes you look better, more glorious. But if you are made of kindling, if you’re made of wood, hay, straw, stubble, then when the fire comes, it burns you to a crisp. We might not know the difference between the two except for the difference that comes by the fire.
In this life, in this world, all of us are being tested. If there is anything within you that is stubble, that’s straw, that’s chaff, that fire comes to burn it away, and by the mercy of God, may He grant that you are not chaff, that you are not all stubble, but that, at your heart, you are gold; you are silver; you are precious stones. In other words, you have a heart that is dedicated truly to God.
If that is the case, then no amount of temptation, no amount of testing, no amount of fire will destroy you. It will be painful. It will be difficult. But when silver goes through the fire, it doesn’t come out destroyed; it comes out purified.
I once heard a story about how a silversmith purifies silver. He’ll heat it up, and heat it up, and heat it up. The impurities come to the top as this scum, this dross, and he’ll clear it off of there. What’s left is silver that is more pure.
Then he’ll do it a second time: He’ll heat it up, and heat it up, and heat it up, and that scum and the dross that come to the top, he’ll take it off of there. Now it’s even more pure. He’ll do it three times, four times, five times, six times! Even seven times.
Do you know how the silversmith knows that his job is done, that the dross is all gone, that the scum is gone, that the impurities are gone, and that what he is left with is perfectly pure silver? The silversmith knows that it is ready whenever he looks down into the crucible, and he looks at the molten silver, and it is so pure and so clear that he can see the reflection of his face in that molten silver.
As you are tried in the fires, as you are literally melted down so that the dross can be purged off you, the point at which God will know that His job is done is when He can look down at you and see His own reflection, when He can see His own face when He looks at you.
PRAYER AND FASTING
How do you stand up under such testing? Jesus, at one point in His ministry, spoke about a demon that His apostles could not cast out of a child, and Jesus easily cast the demon out. Jesus said, “This kind only comes out not but by fasting and prayer” [cf Matt. 17:21]. So not just prayer with your mouth, and with your heart, and with your mind; but your body itself performing ascetic labors, fasting, adding power to your prayers.
Indeed, we see that in the wilderness, Jesus didn’t immediately go out into the wilderness and begin His temptation right off the bat. He goes out into the wilderness, and He fasts for forty days and forty nights.
If there’s any stronghold in your life, a powerful stronghold where Satan and the demons have set up, and it seems like, in so many ways, you are free, and you’re following God. Yet, in this one particular area of your life, it’s just like the devil will not let go. I have to ask:
“Have you only prayed for release, or have you fasted and prayed for release. Are you only willing to pray with your mouth, or are you also willing to use your mouth to push away pleasures, to push away the things of this world, and to fast for a certain period of time so that the strength of your prayers might be increased?”
Jesus didn’t just go face the devil. He fasted, and he prayed. Then he faced the devil.
STUDY THE SCRIPTURES
How else did he stand up under this testing? He had an intimate knowledge of the Scriptures. To each and every temptation that the devil threw at Him, the first three words Jesus used in reply were, “It is written.” Jesus didn’t run back to the synagogue to look through the scrolls and try to find answers to everything the devil was saying. Jesus knew it by heart. These are things Jesus just had memorized.
Anything the devil would throw at him, Jesus would quote Scripture and say, “It is written, man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the Mouth of God [Luke 4:4]. It is written, you shall not tempt the Lord your God [Luke 4:12]. It is written, you shall worship the Lord your God only, and Him alone shall you serve [Luke 4:8].”
We need to know the Scriptures. We need to study the Scriptures. We need to know what has been written by the Saints. We need to know what is in the Ecumenical Councils. We need to know the teachings of Scripture and the teachings of the Church by heart because the moment that the devil shows up, you’re not going to have time to put everything on hold for a few weeks so you can go study the question out and then come back and respond to the devil. You need to have already prepared.
PREPARE FOR BATTLE DURING PEACEFUL TIMES
I believe it was one of Aesop’s Fables that talked about this wild pig that was out in the forest just sharpening his tusks up against a tree. This animal came up on him and said, “Wow! What sharp teeth you have! I see you are furiously sharpening them. Where is the enemy?”
The pig said, “There is no enemy around.”
“Well where is the battle? Where is the fight?”
The pig said, “There is none.”
The other animal said, “Then why are you sharpening your tusks?”
And the pig said, “Because when the enemy shows up I won’t have time to sharpen my tusks.”
And so it is. Do we lazily sit in front of our television set all day long being entertained, filling our mouths with potato chips and everything that makes us feel good, going out and having fun with friends? We go out with friends, and we play video game, sand stay on the computer all day, and just fill all of our days with entertainment, and become couch potatoes. If we do that, do we really think that, the day the devil shows up to tempt us, that we’re going to have strong muscles and be ready to go, to stand up against the enemy?
No. If all you seek is pleasure and entertainment in this life, then when the devil shows up, you’ll be too fat, and too flabby, and your tusks will not be sharp enough for the battle!
Jesus had already prepared through fasting, through prayer, and through years of studying Scripture. Jesus knew what Scripture says so that the moment the devil tempted him with a lie Jesus could identify it immediately as evil.
Something else when you go into this type of testing and temptation from the devil: notice that even the devil himself quotes Scripture. “Go cast Yourself off the temple, Jesus; for it is written His angels will have charge concerning Thee and they will bear Thee up lest Thou dash Thy foot against a stone” [c.f. Matthew 4:6]. And sure enough, it’s in Scripture! Our chanters chanted that Psalm [90 (91)] for us today out of the Psalms. And sure enough, that’s what it says.
If you look at what the devil says Scripture says, and then you go and look at that Psalm, sure enough, he quoted it correctly. Now, if you didn’t know what was in Scripture, if you were too lazy and too ignorant to have spent a lot of time studying it and to really learn what’s in the Bible, you might be thrown for a loop. You might say,
“Hey, I’m going to really fight against the devil, and then, gasp, the devil is the one quoting Scripture to me! Well, I guess if Scripture says that, I had better go along with it. Maybe that’s not the devil after all. Maybe this is an angel of God coming with enlightenment to show me the truth. I mean, he is quoting Scripture!”
I’ll tell you a little hint, another reason why you need to know your Bible backwards and forwards, why you need to be so familiar with Scripture: Whenever the devil or the devil’s followers come to you quoting Scripture, they will be very, very selective about what they quote. But if you know the full context of what they are quoting, if you know the whole story, if you know the big picture, you’ll be able to identify it for the lie that it is.
A good example is this Psalm:
For he shall give his angels charge over thee to keep the in all thy ways
They shall bear thee in their hands that thou hurt not thy foot against a stone.
And then the devil stops quoting. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with just quoting a piece of Scripture. You can’t quote the whole Bible from cover to cover every time you open your mouth. If you’re not familiar with this Psalm, you might say, “Man, well if the devil quoted from it, what’s wrong with what he was asking Jesus to do? What was wrong with that?”
It’s very interesting that the devil didn’t quote the very next verse. The devil says, “They shall bear thee in their hands that thou hurt not thy foot against a stone.” The very next verse in the Psalm is, “Thou shalt go upon the lion and adder, the young lion and the dragon shalt thou tread under thy feet.”
Who is the lion that goes about, prowling, seeking whom he may devour? Remember what St. Peter said? “The devil goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” [1 Peter 5:8].
Who is the adder, the snake, the serpent? The devil. The liar. The tempter.
Who is the dragon? In the Book of Revelation, who [is] the dragon? That’s the devil.
So here in one verse, we have three different animals mentioned all three of whom are representative of Satan himself – the devil. The devil is the lion, the adder, and the dragon, and according to this verse, Christ and all his followers will tread him under our feet.
The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil so that he might be tested and tried. But just like a father who encourages his son to go into a race, just like a parent who encourages their child to go compete in some sport, they don’t encourage them to do it so they can lose; they encourage them to do it so that they can be victorious and win.
That is why God sends us into testings and trials. He is our loving Father. He is up there cheering us on. If you could see God right now, I think He is looking down from Heaven saying, “That’s my boy! That’s my girl! I’m so proud of them! Look! Look!”
God loves you. You’re His kids! He’s proud of you. He didn’t send you into the race so that you’d be defeated. He sent you into the race so that you could cross the finish line with that ribbon streaming behind you. He sent you to win. This is an opportunity to win the race, to beat the devil, to take part in the crushing of the head of the serpent yourself, to be victorious. This is an opportunity God has given you to give glory to Him.
Would you really rather God said, “Oh, I don’t ever want you to be victorious. I don’t want you to win. So just don’t get in a race at all.”? No! God wants you to know what it feels like to cross that finish line victoriously. God wants you to know what it feels like to run that hard race and win it! God doesn’t send you into temptation and trials so that you might be defeated by the devil. He sends you into those temptations and trials so that you might crush the devil.
It’s a time for your testing. It’s an opportunity for you to give glory to God. Then finally, the temptation itself is also an opportunity for you to flex your spiritual muscles and to grow in preparation for something greater that is coming.
You see, this was not the last time that the devil tempted Jesus and attacked him. No, it was going to get worse, and it was going to get worse, and it was going to get worse until finally, a little over three years later, it was going to go all the way, all the way to the mat. It was going to go to the point of torture, crucifixion, and death.
I ask you again:
Do you think that if you indulge yourself in food your whole life without fasting; if you indulge yourself with pleasures at all times without worship and without prayer; if you let your spiritual muscles get flabby for weeks, and months, and years; then when the time comes where somebody holds a gun to your head and they say, “You either deny Christ or you die,” do you think you will have what it takes to be a martyr for Christ? Do you think you will have what it takes to repel the temptations that the devil sends your way? Do you think you will have what it takes to win the whole battle if you do not first prepare?
RUNNING THE RACE
I guarantee you something: Whenever an Olympic runner runs across the finish line and breaks that ribbon, and wins the gold, never does that winner say, “Whoa! How did I get here? How did this happen?” That never happens, because nobody who fails to prepare, nobody who fails to run for the prize will win the prize. People who are couch potatoes and lazy don’t win Olympic gold medals ever. And the same thing is true in the spiritual realm! If you are spiritually lazy, you will not win the prize. If you want to win the prize, then you must run; you must train; you must prepare.
Think of how it is physically. If you want to win the Olympics, if you want to win the gold in an Olympic race, can you eat like everybody else eats, or do you have to discipline your body? Can you spend your time pursuing trips, and pleasures, and video games, and all these entertainments, or do you have to spend hours and hours in training?
We’re not talking about your body. We’re talking about your eternal soul! We are talking about the biggest stakes the world has ever seen. We are talking about heaven and hell, life and death. We’re talking about eternity in joy versus eternity in torment.
St. Isaac the Syrian said, “This life has been given to you for the sake of repentance. Do not waste it on vain pursuits.” The devil wants to distract us into laziness, into cowardice, into self-centeredness. The Holy Spirit is calling us to fight, to fast, to pray, to resist temptation, and to grow up.
You see, Jesus didn’t start His public ministry and then, a week later, go to the Cross. Jesus went for forty days of fasting and prayer. He resisted the devil valiantly and faithfully. He faithfully followed God for the next three years. Then finally, when the time came, He had every bit of strength that He needed to go to the Cross.
God does the same sort of thing with us as we follow in the footsteps of Christ. He will call you to fast. He will call you to pray. He will call you to all-night vigils. He will call you to study the Scriptures. He will call you to learn the teachings of the Church. He will call you to give alms and to help those who are in need.
If you faithfully do all these things, your spiritual muscles will get stronger, and stronger, and stronger, and stronger. Then, when the fiercest onslaught from the enemy comes in your life, whatever time that is, whether it’s soon or whether it’s twenty years from now, you will be strong enough by the grace of God to stand up under it, and to be victorious.
Those are some of the reasons why the Holy Spirit, at times, will lead you into the wilderness for temptation. It is so that you may be tested. It is so that you may have an opportunity to glorify God and to be victorious, and to win a battle. And it is for further preparation, so that your spiritual muscles might be strengthened, so that you are ready and able to meet those future battles.
May the Lord help us to be faithful.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This homily was preached on by Father Joseph Gleason on Sunday, March 1, 2015 at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois.
Transcription by Maria Powell of Dormition Text Services. Dormition Text Services provides full service secretarial support (including homily transcription and publishing services) for Orthodox clergy and parish communities.