Last month Walt Reimer lent me his copy of the Karate Kid. This was the 2010 remake with Jaden Smith playing the lead. The movie is about a 12 year old kid named Dre who is being bullied by some kids. These bullies are students of a vicious form of karate. They gang up on Dre and brutally attack him until an aging maintenance man named Mr. Han rescues him with his superior karate skill.
Dre convinces Mr. Han to teach him karate. Lesson one begins when Mr. Han tells Dre to pick up his jacket from the floor and hang on a peg mounted his in the courtyard. Dre does as he is told so that they might get started on the first lesson.
Then Mr. Han tells Dre to take the jacket off the peg and put it one. Dre does as he is told. “Now take it off,” says Mr. Han. Dre complies, but looks a little dubious.
“Now drop it on the ground.” says Mr. Han. Dre drops it. “Now pick it up.” “Hang it up.”
Dre complies but is growing more perplexed. “Take the jacket off the peg.” “Drop it on the ground.” “Pick it up.”
Now Dre protests. “Pick it up,” commands Mr. Han. “Dre pauses.” “Pick it up.”
Dre realizes that nothing he says will change Mr. Han. So he picks up the jacket. Dre will continue this mindless routine of dropping the jacket, picking it up, putting it on, taking it off, hanging it up, and then dropping it again. It will continue for days while Mr. Han occupies himself restoring an old car in his gatage. Mr. Han is seemingly oblivious to little Dre mindlessly going through his jacket routine.
Seems cruel to the audience watching the movie. What was Mr. Han up to?
In this morning’s Gospel passage from Matthew, the Spirit has led Jesus out into the wilderness right after his baptism. He will be abandoned to this wilderness for 40 long days to be tempted by the devil. Seems a cruel thing to do to his only beloved Son. What was God up to?
To answer that, we go back the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. You remember how Mary and Joseph had to flee to Egypt because Herod was going hunt down all the baby boys and kill them. Once Herod dies, they return from Egypt. Their return prompts Matthew to quote from the Old Testament prophet, Hosea: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Sounds like Hosea was prophesying Jesus coming out of Egypt.
Let me read the quote in context. Hosea prophesies: When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me.” At that time in history, Hosea was not speaking of Jesus; he was referring to the nation of Israel. Fourteen hundred years before Jesus was born, God called Israel out of Egypt by parting the Red Sea. Moses led an entire nation through the waters of the Red Sea and out of bondage for a purpose. God was bringing them to the Promised Land to fulfill a promise made to Abraham.
Centuries earlier He had promised Abraham that Abraham would become a great nation. And this great nation would be planted in their own land. They would be there for a purpose: to bless all the nations. Unfortunately, once they got their freedom, Israel didn’t do too well. Three times Israel failed.
First it was the food. God fed them supernaturally with manna from heaven. Every morning there was a fresh supply of manna for them.
But they grumbled about it. It’s manna, manna, manna. Manna waffles, Manna burgers, Manna bagels, Fillet of manna, Manna patty, BaManna bread! We want meat!
God’s provision wasn’t enough for them. That was strike one.
Israel traveled on toward the Promised Land and came to a place called Meribah. And here Israel grumbled again. Did you bring us out to the desert to die? Is the Lord among us or not? At this point, they went beyond grumbling. They were testing God, they were calling him out. That was strike two.
The final failure came when Moses went up to Mt. Sinai and met with the Lord. When he came back down, Moses saw a curious sight. The people he left seemed to be all worshipping together. They were all bowing down. But as Moses got closer his curiosity turned to rage. Israel was bowing down. But not to God. They were bowing down to an idol! A golden calf! That was strike three.
Now God loved Israel, even though they had struck out. So He put them in a 40-year training camp. They would spend 40 years in the wilderness to prepare them for their purpose – to be a blessing to all the nations.
God finally does bring Israel into the Promised Land. And the nation grows and flourishes. They reach their high point when King Solomon completes the Temple. But, regrettably, Israel would fail in their mission They would not bring blessing to the nations. Instead, Israel would cave and become like the surrounding culture worshipping false Gods.
But God had a back-up plan, Plan B. He would send his Son to embody the nation.
As Israel spent her infancy in Egypt, so would Jesus. And as Israel came out of Egypt, so Jesus would come out of Egypt As Israel came through the waters of the Red Sea, Jesus would come through the waters of baptism. As Israel then spent 40 years in the wilderness, Jesus would spend 40 days in the wilderness. And as Israel was tested three times, Jesus too will be tested three times. It’s the same three tests.
In the wilderness, Israel grumbled for food. So the devil throws the first pitch and tempts Jesus with food. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Jesus connects with that pitch, and puts God first. “It is written: Man shall not live bread alone, but by every word the proceeds from the mouth of God.”
In the wilderness, Israel grumbled and tested God. So the devil throws the second pitch and tempts Jesus to test God. “Throw yourself of off the temple pinnacle, Jesus! “God will save you.” Once more, Jesus connects with the pitch and puts God first. “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
In the wilderness, Israel bowed down and worshipped an idol. So the devil makes his third pitch. “ All these I will give you if you will fall down and worship me.” And now, Jesus hits a home run: “Away with you Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your god, and serve only him.”
Jesus wins. Jesus has come through baptism. He has spent his days in the wilderness. And he has met the test. He is ready to bring blessing to all the nations of the world.
But I come back to the question. Why the 40 long days of deprivation? Why did God make Jesus go through that?
This morning’s passage is often preached to teach people about the power of Scripture. The lesson goes something like this. Jesus fought temptation with Scripture. Every time the devil tempted Jesus, he hit him with Scripture – over and over again.
So the lesson is: Whenever you’re feeling tempted, whenever you facing a problem – just quote Scripture and everything will be fine.
That might work for some people, but it hasn’t worked for me. I can go quote Ephesians in the morning and put on the whole armor of God, but I‘ll still screw up somewhere during the day. Or I might feel tempted. So I toss off the Scripture from 1 Corinthians: God is faithful, he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. An hour later, I’ll forget about that Scripture.
Now that’s not to say there is no power in the word of God. There certainly was for Jesus. Each time he hit the devil with Scripture, Jesus scored. But take a look at the context. Look what gave power to Jesus when he dueled with the devil.
Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days. What do you think he was doing all day? He was praying, he was meditating on God’s word. It was after 40 days of prayer and meditation that Jesus hit the devil with Scripture.
Here’s a news flash. You spend 40 days praying in the wilderness, meditating on the word, spending time with God, and I have no doubt that you’ll be in fairly good shape to handle whatever life or the devil throws at you.
You see, the power of Scripture lies not in words on a page. Jesus says the devil can cite Scripture to his own purpose. The Bible isn’t like some sort of garlic pouch to ward off Dracula. No, the power of Scripture rests in the person who has come to know it as a living, breathing companion.
The forty days in the wilderness was not about deprivation. It was about dependence. Jesus was not pining away on all things he lacked. He was focusing on what he had.
Jesus did not look to the things of the world for his strength. He put his full dependence upon God. That’s what the 40 days did for him.
At that point, Scripture wasn’t just words inked on a page; it was promises engraved on his heart. And after 40 days, the Devil would test whether Jesus really did put his complete trust in God. The devil probed to see if Jesus really left himself utterly dependent on God alone.
Andy Crouch is a Christian author and columnist. He tells the story of a girl named Elizabeth, who grew up in a Christian home in Southeast Asia.
When Elizabeth was 16, a relative in her village said she could find a well-paying job in a neighboring country. She was wanted to help her family and earn money for college, So Elizabeth went with this relative — and ended up being forced into prostitution.
Elizabeth’s new home was a brothel where she was confined for seven months. For seven months she was repeatedly raped by customer after customer. It was a wilderness time for Elizabeth and an excruciating existence. She was utterly powerless to help herself.
But Elizabeth was a Christian and she had read her bible. During her confinement, Elizabeth wrote a number of Scripture passages on the walls of her room. One was from Psalm 27: “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
Elizabeth would still be trapped to this day, but God had already provided an exodus for her. He worked through a group called the International Justice Mission. For almost 10 years, this mission has mobilized thousands of young people, lawyers, diplomats and law enforcement professionals. They intervene on behalf of girls like Elizabeth. And they rescued her.
For Elizabeth, Scripture was more than ink on a page. They were promises etched on her heart. Elizabeth embodied Scripture in her soul.
When they freed her from the brothel, the truth of Psalm 27 became clear to all who saw the Scriptures on her wall: Because the second verse of that Psalm was also written on Elizabeth’s wall. It read: “When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh, they shall stumble and fall.”
Jesus turned to Scripture in his hour of temptation only because he had always turned to Scripture in his hours of prayer. It wasn’t ink on a scroll that saved him in his wilderness battle. The devil can quote ink on a page.
There was a purpose for that wilderness time. God was not being cruel. What won the day for Jesus was his absolute dependence on God.
In the Karate Kid, Mr. Han abandons young Dre to the monotony of dropping his jacket, picking it up, putting on, taking it off, hanging on the peg and repeating the whole exercise again and again. It seemed pointless and maybe even a little cruel.
But young Dre chose to endure it because – as pointless as it seemed – it was what Mr. Han called him to do. And Dre had decided that he would trust Mr. Han. He would depend on Mr. Han to give him what he needs to be an expert karate master.
That trust paid off. Because what Dre would find out was the monotonous routine was really karate training. Those repeated movements were really an exercise to develop his basic body coordination for further karate training. And that monotonous training, that testing would serve him well in his competition down the road.
In Lent we might give up stuff, fast, forego certain comforts for 40 days. Or we take on a discipline – like devotional reading, regular times of prayer and meditation. We don’t do it to deprive ourselves. We don’t do it to earn God’s favor.
We do it to remind ourselves of where our strength comes from. We do it to reinforce our utter dependence on God. We die to self so that we might live to God.
And when we are living to God, we fulfill our purpose in life. It’s the same purpose given to Israel – to bring blessing to the nations. To bring blessing to the nations. Because it is written: But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belong to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.