Lectionary blogging: Battle begins

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” (Matthew 4:1-3, NIV)

I’ve been reading Gustaf Aulén’s classic book Christus Victor this week. I was not reading it to guide my study of this week’s gospel lectionary text, but it sure has set off some interesting resonances.

Aulén argued in his book that there are three broad types of atonement theories. The objective model, represented by Anselm and subsequent satisfaction and substitution theories, describes the primary focus of the atonement upward toward the Father. The cross is the place where the debt created by humanity’s sin is paid off.

The subjective model, first articulated by Abelard and widely influential in the West since the 19th century, describes the primary focus of the atonement downward to those of us at the feet of Jesus. The cross creates a change in us.

Against both of these models, Aulén argues for what he calls the “classic” theory, which he says goes back to the apostles. This theory views the atonement as an act in an unfolding dramatic conflict between God and the devil. We might think of it as a horizontal focus of atonement. The atonement defeats the devil.

I thought of the book while reading the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.

By Aulén’s thinking, the temptation is really just the opening skirmish in a contest that will be carried forward all the way to the cross and the empty tomb. The testing in the desert is not merely about teaching us some responses to difficult life challenges. It is not merely validation of Jesus’ status as the unblemished one who can reset the scales of divine justice by his death. It is the start of a battle that will be fought, not with guns and bombs, but with weapons of the Spirit.

This is a reading of the text that passes through the cross, which therefore means it is shaped by our understanding of atonement. Whether that is a useful way to read and preach the text this week, I’m not certain. I’ll let the Spirit guide on that one.

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One thought on “Lectionary blogging: Battle begins

  1. The devil’s temptation in the garden of Eden was the first battle maneuver, and Satan won. Satan questioned what God had said, offered an “improved” elevated status (you can be like God, and decide what to do), resulting in their hiding from God. Yet the battle had only just begun; God said in the future the seed of the serpent would bruise the heel of the seed of the woman, but there would also be a great battle where the seed of the woman would bruise the head of the serpent.

    Jesus then becomes the seed of the woman that fights the great battle against the evil spirit–as he is led by the (Holy) Spirit. In the midst of the kingdom of Israel, ruled by a brood of vipers (Mt. 3:7), the Pharisees and Sadducees, John the Baptist says a coming one is about to bring a new kingdom, the kingdom of heaven. After all the failed fathers/kings of the kingdom of Israel (listed in Mt. 1) will come a Christ/king born of Mary (the seed of the woman). Because the battle is above all with the serpent spirit, and secondarily with its seed of vipers, John says the coming king will baptize with the Spirit. So at Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descends and anoints Jesus as the new king; the kingdom of (and from) heaven has arrived.

    Then the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert to begin the great battle with the serpent spirit. And again, Satan questioned what God had said (You are my beloved Son) since Jesus is hungering in the desert: “If you are the son of God.” And again, Satan offers an improved elevated status–“you can decide to feed yourself with all the bread you want”–for the great son/Christ/king should be eating like a king. But in the Spirit Jesus wins the first round, valuing the words from his Father’s mouth over the tempting, tasty words of the serpent. For in the Spirit heaven is “at one” with this beloved son on earth. And in the future, the new king will baptize his disciples with the Spirit, and they will become part of his kingdom of heaven–no longer defeated by the presence and power of the serpent and its brood of vipers–but now obedient children “at one” with their Father.

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