March 1, 2020
Following up on our reading of the temptation story in Genesis, we turn our attention now to Matthew’s gospel as Jesus emerges from his baptism in the Jordan and the Spirit drives him into the wilderness for 40 days. Listen for the Word of God as it continues to speak to you this morning.
READ Matthew 4:1-11
Ok. Let’s be upfront this morning. Here’s the problem I have with the temptation story. “Could Jesus not have won out in the end?” Was there any real risk here of Jesus being tempted? Here is a story about temptation… and we know that Jesus will resist the temptations put before him… we’ve heard this story before… but was there ever the chance in the story that Jesus wouldn’t win over Satan? That’s an important question, because if we believe that Jesus could not be tempted… then there is no point to this story. Truly, we need to enter into the story Matthew is actually telling, not the story we are sure that Matthew is telling. If I can get a bit Bible geeky on you for a minute here… this is one of the complaints I have about John’s gospel and the Jesus that is portrayed in his gospel. In John’s gospel, Jesus acts as though he has already read the script… he knows where everything is going… he is jumping all the necessary hoops in front of him… going through the motions to do what he needs to do. In John’s gospel, Jesus is always in control and in command of the situation. Would you be surprised to learn to there is no temptation story in John’s gospel? Why would there be? John’s Jesus is above that. But not here in Matthew. If there is no chance of failure… there is no purpose behind telling a story about temptation. In Matthew’s story Jesus has just been filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus after his baptism is different than the Jesus before his baptism. There is power in the Holy Spirit… a power that was not there before. Jesus has choice about how to use this power. Without choice, there are no temptations. I know that’s hard for us to imagine when it comes to Jesus. We default to the gospel of John’s Jesus… the hero who may have a setback but is never under any real risk.
Matthew, the writer, does give us a sense of risk. The temptations come not as a part of the forty days of fasting in the wilderness… but at the end, when Jesus is famished. He is weakened as any person of flesh and blood would be after such an ordeal. He is weakened, and at the same time he is full of this power of the Holy Spirit which came upon him at his baptism. And that first temptation is put in front of him by the master tempter himself, Satan. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Now we, the audience, hearing that temptation likely focus on the bread part. He is famished. We can perhaps imagine ourselves in that same situation. I don’t know if any of us have ever known the hunger that would have come from forty days of fasting. I suspect not. But we can at least imagine what such a hunger might be like. And to have the power to do what Satan is suggesting. If we had the power, could we say no?
But this first temptation is not about the bread. We begin our Lenten journey by stripping away our own delusions of grandeur. We begin with the understanding of who we are before God. We are dust. We are not in control as much as we think we are. Our power is limited. We are dust… and to dust we will return. I think most people naturally fight against that idea… that instead of finding such a statement empowering… would find it, instead, depressing because it does cut across the grain of the messages we would rather hear about ourselves. Who wants to think about themselves as dust? But as people of faith, it is important for us to begin with this humility because this story we are hearing is the story of our savior. And it is only by our own humility that we come to believe that we actually need a savior. As Presbyterians, we rely on God and God’s grace one hundred percent… just as dust relies on God’s breath one hundred percent to know life. Think about the temptations that come before each of us. We sometimes submit because we feel we’ve earned it… or we deserve it… or we need it and must have it… we can’t live without it. We claim our manna is due to us. We justify our actions because it was owed to us. In all those reasons, we lose our humility and our absolute reliance upon God. We lose who we are.
The temptation for Jesus is at the front of what Satan says to him… “If you are the Son of God…” The temptation rises from the question over who is Jesus as the Son of God. Who does that designation make him out to be? Sure… we know this story… we’ve heard it before… we know how it will ultimately end… but here… towards the beginning of the story… how sure is that ending? Here at the beginning of the story… is there still choice… could the story have gone another direction? How will Jesus be the Son of God… filled as he is with the power of the Holy Spirit? What path will Jesus choose to embrace in order to be our savior?
We begin with humility, because Satan is tempting Jesus to move away from his humility… from his own reliance upon God and God’s creative word. The temptation is the choice before Jesus… humility and the path of self-denial and self-sacrifice… or… the path of power, domination and control. Which path will define the Son of God? That is the tension within the story… that is the temptation that still gets played out among Jesus’ followers today. By denying the first temptation, Jesus embraces his humanity. Jesus embraces the humility of his own dust. He embraces his own dependence upon God… not just the breath that is life… but dependence on God for his daily bread. Jesus denies the power that calls for him to save himself. Think we will hear that temptation again in this story… someone telling Jesus to save himself?
Still the questions easily linger. What would it hurt for him to turn the stone to bread? Who would care if he did? Wouldn’t he still be Jesus? Why does he have to suffer in this way? Is there any purpose to his suffering here in the wilderness?
Cue temptation number two. Why does Jesus have to suffer? Satan quotes scripture to Jesus. “God will command his angels concerning you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against one stone.” The first part of what Satan says is the truth. After all, what happens at the end of this story? Angels come and wait on Jesus. This second temptation connects to the first because it tests Jesus’ dependence upon God. If you trust that God will feed you… surely it only follows then that God will protect you from all harm. If God provides, then doesn’t that mean that God is our servant… providing for our wants and needs… desiring only to rain down upon us our most desired of blessings? God wants to keep us from harm. Haven’t you heard? No harm will come to those as long as they believe… as long as their faith is strong? When harm comes it is because of our weakness.
Once as I was serving as a hospital chaplain… and I may have told you this story before… but it’s one of those stories that really shaped my understanding of ministry so I’m sure I’ll repeat it again and again… so… once as I was serving as a hospital chaplain I had an outside minister come in and tell a family that their loved one would not die if their faith was strong and if they believed enough. If… then God would work a miracle. God would save their loved one from returning to dust. She told them that they had the power over life and death because they had the power over God… a certain amount and a certain strength of faith was the key to having God obey their desires. Well, the man died. And the message to the family was clear… God wanted to protect us… God wanted to save the life of our family member… the one whom we loved… but we didn’t believe strong enough in order to warrant God’s action. Standing upon the pinnacle of the Temple that shouldn’t be a problem for Jesus. Who has greater faith than Jesus? He will surely be kept safe.
Saints, what test does humility put before God? We walk through life humble with our God. Who is the Son of God if he neither depends upon God nor obeys God in the life that is. Life has hunger. God calls for us to share our food and to feed those who are hungry. Life has illness. God calls for us to heal and care for one another in sickness. God gives us the gifts of science and medicine… a mind with which to think and gain insights into how to better cure illnesses or care for the sick. Life has suffering and sorrow. God calls for us to give comfort to those who mourn. All these require some manner of self-sacrifice… of putting another before ourselves. We obey God and God’s commands. We don’t attempt to manipulate and control God’s obedience. We follow the path Jesus takes… walking away from this second temptation.
The third temptation would deny humility and self-sacrifice by having Jesus be the ruler of Satan’s kingdoms. Son of God was not a title reserved only for Jesus. Son of God was a title often given to rulers of that day and before. The kings of the Old Testament were called son of God. Other divine creatures were called sons of God in the Old Testament. In Jesus’ time it was the honorary title for the Caesars as they ruled the world. The third temptation is to rule Satan’s kingdoms and not to proclaim the kingdom of God. Rule as the other sons of God do… through privilege and power… through money and might… through violence and control… through false promises and deception. These are the tools of Satan… not the way of God’s kingdom. This is what many have worshipped and have given their devotion to… leaving humility and the common good behind. Who needs God if you have enough power… or money… or influence… or violence? The temptation is strong to believe in the salvation that comes through these and other means like them. We are not dust. We have the power. But they are the lies of hell… and those who rule through these are ruling only in hell.
Jesus will not bring salvation through earthly power, but through self-denial and by his own self-sacrifice. That is the humble way of the cross… that is the power of the cross that comes through suffering… real suffering.
The path to the cross is not an easy one… not even for Jesus. The temptations he will face do not stop here with the end of this story. After Jesus leaves the wilderness, Peter will tempt Jesus to embrace power and deny the humility of the cross. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus will suffer temptation and doubt… “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” That has to be a real prayer of Jesus… and a not a going through the motions. When Jesus is arrested, he will be tempted by the power of the sword… he will know the temptation to call down the legions of angels to rescue him through violence. When Jesus is upon the cross, he will be tempted by those witnessing the scene… tempting him to come down off the cross… to deny his own suffering… to save himself if he really is the Son of God. But Jesus will depend upon God and he will obey God to the end. And in resurrection… in resurrection… God will define once and for all who the Christ is now and forevermore. Amen.