a sermon based on Matthew 3:16 - 4:1-11
The story of Jesus’ adult ministry began at the River Jordan (as we heard last Sunday)… with his baptism at the hands of John. Our Gospel lesson this morning tells us that, as Jesus was coming up from the river, the Holy Spirit was coming down -- descending like a dove -- and "alighted" upon him. And there was a voice from heaven, which said: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."
Those events as Jesus came up from the waters of baptism, makes Jesus’ status as the Beloved Son of God explicit. This is the "anointing "of Jesus; his "Christ"ening. Here he is declared "Messiah" by God.
Up until now, Jesus had been just another poor young peasant boy, growing up in Nazareth, learning the carpenter’s trade alongside his Papa Joseph, tucked away by Mother Mary for safe-keeping well out of the public eye. But not any longer. At age 30, the silence is broken, the hiddenness of God in Jesus’ life is fully revealed. Jesus (the "stealth" savior) had been "out-ed" as God’s Beloved for all the world to see.The dove made its choice; the crowd heard the voice.
That is the starting place for Jesus… the starting place for the 40-days of Lent. At that "inaugural" moment -- when the public becomes aware of Jesus’ identity as God’s Beloved Son -- the Spirit led Jesus in an entirely different direction. … into a place where no self-respecting Messiah would be caught dead in! (!) Jesus finds himself alone and wandering like Moses did in the desert.
Of course, Moses (in the Book of Exodus) spent 40 years, not just 40 days, in the wilderness… but the parallel Matthew draws for us is unmistakable: in Jesus Christ Israel is receiving a "new" Moses. And like those Hebrews coming out of slavery, they first had some wrestling to do in the desert in order to fashion a new identity.
Matthew allows us to follow Jesus into the wilderness, for those 40 days and 40 nights. (I can only presume that Jesus must have told his disciples of this intense personal experience some time later, perhaps when they themselves were wondering about what kind of Messianic Movement they were engaged in.)In any case, what we have before us at the beginning of Lent (at the start of our own 40 days of reflection), is a remarkable story -- one of a kind among world religions! -- where a man is put on trial by the Devil. We are allowed (in the "literal"world) to see Jesus famished, and to hear the Devil’s words of temptation.
Of course, you and Ineed fear no actual Devil ourselves.
The literal character "Satan" plays an important role in the story --helping Jesus (and, by extension, all of us who hope to follow in his steps) to define what is (and isn’t) appropriate to expect of the Christ --but we have no need to fear that any real demonic spirit will emerge here at Alpena’s First Church. (Relax --the Devil is only a literal character, not an actual entity; this personification is not "real.")
When Jesus says "Be gone, Satan!",that should suffice for us. The character is banished from the story, and put out of our minds. However, since I so rarely mention "Satan" in my sermons, a couple thoughts are in order at this point. (1) The word’ Satan" is the Hebrew word for an "accuser" –somewhat like a Prosecuting Attorney who brings chages against someone.
You’ve seen enough reruns of "Law & Order" to know what the District Attorney’s job is: to convict the guilty.The investigations and accusations of the D.A. is "Satan’s role"in Hebrew literature.
The Good News is that a person who has been so accused–where Satan has pointed an accusing finger –that person also has a powerful "Defense Attorney" (or Advocate) available on their side: namely, Jesus Christ and his Holy Spirit. So, as a follower of Jesus, don’t fret about Satan’s accusations and temptations; they will fail.
(2) To personify evil as "the Devil" tends to imagine a force outside one self that is wreaking havoc upon your own (or another’s) situation. As comedian Flip Wilson used to say: "The Devil made me do it!" (Right?) "It’s not my fault, this bad thing that I’ve done.The Devil is to blame."Let’s get past the supernatural superstition that puts the blame for our mistakes on an outside force. Because we cannot fix the problem, if we don’t take accountability for our part in it.
So, don’t be afraid when we talk about "the Devil" in this story, and look instead at the role the Accuser plays in relation to Jesus –Jesus, who wins each debate and who passes every test, leaving Satan’s temptations empty and the Devil completely powerless. (OK?)
This story of Jesus’ three episodes in the wilderness is generally referred to (as in our pew Bible) as "The Temptation of Jesus." The Greek word "peirazo"can mean either to "tempt" or to "test." I personally prefer the latter, because it is a three-fold test of Jesus’self-understanding that is at stake. (I suspect that most Bible translators stick to calling them three "temptations" because it is the Devil who is said to be doing the testing.)
The word "peirazo"actually means: to"try"--as in "trial by jury." And when you think about it, temptations do just that to us, don’t they? They put our character on trial. (!) Whether ours is a temptationto steal or to cheat, to take what isn’t ours, or inappropriate sexual acting out (as we have seen in epidemic proportion this past year),or indulging in too much food or alcohol, too much chocolate or laziness… whatever! Temptations put our resolve on trial.Temptations make us DECIDE --that's the test.
Temptations make us CHOOSE. Whether for good or for ill --whether in public, or in the privacy of your own heart --temptations put us on trial.We find out who we really are. (God knows, it ain't always pretty.)
The issues at stake in today’s story are not those things you & I would consider as "sin." (You know, things that are "illegal, immoral, or fattening"!) No, Jesus isn't being tempted by the "seven deadlies" --envy, gluttony, greed & lust, apathy, pride, and wrath...
Yes, the issues Jesus faced were more than an "enticement"to "sin." His decisions back then affect what we are about here & now at First Congregational in Alpena! So, let's take this occasion, as we enter our own 40 days of Lent, to see how Jesus’ "trial" began...
Jesus came to the first test HUNGRY and weak…. If you want to get a feel for it, try going to bed hungry for these up-coming 40 days of Lent... You'll probably fall on those breakfast bagels with a vengeance in the morning!
Jesus comes to the first test weak, faint...perhaps already hallucinating. "Bread for a hungry man!" This isn’t a promise of candy, or an enticement to gluttony... It’s just bread... bread! Life-giving "manna" in the wilderness!
Without a doubt, anyone who could turn stones to bread--produce manna (like Moses did) in the desert --would find immediate acceptance by the people. It would be a whole lot easier than trying to convert them through preaching, teaching, and healing... certainly easier than having to go to the Cross for them!Furthermore, talk about an economic stimulus! Ability to make bread for everybody.
If Jesus took the route of turning stones into bread, he'd know that he was doing good. Feeding the hungry! And, he'd have tangible proof of his "divine status" right there in his hand! That sounds like a win-win situation, don't you think
"If you are the Son of God," says the Tempter, "you could wipe out starvation with a gesture, starting with your own hunger. So, go on, Jesus; do it!"
Jesus' reply, about not living by bread alone, taken in its original context (words from Moses in Deuteronomy 8:2-3), reveals the importance of the issue at stake: it has less to do with (literal) bread as is has to do with the very character of faith itself...
"You shall remember," wrote Moses, "all the way which the Lord
your God has led you these 40 years in the wilderness: that he might humble
you, testing you, to know what was in your heart... whether you would keep
his commandments, or not! And he humbled you, and let you hunger, and fed
you with manna... that he might make you know that man does not live by
bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord
doth man live."
The bread in the wilderness was given (according to Moses), not so much because the people were hungry and longing for food, but rather it was given as a revelation of who God is: their Creator, Sustainer, & Care-giver; the provider of every good gift. Providing "manna" (bread) on a daily basis in the wilderness was not just to feed the groaning bellies of the refugee slaves, but to teach them the priority of FAITH in God as their guiding principle.
And this very well-known "Exodus" story (about manna), clearly, is in the mind of Matthew as he tells us about Jesus’ test in that same wilderness.
Unlike you and me, Jesus found this idea tempting because he had the power to make it happen! He was so in tune with God, that he --apparently --could have put his hand to the wheel of nature and recreated the miracle of hot-baked manna from hot desert stone. (I guess I missed that class at seminary. Sorry.)
By refusing the temptation to make his own "Wonder Bread," Jesus remained physically hungry but spiritually strong. He became the perfect example of relying on faith in God's Grace, not on works. Not on proof.
Jesus passed that first test... but he still had no tangible proof in his hands that he was the Christ, the Messiah. He had no credentials of divinity. No evidence to show the crowds... only the power of God's Word, lived out through his own faithfulness. That was the living bread Jesus would offer the world, not literal loaves of bread.
In the second temptation, the Devil suggested that Jesus should appear in his full divine power (as was expected of the Messiah) at the Temple --at the center of Jewish religious and cultural life --and descend with a retinue of attending angels into the courtyard of the priests... (How cool is that!?)
I am amazed that the Devil would presume to use the Holy House of God as a temptation! But even more unsettling in this second temptation is the fact that the Devil quotes Scripture! The core of the Accuser’s idea comes right out of the Bible!
"It is written," says the Tempter to Jesus,"that God will give his angels charge over you, to guard you... On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone." (Psalm 91: 11 & 12) Our choir has sung those very words as an anthem: On Eagles Wings. It’s the anthem by Michael Joncas whose refrain we sing every-Sunday as our Unison Benediction: "And God will raise you up on eagles wings, bear you on the breath of dawn…"The Devil is quoting a beautiful promise to Jesus and asking Him to take it literally.
The promise of a miracle (especially in a church setting)…together with a few well-chosen citations from Scripture…is often enough to get folks to say "Amen! I’m with you!" It’s a "devilish" misuse of the Holy Word of God, but preachers & evangelists do it all the time!
The very fact that the Devil quotes the Bible should serve as a warning to us: that whenever you run into someone who quotes slices of Scripture, and asks you to believe it "literally"and out of context: watch out! (That's precisely the way the Devil used the Bible in today's text!)
Jesus passed the first test by getting his answers out of the Bible –by quoting the words of Moses, back when he laid down the law in the wilderness. So now the Tempter tries to beat him at his own game
However, quoting a Psalm does not carry the inherent weight of Torah (any more than quoting the lyrics to a hymn carries the weight of Scripture) so the Devil is at a disadvantage.
Even so, let’s admit that there are (to this very day) some folks who insist that every sentence of Scripture is just as important as any other...That we cannot "pick and choose" among the stories. That we must accept the inherent & infallible authority of Scripture (regardless of its original context) as though the Bible is an"all or nothing" kind of document. (I'm sure you've run into folks like that.) And in my opinion, they are siding with the Devil on this, and they probably don’t even know that they are doing so!
This second test --the temptation of misusing religion--makes it very clear to me that the value of Scripture depends upon how you use it! Here the Devil is using the Bible to try to get Jesus to live up to the religious people’s expectation of Messiah's rise to power coming through the institution of the Temple. It was the common belief in Jesus’day that without the Temple --and its priests, its blood sacrifices, its tithes and offerings, and its worship services --Messiah could not come! (It goes without saying that, unfortunately, some people still think that about their churches!)
For Jesus to make his presence known at the Temple--whether with great showmanship or otherwise --would have yoked his Gospel to the Temple and to the particular form of faith that held IT to be central to God’s saving plans.
You may recall that it was Jesus’encounter with these "Temple authorities" during the Passover when he was 12-years-old that kindled the fire of passion in Jesus to bring a different kind of relationship with God into being in his religion.
Jesus' refusal to accept this "religious" path to Messianic glory again took the words of Moses (Deuteronomy 6:16): "Thou shalt not tempt (or prove) the Lord your God." The Hebrew word "niseh", like the Greek word "peirazo,"would be better translated: "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test!"
The first test: providing bread & economic success…the second: produce religious spectacle & miracle --were both set aside by Jesus.
The third test proposed a grab for political power: take over David's throne! As the new monarch of Israel, Jesus could then spread His Empire until he took over the rule of the whole world! (Thinking of "politics"as a form of "power" is pervasive in America.)
If he had agreed with his Accuser’s proposal, Jesus (surely) would have been a benevolent dictator! He was a good man with high morals! With a strong Christian like Jesus in the halls of power, how could anything but good come from it?
Jesus could have used the coercive power of government --the police powers to FORCE GOOD to happen, or at least to punish the evildoers. He could use the powers of taxation to "re-distribute the wealth "more equitably with more justice for the poor. Tax the rich & give to the poor; a Robin Hood kind of ethic. If Jesus took the path of political power, he could replace military flags with banners signifying his realm of Love & Peace; and he could stamp his own image on the coins of the realm, replacing their allegiance to Caesar! It would be a "theocracy," of course, not a democracy; but with Jesus in charge, not an Ayatollah (whether Sunni or Shiite), and certainly no atheist.
The Devil suggested it, and Jesus could’ve done it that way...and, frankly, some conservative Christian Coalitions would like to seeour own local, state, & federal governments to assert more overt Christiainty into the public realm!…but such a kingdom (visible, powerful, & coercive) would not establish any FAITH in God. It wouldn't bring about any change in the HEARTS of people.
Furthermore (if the Devil really does know the hearts of rulers), in time the authority & the glory, the accolades and the power, would become self-serving ,not God-pleasing. In other words, Jesus --like any political narcissist --would begin to believe his own "press releases." The deference paid to him would begin to turn his heart more exclusive and "elitist"... not toward justice, nor to the poor.
It is said that "power corrupts" and (according to Lord Acton’s familiar phrase) "absolute power corrupts absolutely." The Devil claimed to be able to bestow that kind of power on anyone who chose to do the Devil’s business… and history has shown that there are plenty of politicians and petty dictators who have done so!
But Jesus' response to the dream of political power (as an avenue into the Realm of God) was to claim that there is (in fact) only one Sovereign--God! Not him. Certainly not the Devil. Not Caesar, nor King Herod. Only One is Lord: and that is God! No human being, not even Jesus Christ, may usurp that prerogative.
No hierarchy, no matter how benevolently intended, would be allowed. No chain of royal command --and no coercion of any kind --would be allowed to take the place of FAITH in God!
This whole encounter between Jesus and the Devil in the wilder-ness is not so much a story of one man wrestling with personal "sinfulness," as it is a sort of trial intended to define the very nature of Jesus' ministry and the character of the Gospel. We who bear the name "Christian" (which means "Christ-like") would be different today if the outcome of any one of these three temptations had been different
Each of these three tests asked Jesus for a visible manifestation of the power of God: show us bread...show us a public miracle at the Temple...show us a ruling king... By refusing to put God to the test --refusing to show "proof" upon demand --Jesus chose to live by "faith." And so the story ends, with the Devil fleeing (defeated) and angels appearing… to minister to Jesus’ needs.
In the end, Jesus returned from the wilderness (and embarked upon his life’s work), without any credentials but himself, and no proof of his authority but the Spirit of God within him…and his own faithful response to it.
Of course, that puts Jesus on the very same footing as you and I can claim for ourselves!
We have no special credentials, no particular authority. Only the fact of the Spirit of God working within us,and our subsequent efforts to embody Jesus’ values in our lives.That’s the way Jesus setit up. It’s the way he lived it out. It’s the way we’ll change the world… for good…
Now, let’s get on with that business, for God’s sake, in Jesus’ name.