"Jesus is Tested/Tempted by the Devil"


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 hav