a sermon based upon Matthew 4:1-10
For this morning, since it is the first Sunday in Lent -- a season that stretches 40-days from now until Easter -- I have chosen to focus on Jesus’ first 40 days following his baptism -- his 40 days of testing in the wilderness, prior to the start of his glorious ministry in Galilee.
Those of you who were at St. Paul Lutheran Church this week -- for the Ash Wednesday soup supper and Community Lenten worship service -- have already heard me speak about this text in my sermon about “Jesus’ Passion for the Word.” I will do my best to say something else (something better) this morning.
Through the power of “story” and our imagination, the words of the Tempter (Satan, the Accuser) come alive… We are about to embark on an adventure -- a journey of exploration -- into the identity of Jesus Christ, through the three proposals posed to Jesus by the devil. They are the tests of (1) Economic security (symbolized by bread), of (2) Religion, and of (3) Political power…
Of course, it won’t take us 40 days to get there; we are going to do all three of Jesus’ “tests” within my allotted 20 minutes! And we’ll do it without any risk! You and I won’t have to hunger, as Jesus did. No matter what we decide to “give up for Lent”, we know that we’ll survive 7 weeks until Easter! Relax.
This story is generally referred to as “The Temptation of Jesus.” However, the Greek word “peirazo” can mean either to “tempt” or to “test.” Personally, I prefer the latter, because it is a three-fold test of Jesus’ self-understanding of his role as Messiah/Savior that is at stake. Most Bible translators, however, stick to calling them “temptations” -- and that may be because it is the devil who is doing the testing. And we see Satan primarily as a Tempter.
The Hebrew word “satan” actually means an “accuser” --one who points out the shortcomings & errors of another; one who seeks to fix the blame for problems rather than to actually fix the problem. And a Satan in Hebrew Scripture often makes things worse -- makes up lies, challenges the truth. We see that character most clearly in the Book of Job, as the one who challenges Job’s essential innocence and righteousness.
If it were a court of law, the role of the “Satan” would be the prosecuting attorney – like Ed Black was until this week, when he got promoted to Circuit Court judge. The prosecuting attorney is the one who brings the charge & who demands punishment of the guilty. The defense attorney, on the other hand, is called an “Advocate” – the one who takes your side and who puts the best “spin” on the story, in hopes of your “acquittal”.
Jesus uses that word for the Holy Spirit in John 14:26… “These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you,” said Jesus to his disciples. “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” The Holy Spirit serves as our Advocate when we are being tested by Satan, the Accuser.
The word “peirazo” means to"try" -- as in a "trial by jury."
And when you think about it, temptations do just that to us, don’t they? They put our character on trial. They put our resolve on trial. Temptations make us DECIDE -- and 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. (And, God knows, it ain't always pretty!)
Let me ask: Have you ever taken a "comprehensive" exam? A journeyman apprenticeship, for example, or a Master's exam? You know how college students think "finals" are tough and high schoolers fret about their S.A.T. scores. Lawyers and teachers and stock-brokers think their Professional Boards are tough to endure! Well, friends, Jesus has been there. At the outset of his ministry he underwent a 40-day comprehensive exam...
The test has to do with a major issue: namely, what would be the characteristics of a "Christian Identity"? In other words, what kind of Messiah was Jesus going to be? What kind of Kingdom was God going to get on earth, when this particular "Anointed One" was done?
The issues at stake are not so much those things you and I would consider as "sin." (You know, things that are "illegal, immoral, or fattening"!) No, Jesus isn't being tempted by the "seven deadly sins" -- envy, gluttony, greed & lust, apathy, pride, & wrath... The Christian Century commentary on this text (Feb. 3, 2016, page 21) says: “Jesus is facing more than temptation --more than the wish to do something desirable but unwise, like taking an extra helping of dessert. Jesus is facing testing (peirasmos) of the will: the will to feed the hungry, to serve God [publicly], and to rule the world with justice.”
Any one of these three activities could be a powerful force for the good of the world, if Jesus were to choose that path!
“The will to feed the hungry… the boldly public, even miraculous, opportunity to serve God at the Temple… and the desire to rule the world with justice”… These are good things!
So, the issues Jesus faced were more than an enticement to “sin.” His decisions back then directly affect what we are about here & now in this Church! So, let's take this occasion, as we start our own 40 days of Lent, to see how his "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 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!” That thought isn’t a promise of candy, or an enticement to gluttony... It’s just bread... life-giving "manna" in the wilderness. Moses managed to provide it for those two million Hebrew slaves who were escaping King Pharaoh, back when the nation of Israel began: bread in the wilderness! Surely Jesus is like Moses.
Without a doubt, anyone who could turn stones to bread --who could produce manna (like Moses did) in the desert -- would find immediate acceptance by the people. If Jesus took the route of turning stones into bread, he'd know that he was doing good. Feeding people! And, he'd have tangible proof of his “divine status” in his hand! That sounds like a win-win situation, don't you think?
"Since 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! Turn these stones into bread."
Jesus' reply, about not living by bread alone, taken in its original context were words from Moses in Deuteronomy 8:2-3.
As I said on Wednesday night, they reveal the importance of the issue at stake: it 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 as a revelation of who God is: our Creator, Sustainer, and Care-giver. Providing bread was not just to feed their groaning bellies, but to teach them the priority of having FAITH in God as their guiding principle.
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. A relationship with God as his Father, based not on proof, but on trust.
Jesus passed that first test... but, in so doing, he had no tangible proof in his hands. He had no credentials of divinity. No evidence to show the crowds... All he had was the power of God's Word, lived out through his own faithfulness. That was the living bread Jesus would offer the world.
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 in Jerusalem -- at the center of Jewish religious and cultural life -- and descend with a retinue of angels into the courtyard of the priests... (How cool is that!?) Think of the special effects value of such an entrance! (Wow!) Badda-bing, badda-boom! Here comes the Messiah Jesus!
Here the devil is trying to try to get Jesus to live up to the religious folk's expectation of Messiah's rise to power coming through the institution of the Temple. It was the common belief in his day that without the Temple -- and its priests, blood sacrifices, & worship services -- Messiah could not come!
(It goes without saying that some people still think that about their churches! They think that if it weren’t for them spreading their version of Christianity, the Rapture won’t come. They seem to think that Christ is depending on them to convert the rest of us to their kind of religion. They’re looking for another “2nd Coming” of Jesus -- like the Pentecost Spirit wasn’t enough.)
Since the Jewish people had been trained to look to Jerusalem and its Temple as the place where God’s Messiah would appear in glory… agreeing to this proposal would have given Jesus obvious religious credentials -- proof-positive that he was God’s Messiah, doing God’s Will, as everybody expected it to be done. For Jesus to have done so (especially in an awe-inspiringly surprising miracle spectacle such as the devil proposed) would have legitimated the priesthood & the Phari-sees, the scribes & teachers of the Law, in all their arrogant “nationalist” exclusivity.
Jesus would have none of it! “Again it is written,” said Jesus to the devil, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” ("You shall not put the Lord your God to the test!") (Moses… in Deut. 6:16)
The third test proposed a grab for political power: take over David's throne! As the new monarch of Israel, Jesus could spread his Divine Empire until he took over the rulership of the whole world! This is the “political path” to success. (And, since we’re in the heat of a Presidential primary election, it’s a most appropriate metaphor for us to consider!)
If he had taken this path, Jesus, surely, would have been a benevolent dictator -- not like some of the self-serving antics of the current crop of contenders! Imagine… with a strong Christian like Jesus in the White House -- in the halls of power -- how could anything but good come from it? Right? As the Christian Century put it: “If [Jesus] aligns himself with the king, he will receive the benefits of wealth and political power.” (ibid., page 21) I imagine Wall Street investment bankers would make a bee-line to his office, clamoring to be appointed to his ruling Cabinet. Let them (the lobbyists & wealthy 1%) make regulations they want to see!
Yes, Jesus could have used the tremendous coercive power of government -- the police powers of state to FORCE GOOD to happen, or at least to punish the evildoers; and he could use the powers of taxation to re-distribute wealth more equitably with more justice for the poor. If he ran the Empire, Jesus could stamp his own image on the coins of the realm, replacing allegiance to Caesar!
Jesus' response to the dream of political power (as an avenue into the Kingdom of God) was to claim that there is only one Sovereign -- God! Not him… 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! A faith that would come, not by an authoritarian decree from on high, but one person at a time… one decision at a time… one day at a time.
Jesus' refusal to accept this path to glory again took the words of Moses (Deut.6:13): "You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve. Be gone, Satan!" For a third time, Jesus walks away from this test empty-handed, without any proof that he was the Messiah… no earthly authority but himself.
Each of these three tests called for a visible manifestation of the power of God: show us bread... show us a miracle at the Temple... show us a king... By refusing to put God to the test --refusing to show "proof" upon demand -- Jesus chose to live instead by "faith."
This familiar story of the “Temptations in the Wilderness” tells me that Jesus knew something that the Church has yet to realize, even after telling the story for more than 2,000 years... He must have known that public acceptance of his ministry -- if it were based upon wrong premises -- would not be able to save the world. If the Christian Gospel became associated with the promise of economic security (personal prosperity, a lifetime supply of Wonder Bread)... Or if it were based upon miracles and religious institutions… Or even if it were based upon political power (with all its troops, taxes, and coercive forces)… would not bring about the INNER transformation of people's lives. And that, ultimately, was what Jesus’ movement was all about.
And so, each time -- in each test -- physical, tangible objects and institutions were rejected by Jesus Christ, even though they promised then (and still promise now) quick & easy acceptance by the people. Instead, Jesus relied upon faith in God -- unproven and invisible -- to establish God’s Kingdom on earth. It wasn’t what anyone expected; but it’s who he was!
In the end, Jesus returned from the wilderness (& 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 efforts to embody Jesus’ values in our lives, as best we are able. If that was good enough for Jesus, I think it’s good for us, too. (Amen?) ---- Amen.