“Jesus Faces Three Temptations (Tests)”
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.