Each spring we spend an extended amount of time in one of the four gospels. These are the spiritual biographies of Jesus. And although they are all focused on the same person, they have different emphases and use different filters when telling the stories. That’s why we generally don’t mix them up. When we study them one at a time, we can really dig in to what that particular author is trying to tell us.
This spring we’re spending some time in the gospel of Matthew. Which is my third favorite gospel. It has always been placed at the beginning of the gospels, possibly because it starts with a genealogy that sounds so much like the Old Testament. In fact the Gospel of Matthew has a lot of connections to the Old Testament. The author who we call Matthew — although we don’t know for sure who wrote it, or when, or where — this author goes out of his way to point out all the ways that Jesus is the one who was foretold by the Old Testament prophets. He may not be the messiah everyone expected. But he is the messiah nonetheless.
In the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus himself reenacts several of the big moments from Israel’s history. After his birth his family flees to Egypt where they live as refugees because King Herod is set to murder male children just as Pharoah did. Jesus’ baptism is reminiscent of Israel passing through the Red Sea. Then he goes into the wilderness for 40 days as Israel was in the wilderness for 40 years. That’s what we’ll talk about this morning. And then next week we’ll start reading Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which is a new law, as the 10 commandments were given to Moses on the mountain of Sinai.
We’ll be exploring this gospel together until Easter, and this morning we pick up right where we left off last week, in Matthew chapter 4. Last week we read the story of Jesus’ baptism and remembered how our own baptisms give us an identity as beloved children of God and give us a vocation of further God’s justice, love, beauty, freedom, and truth in the world. Right after Jesus receives this identity and this calling he has an experience that is much more challenging. I want to you to see how closely connected these two experiences are, so we are going to start with a few verses we read last week and then go straight into this morning’s story.
Let us listen now in the reading of scripture for the word and wisdom of God.
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’ ”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
From strength to strength, may we be strengthened. Thanks be to God.
Jesus sees a vision and hears the voice of God telling him, “You are my beloved child and I am well pleased with you.” And then very next thing that happens is the power of evil tries to make him doubt that identity and calling. Which means the very first thing I hope you see in this story is that we can be experiencing a season of being in the wilderness, feeling like we do not have what we need, we can be in great distress and it does not mean that God doesn’t love us. We have bought into the white middle class American prosperity gospel that says if God loves us, our life should be easy. Friends, that is one of the most unbiblical ideas I have ever heard. It’s up there with “God helps those who help themselves.”
The New Testament makes it very clear that to be in the company of Jesus is to expect hardship. We are united with Christ in his suffering. Sadness and tragedy are not an indication that God has let you down, that God is not doing God’s job, that God doesn’t love you, or that you have done anything wrong. Sadness and tragedy, seasons of hardship, are part of the human experience in a fallen world. And if Jesus’ life is any example, the better we are, the more we suffer for it. Nothing happened in between Jesus’ baptism and his time in the wilderness. God’s mind didn’t change about Jesus. Jesus didn’t do anything wrong. Jesus was a perfectly loved child of God AND he was led into a season of wilderness and experienced temptation. Both things are true at the same time.
The other thing I want to point out before we look at the specific temptations is the nature of temptation itself. This is a fascinating word. The same word in Greek means both “temptation” and “testing” in English. I think most of us would like to think that there’s a big difference between being tempted and being tested, but in the Bible, it’s the same word. Translators decide which one to use based on the context, based on what’s happening in the story around it. It seems to be that testing comes from God for our good, that we would grow in maturity as we respond to the test. Temptation comes from the power of evil, the devil, satan, the accuser, whatever you call it. The book of James chapter 1 says that God cannot be tempted and that God doesn’t tempt anyone. God may test us, but as we heard in this morning’s story, we may not test God.
Honestly, friends, I think this is complicated. I’m still wrestling with this – how I can tell the difference in my own life and how I would advise you to tell the difference. I am astonished at how often I can’t tell the whether something is a good opportunity or a bad opportunity. I’m better than I used to be so I know some of it comes with age and practice, but still! This world is complicated. What I do feel confident about is that God is never interested in just trying to mess with us, trying to trip us up, trying to trick us. God is interested in our spiritual maturity and our abundant life.
So, with that in mind, what can we see this morning in these three temptations? First is the temptation to turn stones into bread. This is pretty basic. Jesus has not eaten for 40 days and that’s really the longest any human can go without food. So he’s hungry. And apparently he’s powerful. So make some bread. What’s the big deal?
What stood out to me this week is that the temptation is not to make a loaf of bread, which would satisfy his current hunger. The temptation is to make loaves of bread, plural. Perhaps the temptation is not to make what he needs, but to make more than he needs. Perhaps this is the temptation to excess, the temptation to hoard. After all that was the temptation for Jesus’ ancestors when they spent 40 years in the desert eating manna. In fact, the passage that Jesus quotes back to the accuser is one where Moses is reminding the people of God’s provision of manna for them.
It doesn’t say that humans don’t live on bread, but on the word of God. It says humans don’t live ONLY on bread, but on the word of God. It’s not that Jesus doesn’t need to eat. It’s that he doesn’t need to hoard. Ultimately all of these temptations are going to be about trusting God. In this case, the temptation is to trust in stuff that we acquire instead of trusting God.
The second temptation is for Jesus to throw himself off the top of the temple and have God catch him. And this time the accuser has gotten smarter. If Jesus is going to use scripture, then the accuser will use scripture too. The accuser quotes directly from Psalm 91, which we used for our call to worship this morning. Friends, it can be a very dangerous thing to take the Bible literally. As the accuser proves here, scriptures used literally in the wrong hands have the power to hurt instead of heal.
Today I think this second temptation is simply the temptation to test God, to try to manipulate God. God the Source or God the Father has just told Jesus that he is beloved and yet this is a temptation to try to make God “prove it” by saving Jesus from what would be a really stupid decision. And the rationale for why God would save Jesus is a literal interpretation of one specific verse. As if we could manipulate God by using the Bible to make God do something. As if God must be bound to our personal interpretation of one verse in our immediate situation. The temptation is to test God or try to manipulate God instead of trusting God.
The invitation to us is always an invitation to trust. That’s what faith is. In the New Testament, there’s one word that is usually translated either as belief or faith. Those two words have been used for so long in religious contexts that we have a lot of extra meaning built up on top of them. That same word that is translated belief or faith, that word can also be translated as trust. The invitation for us is to trust God. To trust God instead of trusting in our stuff. To trust that what is confirmed at baptism is really true: we are beloved children of God with a holy vocation. Trying to make God prove it is never going to work. God may be gracious enough to give us some signs when we need them, but if at our core we don’t trust, we’re never going to get enough proof to satisfy us. Don’t test God; trust God.
The final temptation is for Jesus to worship the accuser, with the result being that Jesus will have authority over all the kingdoms of the world. And although this might be the most obvious one to refuse, I think it’s also actually the most tempting one. This is the temptation to force things to happen in our way and our time instead of trusting God. This is the temptation to accomplish our ends by the wrong means. The last temptation is to take a shortcut that makes it easier on ourselves, but that shortcut negates the point of the goal. Let me explain.
Spoiler alert: at the end of this gospel, before Jesus ascends to heaven he says to his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus will receive authority, but it will not be until after his death and resurrection. And it will not be the kind of authority that the accuser offers him. The accuser can only ever offer us the power of force, the power over other people. That’s the only authority and power he has. Force. The kind of authority that Jesus will receive from God the Source as a result of his death and resurrection is the power of sacrificial love. Jesus does not force us; that’s why forced conversions to Christianity are so ugly. Jesus woos us and invites us and wins us over by his example. We come to him because we want to, not because we are forced to.
This final most tempting temptation is to do things the way the world does. The temptation for us is to try to establish God’s rule using the same kind of power that the rest of the world uses. The problem is that if we give into this temptation, it won’t actually work. Forced or coerced conversions to Christianity are not actually what God is looking for. Laws based on religious rules do not actually bring about a change of heart. Look at what is happening in Iran: forcing people to obey religious rules doesn’t actually create a society rooted in divine love. With force, we may temporarily accomplish something that looks like the Kingdom, but it won’t really be the Kingdom.
Audre Lorde was a black feminist lesbian who was incredibly insightful about how change happens and she said this. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. (The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.) They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
To be a humble church, to be a church that is obedient to the gospel, we must admit, confess, that we are tempted by these things. We are tempted to hoard because we don’t trust that God will meet our needs. We are tempted to use the Bible in ways that are convenient for us because we want to win arguments. We are tempted to make God prove God’s love to us because we have been taken in by the lie of the prosperity gospel and the lure of American consumerism and we aren’t willing to trust that God loves us even if things in our life are hard. And we are tempted to use force instead of love to bring about the Kingdom because we want to avoid the way of personal sacrifice.
To be a humble church, to be a church that is obedient to the gospel, we must admit that we are tempted by these things. And then Jesus says we must repent. We must turn, reorient ourselves, daily — hourly! — to God’s way of sacrificial love. And we can, beloved ones. When we repent, when we turn, when we ask God to help us reorient ourselves, then we realize that we have everything we need to live lives of generosity and trust and sacrificial love. We are blessed to be a blessing. And it’s OK that that’s hard.
The message of Jesus is that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Not that it’s already done, but that it is in process, it is breaking through, like weeds in the sidewalk, and we are invited to be a part of it. The way into it is by repentance. May God give us the courage to see where we need to resist temptations and reorient ourselves this morning. God’s grace is here to reassure us. We are beloved children of God with a holy vocation to reveal the Kingdom of God. Amen.