Lent 1A, Matthew 4:1-11 St. Thomas, 2014
Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Matt. 4:1
Download and listen to the audio here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/z8ps10vqk6h5frz/sermon%20Jesus%20tempted.mp3
Temptations are like ice cream flavors. They come in all kinds. We might say that Russia has been tempted lately. The political instability and transition in the Ukraine drew Russia’s attention to that neighboring region. They said they were concerned about Russian nationals and Russian speakers in the area of Crimea, which had once belonged to Russia. In fact, after World War II, they deported most of the population – off to Siberia! – and brought in their own people. Recently, pro-Russian soldiers took over the Crimean government building, though the Russian government said they were not their military. The television began to show Russian programming. The Ukrainian flag was replaced by that of Russia. Russian troops were amassed near the boarder – the latest his morning is that they are sending more in with amphibious landings. People around the world are wondering whether Russia is about the annex this peninsula, which is practically an island in the Black Sea, about the size of the State of Vermont. Russia already keeps the naval base of their Black Sea fleet there – which was fine as long as the government was pro-Russian, but now that more pro-European forces are gaining control, the Russians might just be thinking they’d better control the area themselves. At the same time, many of the people in Crimea – perhaps the majority – have ties to Russia and would prefer to be part of Russia than the Ukraine anyway. It’s a complex and knotty issue.
As the world waits to see what will happen next, as governments work to prevent an escalation of the problem, we see lots of illustrations of temptations and transgressions. Soldiers are transgressing on government property. Leaders are talking past each other. Citizens are rooting for their own side without considering the consequences for the country and the region. Everyone is trying to do what they think is best, but the result is confusion and chaos and what looks like might be the brink of war.
It’s easy to see that temptations and sins are underway when conflict breaks out. Things are out of order. Tensions are high. People are making choices that hurt others and disregard them. Sometimes, however, temptations come in subtler forms. They are also present in daily habits which ignore the Word of God. They are present when everything is peaceful and calm and everyone agrees on the right direction to go, but it’s actually a wrong direction in direct opposition to the will of God. There’s temptation when we’re alone and just doing our own thing. There’s temptation when we’re in groups and going with the flow…or when we’re in groups and refusing to cooperate and participate. The decisions we make often come with a set of good and right options and a much larger set of options which are unhealthy, sinful, and wrong. Even the apathy which means we don’t make a decision tempts us to let unfolding events lead our lives rather than God who would direct us by His Word.
Dealing with temptations is part of the reality of your living as a disciple of Jesus. Our Lord Himself was tempted by the devil. There’s a true spiritual warfare within the church – not a battle for territory, like Crimea, but a battle for hearts and minds. Satan desires to lead us out of God’s Kingdom and back into his realm of darkness, depravity, and condemnation. He does so, though, masquerading as an angel of light. He makes His message look good, look best even, look irresistible, irrefutable, and inevitable even. If he couldn’t do this, we wouldn’t call it temptation, would we?
In this Gospel passage before us today – the reading from Matthew 4 – we learn something about the nature of different types of temptation. We also see our Lord modeling the victory and leading us into His victory over them.
The first temptation the devil tried our Lord with might be called the bread temptation. It’s the sort of temptation which relates to our understanding of ourselves, just by ourselves. Jesus was hungry, having fasted for 40 days. That’s the point when the natural body is at its very limit. In the face of His own death, Satan offers Him: “Turn these stones into bread. Use your power as God’s Son to satisfy your stomach. See now, Jesus, you’re a man now, with physical needs. Satisfy them. You have become a human being like the rest of humanity, but who says you have to be like the rest of them – in their need and dependence and suffering and weakness. You can be man and you can be strong. You can use all your powers to serve yourself.” And the Lord answers, “No. Man does not live by bread alone.” Jesus will be a man like us, like us in every way, and in our place. He will walk the way of trust in His heavenly Father, the way we ourselves must walk. We cannot turn stones to bread, so neither would He. He would let the Father determine when and how His daily bread should be provided.
This temptation attempts to deceive us with the idea that we are merely physical beings. Those who think of themselves as nothing more than animals, products of evolution, have no need for anything more than bread and it all represents. If there is no spiritual reality, then all that’s we are is physical needs to satisfy the best we can. Crassly, some people aim only to live comfortably in this world – a nice car, a nice home, a fat bank account, luxury vacations and entertainment and all kinds of toys, big and small, physical pleasures of every sort. Even if they say they believe in God, they live a kind of functional atheism, ignoring their own spiritual needs, ignoring any Word that God might speak to them, attending to nothing more than their own physical desires to be fed and comfortable.
The bread deception is a common one in our affluent society. People have a lot. We think we need a lot to be happy. We presume that self-satisfaction is what we should be about. In the last century, consumerism has arisen as a kind of philosophical worldview. As you buy things for yourself, you learn you have a right to be happy with the product or you can take it back. We translate that to a presumption that the world around me is here made just to make me happy. I get the idea that I am entitled to everything serving me, and if I am not happy, if something is uncomfortable, if it doesn’t please me or satisfy me, then I get indignant. I’m a dissatisfied customers. I demand better. Someone should make this right. Where’s my bread? And it better be a nice freshly baked loaf from the local overpriced coffee shop.
But do we ever stop to think that life is about more than bread and physical comfort? God speaks to us and in His speaking He gives true life. That we live by the Word of God and not by bread alone means that we are also spiritual creatures, with souls, and not just bodies with mere physical needs to be satisfied. We will not be whole or complete or truly fully alive unless and until we recognize this. God speaks to us. And in God speaking to us, He reveals who He is so that we may know Him. God speaks to us. And in His speaking, He invites us into a relationship with Him, to know His goodness and to respond with praise, to know His salvation and to respond with faith, to know His commands and to respond with obedience. Then we become fully alive, alive with the very life of God who comes to us through His Word to give us Himself to be our God and Father. His speaking imparts all His gifts and makes us to be all that God intends for us to be as His creatures – we human, physical creatures, become part of God’s family as His very children.
After the bread temptation, the second temptation follows and it’s the religious temptation. It has to do with our relationship with God. Having gotten through the first temptation to the knowledge that we need the Word of God in our lives, we are next tempted to abuse that word. If we twist it around, we can make God our servant and we imagine ourselves to be God. We can put ourselves in charge, telling God how He should fulfill His promises, according to our own whim and pleasure. That was the issue when Satan led the Lord up to the pinnacle of the temple and invited Him to throw Himself down. “Look,” he said, “if you live by every word of God, there’s a promise of God right there in the Scriptures: God won’t let you strike your foot against a stone. His angels will bear you up. You want to rely on God and His promise? Let’s have God show how true and faithful He is. Go ahead, jump, Jesus!”
And the Lord retorts, “No. You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” The Lord your God – if the Lord is to be your God, you are in no place to set up expectations for how He’s going to fulfill His promises in your life. The temptation here, this religious temptation, is what Lutheran theologians call “the theology of glory.” It’s a matter of presuming that God should deal with us as we expect according to our fallen, sinful expectations. God has given me promises, so now I’m going to grasp ahold of them and tell God how He should serve me in my life. He says that He will give me peace, so I want a family life without any conflict. He says that He will take care of me, so I expect to be rich. He says He heals my diseases, so I’m going to demand that I should never get sick. The theology of glory expects the glorious life of the world to come to be fully present here now and it makes me the Lord of the Word, telling God what it should mean for me today. Again, as much as it appears to claim from the Word of God, it eliminates the way of faith. If God immediately grants me heavenly glory, already in this world, I won’t have to trust in Him for the fulfillment of His promises because I’ll already be seeing that fulfillment all around me.
True faith trusts in God and rests in promises even when all the world seems to scream that they’re not true and not happening. Jesus, after all, live a pampered life so that He never once so much as stubbed his toe. On the contrary, He came to walk the way of God’s promises to the cross – where He would, in fulfillment of all God’s promises for you – do so much more than stub a toe. He would take the nails and the spears and pour out His blood unto death. The true way of God—which we call the theology of the cross in opposition to this theology of glory—the theology of the cross acknowledges that God is God in the reality of this world, a reality which includes suffering and pain. Glory, relief, comfort and joy do come – but only in the Lord’s time and in the Lord’s way. That’s not for us to command, as we wait on Him by faith, trusting in His goodness through it all.
The third temptation of Jesus was a political or social temptation. The first was a temptation about our understanding of ourselves; the second about our connection to God; this third is a temptation about how we relate to other people. Satan offers the Lord a deal – rule over all the kingdoms of the world, but at a cost: fall down and worship him. Wasn’t Jesus’ mission to set up the Kingdom of God? Of course, here he’d get a kingdom, but it would be a kingdom under Satan. Jesus could get all the trappings of rule – the enactment of His will through power, compelling people to obey Him, living in glory and honor. But it would come at the cost that He would accomplish nothing of what the Father had sent Him to do. He was supposed to rule and reign in the hearts of humanity by His Holy Spirit. If Jesus were to place Himself under Satan, we too would all be bound under him, because there would be no Savior to deliver us. The hearts of humanity would remain the residence of evil powers and enslaved to wicked forces. There could be all the trappings of religion – worship, even – but it would be misdirected, not for God. There could be all the structures of society – a kingdom of order and power and control and culture and wealth – lots of apparently good things might get done, but there would be nothing of loyalty and love, nothing of mercy and truth. If Jesus had succumbed to this temptation, the total transformation to the Kingdom of God would have been aborted.
This third temptation is a temptation to say that the ends justify the means. As long as you get the outcome you want, you can go about it any way that will get you there. A little worship of Satan and the whole world is yours! But as Jesus Himself said, what does it benefit a man to gain the whole world but lose his own soul? Jesus knows the truth that the means create the ends – and nothing attained by compromising with evil will ever be good. Only God’s goals done in God’s way lead to God’s blessed ends. Particularly in our social life, we must be careful not to treat other people like stepping stones toward our own purposes for ourselves. Jesus enters His Kingdom through justice and mercy and love, not power and force and compulsion; we children of the kingdom must live by the same mottos.
From these temptations, Satan shows that He understood nothing of the salvation plan of God; He could not grasp God’s loving and giving character as manifest in Christ. He presumed that Jesus would be altogether like himself: self-seeking, self-glorifying, power-hungry. At every turn Satan questions the Father’s good will to provide and care for His Son. He tried to point Jesus away from the Father, by urging Him to take care of Himself, to take charge of His own destiny, to reach His goal by His own choice of means. There would have been no suffering, no cross, in this way. Neither would there have been any salvation for you and me.
Jesus shows us that the way of the Father is a completely different way and He holds to it. God is not self-centered or grasping or power-hungry. In love He provides a Savior who meets our every need, including our need to overcome temptation. When we fall, the grace of Christ forgives us. He forgives us for living as if we’re just physical animals; He forgives us when we do not attend to our spiritual needs. He forgives us for approaching God and His Word as if God was supposed to answer to us. He forgives us for dealing with others as objects for our goals rather than objects of His love. He forgives us because that is why He came, why He fasted, why He conquered Satan, why He died, and why He yet speaks His gracious Word to us to bring us back into His way of faith.
His forgiveness for the ways we have fallen frees us disciples to His new way of life. In turning from temptation by the power of His Spirit, we join Jesus in saying no to the ways of Satan and saying yes to the ways of God – yes to living by the Word of God and not by bread alone; yes to living under God’s Word, humbly trusting in Him; yes to living with others in His way of love and service. Temptations will continue in this world, every day, but we know the one who conquers the devil and He gives us the victory.