A congregation of the United Church of Canada
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Yr A ~ Lent 1 ~ Matthew 4:1-11
As with many passages of scripture in the bible today’s reading from Matthew lends itself to multiple interpretations – and that’s a good thing because in one form or other the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is used every year to start off the season of Lent. Even someone with no church experience at all probably has sense of what the story is basically about – especially if they ever watched cartoons as a kid and saw images of people with a little devil on one shoulder trying to talk the person into doing something wrong and an angel appears on the other shoulder to save the day.
That sense of personal, ethical choosing is a valid approach to take to interpret this passage. But of course, we’re going to take it in a different direction. Today I’m going to suggest that this story is not really about Jesus at all but primarily it’s about God and how we ought to relate to God. But before we dig into that we need to go through the story and make sure we are seeing what it is saying and not just relying on our memory of cartoons past!
To begin, it’s important to locate this story in Matthew’s time line.
The temptation of Jesus happens immediately after the baptism of Jesus where he emerges from the water and has an overwhelming experience of communion with the Holy Spirit – it descends like a dove and rests on him! Immediately after the temptations he announces that the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near (like he just experienced in the water), and invites people to turn around and notice it, and he finds a few disciples.
Then in the next chapter he teaches all about the Kingdom of Heaven through his Sermon on the Mount which we just spent the last month or so on.
Ok, do you have the sequence? Baptism, temptation, announcement about the Kingdom, and teaching about the Kingdom.
So…my question is when did he become so wise about this Kingdom of Heaven thing? You might argue that he’s Jesus and he just knows these things, but that denies the need for him to go through things like baptism and temptation. If he already knew everything he doesn’t need to have a spiritual transformation – and a spiritual transformation is precisely what’s going on here!
Jesus was a good Jewish boy – which means he would have learned all the appropriate things about his faith tradition as he was growing up, learned about the Hebrew scriptures (although, nobody had an i-phone in their pocket with the bible on it, so they all had to learn orally), and kept all the appropriate religious laws and practices. But as we know he was no ordinary person of faith.
In his baptism he is awakened to a deeper, fuller, all-encompassing understanding of the Presence of God. The skies part, the dove comes, the voice speaks – needless to say, he noticed!
And then immediately he has his temptation experience.
Listen to Matthew 4:1 – Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
There’s a lot in that little verse. Being led somewhere is different than choosing to go. It doesn’t say he resisted, but it is clear that it wasn’t his idea.
Whose idea was it? Apparently the Holy Spirit’s!
He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.
Wilderness in the bible is always a place of mystery and danger and especially a place of transformation. When people go to the wilderness in the bible they are going to come back different – transformed.
Another giveaway is that he’s there for 40 days. 40 is the biblical number most associated with transformation – 40 days and nights of rain for Noah, 40 years in the wilderness during the Exodus, 40 days Moses fasted on the mountain before getting the 10 Commandments. 40 means something spiritually big is happening.
So the Spirit is leading Jesus to a place of transformation through being tested or tempted by the devil.
Now, here’s where history works against us.
I say devil and you see a red dude with horns and a tail and a pitchfork.
That’s not biblical. At all.
That’s all from Milton’s Paradise Lost and countless imaginative artworks over the centuries.
The biblical concept of the devil, which in Hebrew is always ha satan (the satan) which means ‘the accuser, the prosecuting attorney’, is not a person but more of an archetype – a role played out but not an actual person or thing playing it.
If we were writing this story for the first time today we’d probably say it is our sub-conscious.
In other words, the devil tempting Jesus was actually Jesus!
It’s not some bad guy that we can pin bad stuff on – it’s our own dark side and selfishness trying to knock us off course and take the easy way rather than the better way.
If that’s the first time you’ve ever heard something like that then I hope I haven’t lost you, and I hope you will see that it actually makes the story much more real and believable.
I’ve never met “the devil” but I’ve certainly been tempted by my darker side. Maybe you have too.
I want to show you something else that is really easy to miss here but for me is absolutely crucial to this story. The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness – but nowhere does it say that the Spirit then departed. I think we assume that Jesus was left utterly alone to face this 40 day hardship on his own.
What if that’s wrong?
What if the Spirit never left?
What if, in fact, the stuff we claim is true, and we are never alone?
What if it was the presence of the Spirit that actually helped Jesus face his temptations and the Spirit’s power that gave Jesus strength when his was tapped out?
Because after 40 days of no food you don’t have very much strength!
Another little detail we might miss is that all these temptations come after the 40 days of fasting, not during. Jesus is physically and mentally at his weakest. The purpose of this isn’t to make Jesus into Superman, it’s to show us that there comes a time when our human resources are utterly spent and we are still facing challenges or temptations.
Can you relate to that? I can!
What do you do when you’ve got nothing left in the tank but there’s still a race to run?
You draw on something deeper than yourself – you draw on the Presence of God through the Holy Spirit that has never left you and will never leave you.
That alone is a wonderful message!
Now we get to the temptations, and I want to remind you that I think these are not actually about the thing itself but are teaching us something about God, and teaching Jesus something about the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Turning stones to bread when you’re hungry doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to me. And later in this gospel Jesus will feed thousands with bread that seemed to have come from nowhere.
So there must be something else going on here. It isn’t just about satisfying a need.
Maybe it’s about power?
The temptation is to entice Jesus to use his power for his own comfort and desires, instead of for the kingdom. In the next chapter he’s going to teach a revolutionary thing to the disciples. He’ll say “blessed are the meek” – which we learned a few weeks ago doesn’t mean that it’s good to be powerless, but rather it means that we are called to use our power gently. Remember, meek means gentle.
I think this temptation is where Jesus learned that insight!
I hope you noticed that in all three of his answers to these temptations Jesus draws on scripture for his responses. Each time he says “It is written…” and then he quotes three times from the book of Deuteronomy.
Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to memorize scripture verses so we can fling them at people when we’re being tested or tempted.
But it does show that when looking for strength beyond his own (because he’s fasted for 40 days) Jesus drew on the faith tradition that was embedded in his heart, and his faith carried him through the trial.
What strength do you draw on when you’re at your wits end?
You don’t have to know chapter and verse, but to have a deep, embodied sense of scripture and especially God’s presence will give you a limitless pool of strength to draw on!
The second temptation is more pragmatic. Standing on the top of the Temple, the place where the Jewish people understood that God resided on earth, so the place where a person was most profoundly in the presence of God, the accuser dares Jesus to do something stupid and ask God to save him at the last second.
And Jesus replies, “What are you, nuts?”
God doesn’t work that way. That’s not what the Kingdom of Heaven is all about. God is not our personal little stay out of trouble forever card.
There’s a classic joke about a person in trouble, usually because of dumb mistakes they’ve made, who suddenly starts to pray, “Oh God, if you get me out of this, I promise I’ll…”
As if God is sitting somewhere saying, “Gee, I just wish they’d offer the right thing and then I could swoop in and save them!”
The insidious part of this is that the devil throws scripture at Jesus to try to make the case – because we can all find scripture passages that seem to indicate that God is going to protect us and save us from all our troubles if we are faithful enough.
Jesus says, “Nope!” That is wishful thinking.
Here we learn that God is not the bubble-wrap business; God is in the Presence business!
The third temptation is powerful. We are tempted by this all the time.
It says if you adhere to the world’s values you could be powerful and wealthy and have everything you want. But to do that means you have to put yourself at the centre of your life and strive to satisfy those needs and desires. You have to worship materialism or success or power. Jesus says that people of faith worship God first – that God must be in the centre or God is powerless.
There’s no such thing as an add-on God.
The Kingdom of Heaven happens when God is at the centre of your universe, not you.
And that temptation, that attack from Jesus’ own sub-conscious about who would be at the centre of his life, was the last straw in this inner battle.
Matthew 4:10 – Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Accuser! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.'”
And the devil left him – the temptation faded – and Jesus was comforted by the peace of the Presence of God.
Through this transformative experience Jesus learned first-hand what it meant to reside in the Kingdom of Heaven as we make our way through this world. And the very next thing he did was to find a group of people and tell them all about this life-changing possibility.
Make no mistake, you will be tempted in life.
Your sub-conscious will act like the accuser and try to entice you to think or do all sorts of things that you know are not best.
And those temptations will tend to come when you’re feeling weak and maxed out.
But if you’re a person of faith striving to live this Way that Jesus shows us, then you have a resource that can help you resist. It’s with you all the time whether you’re aware of it or not.
And if you choose to draw the water from that deep well you will be refreshed and strengthened.
Your time here in this place is part of what helps fill up that well with awareness, and the more you exercise that connection with the centre of your being the more likely you are to remember to draw on it when everything goes off the rails.
And what’s even better than all of that is the possibility that if we really hear the insight that Jesus learned in the wilderness, that the Kingdom of Heaven really is here and now and all around us if we are wise enough to allow God to inhabit the centre of our being, then we don’t have to wait until we’re at the end of our rope to access it like an emergency button.
We’ll have that kingdom connection and communion with God all the time – and maybe then we wouldn’t find ourselves at the end of our rope so often!
Like Jesus, we’d truly know that we are not alone, and that strength will see us through.