Over the course of the last few months, we have spent time in the Gospel of Matthew, listening to the teachings of Jesus, pondering what it means to heed his commandments to love, marveling at the glory of the Lord as he was transfigured before us. And, this morning, on this first Sunday of Lent, we take a step back – we go back in time to the very beginning of Jesus’ journey and we consider again how Jesus began this path to Jerusalem.
Jesus was born in a manger to humble servants of God and together, as a family, they fled to Egypt until it was safe for them to return again. John the Baptist signaled the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and it was in his baptism that the voice of God bellowed out identifying Jesus as God’s beloved Son. And, this morning, we join Jesus along the journey in the wilderness.
For forty days and forty nights, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to fast and to pray and be tempted, or tested. Once identified as the Son of God, Jesus is immediately asked the question: As the Son of God, what will you presume is yours? What will you presume you deserve? How will you use your authority? And, this whole experience not only lifts up the identity of Jesus as God’s Son, but
it also helps up better understand his name Immanuel – God With Us.
So, let’s get to it. Let’s turn to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 4, verses 1-11.
Let us pray: Open our hearts and minds O God. May we be made vulnerable to your love, vulnerable to your mercy. Reveal your Word for us this day O God – and may we be ever changed. Amen.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ 4But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying 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.” ’ 7Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’ 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
This is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.
So, Jesus is baptized and immediately, he is led by the Spirit to the wilderness to be tempted – now, you’ll notice this is different from our story last week, when Jesus went up to pray on the mountaintop, when he went up the mountain to be close with God. Here, before his ministry really begins, Jesus is led by the Spirit to the wilderness for the purpose of being tempted – quite a start to his ministry here on earth, wouldn’t you say? It is also very much in line with the theme of the Gospel of Matthew. You see, it is important to Matthew’s author that the reader or hearer of the Gospel will come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, and Matthew goes to great lengths to establish Jesus’ credibility. The first couple of chapters of the Gospel, in fact, are written in such a way so that the genealogy of Jesus cannot be questioned, it articulates his divine birth, and in his baptism, he is set apart from other mortals as the dove settles upon his body as he comes out of the waters.
By the time we get to our text this morning, Jesus’ identity as the Son of God has been established – and, now, before taking his first steps in ministry, before teaching his first lesson or healing his first follower, he demonstrates his intentions as the Messiah. Through this experience in the wilderness, Jesus establishes that he is the Savior of God’s people – not simply another king, another ruler.
To help us understand the messianic identity of Jesus – his identity of God With Us – his ministry begins in the starkest and most vulnerable setting. Hungry and alone, in a place that feels out of his control, perhaps he feels intimidated by the wilderness or at its mercy – his ministry begins with sensations we all can empathize with and, frankly, in experiences we struggle with more frequently than we would like. And, it is here in this place where Jesus fasts for forty days and forty nights and in the midst of this fast, his fortitude is then put to the test.
So, let’s break the tests down. First, The Tempter asks the famished Jesus to prove his divinity by turning stones into bread so that he might eat. If he is truly the Son of God, surely he could cure his own hunger – but Jesus refuses to demonstrate his power this way. Jesus, Son of God, is given all power by God and with that power, water can be turned into wine, wounds can be healed, the dead can be raised – but, Jesus refuses to amass endless bread for himself alone. Simply because he has the ability to amass a wealth of bread does not mean his hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied – rather, he demonstrates that faithfulness to God is the sustenance that is needed to truly thrive.
Second, the tempter asks Jesus to prove his divinity by attempting to hurt himself – because surely if the Messiah has come to fulfill a purpose, not even throwing himself off a high building would impede his path. But, Jesus refuses to test God in such a way. You see, Jesus, Son of God, is given the greatest advantage of all people – he intimately knows the Creator, his seat is reserved at the right hand of God Almighty – but Jesus refuses to take advantage of his successful and powerful parent to get him out of trouble.
And finally, Jesus is presented with all the power over all the kingdoms of the world if only he would worship the Tempter himself – and again, Jesus refuses, recognizing that the power desired by the rulers of the world is not the power he has come to wield. He has not come to be a benevolent dictator. Jesus, Son of God, has not come to supplant existing rulers – rather, he has come to usher in the Kingdom of God, a world without end, a Peaceable Kingdom, a Beloved Community.
Tests about power and presumption – temptations of wealth, privilege and power — these tests reflect our fundamental sins as people in this world. Jesus is presented with the riches of the world, with the privilege of blessing, with the power of greatness – all manner of remedy that by human standards would combat the difficult feelings Jesus experienced in the wilderness. And through this offer, through these tests, it becomes more clear that the remedies described illuminate the very brokenness we are tempted by daily.
This scene of temptation is the only speaking part Satan has in all of the Gospels. All other tests and questioning Jesus is subject to come from Pharisees and other human characters. They ask legalistic and self-interested questions – Will you offer the cure? How do you interpret the law? What does this parable mean? Will you calm the storm? All of these questions are important – but they speak to the ways in which humanity desires for Jesus to fit into the already prescribed way of life. They assume existing power dynamics and rules and traditions. They are questions asked by faithful people, but they fail to recognize the brokenness within and among us, and the need for Jesus to upend our way of life.
The questions asked in our text today are of an entirely different nature than we see asked by people throughout the rest of Jesus’ ministry. You see, these important questions, these probing tests, these powerful temptations, they come out of the mouth of Satan – the evil one, the source of darkness. Wealth, privilege, and power–these things reflect the absence of God in the world, and the darkest parts of our fallen selves. It takes the voice of darkness, the voice of Temptation to illumine our spiritual struggle between the desires of our bodies and the values of our culture and our need to be truly healed and made whole. Jesus begins his ministry from this place – smack dab in the heart of what all humanity struggles with most.
And remarkably, when presented with darkness, Jesus chooses life-giving, world-altering light. Jesus refuses to model God’s love, God’s grace, God’s nourishment, God’s justice, God’s peace, God’s power after our broken world. You see, Jesus rejects the temptations of wealth. He refuses to have more bread than he would need by turning stones into bread. Jesus rejects the temptations of privilege and entitlement. He resists the notion that he is too big to fail, too important to jail. Jesus rejects the temptations of power – to rule over all the earth like the benevolent dictator they expect him to be. Jesus simply refuses to model God’s presence in the world after the broken systems we have in place. And, this, dear church, is indeed, Good News.
To this day, our deepest on-going struggle is with wealth, privilege and power – individually and corporately – but to some, Jesus’ experience in the wilderness may feel like a detour on the way to his real ministry of healing the sick, of loving the marginalized, of turning over the tables of the money-changers. But, these temptations in the wilderness, this first step towards Jerusalem, set up a trajectory for Jesus’ ministry on earth and the power of God’s redemption for our future.
At the outset of Jesus’ ministry on earth, the things we struggle with most, the desires of our world that tempt us the most, the structures we have designed that nurture brokenness within and among us – these are the challenges Jesus is faced with and refuses to abide – from the outset of Jesus’ ministry on earth, we can expect that God’s kingdom will not be identified in the same terms as our broken world. And, our text this morning reflects the deepest need of our broken humanity reaching out for the most transformative and life-altering God of Saving Grace.
In this Season of Lent, we are called to be honest about the darkness that dwells within us and to repent. Our inclination is to focus on the legalistic, the more technical changes that can be made in ourselves and in the community, but this season, while in the wilderness for these next forty days and forty nights, may we be challenged to consider the darkness within us and may we be vulnerable to Christ’s redeeming love. Amen.
(sermon preached at Takoma Park Presbyterian Church on March 5, 2017)