McDowell Presbyterian Church


Matthew 4.1-11: Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." Jesus answered, "It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’" Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written: "‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’" Jesus answered him, "It is also 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 splendor. "All this I will give you," he said, "if you will bow down and worship me." Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’" Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

In the past weeks, we’ve spent a lot of time in Jesus’ wilderness and we’ve learned some things:

1. That Jesus was being tested and the passing of his tests helped establish that he is indeed the Messiah, God’s Chosen One.

2. That fasting made Jesus not weaker, but stronger, to meet his tests.

3. That God is a providing God.

4. That we are not to turn away from God in favor of our bellies.

5. That God and not human beings, stands at the center of everything.

6. That testing God is mistaking magic for faith, as if we could invoke God to do our bidding as and when we please. It is to mistake ourselves for God.

7. If you believe, no proof is required. If you do not, no proof is enough.

8. That God is with us always, even and perhaps especially in our darkest need.

***

The Third Temptation: Choose

Today we consider Jesus’ third and final temptation during his wilderness time of testing.

If we were to reduce the three temptations to one-liners, we might say that the first temptation is the temptation of need . . . the second, the temptation of surrender . . . and now, the third, the temptation of power.

The temptation of need is the temptation to turn away from or to blame God for our lack, our problems, our needs. This is the temptation which says essentially: God won’t help you, so you better help yourself any way you can. The second temptation says: This is too much for you. Just give in. Quit. It doesn’t matter what you do – God will save you anyway. The third and final and perhaps most seductive temptation of all is essentially this: Imagine what you could do if you were in charge!

Consider this temptation as told in Matthew from The Message:

For the third test, the Devil took him to the peak of a huge mountain. He gestured expansively, pointing out all the earth’s kingdoms, how glorious they all were. Then he said, "They’re yours—lock, stock, and barrel. Just go down on your knees and worship me, and they’re yours." Jesus’ refusal was curt: "Beat it, Satan!" He backed his rebuke with a third quotation from Deuteronomy: "Worship the Lord your God, and only him. Serve him with absolute single_heartedness." The Test was over. The Devil left. And in his place, angels!

The NRSV has Satan saying, All these [kingdoms] I will give you. The inference is clear: Satan is claiming to be able to bestow everything in creation to whomever he chooses. Remember that the real meaning of Satan’s name is The Lie Teller. From humanity’s first encounter with this figure in the Garden until the end of time, The Lie Teller’s claims are – lies. The earth is not his to give. Bowing down to him doesn’t get you the world; it gets you kicked out of the Garden.

Just as important to remember as it’s not his to give is that it’s not ours to have. As the psalmist proclaims in Psalm 24, the earth and all that’s in it belongs to the Lord. The 10th Commandment orders us to refrain from coveting that which belongs to our neighbor. I wonder, do we ever consider that in overstepping our reach when it comes to creation itself, we’re guilty of coveting the things of God?

Bowing down to The Lie Teller gets you kicked out of a Garden that was never yours to begin with, but given access to you only on sufferance in the first place.

The next thing to consider is what is being asked of Jesus. The NRSV and The Message, as well as most other translations in English say Jesus is being asked to worship, the inference being that Jesus is being asked to worship Satan and not God. But in the Greek, it’s a bit more subtle: Again he is saying to him, "All these I shall give to you if ever you should fall prostrate before me."

To fall prostrate or to bow before can be an act of worship. But it is also, especially in Jesus’ world, an act of recognition of someone’s superior status to you. Recognizing someone’s superiority doesn’t necessarily make of them a god. But it does recognize their power. This temptation is all about power and status, about the things that get so much attention and importance in our world. Thus it bears remembering that immediately after this encounter is when Jesus delivers his Sermon on the Mount with the beatitude blessings upon the poor and the meek, the societal nobodies. The Adversary offers Jesus all the power of the world if only he will recognize The Adversary’s own claims to power, to which Jesus says, no thanks.

Literally what he says is, Then Jesus is saying to him, "Be under [your] leading, Satan? It has been written, "For God, your master, you shall be prostrate before and to him only shall you be offering service."

For these things The Lie Teller offers as enticements simply do not matter. Worshiping God matters. Serving God matters.

In telling The Adversary to go away, in rejecting this third temptation, Jesus is saying two things: (1) the world isn’t yours to give; and (2) even if it were, none of that can compare to the worship of God, the serving of God, to God’s very self.

What might we learn from Jesus’ encounter in the desert wilderness? What might be our take--aways when it comes to this third temptation?

It’s doubtful that any of us are going to be offered the ability to control the whole world any time soon. So what are the temptations to power in our lives?

Perhaps they’re the temptations of the every-day . . . the things we don’t even think of as being related to power at all. . . things we bow down to without giving it much thought . . . things like our schedules . . . our agendas . . . our desires . . . our vision of how things ought to be. . .

And we have lots of power or power-potential, whether we think so or not . . . all of us . . . have power in our relationships with other people – our children, our spouses, our family and friends . . . power in how we spend our money . . . power in how we spend our time . . . if nothing else, it is the power to choose – and as Jesus points out, the power to choose is all about the worship and service of God – or not.

So perhaps some questions we might ask ourselves during this lenten time of reflection might include:

1. How do I react when I don’t get my way? Do I recognize that I’m not the only person involved and that others might see things differently? Or do I get mad? Judge the other person? Withdraw my support? Undermine the others by complaining?

2. Have I ever agreed with an opponent about anything? Or do I always see my opponents as wrong simply because they are my opponents?

3. When I choose to buy something, do I think about whether this buying will glorify God? Does the question seem silly? What might I do differently with my money if I thought about it in those terms?

4. When someone asks you to do something, do you think about whether the doing is in service to God? Do you pray about it? Or do you just answer based on what you think or feel at the moment?

What Jesus faced was a time of trial. And what times of trial do is winnow away the unimportant, reducing life down to the things that matter, which makes the matter of choosing much simpler than in the day-to-day of life. In the day-to-day of things, perhaps we might do well to recall the parting words of Joshua: Choose this day whom you will serve.

As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.



SERMON  SERIES - ON  TEMPTATIONS


Might As Well Jump

Jump! Jump! Jump!

Context means everything in how we hear and understand things.

The shouted jump greeted with cheers at the basketball game as one center’s extended arm tips the balance to his team. . . with exuberant dancing when Van Halen’s Might As Well Jump is played at a rock concert . . . with encouragement and laughter and just a bit of terror when it’s a new recruit taking her first sky dive . . . with family-gathered cheers when a toddler first learns to bounce . . . with hope and command from the firefighters below when it’s someone escaping a burning building . . .

those shouted jumps are not the same as the macabre twist of the crowd uglies chanting jump to one standing up high seeking to end their pain with one last failed effort to fly in what we call suicide [literally: self killing].

In Matthew 4, Jesus’ second temptation is the crowd-ugly dare of a temptation to jump. Surely, says the Satan, quoting Psalm 91, God will save you! We call this playground dare, like the others, Jesus’ temptation. But Jesus judges correctly that it is not him being put to the test, but God. And that he will not do. Not because God is not worthy or able. Not because he does not believe.

Jesus does not put God to the test because God is God. To demand of God, to test God in such a way, is to make idols of ourselves and our wants, needs and desires. It is to treat ourselves as summoning magicians and God as a lesser being merely there to do our bidding. To put God to a test, any test, is to place ourselves, once again, at the center of the universe and God as some sort of sideshow freak there for our purposes.

The Lie Teller says to Jesus, prove yourself, but Jesus rightly understands the devil to be demanding not of him, but of God. And that simply will not do. Again, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy, the sermonic reminder that God is God and we are not.

The problems with the devil’s demand are legion, but what stands out here today is that if Jesus is saved by ministering angels, it still won’t be enough – for the next time there’s a crisis, there will be more demands for proof, just like there was with the people Israel in the wilderness to which Jesus refers. When they were thirsty, the parting of the Red Sea, the raining of food down on their heads, meant nothing to them. No matter what God did, it would never be enough.

If you believe, no proof is required. If you do not, no proof is enough.

The temptation is not to jump; the temptation is for Jesus to substitute himself for God, his vision for God’s, his desires for God’s.

That, however – all that understanding, is all hindsight – all thought about after the fact. In the midst of the temptation, Jesus is hungry and thirsty and tired and alone with only this nagging voice in the wilderness to keep him company telling him that up is down and wrong is right and now is all that matters.

Lots of people have stood on top of buildings and contemplated their fates. Some walk away quietly after a time. Some are talked down. And some jump.

I wonder – in that last step actually taken by some – in the moment of free-fall beginning, is there a desire, a child-like hope to be caught up by angel arms? Is there a desperate belief that someone will save you? Or is there simply desire for ‘it’, whatever it may be at the time, to stop, to end?

When the finger closes on the trigger . . . when the foot moves out in to space . . . when the noose is tightened . . . are there thoughts of angels then?

I suspect not. I suspect the desire for ending is so strong that nothing else has place or space. But the truth is that I do not know.

But I do know this: The Big Lie is that God will make things so it doesn’t hurt. Or – that if God doesn’t take away the hurt, God isn’t much of a God after all, for surely the purpose of a god is to take away our hurts. God is not in the magic business, making this reality out of that one. Miracles do happen; but they are not ours to command.

Thus we do not put God to the test because we cannot, put God to the test. But here’s the thing: we do not, we cannot, put God to the test; but God puts God’s own self to the test. Every day. By walking alongside us. By listening to us with a rending heart. By caring about as well as for us, every day God is put to God’s test. Every day. And it is enough and more than enough. There is no need for us to jump. For God already has – right into the middle of human history does God jump.

It’s tempting in the dark times to simply fall into the wind and hope for the best. It’s seductive, this belief that the end of pain lies within our grasp when pain holds such power over us. And when pain is our only reality, there is no comfort, perhaps, in knowing that it will pass. In such times, what we have is a God not who makes magic and wipes away our reality. What we have is a God who falls with us to earth, never flinching, never leaving.

And some days, that’s enough to keep us from jumping.

Some days, that’s all we’ve got.



Matthew 4.1-11: Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." Jesus answered, "It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’" Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written: "‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’" Jesus answered him, "It is also 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 splendor. "All this I will give you," he said, "if you will bow down and worship me." Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’" Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

INTRODUCTION

To ‘tempt’ is to entice to improper behavior. In the Greek, ‘tempt’ comes from a word that means to try to do something which cannot be done or which will fail - a futility. In Matthew 4, The Tempter (The Lie Teller) seeks to entice Jesus to futility – to nonsense. The Tempter says to Jesus, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread."

But what exactly is he tempting Jesus to do? And why is it so bad? In other words, what exactly is the temptation here? What’s so bad about making yourself a sandwich when you’re hungry? WHAT IS JESUS BEING TEMPTED TO IN THIS FIRST ROUND WITH THE ADVERSARY? WHAT IS THE TEMPTATION? [invite responses]

TEMPTATION 1 - ABOUT THE BREAD

1. Feed yourself/prove yourself

2. Put your stomach ahead of your work

3. Give in/give up/surrender – to your fears, to your worries, to your stomach

4. Self-sufficiency – do it for yourself – God won’t, so you must

5. What are you waiting for? Temptation to impatience?

At the heart of the temptation, then, perhaps, is this: what The Tempter seeks to do, which Jesus well recognizes, is to take Jesus away from God’s path, God’s way.

***

                     Stone Sandwiches?

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

God’s Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness immediately after Jesus was baptized, when the Spirit descended upon him like a dove and the voice of God spoke from above, proclaiming, This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased. In Mark’s gospel, it says that the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness – making it even more clear that this wilderness time is not of Jesus’ own choosing.

If we understand the wilderness time as a time of preparation, a sort of spiritual boot camp, it changes how we understand everything about that time, beginning with Jesus’ hunger.

He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.

Jesus was famished – bereft of food. But this hunger is very different than ordinary hunger – not because of how long it was, but because of why it was. Jesus was famished because he had fasted – that is, he had deliberately abstained from food as a spiritual discipline.

Fasting is an act of strengthening rather than weakening, a way of drawing closer to God by putting away all distractions, including the distraction of the belly. In our time, those about to undergo great physical challenges like marathons or battles, fill up on all the food they can get their hands on. Not so in Jesus’ time – in Jesus’ time, kings and generals fasted before a great battle, as an act of sacrifice, but also as an act of preparation. Fasting Jesus knew he was to face trials or tests and he was preparing to meet them. It is ironic, then, that his first temptation has to do with the very fact of his preparation to meet the challenge.

The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread."

The Tempter is first referred to as ‘the devil’, in Greek, diabolou - literally ‘The Slanderer’ (the lie teller) or ‘the adversary’ (opponent, enemy). Understood by this time (although not always) as a being opposed to the divine/God will. This is the adversary not of Jesus, but of God and he has come to thwart the divine plan, to draw Jesus away from God and God’s plan. He does this in the form of a challenge: if you are the beloved son, then use your powers and feed yourself!

But he [Jesus] answered, "It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’"

Here is the point of this first chapter in their wilderness encounter from where Jesus stands: One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’"

Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy 8.3. Deuteronomy 8 is a sermon by Moses proclaiming the word of God to the people as they are about to leave the wilderness and enter the promised land. It begins, "This entire commandment that I command you today you must diligently observe, so that you may live and increase . . ."

Verse 3 from which Jesus quotes says, "[God] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna . . . in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord."

Manna is traditionally understood in Judaism to have been dreadful-tasting stuff – it nourished the people in the wilderness, but it wasn’t good tasting and they hated it. It would be like giving me fish. I’d eat it to live, but I wouldn’t like it.

God reminds the people before they enter into their prosperity that in their poverty, God has been their provider and just so, God shall be their provider in their plenty; that God has set things up for their benefit and they would do well to remember that.

This is the passage Jesus quotes to The Tempter to reject his offer to make a stone sandwich – the passage that reminds the people Israel not to sacrifice their souls in favor of their bellies . . . that tells them in advance that God well knows who they are and how they will behave . . . that tells them in advance that when they get all they want or need, they’ll be tempted to claim all the credit for themselves and deny God in the process . . . and that warns them of the terrible price of turning away from the God who made it all happen and succumbing to the Great Lie – Mine! All mine!

In Jesus’ answer to The Adversary lies the nature of the temptation: You, Tempter, would have me turn my back on all God has done for me just to show off what a big deal I am – stone sandwich maker, indeed! You really think a little snack is worth more to me than God? I have nothing to prove to you, for am I not fed as much by God’s words as by a piece of bread? I am not mine; I am God’s. And I will never forget that! I may not see the path ahead clearly. I may not like where it takes me. I might plead with God to change my destiny. But I cannot not forget my God. Oh, and in case you didn’t notice, my hunger made me stronger, not weaker. Guess you weren’t paying attention that day in class!

So, good people, let us skip the stone sandwiches (they’ll just break our teeth) and be on God’s way, eh?

Let us pray: "O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord."*

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Prayer from Eric Milner_White and George Wallace Briggs's Daily Prayer (London: Oxford, 1941) p. 14.