by David Baer, January 18, 2015
Text: Matthew 4:1-17
Our gospel story today is a story about Jesus facing temptation. That’s not a word we use every day. Mae West once said, “I can resist anything, except temptation.” The word has taken on an air of playful naughtiness. Temptation is a second cupcake. Temptation is binge-watching Grey’s Anatomy. We’ve come to associate the word with things we do that are embarrassing but only a little bit if at all harmful.
But the word in scripture has nothing cupcakes or TV dramas. The Greek word πειράζειν means “to test,” in the way that an engineer might test a model of a bridge to see whether it will hold up under a heavy load. It’s related to the English word “empirical,” which has to do with proving through experiment what you hypothesize is true. Temptation or testing is about circumstances that show what you’re made of. Think of weed-out classes in college or basic training, where the weak and the unworthy fall away.
Jesus comes to a time of testing at the hands of the devil. It’s important to realize that the story we heard today comes right on the heels of the story we heard last week, where Jesus was baptized, and as he came up out of the water he heard a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved. I am well pleased with him!” “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” That’s how the scripture reads: God says, “You are my Son, I love you, I am pleased with you,” and then immediately God’s Spirit takes Jesus into the wilderness, where he is alone, hungry, and vulnerable. What does it mean to be God’s beloved child?
“You are my Son,” God said to Jesus. Notice how the devil picks up on this. Notice how he reminds Jesus of his identity when he puts the first two temptations before him. “If you are God’s Son,” he says, “turn these stones into bread.” Surely God’s children don’t need to experience hunger. Surely someone as special to God, as loved by God as you ought to have the power to make food out of whatever meager elements might be close at hand. Jesus does have the power to feed, doesn’t he? And one day he will multiply loaves and fishes to feed a multitude… of other hungry people. But today is a day for going hungry. “It is written,” Jesus quotes from the words of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy, where Moses is explaining the reason for the Israelites own long journey through the wilderness. Moses said, “[God] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, 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. … Know then in your heart that as a parent disciplines a child so the Lord your God disciplines you” (Deut 8:3,5). Jesus knows he is God’s beloved child. He also knows that the God who loves him, the God he calls, Abba, or Father, lets God’s children experience hunger and hardship to let them see what really matters. This hunger and this hardship he’s going through don’t exist apart from God’s love, but for the sake of that love.
Again, the devil takes him to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem and says, “If you are God’s Son, throw yourself down, and let God’s angels rescue you, as is promised in scripture.” Surely God’s children can count on being safe, on being rescued. Why not give it a try, why not throw yourself right into danger, and see if God really loves you? Jesus again quotes Moses, who was reminding the Israelite people in the wilderness what happened when the people complained to Moses, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” God’s promise to rescue them and bring them into the land that was their home wasn’t enough for them. They made demands of Moses, to prove to them that God was really there with them. But for Jesus the promise is enough. He won’t test God because he believes God will bring him into or out of danger, wherever Jesus’ journey needs to go.
For the final temptation, the devil no longer appeals to Jesus’ identity as God’s Son. He has already got Jesus to admit that being a child of God means that often you have to go hungry, that most of the time you don’t even get a sign that God’s with you, on your side. So he appeals to Jesus to give up on being God’s Son entirely. “Worship me,” he says, “and unlike God, I’ll give you all these kingdoms, all these realms.” Think of it… Jesus could have all the earthly power he wants. He could do all the good he wants to do. He could feed hungry people, put the oppressor in his place, bring justice to the world. But Jesus doesn’t worship God for the sake of what it will get him. He worships God because God is the one good being worthy of worship and praise. And that’s true whether Jesus’ life is a success or a failure. We don’t worship God for what we get out of it. We worship God because only God is God.
With this, the devil leaves him, and we read that angels come and serve Jesus. He has passed the test that no one else could—not Moses and the Israelites, not you or I. He withstood the devil’s temptations, and he’s ever more secure in his identity as God’s Son.
The point of this story is not that we need to buck up and resist temptation like Jesus did. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Jesus offers up a life of perfect trust and obedience to God, and he offers that life for us. What Jesus is showing us in today’s story is what it means to be a beloved child of God. It doesn’t mean you will have a safe and comfortable life. It doesn’t mean that you will never set foot in the wilderness, never be tested with difficult choices, never be anxious about God’s presence and purpose for you. Being a child of God means that Jesus has been into the wilderness ahead of you and through to the other side. It means you have a partner in temptation and in your wilderness seasons, with grace and hope to carry you through.
It’s possible that you’re in a wilderness season right now. We know what it’s like to be in the wilderness too. We had a funeral for our good friend George just a couple of weeks ago—grief can be a wilderness. So can illness. So can losing your job, or struggling to hold onto it. Falling out of love, or being separated from the person you want more than anything to be with can be a wilderness too. Each of these experiences is distinct, but there are common threads that run through all of them. We wonder whether God sees or cares what’s happening to us. We wonder whether this is God’s will, and if so, why?, what good can come of it? Did I do something to deserve this?
But the lesson of the gospel story is this: if Jesus, the beloved Son of God, found himself in a wilderness, it can happen to anybody. You can’t avoid the wilderness just by being good enough. Or, turn this lesson around, and it says that being in a wilderness can never prove that you aren’t beloved and treasured and precious to God. Like Jesus, we can, we have to look back to our baptism and hold onto this sign that God loves us and delights in us.
So may you trust in God’s love and purpose in every wilderness season of your life. And may you know always that you are a precious, beloved child of God. Amen.