Sermon for Sunday March 5, 2017

Matthew 4:1-11

Communing with Desire


Jesus is still wet from his baptism in the Jordan when we read that he was led up by the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  He fasts there forty days and forty nights.  From here we learn of the temptations of Jesus.  As we read this, we are reminded of the words of Hebrews 4: “He was tempted in all ways as we are.”


This is a multi-layered story.  If you were a Jew or a convert from the Jewish faith, you would have recognized immediately many images from the Old Testament.  At the deepest level lies the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent’s proposal that they become like God [Gen. 3:5].  Next are the accounts of Israel’s forty years of wandering and being tested in the wilderness [Deut. 8:2].  We are reminded of Moses who was with the Lord for forty days and nights during which time he neither ate nor drank but was taken to a high mountain and shown all the land as far as the eye could see [Deut. 34:1-8].


We also have a picture of Jesus suddenly being led out to the desert.  The desert is important because it is where much of the action of the Old Testament takes place.  This is the territory that surrounds the villages and towns of Palestine.  Think of the recent pictures we have seen of the countryside of Syria:  drab, bleak, dry, dusty.  It is wilderness.  The people of Jesus’ day saw this as the place where things of the Spirit happened.


This is a story written for us to remind us that our faith is forged again and again in desert places.  Jesus is not tempted because he has departed from God’s will.  Jesus is tempted because the Spirit has led him to that place.  I’ll bet that if we took a poll of Christians today across the country, we would find that it is those who are trying to live a good life that are struggling, being tested, not those who couldn’t care less.   I had a professor who commented that if you are not seriously struggling with being a Christian, are you a Christian?  It seems that the way of the Christian quite often is not the comfortable pew, but one of wilderness experience.


We see that temptation does not usually involve obvious or undisguised evil.  Temptations are subtle.  When I read this story, my mind is taken back to Sunday School days and a poster on the bulletin board depicting Jesus on a mountain top facing a horned creature.  As we filed in past the picture, you could almost smell the sulfur!  How easy it would be if the devil always came to us as such a figure.  No, temptation comes to us in many disguises, many times subtlety appealing to our desires.  Here, Jesus is wrestling with the will of God for the ministry upon which he is embarking.  He is presented with three avenues.  All three have immense possibilities for good.


“You will be like God.”  Is there any loftier goal in life?  Jesus, turn these stones into bread.  In a world of unbelievable hunger, what could be better?  Jesus, leap from the pinnacle of the temple and let God’s angels catch you.  In a world which is callous to belief in God, wouldn’t this show them?  Jesus, take these kingdoms of the world, enter the political arena.  In a world of slavery, war, oppression and disregard for life and rights, why not?


To be like God is at the heart of many of our temptations.  Often we like to exercise God’s authority by making our own rules or passing our own judgments.  We can claim to know what is better for us than God does.  It is easy to place human wisdom above the wisdom of the Creator.  Does it not strike you as ironic that when we live in an age of seemingly boundless human knowledge that the gap between rich and poor, have and have not, increases faster each year?


Matthew lets us know that temptation is not just a private, inward thing.  At times the tempter can be a voice within us calling for our attention, urging us on.  Other times the tempter can be another person, pressuring us to give in, enticing us with dreams or promises we find hard to resist.  Sometimes the tempter is the way of the world.  “Everybody’s doing it, why shouldn’t I?”


How we face temptation affects the working of God in our world.  Jesus will go on from here to preach good news to the poor and release to the captives, relieve the bruised, cleanse lepers and heal the blind and crippled.  He will be opposed immediately.  In this world, there are forces that traffic in human misery and reap huge profits from the poverty of others.  Of course, these forces will try any means to divert Jesus from such a ministry.  The world hasn’t changed.  Anytime the Church or Christians pick up the ministry of Jesus Christ and go out there into the world, they will soon discover that there is another opposing team on the field.  Sad to say, we are sometimes surprised at who is on the opposing team.  This is risky business and sometimes after the first run onto the field we are burned and we find it much safer on the sidelines.


A story.  One day Satan was instructing his students about the ways of deception, asking them what they thought was the best way to lead people away from God.  One student thought the best way was to convince them that there was no God.  Another said to tell them that there was no hell.  A third suggested that if people thought they had all the time in the world, then they would procrastinate and not believe until it was too late.  Satan agreed that all of these methods had been tried but there was still a better one.  His students pressed him for the answer.  He said that he thought planting the seed of moderation in people’s minds worked best.  Moderation, waffling, waters down our commitment.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer was truly a saint of the twentieth century.  In his early thirties, he was a pastor and theology professor in Germany.  This was the era when the Nazis were rising to power and church after church fell to the temptation of the time to not speak out against Hitler.  With a group of colleagues, Bonhoeffer formed the Confessing Church.  At this time he wrote: “In the temptation of Jesus, there really remains nothing except God’s Word and promise, no native strength and joy for the fight against wickedness, only God’s strength and victory, which holds fast in the Word, and the Word robs Satan of his power.  Only by God’s Word is temptation overcome.”  (Life Together.  English trans. 1954.)  Imprisoned for his writings, Bonhoeffer preached to prisoners and guards.  His strength was falling back upon the examples of faith contained in the Bible.  His refusal to bow down to the gods of the Third Reich won him the admiration of many.  It is believed that he was among prisoners killed as the guards retreated when the Americans were coming to liberate those imprisoned.


There are many voices that will call to us in the wilderness of an, at times, very confusing world.  There will be occasions when we will be sorely tempted to follow those voices.  However, Jesus reminds us that God speaks to us through the Bible, through tradition, through the Christian witness of those around us.  God’s Word comes to us in many different forms, providing us with strength to face our temptations.


Jesus’ temptations did not end in the desert.  Time and time again he was tempted.  “Avoid the cross,” his well-meaning friend Simon advised.  You know your life.  I think with Christians the tempting never ceases.  This is why we come together every Sunday to worship God and to pray in Jesus’ words, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth as in heaven.  Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”


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