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Matthew 4:1-11

March 3, 2014

The story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is a profound reflection on the nature of his ministry. It occurs immediately after his baptism and before his public ministry in Capernaum. The Spirit leads him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. In other words, following his calling at his baptism, but before he actually begins his ministry, he must undergo an intense spiritual scrutiny. He must find his “center.” He must have absolute clarity about his purpose and how he is to carry out that purpose.

His forty days in the wilderness are obviously a symbolic reflection on the Hebrews’ forty years in the wilderness. Just as those forty years were a time of severe testing of Israel’s faith, so these forty days are an intense testing of Jesus’ faith. Just as the forty years spiritually refined and prepared the Israelites to enter the Promised Land, so these forty days refine and prepare Jesus for inaugurating the kingdom of God.

Jesus spends this time in the wilderness fasting. Fasting is not a diet plan. It is a bodily way of putting God ahead of our appetites, to observe restraint and self-denial, to wipe away the clutter in our lives and make everything simple and direct. It is also a way of demonstrating mourning and sorrow for sin, a way of showing repentance and a desire for forgiveness and restoration. The New Testament considers Jesus sinless. But that does not mean he did not have the capacity to sin–he did. He was always tempted to sin, to live selfishly, just as we are. His fasting reflected his awareness of his own capacity for sin, as well as his awareness of humanity’s sin. His fasting addressed the question: How can broken humanity prepare for the coming of God’s reign on earth?

To answer that question he is tempted by three options. The first option is: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” The tempter is not doubting Jesus’ identity, so the “if” would be better translated as “since.” For Matthew, “Son of God” is not meant to be a description of Jesus’ ontology (what he’s made of), but of his role. To be God’s Son means that Jesus is God’s earthly representation, carrying out God’s authority and will; he is the king of Israel, the Messaih, anointed by John’s baptism and the alighting of the Spirit of God. So the first temptation could be understood as: Since you are the Messiah sent by God, turn these stones into bread.

The temptation is for Jesus to break his fast and feed himself. But it is also more than that: it is a temptation to solve humanity’s problems by focusing on physical needs alone. One can hardly argue with the goodness and appropriateness of feeding hungry people. But is that the heart of God’s way of healing humanity? Will that, by itself, usher in the kingdom of God? The Israelites failed this test in their wilderness. Rather than putting a priority on trusting in God regardless of hunger and deprivation, the Israelites demanded to be fed first before they would follow. Moses then, and Jesus now, responds with the truth: One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

I am reminded of Jesus, during his ministry, telling the impoverished peasants not to worry about what they’re going to eat and drink and wear. Not that the physical necessities of life aren’t important–they are very important! But one thing is even more important: doing God’s justice and goodness. When we live in anxiety, we put physical needs first; when we live by trust in God, we put God first. Jesus says this is truly the way to live.

Some have used Jesus’ answer to this first temptation as an argument for the church not to be involved in social services. That is a misreading of what Jesus is saying. Indeed, to follow Jesus means, among other things, to do all in our power to meet the physical needs of others. This is what the earliest church practiced when it shared its goods with the poor.

The second option is: Since you are God’s Messiah, jump off the temple and let God’s angels rescue you. Almost certainly Matthew has Jesus’ crucifixion in Jerusalem in mind. In other words, the temptation is for Jesus to call on God to avoid being put to death. Have a successful ministry, specially protected by God, and die a quiet death as an old man. Israel also failed this test in the wilderness. It put its own survival ahead of trust and following. Moses then, and Jesus now responds with: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.

In other words, when we follow God’s will there are no guarantees that it will work out well for us. In fact, we may die doing God’s will. To demand God’s protection for doing God’s will is to put God to the test–to make God into our servant. This is a failure to truly trust and love God. This was the lesson Job needed to learn. Are we following God for a reward, or will we do it even if there is no reward?

This temptation also reveals that the Bible can be quoted to support doing the spiritually wrong thing, as well as the right thing. God’s will is not figured out by quoting specific verses, but by understanding the message of the Bible as a whole.

The third option is: Since you are God’s Messiah, take over all the political power of the world governments. This temptation is extremely tempting for the church. Everyone wants power, and we convince ourselves that we can do more good if we hold the reigns of worldly power. But there’s just one catch: worldly power means worshiping the devil. Worldly power is coercive, based on the threat of violence. God’s power, on the other hand, is based on persuasive love, doing justice, forgiveness, and self-giving. This is the path Jesus takes, and it makes him a radically different kind of messiah. Will the church do the same?

This week we begin the season of Lent, a period of forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter, not including Sundays. It is a time of testing for the church. The church needs to periodically rexamine itself and clarify its purpose and approach. Before we can enter into resurrection–the goal and hope of our faith–we must be spiritually prepared and committed to following Jesus’ way. And so Lent, like Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, is our time of spiritual self-examination and resolution.

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