Lent 1 - Year A - March 8, 2014

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7    
Psalm 32    
Romans 5:12-18    
Matthew 4:1-11
Homilist: Ginger Ketting-Weller

During a call from academy to my parents the year I was seventeen, I mentioned that I was on the Seminar Team, and told them I had been assigned to preach a short sermon as our team led in worship in local churches.

 “You know what you’re going to preach about?” my dad asked. Then, without waiting for an answer, he continued, “You should preach about sin.”

 “What should I say about sin?” I asked.

 “‘It ain’t good,’” he said.

If there is one strong theme that runs through all of our readings today, it is the theme of sin. How sin started. How sin affects us emotionally and psychologically. How to become free of sin. And how Jesus dealt with the temptation to sin.

As we look at the story of the temptation of Christ, we hear a countercultural message in the dialogue between the devil and Jesus, one that is as completely challenging to us now, as it was in Jesus’ day. The message of the temptations—and Jesus’ response to them—comes in three parts. Let’s look at it anew.

Jesus, of course, was hungry after forty days and nights of fasting. We know that some typical effects of fasting include headaches, nausea, muscle aches, a drop in blood pressure, weakness and acute emotional distress. But paradoxically, some people who fast report feeling energized, renewed, a sense of well-being and clarity of mind. Nevertheless, a prolonged fast eventually results in the body’s starvation as it consumes its own proteins. However Jesus experienced His fast, we know from Scripture that he was hungry and weak .

 Satan appeared and said to our Lord, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” Essentially he was saying to Jesus, “Satisfy your own hunger. The Spirit may have led you here, but now you must take care of yourself, or you’ll starve.”

 “Satisfy your own hunger.”  In some ways it was the same temptation that felled Abraham, caring for his deep desire in his own way, creating Ishmael in order to obtain what he was hungry for—descendants. “Satisfy your own hunger. The Spirit may have led you here, but now you can take care of yourself.” It’s what David did when he took Bathsheba for himself and schemed to keep her at the cost of his own soldier’s life.  “Satisfy your own hunger.” It’s what the disciples of Jesus were grasping for when they argued about who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.

 Isn’t it tempting? Aren’t we constantly tempted to be capable? To take care of ourselves? To organize our surroundings to meet our own wants for comfort and self-sufficiency? To get what we crave? To grasp power over our own lives?

 Jesus answered with the words of Moses as he spoke to the Israelites in his old age, warning them of their penchant for forgetting the miraculous manna: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”

 Jesus answered, in essence, that life is sustained by dependence. We are not sustained by filling our own empty spaces, not sustained by being capable, not sustained by our own knowledge of good and evil, and not sustained by organizing our own lives the way we want them … as if we had power to assure the circumstances of our lives!  Life is sustained by daily dependence, and sin is the denial of that call to dependence. Sin is when we choose not to wait upon our Maker. Sin is when we choose to try to satisfy our own hunger.

 Could it be that a spiritual life, a life lived well with God, is a life in which there will always be an empty pang in your belly, a weakness in the bones, and a frequent underlying hum of emotional distress?

 And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  2 Corinthians 12:9

 Could it be that we sin when we trade in dependence for self-efficacy?

 Satisfying our own hungers??? As my father summed it up:  Sin. It ain’t good.

 In the second temptation, the devil took Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple and challenged Him to show that He was the Son of God by throwing Himself off and letting the angels save Him from harm.

 The whole point of this act was proof. “Prove that you are the Son of God,” the devil said to Jesus. “Prove that angels will protect you. Prove that a loving Father-God would save you from pain. … Prove that God is with you.”

 What does it mean, exactly, to put God to the test?

 Consider the story of Exodus 17: 1-7.  The children of Israel camp in a place in the wilderness with no water, and this does not bode well for their happiness. It’s barren. It’s ugly. It’s hot and stony.  It’s empty. They grumble and quarrel, asking, “Is the Lord among us, or not?”

 “Is the Lord among us, or not?”  Essentially they were not only questioning God’s presence, but His very existence.  It’s amazing, in light of this, that the writer of Exodus reports that eventually God instructed Moses to strike the rock, at which point water emerged and the questions subsided.

 Moses, at the end of his life, gives a speech to his motley crew—and it is this speech which Jesus quotes to the devil’s temptation. Moses shakes a finger under the noses of the children of Israel and reminds them of their faithlessness in the desert, and tells them to “Never, ever, ever test God again!” Basically he points out that it’s not about what God does for us, but about what we do for God—keeping His commandments and doing what is right in the sight of the Lord.

 Back to Jesus in the desert, feeling hungry and weak, and likely feeling very lonely after an extended period of time by Himself in the wilderness. Ron Julian of Gutenberg College writes,

 Jesus was facing the same situation Israel faced in the wilderness. Like Israel, Jesus could look back on God’s kindness in the past. Only forty days earlier the voice of God had announced from heaven that Jesus was His beloved Son. Like Israel, Jesus had great promises from God concerning the future. …

But like Israel, Jesus’ present circumstances were difficult. Instead of being carried off to glory, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where He faced great hunger and hardship. Imagine it: God has promised to make you king of the world, and then He takes you into the wilderness to starve. Certainly Jesus faced the very real temptation to question the Father’s goodness. Jesus faced the same question Israel had faced: “Why has God brought me here?”

This temptation was potentially very attractive. On the surface, jumping off the temple seems like such a powerful act of faith. Certainly nobody would jump unless he truly trusted God to catch him. …

But Jesus knew that jumping off the temple would not demonstrate faith; instead it would be a gross act of unbelief.

 When Jesus responded with the words of Moses, “Do not tempt the Lord your God,” He refused to give in to the temptation of doubting His Father’s existence, doubting His presence, doubting that if God was there, His purposes also included good for His Son. Even in the great emptiness and silence of the wilderness, even in His extremity, Jesus would not give Himself over to anything but faith. He may not see His Father, He may not hear His Father, and He would not try to force His Father to show up and prove His power. Jesus chose the way of faith.

 Could it be that we are too ready to trade in a solid, plodding faith for that tingly and scintillating edginess of doubt? There is a risk, a newsworthy element to doubt. Doubt is based on the illusion that we can actually see and judge the situation, and come to intelligent conclusions about God’s place and actions in the universe. Doubt feeds our own sense of self-efficacy and agency. And we all do it. We even learn from it. But is it solid? Is it relationship-building with our Maker? Having experienced it myself, I would testify that I was only rescued from the destructiveness of doubt when God lovingly came into the shreds of what was left after I doubted, and gently, expertly started weaving me back together. Faith without ultimatums is less exciting and may not make me look good or smart to others. But perhaps my moments of faith are more Christ-like.  “Do not tempt the Lord your God.”

 Trying to force God to prove His presence by spewing water from a rock or saving us from splatting when we jump??? Demanding proof, as though we have a right to order our Creator around? Sin. It ain’t good.

 And now comes Temptation number three. It’s incomprehensible, really.  Why on earth would Jesus even be tempted to prostrate Himself in front of the devil? Why would the promise of receiving the kingdoms of the world (and their glory) be worth it to Him. To bow in homage to the Evil One?  Unthinkable!

 But wait. Whereas the children of Israel conquered the Promised Land through very difficult times, they actually lost their blessing and their land after times became easy and the kingdom grew rich. Times of plenty tend to blunt our focus and tempt us to wander. In times of plenty it is so tempting to bow down to other gods, to thoughtlessly elevate the wrong values, to settle for short cuts. The devil was offering relief, a time of plenty.

 Before Jesus came in human form, He took part in creating a plan for saving His children. As a created, limited being, I can’t even imagine why that plan was such a difficult, painful one. Were I to plan a way of saving people who had gone willfully astray, I wouldn’t offer to be burned at the stake for them, or beheaded, … or nailed on a tree. Might Jesus, in His weakened and hungry state, have been tempted by the offer of an easy alternative? Would he not accomplish the same thing—gaining the kingdoms and the people back for Himself? Wouldn’t it be easier to bow down, and pay for the kingdoms in that way rather than with His pain and blood and life?

 The scenario of the third temptation is just too complicated to comprehend. It is the temptation of the good life, of the easy life, of the life that rationalizes and reprioritizes. Where the first two temptations involve the hardships of hunger and the invisibility of God in our extremity, this one offers a way to avoid them. The tempter sidesteps the fact that this temptation ignores God’s logic of salvation, as if it were a minor detail.

 The problem is that what we worship, we must serve. And what we serve, we worship. You can almost hear Jesus sounding affronted and emphatic with His last ounce of strength as he responds to this temptation: “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.’”

 What we worship, we must serve. And what we serve, that is what we worship.

 To bow down to evil is to sell oneself into the service of evil. Serving anything else before God? That’s sin. And it ain’t good.

  1. Satisfy your own hunger. 
  2. Require God to prove Himself and His character. 
  3. Worship and serve that which is easy and makes you comfortable.

Consider, on the other hand, the responses of Jesus, God’s Son:  Dependence. Faith. Utter devotion to the Father.

You have to admit, you have fallen to the temptations. Perhaps even today, you have fallen to the temptations. But thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! We have a Savior. He knows our temptations. He did not swerve for a moment in face of them, but faithfully committed Himself to the plan of our salvation, all the way to … and past … the cross, to the resurrection. Hallelujah!

 

That. Is. Good.