First Sunday of Lent
Matthew 4:1-11
8 March 2014
Elizabeth M. Deibert                                                                   
If I cheat on this one test, what does it matter?   If I drink and drive, I will be more careful than other people.   If I don’t take my medicine today, it won’t really matter.  If I eat this one piece of cake, then I will feel better.  If the neighbor has a nice car, I deserve one too.   If I hurry, I can get one more thing done before I leave.  If I had a difficult childhood, people should feel sorry for me.   If I get a bad grade or lose my job, it’s not my fault.   If I don’t go to church, I can still be a spiritual person.  If he’s going to be difficult, I’ll just ignore him.  If it feels good, why not?   If she’d been more supportive, I would have been faithful to her.   If he’s going to be unkind to me, I’ll might as well be rude too.   If I don’t pray, don’t read the Bible, it’s all the same.   If only I had a happy family like they do.   If only I could be as attractive and successful as her.   If only I had as much money and power as he does.   If only I could just show them.   If I had more time, if I wasn’t so busy, if I had more energy, I would _____(fill in the blank for the responsible thing you should be doing that you are not.)

Genesis 2:15-17
15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

If God put this apple tree in the garden of Eden, then it must be for us to enjoy.   If we eat from this tree, we will not die, we will be smarter.   The Genesis story is the human entry into disobedience.   Man and woman are tempted and they eat what they were commanded to avoid.   They had plenty in the garden, but they wanted more.  
Jesus turns the Genesis story on its head by resisting temptation.   Every time, the tempter invites him to prove himself by saying, “If you are as powerful as God…then do what you please and prove your power to me.   Jesus refuses to play the evil game of ifs.

This story of Jesus’ forty days of the wilderness, being tempted has two big points that should not be missed.   First, the story follows the baptism story.    Now in terms of the church year, it has been a while since we celebrated the baptism of Jesus, but in the narrative, temptation follows baptism.  This is my beloved Son.   The second crucial point not to miss is this:   It is the Spirit who takes Jesus into the wilderness.    So, let’s be sure to appreciate the full impact of this.  The Spirit comes descending down on him, and the wonderful words of heaven are proclaimed, “This is my Beloved Son.  With him I am well-pleased.”  And then Spirit drives him into the wilderness.   Apparently, he needed to identify with us in temptation and win the battle, as true humanity, created in God’s image like us, yet with the divine ability to fix broken humanity, as defined by Adam and Eve.
Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan!  For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 

11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Jesus' 40 days of fasting reminds us of the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the desert, and the 40-day fasts of Moses and Elijah.   In the Bible, the term forty years or forty days is more approximate.   Remember, they were not marking days on a calendar.   

There are a couple of ways to understand this temptation narrative.   One way is to look at the three temptations as different kinds of testing that we like Jesus experience.  
IF you are God’s beloved, then you should be comfy all the time – eating bread, not suffering.   Turn stones into bread is the temptation of living according to fleshly desires.   Of course, we all sympathize with Jesus because we imagine that he was in a total fast, but it is just as likely he was doing a partial fast, surviving on whatever he could find in the wilderness.   Living the radically simple life, and that some baked bread or freshly caught fish would have been sorely missed.   Remember that fasting is not such a strange act.   Giving up certain types of foods, or skipping a meal is a fine way to work on your relationship with God, to find more satisfaction/contentment in God’s word than comfort foods.

The second temptation – IF you are the Son of God, prove it.  Throw yourself down from the temple and command God’s angels to protect you – is the temptation to abuse power.    Prove yourself to people so they know all that you can do.  Instead of using power to care, use power to impress, for political gain.
The third temptation – see all the kingdoms of the world, you can have them, IF you will worship me.   This is the temptation of coveting or putting yourself in God’s place – breaking the commandment to worship only God.   Jesus had the greatest temptation to consider himself equal with God, but for our sakes, he did not claim that place, but humbled himself, even to the point of death. 

Now there’s a deeper meaning to these temptations too.   In his book The Politics of Jesus,  John Howard Yoder, suggests that the three temptations of Jesus foreshadow the three points in his ministry where political temptations were the greatest:  right after the miracle of the loaves and fish was performed, when the hungry crowds wanted to make him king; when he cleansed the Temple, at which time he had already secured enough political and moral support from the crowds to start a political movement; and the night at Gethsemane when he played with the idea of calling on twelve legions of angels to stop his arrest - he could have initiated a holy war had he chosen to.
All of those moments in Jesus’ life he experienced the real temptation to take the easy way out, the way that avoids suffering.   But he choose to hang in there for us.   He picked the harder way.   He demonstrates for us that the way of sacrifice for others is the best way to live this life.   It is the way God intends.

I watched my mother this week, in her own way, acting out the sacrificial love of Christ.   Though she was our guest, she was determined to be helpful.   Though loading the dishwasher took her three or four times as long as it would take for any one of us to do it, she insisted that we were busy and this was one thing she could do to help.
Instead of complaining about how tired she was after driving from N. Carolina, she said when she arrived last Saturday to get back in the car and drive over to see the church property because she knew how important it was to me.

Don’t get me wrong.   My mother is not perfect, she has an insatiable curiosity about people that occasionally leads her to over-involvement in people’s lives.  And she’s never seen a dessert that did not need to be tasted or a conversation that she could not extend.   But I am grateful for the unselfishness, kindness, and patience I see in her life and for how that has blessed me and many others.  
In the end, it is self-centered behavior that is our greatest temptation.   Whether our self-centered behavior comes from a self-estimation that is too low or too high, all of us are tempted to use the power we have to get our own needs met, rather than thinking first of others.

Jesus sets the example for us.   In the weakness of his time of testing, it would have been easier for him to fall back on self-oriented behavior, but he resisted the temptation to follow the deception of the devil, or the power of evil, however you prefer to imagine the powers than dissuade you from living according to your truest identity as God’s beloved child.
How does Jesus resist the tempter?   By quoting the words of God from scripture,    Jesus reminds the one who tells half-truths who He really is.   Every time the tempter lures him into the two-sided coin of self-doubting/self-proving with that word “IF”  Jesus demonstrates that God does not deal in such uncertainties.   God declares, “This is my beloved.   With him I am well-pleased.” 

With that line from God ringing in your ears, you too can resist temptation to be less than you are.   Those who live according to lusts of the flesh become less than they are.  Those who live to prove themselves to others rather than being authentic and secure in their identity become less than they truly are.  Those who abuse power to serve selfish interests rather than using power to benefit others become less than they really are.  
If you are insecure about whom you really are, start listening to God about that – not to the voices of the world who invite you to be less.   If you are a child of God, resist the temptation to be anything less than a Jesus follower, who serves the needs of others.