(A sermon based on Matthew 4:1-11 for April 6, 2014, the 5th Sunday in Lent. Fifth in a series entitled "Making Good Use of Forty Days.")
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus “in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus always passed his tests. I do not always pass my tests—and neither do you.
It’s important to note that Jesus’ testing in the wilderness comes immediately following his baptism where the voice from heaven affirmed that he was God’s beloved Son. The temptations hit him exactly at the point of what it meant for him to be the Son of God. The most serious temptations that we encounter hit us at the same point: what does it mean for us to be the children of God?
We of the Church are, you might say, the third in a series when it comes to being tested.
First there were the people of Israel who, after their exodus from Egypt, were tested by God in the wilderness; Moses, speaking to the people as they stood poised to enter the land, told them, “Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments” (Deuteronomy 8:2).
The people of Israel had been set free to be the children of God—but would they succeed at being free? Would they trust in God? Sadly, they would not. Happily, God would not give up on them.
Second in the testing series is Jesus. Driven by the Spirit of God into the wilderness following his baptism, Jesus is tempted by the devil to abandon his trust in God—the kind of trust that caused Jesus to serve and obey his Father, no matter what it cost him—in favor of a lesser, shallower, and easier relationship with God.
So after going without food for forty days, Jesus hears the tempter say, “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread” to which Jesus replies, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus would value listening to and following God over anything, even meeting his basic needs. He could have used his relationship with his Father to get his needs met; instead, he chose to be committed to his Father even if it meant his needs went unmet. He chose to live in light of the fact that it was not about him.
Jesus then hears the tempter say, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the highest point of the temple, because the Bible says God won’t let anything happen to you” to which Jesus replies that the Bible also says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Jesus will trust in God no matter what comes but he won’t put God’s care to the test; he will trust in God but he won’t presume upon that relationship. He would be called to do things that were risky and that appeared foolish but he wouldn’t take foolish risks in order to prove to himself that God indeed cared about him.
Jesus finally hears the tempter say, upon being shown all the kingdoms of the world, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” to which Jesus replies, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Jesus will take no shortcuts; he will not accept the limited “all” that Satan can give but will be faithful to God and will worship and serve God alone and let God do with him and give him what God will.
At the end of his earthly sojourn, just before he ascended back to his Father, Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” so the way of following his Father with all of its cost led to his receiving far more than the “all” that the devil promised.
We of the Church are third in the series; we are being tested to see if we will live up to our identity as the people of God. Honesty compels us to admit that we are not passing the test; hope compels us to affirm God has not given up on us and that we can make progress going forward.
Sometimes we are just like Israel in the wilderness: we try to find an easier way, we take shortcuts, we give God way too little thought, we fail to consider God in our every thought, word, and action, and we value the temporary over the eternal. Sometimes we experience a flash of being like Jesus in his wilderness: we trust thoroughly in God, we put obedience to God ahead of everything else, and we make every effort to do what we do in the way God would have us do it.
Most of the time, I imagine, we are in between the negative and positive extremes, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing.
Can we agree that we need to be growing as followers of Jesus? Can we agree that we need to be—that we can be—that we should be—growing in our relationship with God so that we want nothing more than to love God with everything we are and so that even when we find ourselves doing less than that we also find ourselves being determined not to settle for less than that?
Israel in the wilderness showed us what it is to fail—but we’ve learned that on our own.
Jesus in the wilderness showed us what it is to succeed—and with God’s help, we can learn that, too.
So here we are in our wilderness, in our time of testing, confronted by the temptation to be less than we can be, to trust less than we can trust, and to obey less than we can obey. What will we do?
I pray that we will let the living Word of God and the Spirit of God lead and teach and empower us to grow in refusing the temptation to live less than boldly and to grow toward living as the people that God made and saved us to be.
What does that mean?
Well, a few years after he passed his test in the wilderness, Jesus Christ the Son of God hung on a cross where he was thirsty and was offered only pain-dulling wine to drink, which he refused; he hung on a cross from which he was challenged to bring himself down, but he would not; he hung on a cross on which his dead limp body sagged as, for the first time, someone—a Roman centurion—recognized that he was indeed the Son of God.
“If you are the Son of God,” were the words with which the devil taunted Jesus.
“You are the Son of God,” were the words the Roman centurion uttered when Jesus died.
“If you are the child of God,” the devil will whisper to us, “take the easy way out.”
“But you are the child of God,” the Son of God whispers to us, “when you give yourself up, when you take up your cross and follow Jesus, and when you die to self and live to God and for others …”