This is the message I shared with the people of God at Bethel Lutheran Church, Portville, NY. The scripture it is based on is Matthew 4:1-11
Today’s gospel passage comes right on the heels of the account of Jesus’ baptism, with the Father’s declaration that Jesus is his beloved son. And that was way back in January. God loves his Son so much that...the Holy Spirit leads Jesus “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (v. 1). Doesn’t that seem a bit contradictory? Why would God do that? It’s a set-up!
The first words out of the devil’s mouth are, “If you are the Son of God..” (v. 2). Prove it! You’re hungry. Do something about it. Turn these stones into bread. After all, what’s wrong with that? Jesus had fasted for 40 days. Of course, he was hungry.
Jesus’ response was to quote scripture to the devil. Jesus does not appeal to his divine rights, but identifies with humanity. Being God’s Son meant accepting his humanity and depending on his Father for daily bread. The real issue for Jesus is not bread and hunger, but who he is and what his Father’s will is.
In the second temptation, the devil ups the ante. He challenges Jesus to prove who he is by throwing himself down and letting God’s angels rescue him. But the problem is the devil takes scripture out of context and twists its intended meaning. It is as if the devil is saying, “If you’re so dependent on God, let’s take it a step further. You trust God to feed you. Do you believe God will keep you from harm?”
In the third temptation, the devil promises power and dominion. He would give over all the kingdoms of the world to Jesus with just one little condition—that Jesus would worship him. If Jesus takes the bait, he acknowledges the rule of someone other than his Father. But knowing who he is and that he has been sent to manifest God’s reign over all, not the devil’s, Jesus does not sell out or stray from his mission. In fact, Jesus orders Satan to leave and he does!
Jesus refuses to define himself or seek power apart from his relationship with the Father—giving worship and allegiance to him alone. By defining “Son of God” not by privilege or power, but by obedience to God, Jesus has already begun his journey to the cross. The devil may have left, but there will be other temptations like the betrayal of his disciples and ultimately the crucifixion.
The problem with each of the temptations in today’s gospel is they come from a source that leads us away from the word of God and our relationship with the Father. Like Jesus, we too experience a daily assault upon our identity in Christ. It likely comes from other people, perhaps even loved ones. Our culture tries to seduce us by creating in us a sense of lack, insecurity and inadequacy. This is the worst kind of identity theft because it subtly creeps up on us.
The devil doesn’t normally approach God’s children with bold-faced lies, but by stretching the truth. Our temptations are not to do horrendous deeds, but to do good things for the wrong reasons or at the wrong time. So, how are we to deal with obvious and subtle temptations? Know the word of God. Know your identity as a child of God and tell the devil to leave you alone.
God’s word flies in the face of the lies of the devil. God loves us, provides for us and cares enough that he sent his son for the entire world. Jesus died to show us how much God already loves us, just as we are, and has declared that we are not just acceptable, but treasured and priceless beyond measure.
As we leave this church today and we are faced with the subtleties of temptation, think about what God says about you—you are God’s beloved child and in Christ you are more than adequate and worthy of all God’s love and blessings. Remember the words at your baptism: “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever?” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 231). Use the strength of God’s word to point you in the direction of the Father. Use the strength of God’s word to make an informed choice on what to do in dealing with the temptation. Revel in the strength of your relationship with the Father. Make the right choice and tell the devil to get lost. Amen.
Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year A.
Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year A.
Judith Jones, workingpreacher.org.
David Lose, workingpreacher.org.