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Jesus is Set Up

This is the sermon I preached Sunday, 3/1/20 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The gospel was Matthew 4:1-11. 
Do you remember the comedy of Flip Wilson? One of his frequent characters was Geraldine Jones. Her excuse for anything she shouldn’t have done was, “The devil made me do it.” The things the devil “made” Geraldine do were not inherently evil like buying a new dress. In today’s gospel, in Jesus’ encounter with Satan, the devil tempts him to do three different things, none of which are innately evil in and of themselves.

As I said in my e-ministry reflection, this was a setup. Right on the heels of Jesus’ baptism, with the reassuring voice of his Father calling him the beloved Son. Then pow, God’s Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. Why would the Spirit do this?

There are three temptations: the temptation to attempt the miraculous, the temptation to spectacle and the temptation to political power. The three temptations stand for pride, power and possession (Eric Fistler & Robb McCoy,

The first temptation stood for pride. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness without food. This echoes Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. As the people of Israel in their exodus from Egypt were in the wilderness, Jesus is out in the wilderness—hungry and tempted. He was famished!

Our bible version reads, “If you are the Son of God…” However, a better translation is “Since you are the Son of God…” Since you are royal or divine, prove it by turning stones into bread. Prove your power for your own benefit. After all, God wouldn’t want you to die of hunger, would he? The devil begins by trying to undermine the identity Jesus had just been given at his baptism in the previous scene.

Jesus’ response firmly identifies himself with humanity, among the ordinary people of God. Jesus literally says, “A human does not live by bread alone...” (v. 4). For Jesus, being the Son of God means accepting his humanity and depending on God for bread. Jesus’ answer does not mean that food is not important or that bodily needs do not matter.

The second temptation stood for power. It takes place at the temple, not the wilderness. It boils down to “You trust God to feed you. Do you trust God to protect you from harm?” It deals with the proper use of God’s Word. The devil has caught on and uses scripture, “for it is written.” And how does Jesus reply? “Again it is written.” Jesus demonstrated that quoting scripture was not enough. It must enter the heart and transform the individual. Ultimately, Jesus is the Word of God and scripture tells us about the living Word. I can’t help but wonder, with this temptation happening at the temple, could there be temptations for us that happen even in church? You betcha!

This last temptation is the boldest on the part of Satan, standing for possession. The devil assumes that all authority in the world is his, to give away as he chooses. Jesus orders Satan to leave saying, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Deut. 6:13).

Jesus did not come to rule the devil’s kingdom, but to proclaim and bring the reign of God. All the kingdoms of the world were not the devil’s to give nor Jesus’ to have at that time. After the resurrection, Jesus would receive all authority in heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18), but it will be God’s gift, not Satan’s.

Back to the question of why the Spirit drew Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. Jesus as the Son of God models human reliance on God for food, for strength and for life itself. The crux of the issue was who Jesus is, his nature as the Son of God. Jesus would not be tempted by the use of parlor tricks to defend his identity.

By defining “Son of God” through obedience to God, Jesus was already on his journey to the cross. The devil has left, but the temptations are not over. In Matthew 16, after proclaiming Jesus as “Messiah, Son of the living God,” Peter completely rejects the idea that God’s Son must suffer and die. Jesus orders, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Judith Jones,

When Jesus was arrested, he refused to be rescued by either violence or angelic intervention (26:52-54). At the crucifixion, he was taunted by passersby and religious leaders alike, also demanding proof of his Sonship. Jesus did not give in, trusting God to see him through to the end of the journey. Jesus’ witness prompted the centurion to declare, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (27:54).

Would any of this be possible if Jesus had chosen the seemingly easy way out: satisfying his hunger, daring God to rescue him and worshipping Satan to supposedly get everything? If the temptations weren’t real to Jesus, would he have truly been an incarnate human among us?

The problem with all three temptations is that they come from a word other than God’s. If Jesus does what the devil asks—even if they are very good things, he is living by a word that is not coming from the mouth of God (Brian Stoffregen, Remember the Father’s words at Jesus’ baptism that we read last week, “listen to him!” That’s what it’s all about.

What was the result of Jesus’ faithfulness? Even though it meant rejecting food and the help of angels, Jesus finally receives both as “angels came and waited on him” (v. 11).

Jesus’ temptations are our temptations. Though we may not be tempted to turn stones to bread, and hopefully none of us expects to survive jumping off a building, we are still tempted to pursue other paths to wealth, influence and power. We are still tempted to seek short cuts, ignore God’s will and pursue goals that promise fulfillment, but only lead to emptiness (McCoy & Fistler).

It is not just the devil that seeks to steal our identity with temptations. Countless advertisements seek to create in us a sense of lack, insecurity and inadequacy, undermining our identity as God’s beloved children, with promises of fulfillment if we buy this car or use that toothpaste to brighten our teeth. Only then will we be acceptable, according to the advertisers. The message is that we’re not smart enough, thin enough, pretty enough, strong enough, what have you. Those are the things we are bombarded with through seemingly inescapable advertising. Jesus offers us a way out, a way to protect our identity by placing it in God’s good gift and promise.

Fear, divisiveness and anxiety permeate our society today. We hear of the Coronavirus and the fatalities it has caused. Then there is the yelling and cutting down of each other among political candidates. War has devastated so many countries. Parts of Syria are so desecrated that it’s hard to tell that towns and cities ever existed there. They’ve been bombed to oblivion.

Of course, there are also the more run of the mill temptations to sin: anger at our families, friends, cross words with those we love, addictions that abuse our bodies. There are lots of temptations to go around. And how do you know if it’s the devil doing it or God testing you? God tests us to discover the depths of our faithfulness, while the devil tempts us to sin. God’s purpose is to strengthen faith, while Satan’s purpose is to weaken faith (Stoffregen).

I wonder if sometimes in our desire to be a larger congregation if we are tempted to sell out to powers other than God. Author Paul Bosch writes, “… is numerical growth an inherent good? Could it be that some growth is achieved at too high a cost: at the expense of faithfulness to the gospel and its welcome of diversity? Jesus, after all, did not urge ‘success’ on his followers, he urged faithfulness” (Paul Bosch, “Shall We Schedule a Menu of Worship Services?”).

Like Jesus, our focus needs to be on God and God’s word. It is said that when Martin Luther felt tempted and oppressed by his conscience or plagued by doubt, fear or insecurity, he would sometimes shout in defiance, “Away with you Satan! I am baptized!” Let us remember who we are in Christ. What was the promise inscribed on our foreheads at Holy Baptism? “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever” (ELW, p. 231).

God has declared us worthy of love, dignity and respect and has promised to be with us and for us throughout our entire lifetimes. There is a devotion by Henri Nouwen I read on Friday that beautifully sums up our identity in Christ. It’s entitled, You Belong to God.
You are not what you do, although you do a lot. You are not what you have collected in terms of friendships and connections, although you might have many. You are not the popularity that you have received. You are not the success of your work. You are not what people say about you, whether they speak well or whether they speak poorly about you. All these things that keep you quite busy, quite occupied, and often quite preoccupied are not telling the truth about who you are. I am here to remind you in the name of God that you are the Beloved Daughters and Sons of God, and that God says to you, “I have called you from all eternity and you are engraved from all eternity in the palms of my hands. You are mine. You belong to me, and I love you with an everlasting love.”


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