by Matthew Anderson
Temptation. Every year at this time temptation rears its ugly head. Is it because whatever I’ve given up for Lent is becoming harder and harder to resist as the days go by? No. Is it Spring fever – the warm weather causing me to blow off responsibilities and just get outside? Sounds nice, but no, not really. For me temptation comes on the same day every year, on a particular Thursday in March, which happens to be today.
How many of you know what I’m talking about? Well if you really knew what I was talking about, you wouldn’t be here. I know I wouldn’t be, if I wasn’t preaching today. I’d be at home, sitting on the edge of the couch, eyes glued to the TV, with a bracket in one hand and a highlighter in the other. Yes, I grew up in a basketball household, one where it was debated whether the first day of the NCAA Basketball Tournament was an appropriate reason to miss school. And I grew up going to a school where a TV cart was rolled into the lunch room so that those of us who didn’t give into temptation would be rewarded.
And so every year at this time I’m tempted to skip class, call in sick to work, and do whatever it takes to catch as many of those games as I can. Because you know the best action, the most excitement, happens in the first couple rounds. The glory of the upset, the agony of defeat for the team that thought they had a good shot of making it to the final four. It’s the most exciting time of the year.
But enough about temptation. I don’t really want to talk about temptation today, because ultimately I don’t think this passage is really about temptation. I know we call this text the “Temptation of Jesus,” but I think there’s something deeper going on here. Rather than temptation, I want to suggest to you that this text is primarily about trust.
The fact that this text falls on the first Sunday of Lent is a little tricky. It’s almost like a little lectionary trap. It automatically leads us to read ourselves into the text. You have Jesus fasting 40 days, and here we are beginning a 40 day journey of Lent, this season of self-examination. And Jesus is tempted by the devil and we think, “Oh – Jesus is experiencing temptation, just like we experience temptation. If he can do it, then I can do it too!” And we become motivated by the prospect of our own piety, giving up things for lent, struggling through our little moments of suffering during this one time of the year we Lutherans are allowed to do something for God.
But commentators are quick to point out that this fasting and temptation of Jesus is no model for us to follow. It was never intended to be. A fast of 40 days and 40 nights was an exceptional fast, far beyond anything that would have been expected of a normal person, no matter how pious. And then after these 40 days and 40 nights, when Jesus is at his weakest, most frail point, that is when the devil is allowed to come and give him his best shot. And do you remember who led Jesus into this moment? The Spirit of God. What happened to “lead us not into temptation,” the part of the prayer that Jesus will teach his disciples to pray just two short chapters from now? By no means is this extremely vulnerable situation intended to be a model for us to follow in our own lives.
Instead, if you read this story in the context of the Gospel of Matthew as a whole, you will see it a little differently. / Pretend for a moment that you are a citizen of the Roman Empire in the first century, and you come across this book labeled “Gospel of Jesus Christ.” You’ve heard of this guy, Jesus, and you know that there are some who say he was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah who would liberate his people. You never quite understood why they would say that, when it doesn’t seem like he accomplished much of anything, other than being executed by the Romans. But you’re an educated Roman citizen, so you crack open the book and start reading.
Well, first you come across a bunch of Jewish names, with Jesus’ name tacked on the end. Ok, we get it, he’s Jewish. Then there’s an interesting little story about a miraculous virgin birth, and then more stories about divine intervention, where angels tell Jesus’ parents where to go so he would be protected. So apparently there’s something special about this guy. And then there’s this crazy guy named John, telling people to repent. And he’s telling them about someone whose going to come with a winnowing fork and gather the wheat and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. Sounds kinda scary. But then Jesus comes up to this guy John and asks John to baptize him. And when he does, there’s a voice from heaven that says, “This is my son, whom I love, with whom I am well-pleased.”
Alright, so it’s been established by Matthew that Jesus is the Messiah. But just what kind of Messiah will he be? That’s still up in the air at this point. John seems to think he’s going to be some kind of authority; that he’s going to take power, and put everything in order. But then you get this story of Jesus being taken out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. What does this story say about the kind of Messiah Jesus will be?
So after Jesus’ exceptional fast, the tempter says, “Hey, why not just pick up this rock and eat it like a loaf of bread? Since you’re the Son of God and all.” And Jesus’ response reveals what he’s been doing out there in the desert those 40 days. He quotes directly from Deuteronomy. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
So the devil sees where Jesus’ allegiance lies. It’s clear he’s not in this for himself. But does Jesus really trust God? “If you really are God’s beloved son, throw yourself down off the temple! Surely God will save you!” The devil’s got a point. We’ve already read about how Jesus was protected from Herod’s plotting to kill him. And later we’ll hear Jesus say he has legions of angels at his disposal. But instead Jesus says, “It is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” And here we have the first glimpse of the kind of Messiah Jesus will be.
Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, something to take a hold of and use to his advantage. He resists this meaningless exercise of power. Later in Matthew’s gospel we will hear echoes of Satan’s taunt as people walk by the cross, saying, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross! Save yourself!”
But he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Here in this “temptation” story, Jesus displays the same trust, the same undying, complete, utter commitment to the will of God that will lead him to the cross. But it wasn’t just commitment that led him there. It’s not as if he was some mindless servant, without a will of his own. It was love. We confess that it was undying love, for us and for the world, that kept him so committed to this way of emptying himself, pouring himself out for the world.
Finally, the devil gets desperate. He shows Jesus all the Kingdoms of the world in all their splendor. “All of this I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” But Jesus drives Satan away, just as he drives Satan and all evil away from you and I through his death on the cross. And God vindicates Jesus’ complete trust, giving Jesus back the life that he refused to save for himself.
And if you look at the very end of Matthew Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Through his sacrificial death the same power that Jesus refuses to grab a hold of for himself is freely given him. And from that very early Christian hymn in Philippians, “Therefore God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.”
Much more than being about temptation, this text is about trust—the exceptional commitment of Jesus that grows out of his love for us. So if you’re that first century Roman citizen, thinking that Jesus didn’t really accomplish much of anything other than being executed by the Romans, you’d be exactly right. And that’s why we call him Messiah.