Matthew 4:1-11 (CEB)
Temptation of Jesus
Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him. After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.” Jesus replied, “It’s written, people won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.” After that the devil brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.” Jesus replied, “Again it’s written, don’t test the Lord your God.” Then the devil brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He said, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.” Jesus responded, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written, you will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.
Imagine how hungry you might be after forty days and nights in the wilderness with nothing to eat. Imagine the primal desire to eat almost anything. The human body is remarkably resilient and studies show that, as long as the body is hydrated, living without food for very long periods of time is certainly possible, though not recommended. Even though it is possible to survive, scientists agree that the key ingredient is the will to survive. This story, however, is not about the will to survive; it is about the will to resist the temptations of evil. Given the right set of circumstances, most of us could probably muster the will to survive. The question is: can we muster the will to resist? Can you imagine saying, “No” to the offer of what you want when you want it?
“The greatest trick the devil ever played was to make the world believe he doesn’t exist.” That line is inspired by the French poet Baudelaire and it is the premise for a 1994 crime thriller called “The Usual Suspects.” The film is a dark exploration of how five wrongly-accused men are driven to get revenge by joining forces in a crime that ends with 29 people dead and 91 million dollars missing. The heart of darkness in the film is not the crime or death, it is in the fact that the driving force of evil is unrecognizable…it has no face. In the end we realize that evil was lurking closer than the audience or the characters ever knew.
Matthew’s gospel this morning helps us with two difficult issues. First, it puts a face on evil by contrasting it with the face of holiness in Jesus Christ. Second, it shows us the character of this Son of God. I used to wonder why this story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness was so important for us to hear, year after year at the beginning of Lent. We know how it ends…Jesus wins…Of course, he wins – he’s the son of God! What we need to realize, though, is that this story is carefully placed in Matthew’s gospel between the story of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan and the rest of his ministry. This story forces us to look into the face of evil and know that it is real, even in the midst of God’s holiness. It shows us some of what is expected when we follow Him.
C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Screwtape Letters”. It’s the story of an apprentice demon named Wormwood and his mentor Uncle Screwtape. Wormwood’s task is to manipulate his target human to love the things of this world and reject God. Our young apprentice must keep his client self-involved and clueless about who he really is. Wormwood’s tactics include teaching his target to pray for tangible, desired objects, rather than for the things of God. Train him to be over-sensitive so that everything, even his own mother, gets on his nerves. Manipulate him to be boastful in his own accomplishments and turn him away from God. What is interesting about this story is not that Screwtape and Wormwood are trying to create an army of killers or criminals…Rather they are trying to create a generation of people who are defined by selfishness and insincerity; pettiness and pride; fear and the need to control the things of this world. C.S. Lewis published this prophetic work in 1942. The role of prophet is to suggest what will happen if things do not change.
Now imagine temptation in your own life. Most of us cannot imagine the devil offering bread after a forty-day fast. We do not know the fear of being held over the ledge at the top of the Empire State Building. We don’t know the temptation of being offered all the power in the world. We do, however, know the kinds of temptation described by Screwtape and Wormwood. We can imagine such things as pride, vanity, selfishness, and apathy. These things are just as powerful as the temptations of Christ in the wilderness…Maybe even more so, because these usually come to us without a face…harder to recognize.
Professor Maryetta Anschutz of The Episcopal School in California reminds us: “Temptation comes to us in moments when we look at others and feel insecure about not having enough. Temptation comes in judgments we make about strangers or friends who make choices we do not understand. Temptation rules us, making us able to look away from those in need and to live our lives unaffected by poverty, hunger and disease. Temptation rages in moments when we allow our temper to define our lives…Temptation wins when we engage in the justification of little lies, small sins: a racist joke, a questionable business practice for the greater good, a criticism of a spouse or partner when he or she is not around. Temptation wins when we get so caught up in the trappings of life that we lose sight of life itself.”
Feasting on the Word, ©2010, Westminster John Knox Press. Page 48.
Imagine temptation…Imagine these faceless moments of evil…Imagine how they creep quietly into our lives – unnoticed, faceless, and seemingly harmless. Imagine these ordinary moments lurking in the dark recesses of our hearts and our souls. I am reminded of Lamont Cranston’s famous opening line from that old serial, The Shadow: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” (The Shadow, 1937) In this case, however, someone far more powerful knows what evil lurks in our hearts because he helped plant it there. Evil has a face and we must see it to know it…This is the lesson from Matthew today.
Matthew also offers us another very important understanding in this story. Matthew’s story of the Temptation is simply about Jesus…who he is and what sort of character he displays. This can be frustrating for the modern reader. Matthew wants to preach about a Jesus who refuses to give in to what the devil wants him to be. In fact, we realize that Jesus refuses to be who we want him to be. He will not turn our stones into bread. He will not prove God to us. He will not turn from God to embrace the kind of success we would recognize and applaud. This Jesus is not what the world expected and he is not going to change to please us. This story of resistance to temptation is also about Jesus refusing to become what the world wants him to be. This Messiah is not a warrior king sent to conquer. This Jesus is not a miracle worker granting wishes to anyone who asks. Jesus does not do whatever we – or the devil – asks…He remains steadfast to God. Every time Jesus resists temptation he offers us a way to understand the cross. Sure, God can save God’s self from death on the cross…Yes, God in Jesus can resist temptation in the wilderness…Jesus does not need the devil’s suggestion to turn stones into bread – if he wanted bread, he would have bread. The devil has no power to cast Jesus down from the Temple, nor to give him power over worldly kingdoms – God in Jesus has all the power. So, why go through this at all? Because our humanity needs to see God offer unimaginable sacrifice…We need to see God refuse temptation…It is the only way we will learn the lesson for ourselves.
There is one more thing about C.S. Lewis’ story I want to share with you…In the end, Wormwood’s target dies and goes to heaven…Wormwood fails his apprenticeship and Screwtape is furious. It seems that, in spite of their best efforts, the human managed to learn the lesson that God wanted to teach…He found a way to resist the faceless evil that sought to drag him away from salvation. Once again, just like in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus triumphs over Satan. Once again, Jesus says, “Go away, Satan!” and he has no choice but to obey. We can imagine temptation…Unfortunately, that is an all-too-easy proposition. God’s grace gives us the power to imagine resistance and the ultimate triumph of Jesus. Just imagine! In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.