Jesus’ temptation mirrors and informs our own: it is how we grow to become who God means us to be, and we are always with God’s grace, strength, and presence throughout.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The First Sunday in Lent, year A
Texts: Matthew 4:1-11; Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
We can’t avoid temptation in our lives. We really don’t want to.
Two stories of temptation shape our worship today. Hearing them, we wish we didn’t have to face such testing ourselves. But these stories teach us a different truth, that we can’t become who God means us to be without such trials.
The Hebrew story of human sin and our origins reveals a belief that temptation and testing are part of God’s original human design. Adam and Eve haven’t sinned yet, but already they face the suffering of being tempted to disobey. It’s not arbitrary of God. They’ll only become who they were created to be by facing and making hard choices.
And so the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism, not to give him temptation, but to encourage him to face the inevitable. This testing wasn’t arbitrary, either. Jesus will only become who he is meant to be if he faces and makes these hard choices.
These stories have much to say to us about our temptation and testing.
Here we note that, facing temptation, knowing who you are matters.
Adam and Eve, standing here for all humanity, are unsure of who they truly are. They live in God’s good creation, beloved children of God. They depend on God for all good, and are asked to trust that God knows good and evil, and obey.
But they are tempted to forget they are the creatures, and want to be God themselves, in control. They want to name things as good and evil, and do what they want, instead of obeying. They forget the joy of walking with God, and are tempted to choose a path where they put themselves above God.
They are us.
But Jesus walks into the wilderness wet from his baptism. He also knows he is the beloved Son of God, he just heard it. In his temptations that’s put to the test, too, but he remains dependent upon his Father’s grace and love and so withstands the trial. He chooses obedience over doing what he wants. His answer at Gethsemane, “not my will but yours,” begins in this desert.
The settings here are also important, a lush garden and a desert.
Remarkably, the one who faithfully resists was in the desert. The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, perhaps to remove him from distractions, from the world’s noise, from his cares and daily needs, to focus on listening to God, and facing what paths lay ahead. Not weakened by his forty days in the desert, spiritually Jesus was strengthened, ready to face Satan, ready to consider who he is to be, free of distraction.
Adam and Eve have a rich life of pleasure, but they didn’t make the right decision. Maybe they were too comfortable. We also struggle, maybe because we live in God’s lush creation, privileged with much of God’s riches, and have even more distractions. When do we deprive ourselves of any comforts or pleasures? When are we free of noise? When are we silent, and not listening to news or music, or checking social media, or watching television, or feasting richly?
Our puny idea of “giving up something” for Lent waters down the deep wisdom of our ancestors in faith who understood this wilderness. They realized that only by letting go of things that pull at us, demand of us, distract us, can we hear God. Only by going into the wilderness and getting away from the noise, can we hear God. If you’re giving anything up, let it be a true fasting for this time, so you can focus. Or even something you won’t pick up again at Easter, but leave forever at the edge of the wilderness as you walk toward your testing.
Third, these trials and temptations are core to being human, being faithful.
These stories aren’t about being tempted to run a stop-sign, or cheat in a card game. These trials deal with life and death. That helps us. Because here we see the challenges before us. The questions of who we are, and of whether we can focus on God. And then there are Jesus’ three great tests.
Jesus is asked to turn stone into bread, to use his power to save himself.
At Gethsemane he has the same decision: will the Messiah save himself? He can’t set aside his power and face the cross if he doesn’t first do it at the beginning of his ministry on this lesser thing.
How will we make the right choice ourselves, to sacrificially offer ourselves to another in all sorts of ways, if we don’t first face this core question? If we insist on using all our wealth and resources to take care of ourselves instead of sharing for our neighbor, we will find the greater sacrifices even harder.
Jesus is asked to jump off the Temple, to show he trusts his Father.
To test God is with him before he will obey. At the cross, Jesus will face the ultimate test of that trust. At one point there he cried his doubt and fear out loud, before finding that trust at the end. But this first trust in the desert helped him trust at the cross.
Likewise, we are tempted to test if God really loves us, supports us, before we risk obedience. We want proof that all will work out before we try to obey, and use our lack of such evidence as an excuse to do nothing. We must learn to step out in faith, trusting God, on everyday things, so we can have the courage for the much larger steps needed to really change the world.
Jesus is asked to give up his core identity, and he can rule the world.
Sent here to bring us all back into God’s rule, Jesus can short-cut that and take over the world with political power. Three years later in Jerusalem, he will have the same decision. Will he destroy Roman power, overthrow the leaders of his people? Will the Messiah will use power to get what he wants? This desert decision matters, because accepting arrest and what follows will be a much harder decision.
This is critical for us. Politically, do we support and encourage our leaders to use force and dominance to get what we think is good? Personally, will we manipulate others, try and get what we want however we can, even if it means we aren’t loving? Do the ends justify the means? Jesus helps us see that the wrong means always lead to bad ends. It’s the every day choices we face where we learn this hard path and prepare for the larger ones.
These are the tests we face. How we face them determines which turns we take and who we become.
As we face these choices, we remember today that we are God’s beloved. We, like Jesus, walk into our path wet from our baptism, and like Jesus, God is always with us on our path. Remember, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, and was always with him.
And we would do well to seek wilderness, get rid of competing voices and distractions, so we can hear God’s voice, and know God’s presence.
And last, we remember we are loved by God in Christ who has faced these same trials, died for them, and is risen to new life. Nothing can separate us from that love.
We can’t avoid testing or temptation. It’s how we are made to grow into the beautiful beings God intended us to be. When we remember what we see here, then we’ll find we have God’s strength to make these hard choices, and God’s grace to learn and grow from them.
In the name of Jesus. Amen