Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,[a] knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
Matthew 4:1-11
4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

With the ashes of Wednesday now a memory we begin our Lenten journey this morning by coming to the table of our Lord. It is very appropriate that we do this; this is a season of repentance – turning around, changing direction. And that change for a Christian always brings us back to the table to taste, to reflect and to remember. We need that time for remembrance, because we can easily forget. As noted Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann has noted, “Lent is a time to sort out the voice of life and the countervoices of death.”
To help us with that throughout the season we have before us an interesting selection of readings from the Gospels. For one thing, they are long, and they are all from the Gospel of John. Most of the third chapter; the whole ninth chapter; the first 45 verses of the 11th chapter. Yikes. If you want to challenge a congregation’s attention span, this is a great way to do it. In my younger days I would take pity on the folks and trim it down. But I discovered something in doing that: these are stories that need to be read in total. Something is missing when you take a short cut.
I also noticed something else: in each of these stories Jesus is having an encounter with someone. Nicodemus. The Samaritan woman at the well. The man born blind. Lazarus, Martha and Mary. Jesus is not just talking to anyone. He is talking to someone in a particular context that makes that conversation illuminating for all of us.
For this morning, Jesus is not having an encounter with someone as much as he is having an encounter with something: Temptation. Yes, he is having an encounter with the Tempter, with Satan. And as much as I roll my eyes at the concept that our missteps are always being driven by a guy with a pitchfork tale, and with the late Skip Wilson’s routine ,”The devil made me do it,” ringing in my ears, there is still the nagging thought that there is a very definite force of darkness in our world. A force for evil. The countervoice for death. And yet I have always liked Karl Barth’s take on the devil. That great theologian who wrote volumes was once asked why he only wrote 40 lines on the devil. “Because that is all he deserves,” Barth said.
So today we look at Jesus’ encounter with temptations in the wilderness. As we look at it, some things emerge. Like, why did Jesus have to go through temptations? Isn’t he the Son of God, and all of this is just going through the motions? Not exactly. Jesus is coming off a ‘high’; he has been baptized by cousin John and as he came out of the water, he experienced something. A torn apart heavens, the Spirit of God looking like a dove, a voice from beyond and yet within. A voice that proclaimed that he is the Son of God, with whom the Almighty is well pleased.
Jesus is the Beloved of God. It is a great triumph. I know that exact experience is unlike anything you have ever had (it certainly is unlike anything I have had). But have you ever had a high time, an experience in which you felt like you were on top of the world, when you knew that you had absolutely nailed it? A graduation, an award, the birth of a child; a wedding, receiving all kinds of nice words when you retired. The high sense of accomplishment that comes when you knew you had done your best and it was rewarded by the words of others as well as that special feeling deep down that what you did was something special. I remember during my last year living and working in Greenville, South Carolina, that I was surprised to be named the Volunteer of the Year by Greenville Urban Ministry. I had done some work on volunteer organizations, and that was great. But then to receive this award put me on a cloud so high, it just felt great. But I knew it wouldn’t last forever. And sure enough, a few months later, I started Seminary, and eight weeks of Greek School, and that brought me back down to earth in a hurry.
Life is like that. You get up so high, but it seems that no sooner are you celebrating your accomplishment than something comes along to knock you down, to remind you that you are human. Something humbles us. Life humbles us. We are brought back down to earth, sometimes gently and sometimes with a crashing thud.
In Jesus’ case, it was the Spirit of God leading him into the wilderness. In other Gospels it says that the Spirit was driving Jesus out there, giving all of this a sense of urgency, a feeling that there is no way out. Like when we are on top of the world and then under everyone’s feet. No options. Jesus heads out to the wilderness.
Understand something about this wilderness. There was a picture on Facebook last week citing this story and it showed a beautiful picture of the mountains covered with trees and looking so pristine.
But this is not a place of pristine wonder. This is a place of barrenness. The Wilderness in this part of the world is an intense desert, a place where nothing lives.
The wilderness is the place where the people of God have gone to for years to feel God’s presence. But it can also be a place where you feel intensely God’s absence. Maybe that’s because you cannot get by in the wilderness without God. I’ve never been to that geographical place in the Middle East. But we have all been to the wilderness. We’ve been there when we have been thrown off our high perches, when the bottom falls out of our lives. We have been there when we lost someone really close. We have been there when we lost our job. Lately we have been there as the coronavirus makes its deadly way around the globe. We have been there when a child or a special friend shuts the door and says they don’t want to have anything to do with us.
With his great victory and the words of God’s Beloved-ness ringing in his ears, Jesus goes to the wilderness. He goes to find out who he is as God’s Beloved. And in the midst of that, after 40 days of fasting, being famished, as hungry as anyone could possibly be, he endures temptations. Like every other human being. Maybe that’s why he went through this –to be in solidarity, to be in connection, with humanity.
But these temptations are different. They are different not because they are so bad; but because they could be so good. After not having a bite to eat for 40 days, who wouldn’t want to turn stones into bread? And wouldn’t it be great to use that power to turn stones into bread for the hungry multitudes? So much good could be done by doing this, and people would be so impressed.
But Jesus sees this for what it is – an attempt to get by without God. An attempt to keep the focus on him. The stones are part of creation, just as they are. Why do they need to be made any different just to feed him? Jesus knows that God’s Word is what feeds him. And that is enough.
The next two are interesting in that Matthew and Luke put them in a different order. That tells you that the gospel writers put their own distinctive emphasis on which one was the most tempting. For Luke, it was the temptation to jump off the temple – to do something spectacular. After all, the 91st Psalm said that Jesus could do that. As such it serves as another example of how the Bible can be taken out of context and twisted to our desires. Jesus knows that testing God, daring God to save us from our own stupidity, is not faith. It is trashing a caring, trusting relationship with God. One that treasures our lives as gifts from God rather than trashing them by doing something destructive. Like when we keep up with destructive habits, or eating foods that clog up our arteries. Our call is to trust, not test, God.
But for Matthew the most important temptation is when Jesus is on a mountaintop, and he sees all the kingdoms with their power and glory. The devil says, “I will give you all this if you fall down and worship me.”
It is hard to look at this one and not see the state of the world, and the state of many churches. There is the thought that if we go along with the political powers, whoever they are, no matter what they say, no matter how they act, then we can have power, too, and the church will regain its influence in the world. People will care. And if they care, they will come back to the church.
The church of Jesus Christ should say things about politics. We should lift up our voices when we feel that the decisions or the pronouncements of political leaders – especially those in our own country – are counter to the good news of Jesus Christ. But bear in mind it will always get you in trouble. When Adolf Hitler took power in Germany he called the leaders of the churches together. When one of them, Martin Niemoeller, a World War I hero, questioned whether the churches should be in lock step with the Nazis, Hitler said, “You stick to the church, and leave the people of Germany to me.”
The temptation to gain power, to go along as long as everything is just fine, to not rock the boat and keep politics out of the church will always be there. But we need to remember that Jesus counters this with, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Our ultimate allegiance is always to the God who created us, saved us and who sustains us.
But what about other temptations? What are the other things that we may need to watch out for this Lent, things that get in the way of our relationship with a God who cares, and who ministers to us in our own wilderness experiences? Jill Duffield brought some of this to light when she wrote:
“I have come to view the liturgical season of Lent not only as a time of confession and repentance, but also an invitation to lay bare to our Lord all that we most want to hide from God, ourselves and others. I need to know Jesus can handle my shame and guilt, my pettiness and anxieties, my dashed dreams and my secret fears. I need to know Jesus is with me, utterly, completely, and unequivocally in the most terrifying wilderness of my lie. I need to know that when I give in to temptation, Jesus will, in fact, deliver me from the evil he survived and defeated.”
Just because Jesus endured his temptations does not mean that we will be spared our own. We all have things that clamor for our attention, things that look good, sound good, maybe feel good. But they may also be things that distract us and take our focus away from worshiping and serving God alone. In this season of Lent, in these 40 days of March and April, may we pay attention to what is a blessing and what is a temptation; what is the voice of life, and what is the countervoice of death. And may God’s Spirit give us the insight to determine which is which. Amen.