The temptations of Jesus.Matthew 4:1-11
This is the sermon I gave the Episcopal Church of the Saviour in Clermont, Iowa on March 13, 2011.
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
We have entered Lent, it is a time that is set aside for self examination, repentance, reconciliation and restoration. And on this first Sunday of Lent, we hear the readings where Jesus is tempted, Adam and Eve are tempted and sin, and Paul tells the Romans that sin is death. It is a good thing that the Psalm tells us that we can be forgiven of our sins, otherwise this could be a real downer.
But, I'm going to focus today on Jesus and the temptations that he faced and what he did about them.
If a commercial on the television is to be believed then temptation truly comes in the form of cake or chocolate or chocolate cake, but of course temptation comes in many shapes and sizes, such as the story of Billy.
Billy woke up one Monday morning particularly tempted to stay at home because he was feeling quite sick, fed up and nervous about going off to school and so he told his mother about it. She was having none of it.
“But Mom,” said Billy. “I hate school. Lots of people can’t stand me. Most of the children call me names. Most of the teachers can’t stand the sight of me. I can’t concentrate on anything. No one wants to sit near me at lunch time, people walk off if they see me coming, and there have even been graffiti drawings about me. Mom, I am not going to school anymore.”
“But Billy, you have to, you’re the principal.”
Billy was sorely tempted to lie and to avoid his responsibilities, and he was giving in to the temptation. He was removing the chocolate from its wrapper, and falling into sin.
Let’s be clear. Temptation is not sin. So if temptation is not sin, then what is it? Temptation is pressure to give in to influences that lead away from God and into sin. Temptation is a doorway and then a bridge into sin if we cross it.
While I was thinking about today's Gospel, I thought through again all the questions that have been raised for generations.
Was this temptation experience a literal event in the life of Jesus or are we supposed to see it as a parable of sorts?
Was it partly that Jesus was hallucinating after 40 days without food?
Is Jesus deliberately being presented in these stories as an archetype for the people of Israel, who were themselves tempted in the wilderness for 40 years?
Are the forms of the temptations meant to reflect the temptations that were given to Israel or perhaps even to Adam and Eve?
These and other similar questions are the ones we tend to get caught up in when we ponder this text. But then it occurred to me that by getting caught up in all these esoteric questions, we run the real risk of overlooking what is surely the most fundamental thrust of the whole passage: namely, that Jesus was tempted!
Whatever happened out there in the wilderness, and however we understand the actual nature of the experience, this is, I think, the one thing that the Gospel writers wanted to make abundantly clear, that Jesus was tempted, and I don’t think we want to underestimate the significance of this.
We struggle here on planet earth. We struggle with greed, with lust, with the desire to get ahead or at least keep up with the idiots living next door. We covet our neighbor’s car and their bank account, and quite possibly their spouse and their ox and their ass as well, and I think we generally assume that God is somehow above all of this and yet we’re told here quite clearly, Jesus was tempted too!
Now you’re probably thinking, “well, I don’t think He was tempted with exactly the same things that tempt me”, but I do think that the temptations we are presented with are supposed to be sort of generic, that within these three temptations, all the temptations that are common to us are covered.
Jesus is tempted to satisfy the ‘lusts of the flesh’, even be it his basic physical hunger, as he is tempted to satisfy that all too human lust for power.
These two temptations of Jesus: that He satisfy his hunger with bread and that He take authority over all the kingdoms of the world; coincide rather neatly with the two most prominent psychological theories of human motivation.
Sigmund Freud said that all our actions are determined by ‘The Pleasure Principle’; by our desire to pursue pleasure and run away from pain, and Jesus’ rejection of this first temptation is a rejection of a life determined by the pleasure principle.
Similarly, Jesus’ rejection of worldly authority is a rejection of a life that is driven by the lust for power and significance, which some psychologists have suggested is the basic motivational factor behind all human behavior.
By refusing to become either a consumer or a politician, Jesus defied these two basic human motivational principles. His life was not going to be determined by the pursuit of either pleasure or power.
The third temptation of course, where Jesus is tempted to throw Himself off the temple and let God take care of Him, is a little harder to make sense of in terms of these basic theories of human motivation, but it does strike me that if it’s a temptation to let go of your responsibilities and let God take care of everything, it does tap into something very basically human.
In my forty plus years, I've noticed that there are some people who don't want responsibilities, who want to run away from their problems instead of dealing with them. They want others to take care of them so they can do what they please without consequences. There is a temptation sometimes to do this, which can lead into feelings of guilt, not guilt because they’ve actually ran away from their problems, but guilt because they feel tempted. But hang on: Jesus was tempted with the same idea – to give up personal responsibility.
“Thus he had to become like his brothers in every way,” says the writer to the Hebrews, “so that he could be a merciful and faithful high priest. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
Does that sound like Jesus to you?
We know Jesus suffered. We know He suffered on the cross; that he suffered physically and perhaps even at some spiritual level when he took on the sins of the world, but according to the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, and according this story that comes up in the Gospels, He also struggled with the same basic human drives with which we all struggle.
This is important, I think, and comes to the very heart of our understanding of the incarnation of God in Jesus. In Jesus we not only see God, but we also see ourselves. And I don’t only mean ourselves as we could be, can be, and should be. I mean that we see ourselves in all our human weakness too.
To quote the from the letter to the Hebrews again: "Our High Priest is not one who cannot feel sympathy for our weaknesses. On the contrary, we have a High Priest who was tempted in every way that we are.”
The affirmation of faith here is that there is no struggle that we go through and no weakness that we experience that Jesus does not sympathize with and understand, which is what makes Jesus a much better Savior than you or I would be!
This, I believe, is the very meaning of the Incarnation of God in Jesus. It means that we not only see God becoming human in Jesus, but also that in Jesus we see something of our humanity lifted up into God. And thus we find in God someone who feels what we feel and who sympathizes with us in our struggles, even when no one else can sympathize with us in those struggles.
Jesus is tempted in the wilderness. He knows what it is like to feel pain and want and overwhelming passion and temptation. He goes there with us and he struggles with us and he suffers every kind of temptation known to humanity, and yet; He overcomes, which means that there is hope for us too!
Temptation isn't something that just happens to us once in our life. That doorway of temptation will always be there, with the bridge to sin just beyond. It is like a combination of a long distance race that has a round of boxing every once in a while. We won't win all the battles, but we know that with Jesus in our corner, sympathizing with us in our weakness, comforting us when we fail, and strengthening us to persevere, that we will still be on our feet when the final bell sounds.
And then we can say, 'I have fought the good fight. I have run the race. I have kept the faith.'