“The Tempter” Colchester Federated Church, March 1, 2020, (Matthew 4:1-11) First Sunday in Lent
When visiting my friend Gaye in Australia she told me about this show called Lucifer. The premise is that the devil (Lucifer “Morningstar”, the fallen angel) gets bored being in charge of hell and abandons his post, moving to L.A. to run a nightclub and eventually become a consultant for the police department. Who understands crimes and what motivates people to commit them better than the devil, right? When Gaye explained some of the plot of Lucifer, I had to laugh because my friend is a Roman Catholic sister who also introduced another friend (who’s a Roman Catholic priest) to the show and she’s telling me about it—a Protestant minister. So a nun, priest, and minister are watching a riveting Netflix show about the devil.
Though it’s become a show I truly enjoy—some of the content is a little mature at times, so fair warning should you decide to check it out. But the theology that comes out throughout the four seasons thus far is fascinating. Lucifer says at one point, “People don’t arrive broken. They start with passion and yearning till something comes along that disabuses them of those notions.” When questioning suspects who may have committed crimes, Lucifer is constantly asking what the person’s deepest desire happens to be and the answers are often surprising. Those desires we all have as human beings motivate people in good and bad ways and can cause a lot of problems in our lives. Lucifer says that he doesn’t even need to punish people in his role as the devil because people often excel at punishing themselves. And let’s face it, people do sometimes blame their own choices and mistakes on outside forces—the devil made me do it! As opposed to looking inward and owning the times that we have caused harm to ourselves and others, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
Now we’re not a church that talks a lot about the devil and hell and punishment. It’s not really our style. Hellfire and damnation sermons are certainly not my personal style of preaching. So however we think of the devil (whether that is a metaphor or an actual being guarding the underworld or helping the LAPD solve crimes on a fictional show), we can probably all acknowledge that evil exists. Temptation exists. People can be in hell of a sort even here and now on this earth. We can see people who look like shells of themselves and we may wonder what personal hell they are experiencing. Maybe we have been in a personal hell at one point or another. So even though we may not focus on the devil and hell and punishment in our tradition, we may have thoughts about these theological concepts that we’ve already considered for ourselves.
Our Gospel story today has two main characters—Jesus and the devil. They are out there in the wilderness and Jesus is facing temptation. We’ve heard this story before as it’s found here in Matthew Chapter 4, Mark Chapter 1, and Luke Chapter 4 with various similarities and differences. We hear it on the First Sunday in Lent. This story of Jesus in the wilderness is why we observe Lent for forty days in our Christian tradition. This is where that time period comes from because the 6 Sundays of Lent don’t count as fast days—even though Lent is technically 46 days from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. Anyway, Jesus is out there in the wilderness fasting for forty days and forty nights and he’s starving. In his weakened physical state, the tempter comes to join him.
In our Gospel story, the devil is presented by Matthew as a being who clearly has interactions with Jesus. They have conversations and the devil brings Jesus to various places and shows him various temptations while he is starving and alone. It’s fascinating that the name Matthew sometimes uses for the devil or Satan is “the tempter” because that’s what the devil is up to in this passage. Tempting Jesus and trying to lead him astray right after he is baptized in the waters of the Jordan River and named and claimed by God before his ministry even begins.
The Holy Spirit is actually the one who leads Jesus into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him. That may be the hardest verse in this Bible passage. It’s the Spirit who leads Jesus into this moment of hardship so that the devil can test him. That would take a whole nother sermon to analyze right there.
So we’ll focus on the easy topic of the devil and personal desires instead. The first temptation Jesus faces is the tempter asking Jesus to command stones to become bread, you know, since you’re God’s Son the tempter says. The tempter knew that Jesus was starving, so there’s that element to this temptation. Jesus was a human being who hadn’t had any food for a long while and he’s hungry. If he had turned those stones into bread, he could have satisfied his hunger. Though it also brings to mind the miracles of multiplication that we know are to come. Because Jesus will take simple loaves of bread and fish and help feed thousands of hungry people who came to hear his teachings. Jesus could have tested that miracle right here in the desert. He could have turned those stones into bread, left the wilderness, and gone to the closest village to feed hungry people. But he doesn’t because the test is insincere and a trap—even though Jesus’ own desires would have been good to feed himself or to feed others. And so his response to the tempter is simply, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.”
For the second temptation the devil gets more creative. He takes Jesus to the holy city, to Jerusalem itself, and they stand together at the highest point of the temple. The devil again says to Jesus—since you’re God’s Son, how about you just throw yourself down from this great height because it’s written that the angels will take you up in their hands and you won’t even hit your foot on a stone. If Jesus had an inner desire to show the might of God to the devil, he could have done this. He could have proven that he really was the Messiah, the Son of God and thrown himself from the Temple and yes, perhaps there would have been an army of angels that appeared to ensure that not even his foot was injured on the rocky ground below. But Jesus remembers who’s asking and why. And since once again this isn’t coming from a sincere place, Jesus doesn’t give into this temptation. Because does he really have to prove the power of God or his own identity as God’s Son to the tempter? Jesus responds, “Again it’s written, Don’t test the Lord your God.”
The third temptation must have been the hardest for Jesus to overcome. Because this time the devil brought Jesus to a very high mountain and from that vantage point the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. The devil says, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.” The teachings that Jesus would give to his followers for all time were about the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven (depending on the translation.) That upside-down kingdom where the first shall be last and the last shall be first. That kingdom where we are to love God, love our neighbors, and love ourselves. That kingdom where we are to have compassion as God has compassion, to forgive as God forgives us.
If Jesus had accepted this offer to have all the kingdoms of the world in his possession, he would have ruled justly. That was his whole motivation as a preacher and teacher—to instill those kingdom values to others and that was his desire for the people of God. But where would his power ultimately have come from? Not from God at all. And so Jesus responds with, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” And at that moment, the devil leaves Jesus and the angels come and take care of him.
It would seem that the tempter based these temptations on Jesus’ deepest desires (maybe the show Lucifer has influenced our thinking on this, but still!) The tempter preyed on Jesus desires—his desire to not be starving and be able to feed hungry people, his desire to show the might and glory of God and his own identity as God’s son, and his desire to have everyone everywhere accept those kingdom of God values if he ruled all the kingdoms of the world. The tempter crafted these temptations in the wilderness based on who Jesus was as a person and as the Messiah, the Son of God. The tempter crafted these temptations in a way that Jesus could have justified because he would have done good in the whole world with the outcomes of these tests. But the power behind them wouldn’t have ultimately been good. Because do we really want to succeed at any cost? Do we not care if we gain the whole world, but we lose our very souls in the process?
In the end (and however we conceive of the devil, hell, and temptations in our own theologies), there will be moments where we feel tested in our lives. Moments where we have to choose a path forward. There will be moments where it would be easy to betray the values that we hold most dear because maybe we would gain something that we really want in the process. But those good feelings of achieving something at any cost usually don’t last when we have the space to reflect on the kind of people we want to be, the kind of people that God created us to be. Our Lenten journey begins with Jesus and the tempter in the wilderness, with Jesus seeing right through the easy path and giving us all an example. To live by God’s word, to not test God, and to worship and serve God all our days will help us on our way. Thanks be to God. Amen.