Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 1, 2020
Matthew 4:1-11 Commentary
Many of us have seen the bumper sticker, “Lead Me Not into Temptation: I Can Find It By Myself.” Cheeky humor aside, we know that God never actively leads us to sin and probably does not actively lead us to temptation (though this need not rule out God’s ability to test our faith). God is not the author of sin and is, therefore, not eager to trip us up where sin is concerned.
Our compassionate God is not typically tossing us into a locked closet with the devil and then waiting to see how we fare. When we pray in the Lord’s Prayer “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil,” we do so knowing up front that God is in the business of delivering us from evil and so is not luring us to sin.
Well and good. Except then you get to Matthew 4:1 where we read that no less than the very Spirit of God led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Jesus was led into temptation. By the Spirit.
This is properly striking. But this contains hope for us, too. No, God does not lead us into temptation. Instead he delivers us from evil. But one of the main reasons we can be sure of this is precisely because on our behalf Jesus was led into temptation so as to ensure that we would never face just this ourselves.
Matthew’s gospel, particularly in these early chapters, is fairly drenched in Old Testament quotations. Almost everything is said to be the fulfillment of one prophecy or another. Writing for a Jewish reading audience, Matthew knew that those with eyes to see and ears to hear would discern that in this man Jesus, the history of Israel was being recapitulated. Having been called out of Egypt once upon a time (Matthew 2:15), Jesus is now enduring a wilderness period of trial and temptation.
But in every instance, where Israel failed, Jesus succeeds. He is the New Israel (and it would have escaped no one’s notice that each time Jesus parries one of the devil’s blows with a Scripture quotation, the verses that get quoted come from Deuteronomy, which was the charter for Israel’s saved life in the Promised Land). If “Deuteronomy” is, literally deuteros nomos, or “the law a second time,” then Jesus in the wilderness is Israel in the wilderness a second time, but this time Jesus succeeds where Israel blew it.
But even though God may not lead us to temptation in quite the same way that Jesus was placed in a perilous position, curiously enough the struggles Jesus endured remain common to us all. We’re still tempted by the quick fix, by the kind of instant gratification that will do an end-run on our need to trust God’s Word over the long haul. Indeed, isn’t there a best-selling book titled Your Best Life Now written by a pastor, no less? You have the feeling that the book wouldn’t sell nearly as well if its title were along the lines of Your Hard Life Now: Feasting on God’s Word in the Deserts of Life.
Similarly, we’re tempted to do silly things by which to test to see if God’s Word is true. We may not be tempted to throw ourselves off high buildings necessarily but we have been known to pray things like, “O God, if you love me and desire what’s best for me, give me this new job I want . . . help me get enough money to buy that cool car . . .” Trust in God’s Word is one thing, but once in a while we’d like to SEE God in action in ways that benefit us in some tangible way.
And in myriad ways we’re tempted to make the kingdoms of this world our own domains by taking shortcuts, engaging in cut-throat tactics, telling little lies (or big lies), working ourselves half to death, and so in all these ways essentially bowing the knee to the false gods of money, success, power, and prestige. If God won’t put us on the top of the heap, then we’ll get there on our own and through whatever is necessary to feather our own nest.
The Temptations of Jesus present a microcosm of what we all face. They also suggest how we can remain faithful to our God. And as preachers let’s never forget to preach grace right alongside of preaching the bad news of our sin and our proneness to temptation. For believers, grace always has the last word (especially in Lent!).
True, true, true. BUT . . . let’s also not forget that sometimes living lives of grace means living lives of suffering and self-denial.
Jesus was right to feast on God’s Word instead of the quick and easy words by which he could have turned stones into bread. But at the end of Temptation #1, he was still powerfully hungry.
Jesus was right to not put God to the test and just trust that God’s care for him was every bit as powerful as he claimed it to be. But at the end of Temptation #2, his faith remained vulnerable to doubt—God had not put in an appearance.
Jesus was right to refuse grabbing for the kingdoms of this world by worshiping that which must not be worshiped. But at the end of Temptation #3, Jesus remained on a path that would indeed lead him to become the Lord of this world’s kingdoms but that path led straight to a place called Golgotha.
It is precisely the fact that faithfulness can lead to suffering and deprivation that makes the devil’s temptations so powerfully alluring in the first place. It’s a perfectly vicious cycle. Our hope in Lent and at all times is to stick close to the Savior who has already promised in grace to stick close to us, even when we’re hungry, uncertain, and walking a desert path that leads to a cross.
One final note: The Synoptic Gospels all begin with Jesus’ being tempted in the wilderness. This is how the ministry had to start: Jesus had to go to the desert, to the wilderness, to that biblical encapsulation of the chaos of evil that throughout the whole Bible just is the desert wastes. Jesus had to enter the place of death to begin making all things alive and new again. In the wilderness God built his highway to salvation because where else BUT the wilderness did that road to life need to begin?
But front-loading the Gospels with this full-court-press of temptations can lead many of us to conclude that when it came to being tempted by the devil, this was it for Jesus such that the devil never bothered him again. It’s a mistake to think that (and Luke at least told us as much when he includes the line that “the devil left him until a more opportune time.” Truth is, this was only the beginning of Jesus’ temptations, of Jesus’ being battered by Satan. In Lent we are right to follow Jesus to the cross and take sorrowful note of all his sufferings for us but let’s never forget that a big piece of those sufferings continued on a daily basis as the devil aimed all his evil artillery right at Jesus’ heart 24/7.
Of all the countless things we are right to thank Jesus for doing on our behalf, his enduring that barrage of demonic attacks and temptations should come in pretty high on the list of things for which we are grateful.
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As Frederick Dale Bruner notes in his Matthew commentary, this is really the first story about Jesus that we get in this gospel and it reveals that Jesus is deeply a man of Scripture. Again and again in the original Greek Jesus’ answer to the devil begins with but one word: GEGRAPTAI, “It is written.” To capture the punch in English perhaps we could picture Jesus shouting out again and again as his defeater of the devil, “Written!” Even when the devil quotes his own set of biblical verses, Jesus does not engage in hermeneutics or in some effort to reveal the bad exegesis of the devil in applying that passage in a certain way. Even there he lets Scripture interpret Scripture in a simple and straightforward way. It might be naïve to say that the answer to every temptation we could ever face would be the recitation of a well-chosen biblical text. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the answer to every temptation we could ever face is the recitation of texts that we also already INCARNATE in the ordinary run of our lives; texts that are as second nature to us as they so clearly were to Jesus.
Also, remember that the original Hebrew title for Deuteronomy (from which all of Jesus’ quotes to the devil come) was “These Are the Words . . .” Yes, these are the words that spell life. “Written!”
Well said, Jesus, well said!
The great German pastor, preacher, and theologian Helmut Thielicke once told a story in his book “How the World Began” that illustrates something about the devil’s tactics in temptation.
“The people never know the devil’s there, even though he has them by the throat,” says Mephistopheles in “Faust.” Recently I made an interesting experiment in this respect. My students performed volunteer services for several weeks in a camp for refugees and almost every day they put on a Punch-and-Judy show for the children. It was my job to play the devil. I wielded a horrible, fiery red puppet in one hand and mustered up a menacing and horrible voice to represent all the terrible discords of hell. Then in tones brimming with sulphur I advised the children to indulge in every conceivable naughtiness: You never need to wash your feet at night; you can stick your tongue out at anybody you want to; and be sure to drop banana peels on the street so people will slip on them. The pedagogical effects which I achieved in this role of the devil were enormous and generally recognized in the camp. The children suddenly stopped sticking out their tongues and they also washed their feet at night. They would have absolutely no truck with the devil. If they had had anything to say about it, the Fall would never have happened. But then, too, the serpent in paradise could not have been the kind of devil that I was. For then he would have had to play the game openly.”
But Thielicke goes on to point out that the real devil is for this very reason never so obvious as his fiery red, sulphur-voiced devil. The real devil always hides behind a clever mask and it is just then, without our even knowing what is happening as often as not, that he does his best work. (Quoted from Helmut Thielicke, “How the World Began,” Fortress Press 1961, p. 125).
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