Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 26, 2023
Matthew 4:1-11 Commentary
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” was he thinking about this time in his life? We start Lent each year with an account of how Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness where he was thoroughly tried and tested by the devil. As a season, Lent reminds us again and again that the incarnated Christ knows what it is like to be us, and invites us to join Jesus in the sacrificial path he followed that led to our redemption. At every turn, we are reminded of how we have failed, but how God still invites us to pick up our crosses and to follow after him.
But Jesus’s prayer seems to also teach us to ask God to not lead us into a similar situation as what he faced in the wilderness. It’s a sobering thought about how difficult the experience might have been—even for a fully human person who is also fully divine. It could also be that this part of the Lord’s Prayer is proof-positive of how thoroughly Jesus Christ understands our human nature: his prayer lesson may actually be an act of mercy for us since he knows how difficult it is for us to resist these very same temptations.
At their heart, each of these temptations are ones we face, in degrees, every day. They hit on core human needs and fears, and highlight how quickly things run afoul when we are not rooted in Christ and are disconnected from the Holy Spirit who is still-with-us.
We may not literally be starving or have the ability to miraculously turn rocks into bread, but we do need to reckon for our strong human preference for the easy way out of hardship or want to solve our problems with quick fixes. Immediacy is ultimately more appealing than having to discern whether something is actually good or necessary for us. In fact, we’ve shortcut the process so much that we often confuse “wants” with true “needs” and selfishly take much for granted every day.
And in a world seemingly deprived of love, where more people feel lonely than not, the temptation to doubt God’s love and care for us may just lead us to want to make God prove it, again, and again. Like the people who kept asking Jesus for a miracle so that they might then believe that he was the Messiah, we will never be satisfied by the results of this ploy of testing God. And, when combined with our proneness to immediacy, we may be tempted to form a picture of God where God is only our rescuer and fixer, whose cosmic job it is to make our lives better so that we can feel loved (or happy).
We would do well to remember that the Holy Spirit’s push into the wilderness began with Jesus fasting for forty days and forty nights, a time of solitude, simplicity, silence, and presumably prayer—a time of communion with God in the setting of hardship, where things are stripped away and what is important becomes clear, and where that message can be carried forward and guide us as experiential wisdom…
The last temptation before the devil storms off angry at his inability to get to Jesus (which is how I like to picture it), is the “sell your soul to the devil” moment. Is Satan desperate here, or projecting his own issues? Scripture sometimes depicts the devil as the “god of this world” (2 Cor 4.4) but we know that that’s only true in a sense. He tried to have it, but it does not belong to him; and now he’s trying to “give” it to Jesus in exchange for Jesus’s allegiance through worship. Is this just an example of misery loves company, or does the devil actually think this tactic will work?
As a temptation strategy that takes advantage of human nature, why is this last one the evil one’s big trump card? I wonder if it’s because it encapsulates the root of the other two: proof of belonging and security, but gained through power over others; a dangerous cocktail of fear, low-self-esteem and selfishness mixed with opportunism and immediate results. Of course, it won’t work to produce the outcome we’re looking for, but boy do we entertain and test the possibility. We assert our dominance in each and every little domain we can, not realizing we’re running around like chickens with our heads cut off.
So, our prospects of resisting temptation are not great. Poor, even. Hence the reason Jesus teaches us to pray for God’s mercy and protection from them. Of course, the posture of that prayer is that we are also taught to commit ourselves to the ways of the kingdom of God, and to seek to glorify God’s name. In other words, we aren’t just looking for a cosmic rescuer, but are truly seeking to be transformed as disciples who take up their cross and carry with them the lessons about the world and experiences of God, formed in the crucible of hardship.
We do not do this alone. Remember how all this began? With the Holy Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness. Right after we hear the heavens open and God saying, “This is my beloved!” the Beloved is sent to the wilderness to show us the way of resisting the evil one’s temptations.
We are not meant to picture temptation places as spaces and times where we have been abandoned. To do so is to give in to the evil one’s temptation to distrust and doubt that we too are God’s beloved. No, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, this lie is part of how the devil is so successful getting us to succumb to our temptations: by forgetting that God is present with us, we put God out of our mind and do not consider what we know to be God’s good and perfect will. Just as the Holy Spirit was with Jesus Christ to help him do hard things, the Holy Spirit is with us, helping and preserving and holding us in the midst of the hard things. With the Holy Spirit, because of the Holy Spirit, God-with-us, we are able to do more than we could ever possibly imagine.
We are able to become different kinds of people, who can overcome addictions, and false insecurities, and selfish ambition and vain conceit, able to resist the devil’s temptations to believe we’re only human—forgetting that we are also the image bearers of God who has God’s very presence in us. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead is the same power that sustained and accompanied him through all of his trials; it is the same power alive in us today! Amen.
There was another moment in Jesus’s life that I think of when I read this week’s text—when, as they are headed to Jerusalem and Jesus has told his disciples that he is going to die, and Peter tries to stop Jesus and tells him he needs to change his tune (Matt 16.20-23) Similar to what Jesus says to the devil in our passage, he commands Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” It seems that the devil isn’t the only one who does the tempting! Ouch.
Do we really have a “devil on one shoulder, and an angel on the other,” like so many movies and TV shows have utilized to make us laugh over the years? I don’t think I’ve ever seen the sequence of tantalizing temptations and justifications start because the character was thinking about doing a good thing…
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