Who Are You? Who? Who?
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Matthew 4: 1 – 11. Focus on how temptation develops our character.
Every year the season of Lent begins with Jesus in the wilderness. The story is timeless because it’s about character formation. The story of how we grow and mature. The story of how we’re tempted and the story of why we fail and how we can succeed are all presented here.
Like the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel at the Jabok River and Job wrestling with God, the wilderness story is a story everyone can relate to. It’s a story that speaks to the nature of temptation and how it functions in developing our character. So let’s look at the three temptations and see what’s being tested.
Notice how the tempter comes at Jesus. “If” the participle used to make conditions, “If you really are who you think you are then prove it to me.” The prelude to temptation always has to do with proving who you are to someone else.
It’s called peer pressure. If you really are one of us, then talk, act and behave like one of us. The prelude to the temptation functions to remove the power from ourselves by placing it in the hands of someone else who will tell us whether we’ve measured up to their standards.
So the tempter comes to Jesus saying something like, “Look you’ve been fasting for 40 days. That’s long enough. It’s the amount of time that Elijah spent in the wilderness. It’s the same number as the years that your ancestors wandered in the wilderness. You’ve met the symbolic conditions for understanding what they had to understand about God so why not take these stones and simply make them into bread.”
“Jesus what could possibly be wrong with eating? You’ve done a good job of fasting. You’ve gone the distance. You must be hungry so why not have something to eat?”
Do you see how this temptation functions? Do you see how subtle it is, how easy it is to justify to yourself. No one will know if you turn these stones into bread except you and me, Jesus. Who could it possibly harm?
What could possibly be wrong with filling up that emptiness within you. How about a shopping spree, or maybe working harder to move ahead professionally, or taking whatever is needed to fill that inner ache or boredom? And at first there might not be anything wrong with it, except it doesn’t stop there – ever.
It always leads to more. And pretty soon the tempter has you right where he wants you. You are isolated, lonely, looking for something else to consume, something else to fill that void. And you become lost in a never-ending desire to fill up that empty place in yourself. Just focus on yourself and your needs and everything will fine. You deserve a break today. Go ahead and eat. Who will ever know?
The problem is – you will know and so will God and with that the tempter leaves saying, “Bye, bye, have a good time living with yourself now.” So who could this harm? It harms you and those you come into contact with. You’ve just become a carrier of the tempter’s most seductive virus – self-centeredness.
Now we move on to the second and third temptations, which build upon the first. Once again the tempter comes to Jesus as he comes to us offering things that are within our reach and it’s always packaged attractively so that it will be hard to resist because we tell ourselves this chance might not pass this way again.
And into this mindset the tempter comes offering power and fame. But this is where the tempter makes his mistake.
If I had been tempting Jesus I would have started off big and worked my down to the small stuff. I would have offered Jesus the idea of fame and power first. Then I would’ve hit him with the small stuff, because I would want to hit his strongest defenses first with the big stuff like fame and power so that after the initial assault on his ego, his defenses having relaxed just a bit, would be vulnerable to the seemingly insignificant temptation of self service.
But like the devil I’d have come to him quoting scripture because that’s what wolves in sheep’s clothing do. I’d have used the very words of God against him. “Come on, Jesus, Your Father said himself in Psalm 91: 11 that he would “catch you should you fall by sending his angels to bear you up lest you dash your foot against a rock.”
And those are the words, but they’ve been taken out of context. What the tempter left out was that those very words refer to anyone who makes God their refuge not the tempter. The tempter is very good at twisting scripture, but Jesus is his match and merely quotes back to him from Deuteronomy 8: 3 “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.”
“Alright, Jesus, very good. You know your scriptures. Let’s go up and take a look at power and what it could mean for your mission. As I understand it, you were sent here so that the whole world might believe through you in Your Father, right? Well what better way to bring the world to God then by having the power to make people believe. You could use your political power to issue a decree forcing people to accept the good news that you have to offer.
No confusion about who you are. No pain and suffering involved. All you have to do is bow down to me. Just give yourself to me and all this power will be at your disposal.” But Jesus says, “Nice try, but we both know that the first commandment says: “You shall have no others Gods before the Lord and the Lord alone shall you follow.”
See in a certain sense the large stuff is relatively easy to fend off. It’s the small stuff, the stuff that seems not to harm anybody that is our greatest temptation. “What could be wrong with using your power to feed yourself?”
It’s the small stuff that we rationalize away that makes it easier to fall prey to the big stuff. Death of the soul comes from a thousand little cuts to our integrity and character so that we don’t even notice the one cut that causes irreparable damage.
The first temptation I ever encountered wasn’t to be all-powerful and famous, it was simply the temptation to fit in with the crowd and please them. I suspect that it’s the same for most of us. We lose our soul and our identity by sewing small things that we rationalize as not really important, such as our honesty and personal ethics.
But in the end there is this truth: you reap what you sew. Your thoughts become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your character. And your character becomes your destiny.
This story is about finding out who we are and whom we trust with our lives. And in order to do that you need to know who it is that is speaking to you. So beware of that voice that speaks to you in your own mind – it’s the voice of the tempter. God is always silent in these struggles. Maybe that’s because God is waiting to see whom we will bow down to. Amen