Sermon Matthew 4:1-11
I. The lectionary pairs this reading with the Temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden.
A. They were comfortable in their lush, green, privileged paradise, and had everything they could possibly need.
B. By contrast, Jesus was alone, without food, or shelter, in a sun-blasted wasteland, when the devil came to him.
C. "You will be like God", hissed the serpent to the woman: "You will know good and evil". It was the mesmerizing promise of divine power.
D. The "pitch" to Jesus is nothing so crass. Instead, the devil tries to appeal to his mighty sense of mission.
E. The man and woman gave in: they wanted to rise up in the world. The Son of God stood his ground.
II. But what kind of TEMPTATION would hold any charm for the holy Jesus??
A. He would have no interest in typical tabloid sins. He cared nothing for personal aggrandizement or sensual gratification.
B. But bringing in the kingdom--doing the will of God--now that kind of thing might tempt Him! Feeding the hungry, demonstrating real trust in the Father, giving governance at last to the world by the wisdom of divine love. Yes, these might present an alluring logic for the good-hearted Son of Man. This is the place the Adversary goes after him.
C. But in this context they represent the seductive whisperings of evil. "Look, Jesus, here's an opportunity to accomplish your mission in a big way, truly serving the Father!" He tried to persuade by lifting Jesus to god-like heights. But in Philippians we read, he let go of his high heavenly office, his equality with God, and came down to earth.
D. What's so wrong about these good things? They are temptations in this wilderness setting precisely because God had another way for Jesus to go. He had to walk the lonesome valley. He had to walk HUMBLY with his God. Later, Jesus would multiply loaves under the gracious calculus of the Holy Spirit. Later, he would "throw himself down" by LAYING DOWN HIS LIFE. Later, he would come into rulership of the world. But that comes later.
E. Right now, though, he has to dismiss the devil from his mind, because the devil is sounding the siren call of idolatry. He was trying to get Jesus to violate the Decalogue where it says, "You shall have no other gods before me". Jesus turned to the Bible for support, citing passages which expanded on the law of Sinai: "Cling to God's word like life itself"; "Trust, don't TEST"; "Worship only One--none other". Adam and Eve doubted God's word--Jesus leans wholly upon it.
F. T.S. Eliot mused, "The last temptation that is the greatest treason, is to do the right thing for the wrong reason". The diabolical part of the wilderness testing was: they could seem like good choices, life-enhancing choices. But they were not God's choices for Jesus! He followed the hard and humble way, the via dolorosa, the via cruces: the way of Calvary.
III. What does Christ's victory over temptation mean for us?
A. By the compassionate reckoning of grace, he is our Representative, the New Human who gets it right this time. In the alchemy of faith, his goodness is considered to be ours.
B. He also helps us in our struggles. Martin Luther says, when the devil tempts believers they can be encouraged by the fact that they know Him who has overcome the devil. When we're fighting lust or revenge or hankering for glory, we say, "Lord Jesus, you've overcome temptation. Help me in my hour of need!"
C. We readily convince ourselves of all the good we would do if we had the money, or the power. Many people think to themselves, "How generous I would be to church or charitable endeavors if only I could win the lottery". But would we? Why wait until then? The message that comes to us from the desert tells us, God has the resources--we don't need to occupy a lofty post in order to do good, or serve God. Trust God, and do the good now!
D. Examine our lives: that's what this passage shouts. A congressional interrogator queried an Enron official: "Was it worth it? I mean, selling your soul like you did?" Our compromises are perhaps less spectacular, but we still make them continually. Jesus wondered, "What use is it to gain the whole world if in the process you lose your soul?" Beware of life's little sell-outs, white lies, and modest infidelities. Especially we need to watch out when we've convinced ourselves that the end justifies the means. That is the slogan of spiritual violence. If we are social climbers, how does that climbing square with the Christian way of life?
The Adversary tried to dazzle Jesus from the heights, far above human struggle.
Jesus had said NO to bogus bread; NO to angelic acrobatics; NO to rushing the reign of God. But when the test is over, God sends angels to feed true bread to him. And at the end of Matthew we read the Great Commission. It's after the cross, where Jesus Risen has been given--from God's hand--the very thing he had refused from the devil's hand: true Lordship over the world. "All authority has been given to me". There is an ultimate fulfillment. The life of faith is often wrongly portrayed as mere deprivation, especially in our "feel-better-fast" world. But in saying yes to God's way for us, we trustingly await the promise: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled".