(Matthew 4: 1-11)
The only time in my life I’ve ever been confronted by a protester was that night back in college when I went to the movies. Highly controversial of me, I know. It was fall semester junior year, and someone in my religion class mentioned that a new Jesus movie was out. I vaguely remember something about how there was a little controversy around it. But they also said Willem Dafoe was playing Jesus, and I liked Willem Dafoe so I thought I’d give it a shot.
I pulled up to the movie theater in my Honda hatchback and immediately saw the throngs waving their signs. Okay, it was really more like five or six people, but still. I got out and made my way to the ticket booth when one of the six walked up to me. He was a middle-aged man, wiry hair, and a look in his eyes that said he meant business. He held up a sign – white poster board, black marker, his penmanship as wiry as the hair on his head. It read: Thou Shalt Not Put The Lord God To The Test. “Don’t go see The Last Temptation of Christ,” he warned me, “it’s blasphemy!”
The “blasphemy” he was referring to was more than just the odd take on Jesus’ life in the book by Nikos Kazantzakis and brought to the silver screen by Martin Scorsese. The “blasphemy” happened near the end of The Last Temptation of Christ, when Jesus is being crucified, hanging on the cross, the crowds weeping and yelling; and then everything goes silent. And an angel in the form of a little girl with an impeccable British accent walks up. She tells Jesus that he does not need to be up there anymore. He’s suffered enough, he’s accomplished what he came to do. He does not need to die. So Jesus comes down. Walks away. He goes back to his carpentry, he gets married, has a family.
Jesus lives this normal nondescript life; until a much older Jesus is laying on his deathbed and suddenly realizes that he’s made a grave mistake, that he was not meant to come down from the cross, and that that little girl who talked him down and has been in and out of his life ever since is in fact no angel. It’s not too late, though, there’s still time; because all of this has been a mere vision, a glance at a future possibility he can choose or not choose. And so he makes his choice – he chooses the cross, and so back on the cross he goes.
I don’t know, I personally found it to be a powerful movie, albeit not towing a strict biblical line. But my protester friend very much disagreed – a second time, as I walked to my car. I read again the sign he was holding – thou shalt not put the Lord God to the test – and this time it struck me as ironic – since, after all, it wasn’t like the concept of “testing” or tempting Jesus originated with Kazantzakis or Scorsese, right?
We look today at the story of the temptation of Jesus. It is the first of a Lenten sermon series Grace and I are kicking off today titled, “Who Is Jesus?” It seems a simple enough question if we let it be that way – the kind easily answered by searching Wikipedia or reading a bio: middle-eastern Jewish peasant, first-century Palestine, carpenter, wise teacher, son and brother, martyr at a young age. We can even answer it in the platitudes of faith – son of God, Alpha and Omega, savior, Messiah.
But there is a deeper answer to this question – one that looks not just at the man himself but the world around him and, ultimately, at each one of us. To truly consider who Jesus is, is to ultimately ask who we are because of it. This is our Lenten journey of 2017 and this sermon series over the next six weeks – to know who Jesus is for us, so we may know who we can be for him.
Again, back to my protester friend – I felt kinda weird breaking it to him that not only does the story of Jesus’ temptation come from the Bible, but it’s there three times: Mark, Luke, and Matthew. In Matthew’s version, the one I read earlier, the temptation follows right on the heels of Jesus’ baptism. After his baptism, Jesus goes out “into the wilderness.” Rarely does anything good or easy ever happen in the wilderness. And not only that, but Jesus is out there forty days and forty nights. Now if that time frame, that expression sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same when Noah and the rest were stuck on the ark searching for land, the same when Moses fasted alone on Mt. Sinai waiting for God to finish up with the Ten Commandments, the same when Elijah hid from an angry Queen Jezebel in the wilds of Mt. Horeb. Forty days and forty nights symbolizes a long period of waiting between one thing and another, and the struggle that often comes with it.
It’s quite a turn for Jesus. A chapter earlier, with the baptismal waters still dripping off his head, a voice from above assures him, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” But now, it is another voice entirely calling all of that into question. If you are the son of God, it says. Calling it into question in three specific ways:
If you are the son of God, turn these stones into bread – the temptation to engage in the miraculous.
If you are the son of God, throw yourself off a cliff and let the angels save you – the temptation to make a spectacle.
If you are the son of God, the world’s kingdoms are yours, as long as you bow to me – the temptation to political power.
Now Jesus, of course, thwarts each of these attempts with relative ease, swatting them away like one shoes off a pesky fly. Discounts them with scripture, nonetheless – the very weapon the devil himself tries to use. With surgical precision, Jesus counters each temptation and renders Satan’s case null and void.
From there, the way Matthew tells it, Jesus goes on to call disciples, assemble his team; all leading up to his grand debut at the top of the mount and the sermon that would envision the kingdom he had come to help build – a kingdom that was the mirror opposite of the one the Tempter tried to push.
Now it is – if you pardon the pun – tempting for us, in these eleven verses, to look for our own story in Jesus’ story. I mean, we know what it’s like to be tempted, right? Don’t you know how it feels, people of God – the tug that stretches our heart and soul; the grey area of life in which we spend most of our waking hours, the often razor-thin separation between right and wrong? How many of the world’s hungry would be fed if we really could turn stones to bread? What’s wrong with a little spectacle every now and then to wow the masses? And is power in and of itself such an evil thing?
See, that’s what we’re “tempted” to want to do with this passage – to make it all about us. And yet, as put by one commentator, “Matthew’s story of the temptation of Jesus is maddeningly unavailable for moral exhortation or spiritual encouragement.” In other words, it is, in many ways, inaccessible for the rest of us, precisely because these are Jesus’ temptations and not ours.
Besides, truth be told, if we have a part in this story, it very well might be the Tempter – the one who tries over and over again to take Jesus and mold him into something he is not. Think about it. A Jesus who serves our agendas, justifies our biases, fulfills our wants. We want to do miraculous things, we want to be the spectacle, we want unending power. So it only makes sense that the Tempter – that we – would try to make Jesus want those things too.
So who is Jesus? My friends, if this temptation tale tells us anything about Jesus, it is this: that Jesus refuses to be who we want him to be. Jesus refuses to be who we want him to be. As one biblical scholar put it:
Our frustration replicates the aggravation that the tempter knew in ever ascending heights: that Jesus will not turn our stones to bread; he will not prove God to us; he will not turn from God to embrace the kinds of success we would recognize and applaud. Jesus remains maddeningly himself.
Jesus refuses to be who we want him to be. But Jesus is, very much, who we need him to be. And there’s a difference. We need a savior. But we don’t necessarily want a savior, if we’re honest. We want someone to offer the quick fix, the easy way out, the path of least resistance. We want someone to tell us that we can get where we need to go with little pain or sacrifice. That’s what we want. Instead, Jesus offers himself on a cross and says, take up your cross and follow me. Because that’s what we need.
We need Jesus to love unconditionally. But that’s not what we want, if we’re honest. No, we want someone to offer qualifiers and conditions to that love, because that’s the only way we know how to operate in the world. And the very idea of loving someone no matter what, in our minds, is impractical at best and offensive at worst. Instead, Jesus talks about loving our enemies and praying for our persecutors and carrying the pack an extra mile and giving away our coat. Because that’s what we need.
We need Jesus to stand with the marginalized and oppressed. But that’s not what we want. We want someone to justify us, to tell us we’ve earned it and achieved it and therefore it’s ours, to remind us frequently of that wonderful Bible verse that says, God helps those who help themselves. Instead, Jesus surrounds himself with the least and lost and otherwise left out; and when he asks us what book in the Bible that “verse” comes from and we don’t know, Jesus tells us it’s because it’s not a Bible verse at all. We made it up, not him. Jesus tells us this, because that’s what we need.
Jesus persistently resists the temptations we heap upon him. He refuses to be who we want him to be. But sisters and brothers, Jesus is always, always who we need him to be. A savior who shows up and proclaims, through word and deed, that there is still a more excellent way, that love wins, that forgiveness is real, that the way we live our life matters, that how we treat each other matters, and that the yoke he bears is so much lighter than the burdens we carry, and that he would like very much to carry ours for us.
Jesus is who we need him to be at this table – the bread broken for you and me, the cup poured for you and me, his life for our life, his love for our love, communion not as a noun but a verb – gathering around the table to share together a meal he’s prepared for us.
Jesus is the Tempted, my friend. He’s says “no” to our wants and “yes” to our needs. He’s not interested in fancy miracles or grand spectacles or pushing power. He is interested in us. And despite our best attempts to make him something else, he remains, now and forever, maddeningly himself.
And for that, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Feasting On The Word, Year A, Vol. 2, 47-49.