Saturday, January 26, 2019

God's Promise of Jesus: Being Tempted

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,
    but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
    and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.’”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
    on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
    have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
    light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 4:1-17 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from the Triune God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

Since our lectionary year began, we’ve been talking a lot about promises. Especially about how God keeps God’s promises. At the beginning, we heard the story of Noah. And of God’s promise to never again send a flood to destroy the world. A promise that was marked by a sign. Do you remember what that sign was? Yes, a rainbow.

Then, we heard about Abraham’s call. And another of God’s promises. Who remembers that promise? Yes. That God would make from Abraham a great nation - a nation with their own land and a nation through whom God would bless all people.  

We heard the story of Israel at the Red Sea, the culmination of God’s promise to deliver them from slavery. And we also heard the difficult stories of Israel and their failure to live up to their part of the promise - to remain faithful to God. And, yet, God, who is always making things new, made another promise to them. That God would provide a new king - a Messiah. One who would restore Israel and who would usher in a new kingdom - God’s kingdom - of mercy, justice, and peace.

Beginning on Christmas Eve until this very day, as we began reading in the Gospel of Matthew, we have heard the fulfillment of that promise.  Of God’s greatest promise - God’s Promise of Jesus. Over and over again, we have heard the characters in our stories proclaim that this Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promised Messiah. We heard it from the angels on Christmas Eve. It was recognized by the Magi (and also Herod). Last week, we heard it proclaimed by John the Baptist and by the voice from heaven, declaring the arrival of this promised one. The arrival of God’s promise of Jesus. And now, today, even the tempter proclaims that Jesus is God’s Son - the Promised One, the Messiah. 

This is the last week we will spend hearing about this fulfillment of God’s promise of Jesus. Because this week is the final test. The final question of whether or not this is the true Messiah. Or just some pretender to the throne.

Do you notice that our story begins in the wilderness? The Spirit, whom we were introduced to last week at Jesus’ baptism, leads Jesus into the wilderness for the test. For forty days. A test to determine the true identity of Jesus. Will he be faithful to God? Will he be faithful to the kingdom of heaven? Will he be the one to fulfill all righteousness? Is he truly the Son of God?

It’s no accident that our story begins with a period of 40 days in the wilderness. It’s the author’s intent because any person of Jewish descent would be immediately reminded of another wilderness. And another period of time using the number forty. It’s Matthew intent to immediately draw the comparison here between Israel and Jesus. And between Jesus’ forty days of testing in the wilderness and Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness.

Even the nature of the temptations are the same. The first one - for food and sustenance. The second one - for well-being and protection. And the third one - for power. Israel had experienced each one of these in the wilderness, just as Jesus experiences them. But there is a difference. Because with each temptation, Jesus responds to the tempter with quotes from Deuteronomy. From the Torah. From those books of Instruction given to Israel by God to teach them how they were to live as God’s people. The Instruction that Israel so miserably failed to live out. 

The temptation of both Israel and of Jesus are all about identity. About who God’s people and who God’s Son are to be. About what their identity is to be. What does it mean to be God’s people? What does it mean to be God’s Son?

As Jesus is tempted, he must decide what this identity means. What his character will be. And, make no mistake. This is not the only time that Jesus will be tempted. As we will move throughout the Gospel, we will see him tested over and over again. By his disciples. By the crowds. And, finally, by the religious and political leaders in Jerusalem.

We should also not make the mistake of assuming that Jesus overcomes his temptation through his divine nature. In this story, the author of Matthew is emphasizing the comparison between Israel and Jesus to show that Jesus is the true and loyal expression of Israel, the people God originally intended to use to bring blessing to the whole world. Jesus, in his human nature, is representative of Israel - a new Israel - who, through his faithfulness to God, is able to overcome temptation and remain faithful.

Because this is who Jesus is.

Who are you? What is your identity? These are the same questions we ask when faced with difficult choices. As Christians, these questions are even more important. Our identity is more than just a collection of individual characteristics and personality traits. Our identity is wrapped up in who we are as people of God. What does it mean that we are Christians?

It is that identity - as children of God - that is most challenged when life is hard. Verse 2 of our text says that Jesus was “famished.” We may find our own selves - our own identities - tested when we are stressed. Or overtired. Or anxious. Or sick. Or as a church when we face financial problems, internal conflict, or threats from outside. It is during these times when things seem hardest that it is also the hardest for us to follow God and to be the people that God has called us to be.

It is when we, like Jesus, orient ourselves around God that the kingdom of God is fully realized. Notice that the orientation is “around God” and not around the things God provides. There is a subtle difference between celebrating the good gifts of God and turning them into idols. God is the source of our sustenance, yet Jesus resists the temptation to allow his own physical well-being to become the priority. So he replies, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” God intends our well-being, yet Jesus refuses to make his well-being the measure of God’s glory. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” he responds to the tempter. Power allows God’s people to serve God’s purposes, but Jesus does not allow power to become the end in itself. And so he dismisses Satan’s offer with the words, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve God only.” 

We are often tempted to put God at our disposal. To love God’s gifts more than the giver. To measure God’s value by how well our own wants are realized, rather than conforming ourselves, our desires and our values to God’s will. Instead of our own.  

Through his temptations, Jesus shows us that it is when our lives are difficult that we choose who we will be. Like Jesus, we will be hungry. We will have times when we are tempted to doubt God’s faithfulness. We will be tempted to reach for power, rather than to live a life of service. 

Yet, to be a child of God we must serve God even when our circumstances are hard. To live as God’s people we must turn our focus to God and to God alone. With no expectation other than to trust that God keeps God’s promises. Just as God did with God’s promise of Jesus. That very same Jesus, who, in just another two chapters, will say in the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore, do not worry...your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” 

And that very same Jesus who, even later in Matthew, will give his very life so that, even when we fail to make the right choices as we so feebly attempt to live as God’s people, we know that God has forgiven us through the actions of that very Jesus. The Messiah. The One God promised to us so very long ago. Amen.

Preached via video on January 20, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Epiphany 2
Readings: Matthew 4:1-17; Psalm 91:9-12

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