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Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent
Genesis 2:4-9, 15-17, 25-3:7; Psalm 51:1-12; Romans 5:12-21; Matthew 4:1-11
How do we know the substance of a person? For us, largely, through their actions of course. And there is no greater means of seeing the true strength and integrity of someone than when it is tested, when they enter into a challenge, a trial by fire as we call it. Throughout history, this has often been made clear via the battlefield, soldiers from ancient Greece to the trenches of WWI demonstrating their courage or strength of will by their ability to stand and not run. For Christians, it has usually been the endurance of her martyrs, like Polycarp, whose commemoration was the 23rd, who when finally captured by the Romans, went willingly, spoke kindly to them, and prayed for them. The temptation of Christ in the wilderness is one of these conflicts, these tests, these trials that a person either pushes through or perishes.
It begins with “then,” causing the careful reader to recall what happened right before: The Baptism of Jesus. As I spoke of at the beginning of Epiphany, the baptism is the commissioning moment of Jesus, where God the Father makes clear that he is the Messiah by the declaration that “he is my beloved Son, in him I am well pleased,” while God the Spirit descends upon him. This is the declaration that Jesus is indeed the Savior and Lord. But a declaration needs to be proved, tested; and so immediately following we come to the temptation Christ in the wilderness, to demonstrate that he is indeed the Savior.
In Matthew we need to note a particular literary theme woven through his narrative of Jesus’ life and work, and that is that Jesus Christ is presented as “faithful Israel,” going through experiences like the events of the people of Israel, and as an individual completes and succeeds where Israel the people failed. To illustrate what I mean, let’s briefly review: the family must flee to Egypt, and an evil ruler slaughters children, in the same way the people of Israel’s children were slaughtered and they had to flee away from Egypt; as Israel passes through water in the Red Sea and survive because of God’s work, so Jesus comes through the water of his baptism; now, like Israel was tempted in the wilderness for 40 years, so the Christ is tempted in the wilderness for 40 years.
Jesus Christ is True Israel, Faithful Israel, Triumphant Israel. Where many chose to doubt and not leave Egypt, or lamented at the Red Sea because they thought God had abandoned them, or complained for food and water in the desert, Jesus walks obediently and overcomes in a way Israel, and indeed we, could not.
So the True Israel, declared God’s Son, goes into the wilderness to be proven. The tempter comes, and we see the truly insidious nature of temptation and sin. Temptation is never for something intrinsically evil, but also a twisted version of what is right and good. Sin, you see, is parasitic; as dark is the absence of light, so sin is the absence of goodness, and has no life of its own. Satan tells Jesus to make himself bread; bread is good and it is in no way wrong to eat, or for the Son of God to make bread that he needs! Likewise, Jesus commands the angels and until his time came, would not be fated to die. And, the nations will bow the knee to him, as we are told throughout the New Testament.
The things themselves are not intrinsically wrong, but are here because they appeal to Jesus not to trust in the Father to do what he has promised. Essentially, Satan is tempting Jesus to take care of himself by “self-assertion,” and the “exercise of power and authority.” Paradoxically, the path to life in God and glory is “the way of humility, service, and suffering.”
This whole episode reminds me of a scene from the science-fiction novel, Dune. In the story, the protagonist is tested, and overcomes, proving himself to be a “true human” because he can choose what is rational over the instinctual.
Jesus is likewise challenged to prove whether he is truly human or not. To be truly human is not to exercise power, to gain prestige, or to dominate others; to be truly human is to humbly follow God throughout all circumstances.
Rather than fail like Israel did when they grumbled for bread, Jesus retorts with Scripture that humanity needs more than bread, they need God. He will not devolve into letting his stomach rule him. Likewise, when told to prove to Satan his Sonship, and to the world, by throwing himself down, trusting the Father wouldn’t let him die, Jesus rightly notes that this would be “force God’s hand” in a way, to demonstrate his messianism in a way people expected. To the contrary, Jesus would prove his messianism by being lifted up, on a cross, the deepest act of humility demonstrating his divine power. And when told to take the kingdoms of the world from Satan, Jesus points out that they aren’t Satan’s to give.
Jesus accomplished what Israel, and we, could not: the conquest of sin by being truly tempted and truly rejecting the false, twisted things he was offered. He was and is truly human, True Israel, and we are true human and true Israel as we indwell him and he indwells us.
Here in Matthew 4, Jesus proves he is the one to save, the Christ and Son of God. He makes clear here, he is the hero, the conqueror of Satan and sin. And he tells us who we are, because in him we too are conquerors. We are not subject to Satan, or to sin. Temptation is not sin, and that we cannot avoid; but to overcome it requires one thing: To remember who we are. We, in Christ, are free; we, in Christ, are not animals, but Spirit-filled and animated people; we, in Christ, by the Spirit, can look evil in the face and say, “no.”
We can do this because of what Christ has done, because he has already overcome the temptation of sin. Like he trusted his Father, we trust him, rejecting our own pride and willpower thinking those will be enough. We look to Jesus, and are humbled by the encounter, but also able to trust that he who did what we cannot is sufficient. When tempted to turn away, because we think comfort, pride, or power are the path we should take, we are able to say no, because Jesus shows us that the true way to glory, to life, and to everlasting joy is found not there but in humility, servanthood, and sacrifice. May we follow our Lord in faith as we ought, to the glory of his name, Amen.
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