Sunday, January 15, 2023

Sermon: "This Is Not a Test", Matthew 4:1-17 (January 15, 2023)

Last Sunday, we heard Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism. Our reading ended with a voice from heaven speaking the words, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him”. A beautifully moving moment depicting God’s love for the Messiah. Today, we turn the page to the next chapter of Matthew’s gospel, only to read about, in what is literally the very next sentence, the Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Talk about spiritual whiplash! It’s like God is saying, “I love you so much; now get out of here and take this unpleasant test proctored by Satan.” It’s a weird plot twist.

But as usual, we miss a lot when we’re not considering Scripture’s original language and context. First of all, “diabolos” in biblical Greek refers generally to “one who slanders or is prone to false accusations,” not an evil being with horns and a pitchfork. Likewise, Jesus’ reference to “Satan” in verse 10 translates as “adversary” – more of a role than a proper name. This helps to explain why the idea of “the Devil” or “Satan” can just as easily be understood here as a metaphor (an understanding that dates back to pre-biblical times) as it can an actual creature. We still rely on this metaphorical understanding today – when we talk about “the devil on our shoulder”, most of us don’t actually believe that there’s an “evil” external force influencing us. Personifying “the devil” is a way for us to mentally separate the parts of ourselves that we don’t like from our core identity so that we can face them without triggering an existential crisis.

I think that’s more likely what’s happening in this passage. It’s not a literal dialogue; it’s a metaphorical monologue: as one who is fully human, Jesus is facing the temptations that lurk inside all of us. It shouldn’t make us uncomfortable to imagine Jesus struggling with this particular aspect of humanity – being drawn to things we shouldn’t be isn’t a sin; it’s a part of the human experience. The sin comes when we knowingly choose to act on these desires. Besides, if wrestling with temptation is a fundamental part of being human, how can Jesus really understand us if he doesn’t experience it himself?

Now, the specific temptations that Jesus faces aren’t necessarily ones that we experience with any regularity – for example, no matter how hangry I get, I doubt I’ll ever consider stones as a viable food source – but they all speak more broadly to temptations that ARE universal. You may never have been tempted to turn stones into bread…but have you ever been tempted to use your status or privilege to get something you want? You may never have been tempted to jump from a tall place to see if angels will catch you…but have you ever been tempted to test God’s love in order to appease your own self-doubt? You may never have been tempted to worship Satan in exchange for power over all the kingdoms of the world…but have you even been tempted to take a problematic shortcut to achieve a honorable objective? It turns out that Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, while sounding like a supernatural experience, is one that every human on earth can relate to in one way or another.

Now that we’ve demystified this story a bit, there’s still one big, unanswered question that remains: why did the Spirit subject Jesus to all this in the first place? A cursory reading kind of makes it sound like God is intentionally putting Jesus’ ability to resist temptation to the test. It’s pretty uncomfortable to think that, at the very same time that Jesus is refusing to test the Lord, God seems to be callously testing HIM. It seems like a pretty extreme, unnecessary, and, frankly, unGodlike thing to do.

That’s why I refuse to believe that Jesus’ temptation was intended as a test at all. If we believe that Jesus is God (which we do), then it wouldn’t make sense for him to have to prove himself. But if we believe that Jesus is human (which we also do), then a period of preparation for the ministry he was about to undertake would make perfect sense. If we view Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness from this perspective, it flows perfectly from the story of Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him. Now go, my son, into the wilderness and take this opportunity to prepare yourself for the difficulties to come.”

Preparation is important for anyone about to undertake a new or especially challenging task – and Jesus’ ministry falls squarely into both of these categories. Over the following three years, he would be facing life and death choices, not only for himself, but for all of humanity, each of these choices accompanied by powerful temptations. In all likelihood, Jesus’ divinity would have had no trouble resisting any temptation that came his way…but Jesus’ humanity needed practice and reassurance.

This isn’t a human weakness; it’s a human necessity. We aren’t able to master anything without actual practice. We see it again and again in all sorts of contexts: a college professor must TA before they can have their own classes; a doctor must complete a residency before they can open their own practice; as clergy, I had to intern at a hospital to become comfortable providing pastoral care; even in community theater, a potential director often must assistant direct a show before they’re allowed to take one on by themselves. Practice is a tried-and-true way to gain confidence and “muscle memory” in a new venture. It’s not a test, in that it’s not about passing or failing. It’s about gaining experience to help you prepare.

Even though Jesus is still fully divine, he’s also fully human. And as a human, he has to figure out how to deal with the temptations that lurk inside of him before he can face the temptations that come along with performing miracles in God’s name, or confronting the Pharisees and Sadducees, or submitting to death at the hands of those who hated him. He needs the opportunity to solidify his resolve and begin the pattern of righteous obedience that he continues to build upon throughout his ministry. This practice, as difficult as it may be, allows him to confidently step into his new role and pick up exactly where John’s ministry left off.

Not only is the temptation of Christ not a test; it’s a gift. One of those essential gifts that you aren’t necessarily excited to receive, but you know you need, like socks at Christmas. Only better than socks. Because socks only really impact the wellbeing of your feet, and they eventually wear out. The opportunity to face your temptations with God by your side? That changes your whole being for the better, forever. It gives you a solid foundation for your life of faith going forward. It gives you experience, strength, reassurance, and a closer relationship with the one who’s with you to the end of time. It may be difficult, even painful at times, but as long as you remember who you are and whose you are, as Jesus did, you can withstand any temptation, and you will come out on the other side closer to God than ever. WAY better than socks.

So the next time you find yourself dealing with temptation, don’t ask why God is testing you. Remember this story. Remember that God would never turn you over to the whims of some evil entity just to see what would happen. You are God’s child, in whom They find happiness. Temptation is a natural part of being human, not sent by God OR Satan, but occurring as the result of living a fallen world. But we know that God works all things together for good and transforms temptation into an opportunity. An opportunity to practice your faith. An opportunity to grow. An opportunity to make a righteous choice – or to learn from a bad one. All while God walks right beside you, sending angels to come and take care of you, holding you up, and preparing you to follow the divine call on your life when the temptation has passed – whatever that might be for you.

Don’t fear temptation, friends. Instead, resolve here and now to resist it. When it arises, don’t turn away, but confront it. See it as the opportunity it is. Live secure in the knowledge that the Lord of our salvation will never abandon you to the forces of evil, but, having known temptation himself, will support you, encourage you, and share in your ultimate triumph. Thanks be to God. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment