Our Subtle Temptations (1 Lent, A)
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.
We are all familiar with the story of Jesus’ Temptation in the desert. We hear it every year at the beginning of Lent. I often imagine the Temptation Story as a very dramatic and obvious test.
If I were writing a screenplay for a movie about Jesus’ Temptation, this scene would feature dark, brooding music with minor chords. The lighting would get darker. Satan would appear as a sinister figure, wearing a shadowy hood. You could only see the hook of his nose, and his eyes would be yellow or red. I picture the Devil looking like the Evil Emperor in the Star Wars movies, and speaking with his hoarse, menacing voice: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
Jesus and Satan stand off against one another and everyone who watches knows what is going on. It’s a simple battle of wills. Many film depictions of Jesus’ Temptation follow this to a T. For instance, check out the scene in the recent History Channel mini-series called The Bible.
This is a fairly common and traditional vision for the story. The image at the top of this page a 12th century mosaic of the Temptation of Jesus (St. Mark's Basilica, Venice, Italy). The devil there looks even scarier. He has horns and wings and stuff. It’s hard not to notice that something is wrong when that Satan comes to talk with you.
Those depictions of the Temptation are good. There is nothing wrong with them per se. But I want to help us think about this story in a new light this morning.
What if Jesus’ Temptation was not so obvious? What if Satan were a whole lot sneakier than we give him credit for in these icons and films? I think there is a way of reading Matthew 4 that paints the Devil as a real trickster who is trying to catch Jesus off guard and cause him to stumble by flattering him.
First of all, Jesus was led into the desert by the Holy Spirit in order to be tested. As a preparation for this test, he fasted forty days and forty nights, perhaps not too different from our own practices during Lent. He seemed to know that something was coming that would push him to the brink.
The fully human Jesus was already physically on rope’s end. When you eat less than you’re used to for that long, you become exhausted, short-tempered, and impatient with just about everything.
But because Jesus had fasted and because he was sent by the Holy Spirit to be tested, I don’t think that the test would have come in such a direct, obvious manner. If he knew he would have to say no to a big scary devil monster, even at the end of a long fast, maybe it’s not that hard to have a little bit of resolve.
So I think the test was much more subtle. I imagine that the devil appeared to Jesus disguised as a friend. He comes as one who appears to be helpful, complimentary, and supportive.
The Common English Bible puts the devil’s words this way: “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.” Doesn’t this sound like a helpful suggestion to someone who is hungry? You have the power. Make yourself something to eat. I want what is best for you here, Jesus.
The question here isn’t whether or not Jesus is God’s Son. That has already been established in the previous story. When Jesus was baptized, “a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:17, NRSV). Jesus knows his identity in his heart of hearts. He is rooted and established in God’s love and he believes that he is truly God’s Son.
The question here is actually a “How?” How are you God’s Son? What does it mean for you to be the Son of God? How will you use your power as the One who is fully human and fully God?
Will you take the grace of God and use it to satisfy your own desires? Will you manipulate time and space to give yourself pleasure? You totally could. You are hungry, so it would be reasonable. No one would blame you if you had a little snack out here in the desert. Actually, nobody would even see it except for me. It can be our little secret.
This is much closer to the way that you and I experience temptations. We don’t live in a soap opera. Our big, significant tests are usually not dramatic. There isn’t a camera zoom-in and cut to a commercial break for a cliffhanger ending. Our tests are much subtler, much sneakier, and therefore much more dangerous.
It seems good for Jesus to feed himself when he is hungry. It seems good for Jesus to show off God’s miraculous power by jumping off the temple and calling for the angels. It seems good for Jesus to rule over all the kingdoms of the earth. The problem comes in how we’re going after those goals.
Our temptations come in all the small, seemingly insignificant choices we have to make when we’re alone and no one is watching. They come in our desire to use control and manipulation to achieve some noble goal. They come every time we try to accomplish something good, but think we can get there through evil.
For Christians, the ends and the means have to be consistent. We cannot bring about good through sin. We have to do all in our limited power to pursue God’s loving, peaceful Kingdom by living in love and peace.
It seems so simple, but it’s really so hard because everything around us tries to steer us in a different direction. It’s just a little white lie. Nobody will know if I keep a little bit extra for myself. Our business doesn’t have to follow all the rules. But every time we succumb to the little temptations, we open ourselves up to greater and greater failures.
This is how sin works. We often think that Jesus needed to remain sinless in order to maintain some kind of moral purity. But it’s like we keep talking about. Sin is just the way that leads to violence, destruction, and death. Holiness is the narrow way of love, peace, and life.
Jesus is the perfect union of God’s love, peace, and life to our fragile human nature. Jesus is succeeding where we cannot. He is fending off the assaults of the Enemy where we have so often lost. He is reversing the sins of Adam and Eve. He is facing the Devil’s lies and tricks and calling them out for what they truly are. Jesus is the Truth and the Life that we so clearly need to thrive.
So Jesus does give us a moral example of how we ought to face temptations ourselves. But more than that, Jesus gives us the grace and the strength we need to actually do it. Jesus sets us free from our slavery to sin. And it hasn’t all been fixed yet. We aren’t yet perfect. But God is doing the challenging work of perfecting us by the power of the Holy Spirit. The angels are coming to minister to us in our time of need.
What we need is a prayerful and discerning heart. We need the Spirit to direct and rule our lives. We need new eyes to be able to spot the Devil’s sneaky temptations. And we need Christ to empower us to resist all Lies with the Truth. Amen.