Shaped by testing

Matthew 4:1-11 (New International Version, ©2011)

1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

 4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

            The texts that we are drawing from this morning have at least one thing in common: temptation.  The Bible makes it clearer than our drama for this morning did.  In verse 17 of Genesis 2 God says to Adam, “but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”  That seems crystal clear to me.  Don’t eat from that tree.  If you do, you will die.

            In the next chapter, we even see that Adam has passed on this message to Eve, so we know that he heard it clearly.  When a serpent comes along and asks her about eating from a specific tree, she responds by saying, “but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”  She also knew very well that she was not to eat of the tree and she knew which tree specifically.  It was the one in the middle of the garden.  The thing that makes me laugh a little bit here is that she also tells the serpent that she isn’t allowed to even touch the tree or she would die.  That isn’t what God told Adam.  Adam must have made that part up just to keep Eve away from the tree.  That sounds like what some Christians do today, but I digress.

            All that it takes is a little coxing, a little encouragement, and a little lie and Eve takes the bait.  She eats of the tree and she takes some to her husband who eats it as well.  Though God clearly said one thing, they did the opposite.

            Our second scripture for this morning tells a very different story about temptation.  This one involves a tempter and a fellow that is just getting started in a ministerial role, named Jesus.  I predict good things for this young man.  I think he is going to go farJ.

            Anyway, Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesus is coming straight from his baptism where upon being baptized, the spirit of the Lord descended upon him and a voice from heaven called out, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  That would be a huge boost to anyone’s self-confidence.  That would be very affirming, indeed.

            Our text picks up with Jesus out in the wilderness and he hasn’t eaten for 40 days and 40 nights.  He is famished, and the tempter comes to him and says If you are the son of God, turn these stones into bread.  That one word, “if,” would be the one that would bother me the most if I were Jesus.  Much like we see with Adam and Eve, God said one thing, and the tempter comes along and makes them question what God has said.  But I believe that Jesus knew that he was about to begin something challenging.  He was about to bring about a revolution.  He was bringing a message of reconciliation; reconciliation between God and humanity, and reconciliation between human beings.  He was bringing the kingdom of God, and he was going to get killed for doing it.  Surely Jesus questioned if this was what he really wanted to do, and having the tempter question Jesus’ messianic identity isn’t going to help.

            But this first temptation doesn’t seem like it is all that big of a deal to me.  Is it wrong to turn rocks into bread?  To be honest, if I had the ability to do this, I would probably try it.  Later in his ministry Jesus would create bread and fish out of other loaves and fish.  Is the temptation in turning stones into bread rather than causing food to simply multiply?

            I have heard a number of explanations as to why this is considered a temptation that Jesus had to resist, and to be honest, none of them really satisfy me.  But I like the way Donald Kraybill is going when he tries to explain this in his book “The Upside-Down Kingdom” which was first published in 1978 and revised in 2003.  Kraybill says that to understand this temptation, we need to look at all three of the temptations together, so let’s look quickly at the other two temptations.

            In the second temptation, the tempter takes Jesus to the highest point on the temple, likely overlooking the Kidron Valley, and he says to Jesus, “If you are the son of God throw yourself down from here.”  Why?  Because God will send his angels to make sure that Jesus doesn’t get hurt.

            Then the third temptation, the tempter takes Jesus to the top of a mountain, and instantly shows him all of the nations, all of the kingdoms of the world.  And the text says that he is shown not only the kingdoms, but their splendor.  These kingdoms are pretty sweet, and anyone ruling over them is going to have a pretty sweet life of leisure and pleasure.  The devil says, “All you need to do to inherit all of this is to bow down and worship me.  That’s it, it will be yours.”

            According to Kraybill, the temptations of Jesus are not simply found in our Bible today to show us that it is possible to overcome temptations.  The temptation of Jesus is also found in our Bible to show us the kind of kingdom that Jesus has come to establish.

            The devil tempted Jesus by offering him ways to circumnavigate all that Jesus would have to achieve throughout his life, death, and resurrection and to instead gain power over the people through the three main social institutions of economics, religion, and politics.

            Working backwards through the temptations, the devil offered Jesus political power over all of the nations of the world if only he would bow down and worship him.  Many of the Jewish people at the time believed that the messiah was going to be a strong, militant leader that would take the Promised Land back from the Roman Empire through force.  If Jesus was to accept the power over the nations, then all nations would know that he was the messiah. 

The devil offered Jesus religious power when he took him to the highest point of the temple and said throw yourself down from here and allow the angels to catch you.  This was done during the middle of the day when there would have been many people coming in and out of the temple.  If Jesus was to do as the devil was suggesting, it wouldn’t go unnoticed.  And I have read that some expected that this would be how the messiah would come to the people, through some miraculous apparition.  If he threw himself off the temple those present would know that he was the messiah and they would submit to his leadership.  He would have power over the religious people.

            And then the ever-confusing first temptation to turn the stones into bread.  Kraybill suggests that the bread that the devil was tempting Jesus with was not for Jesus alone.  Jesus is instructed to turn “these stones” into bread.  How many stones would Jesus have to make into bread to satisfy his own hunger?  What Kraybill suggests (and I am still not 100% convinced of) is that Jesus is being tempted by the devil to turn enough stones into bread to feed all of the hungry people in Jerusalem.  This would be a messianic sign as the Jewish people were awaiting a prophet like Moses, who provided bread to the people as they wandered through the wilderness for forty years.  Giving bread to the multitudes would be a messianic sign and Jesus would gain power over the poor.

            But again, these temptations are not in the Bible just to show that Jesus was able to overcome temptation like Adam and Eve were not able to do.  The temptation of Jesus shows us the kind of kingdom that Jesus has come to establish.  In his Jesus’ kingdom we don’t exercise our power over other people.  In the kingdom of God we aren’t called to flex our military power, our political power, or our religious power.  Even as good of a thing as it is to feed the poor, Jesus is rejecting that temptation because he knows that if he becomes the one who decides if a poor person eats or not that day that he automatically has power over that person.  Oh, you want to eat today?  Go and pick up my dry cleaning, then you can eat.

            No, the kingdom that Jesus came proclaiming, living out, and inviting others to join is not about power over other people like the kingdoms of this world.  The kingdom of God exhibits what Greg Boyd calls power-under other people.  Where the kingdoms of this world accomplish things by force and intimidation, the kingdom of God progresses through servant leadership.  The kingdom of God looks like Jesus washing the feet of his disciples; even the one that he knew was only moments away from betraying him.

            Eugene Peterson tells a story that helps to illustrate the different models of power-over and power-under.  Peterson recalls being in Elementary school and being tormented by a bully daily.  Peterson endured the bullying, both the physical and verbal abuse, because he had been taught by his mother to “turn the other cheek.”  But one day something just snapped.  He found strength that he never knew he had and he pinned the bully on the ground by kneeling on his shoulders and repeatedly hitting him with his fists.  And he began yelling at the bully, “Say uncle. Say uncle.”

            The bully refused to say uncle, so Peterson changed his words to “Say ‘I believe in Jesus.’” which the bully finally did.  Peterson believes that this was his first convert to Christianity.

            Power over someone else, even when used for a good thing, isn’t always a good thing.  In the power-over model, might is right.  It is okay to hate the people that live on the other side of town or on the other side of some national border.  And if your country calls you to kill that person, you do it.  In the power-over model it is okay to complain about those who are making the world a worse-off, less moral, sinful place.  In the power-over model we even make laws against those people.  But the kingdom of God with its power-under methods sees everyone as people created in the image of God, people for whom Jesus died, people whom we are called to love and serve.

            Many of you would know Glenn.  Glenn is a person who I believe exhibits this kingdom of God, power-under method.  Glenn is a leader in our church.  He is a Sunday School teacher.  He is the church treasurer.  He is an elder.  He serves on our fellowship committee.  Now it would be very easy to take those positions of power and to use that power to get the things that he wanted.  He controls the checkbook, and his name is on my checks.  It would seem that he could easily control me, too!  But Glenn understands that in the kingdom of God, power is not something that we use to force our ideas or agendas on anyone else.

            Glenn is not able to be with us today, though I know he was disappointed to not be here for the baby dedication and the meal afterwards.  But Glenn received an invitation to go to rural Tennessee to work on a Mennonite Disaster Service team which is going into some of the poorest neighborhoods and rebuilding homes that were destroyed in the floods of May 2010.  These aren’t people that are going to be able to repay Glenn for his time, nor will they be able to repay MDS for the supplies.  Glenn went because he is a contractor with a specific skill set that makes him valuable on these kinds of teams.  Glenn went because he knows that in the kingdom of God, when we are given power, we are called to use it to serve others.  Power in the kingdom of God is not meant to be exercised in a power-over method, but through servant leadership in a power-under way.

            Yes, Jesus resisted temptation in Matthew 4.  That temptation was more than just the temptation to make himself a snack out of some stones.  He was tempted to adopt a power-over method of leadership in the areas of economics, religion, and politics.  But Jesus resisted that temptation and showed us how we too are called to lead others: with a basin, a pitcher, and a towel.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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