The Temptation

March 13, 2005



The Temptation (3/13/05)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

It’s only two weeks until Easter, and it is traditional in the season of Lent to read the story of the Temptation of Jesus. This story is found in all three synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—and each gospel places the temptation immediately after the baptism of Jesus. Mark’s version of the story is somewhat sparse. He writes:

The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.

That is typical Mark. Stick to the basics. New Testament scholar

N. T. Wright calls the Gospel of Mark a “revolutionary tract, to be whispered among co-conspirators at midnight.” Matthew and Luke go into a lot more detail. I’ll read Matthew’s account of the temptation:

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.

There are two main characters in this story: Jesus and Satan. And if we want to plumb this story for meaning, we have to ask ourselves, is talk of Satan passé? Isn’t the guy in the red jumpsuit, with the cloven hooves, pointy beard, and pitchfork a little… theologically primitive for those of us in the 21st Century church?

In the entire Old Testament Satan is mentioned only three times: in Job, Zechariah and 1st Chronicles. And in each of those cases Satan bears little resemblance to the mythic character the medieval church would develop over a thousand years later. In those Old Testament books Satan is viewed as either an adversary of God with inclinations toward evil, or as a member of God’s court, whose duty it was to accuse human beings before God.

Those of us who enjoy the study of world religions find it interesting that Satan did not appear in the Hebrew writings of the Old Testament until after the Babylonian Exile. It was in 587 B.C. that King Nebuchadnezzar marched into Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and took the Jewish people into captivity in Babylon. Zoroastrianism was the primary religion of that region. Up until that point, Judaism had only a single God—Yahweh—and all things were under the control of Yahweh. Zoroastrianism was a dualistic religion. There was a good god—Ahura Mazda—and a bad god—Angra Mainyu.
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When King Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to Israel, that dualism started seeping into the Jewish faith. The idea that the universe was a battle between good and evil was not a part of the Judeo-Christian tradition until after the Babylonian Exile.

By the time of Jesus, Satan had evolved from the accuser in the court of God to a powerful and personal evil who stood against God. But it was always understood that no matter how powerful Satan might appear to be, he was not as powerful as God. In the end, God will defeat the evil one. When we hear fire and brimstone preaching from modern fundamentalist pulpits, Satan, or the devil, is not the figure we find in the Bible. The modern devil has been derived from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, written in 1667.

When we read the story of the temptation of Jesus, we need to get away from images of a pitchfork-bearing cloven-hoofed devil. There is something important happening here with the temptation of Jesus. For this story to have any meaning, we have to recognize that there is evil in the world. Some religions claim that God is in complete control of everything, and that evil is an illusion. They claim that if we could only see things from God’s point of view, we would understand that everything that happens happens exactly as it must. And what appears to be evil today is a necessary part of the unfolding of the universe. If we could only see the big picture, we would understand.

But Christianity holds that there really is a thing called evil. It is not a second God. It is not all-powerful. And in the end good conquers evil—that is the nature, the foundation of our faith. There is only one God who reigns through all eternity, and that God is good, through and through. But here in this world in which we find ourselves, evil exists. Consider a simple fact. In the past century, more human beings were killed by other human beings than in all of history up until that point. We live in a world where people hijack airplanes, fly them into building, and think they are doing something wonderful as they bring about the death of thousand of people.

We live in a world where people kill other people over a few dollars, where a person who robs a convenience store will kill the clerk just to improve his odds of not getting caught. So let’s not downplay the idea of Satan. Because there is an evil that grabs hold of some people, and that evil is real. Flip Wilson used to joke about it when, as the character Geraldine, he would justify some indiscretion by saying, “The devil made me do it.” But the fact is, evil may not be located in some individual being like the devil, but is can still be a real and tangible presence in the world. And it can feed on itself. And it can justify itself. And this is the presence that confronts Jesus in today’s scripture.

This story speaks to us on two important levels. First, it tells us who Jesus is. It is what theologians call a Christological story. And second, it challenges us to respond to the world in the same way Jesus did.

Let’s consider the theological aspect of the story. Matthew was intent on telling the world that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, the Messiah, the Holy Son of God. That is why he wrote his gospel. Jesus is led into the wilderness, immediately after his baptism, and he is tempted by Satan—tempted by evil. The story tells us that Jesus was in the wilderness forty days and forty nights, and was famished. And the devil tempts him to turn stones into bread, so he can satisfy his hunger. Jesus responds by quoting scripture, from the Book of Deuteronomy: One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Then the devil places Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple. It doesn’t say how Jesus and Satan instantly move from the wilderness to the temple in Jerusalem, which should caution us about reading this story too literally. Since Jesus quotes scripture to explain his refusal to change the stones to bread, Satan decides he’ll do a little scripture-quoting of his own. The devil dares Jesus to jump off the top of the temple, and quotes the 91st Psalm: 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.

The old saying goes, “The devil comes quoting scripture.” But Jesus is the wrong person with whom to get into a scripture quoting contest. Jesus answers back, again quoting Deuteronomy, “It is written, do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Satan then puts Jesus on a high mountain where he can see all the kingdoms of the world. Satan tells him they can all be his if only he will bow down and worship the devil. Jesus orders the devil to go away, and once again quotes Deuteronomy: Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him. And at this point, the devil leaves, and angels appear to wait on Jesus.

How does this story prove that Jesus is the Christ? Why doesn’t Jesus use his power and prove who he is? We discover Jesus using his power throughout the Gospel of Matthew, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, curing lepers, walking on water… why doesn’t Jesus use his power now? This is one of only two places in the Bible where Jesus proves he is indeed the Christ by not performing miracles. Remember the other time? The cross. I’ll read the story from Matthew 27, telling what happens after Jesus is nailed to the cross:

Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s son.’”

Jesus proves he is the Christ by refusing to give in to temptation. Throughout his ministry, those who believe in him are healed, and witness miracles. And when the miracles occur, Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.” The miracles of Jesus are not parlor tricks. They are gifts of faith to the faithful. And when tempted to use his gifts for unworthy causes—for the filling of his own stomach, or for the flaunting of his relationship with God, or for the acquisition of power over others—he refuses. Thus, in the story of the temptation and the story of the cross, it is by not performing miracles he proves he is worthy.

I said this story speaks to us on two important levels, first revealing that Jesus is indeed the Christ. But it also challenges us to respond to the world in the same way Jesus did. If we are to take a literal reading of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had certain gifts that most people do not. A lot of people wish their minister could walk on water, and a lot of ministers seem to think they have that ability, but the fact is we are for the most part long on talk and short on miracles. I love the line from that old Charlie Daniels song that goes, Jesus walked on the water, and I know that it’s true; but sometimes I think that preacher man would like to do a little walkin’ too.”

I can assure you that the only time I have ever walked on water is when it was frozen solid. But I do have certain gifts. And so do each of you. We human beings are bestowed with amazing gifts, and even if we can’t walk on water, and feed five thousand people with a few loaves and fishes, and grant sight to the blind with the touch of our hand, we, like Jesus, get to choose how we use our gifts.

And in that way, we are tempted, by the same power that tempted Jesus, to use our gifts for selfish purposes. And we do. And when I say we, please know that I am including myself among those whose selfishness often trumps his better nature. And that is the whole purpose of Lent. These weeks leading up to Easter are meant to be a time of introspection.

We may not be able to turn stones into bread, but how often do we turn the heartless stones of silver and gold into food for ourselves, while others go without? We may not feel we could throw ourselves off the top of a building and be rescued by God, but how often do we put God to the test, challenging God to meet some need of ours and promising to be better Christians if God will only meet our demand this one time? We may not have the opportunity to rule the world by bowing down to the devil, but how often do we vote for leaders whose policies assure the status quo, making certain our wealth and power are protected from those who might be too generous toward the poor, or the uninsured, or the homeless?

The good news of Easter is that God covers all our mistakes. That good news has no value for the person who thinks his or her life is free of mistakes, or that their mistakes have no consequences. The good news of Easter is that all our sins are covered by the love of God. That means nothing to those who believe there is no such thing as sin. The good news of Easter is that there is no power in the universe that compares with the power, glory and goodness of God. That means nothing to the person who believes he or she already embodies perfect goodness.

Easter means nothing to the person who is already a perfected being. But you and me—and I think I can safely speak for you on this subject—we are not perfected beings. We yield each and every day to temptations that make us more comfortable, with no regard to the unmentionable pain and suffering taking place all around us. We fill up our refrigerators and grow our bank accounts while millions are hungry. The money we Americans spend feeding our lawns so they will be nice and green—and I am one of those people—could largely solve the world’s problem of malnutrition.

Lent. It’s a tough time of year for Christians. This looking inside and trying to see the world from God’s point of view—it can be a real blow to a person’s ego. In fact, Lent leads us to Good Friday. Lent leads us squarely to the cross.

I think far too many churches spend way too much time on Lent. In fact, some churches seem to treat the whole year as Lent. Week after week people in the pews confess their sinful natures and weep at the foot of the cross. But that misses the whole point. We are not Good Friday people. We are Easter people. We don’t live in the shadow of the cross; we live in the light of Easter.

Oh, I think it is of vital importance to the Christian faith that we recognize our need for God’s grace. And that is why each year we spend some time in Lent. Easter isn’t really Easter unless you arrive there by walking through Good Friday. But let us never become Good Friday people. That is not the place we should spend our lives.

The good news is that God still loves us. God understands us. And the most amazing thing of all is this: God wants nothing at all from us other than the recognition that we are not perfect. And then, we’ve done all we need to do. God takes care of everything else. God gives us the day of Good Friday so we can live our lives in the season of Easter.