Sermon for August 5, 2018
Matthew 4:1-11 New International Version (NIV)Jesus Is Tested in the Wilderness
4 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[a] 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.’[b]”
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.’[c]”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[d]”
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.’[e]”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
God knows it can be so hard to be open to the Spirit when you’re under attack, feeling stressed, when even the most simple things in life feel impossible. Especially if you’re feeling as though life just won’t let up, I urge you, call you, even beg you, to just read on.
It is all too easy to read about Jesus and the devil, in the wilderness of biblical times, and objectify the experience. It can feel distant in time, context, grandiosity, and sheer practical perception. Beyond faith or belief, it is ok to acknowledge that the actual occurrence of the devil and Jesus interacting in this way is nearly impossible to imagine in our modern context. Set aside ideas about literal interpretations, belief, history etc for a moment. If we can keep your mind open, we’ll see that this example is beyond time or belief. We will see Christ’s temptation in our lives, and the lives of others, right here and now.
Evil can attack us from within, or from what appears to be outside of us. We can battle our thoughts, and we can battle a perceived threat from someone else. As we begin to understand the devil's attempt to tempt Jesus above, this distinction between these will begin to be less and less important, and ultimately, totally unnecessary.
First, look at when the devil came to tempt Jesus. Jesus was in the wilderness, he had fasted, and he was hungry. This tells us something very important about how we can expect temptation, evil, to test us. The devil, evil, is a coward. Temptation comes to exploit a perceived weakness, to test when you’re at your weakest. We can see that people who act in an evil manner emulate this trait. They attack the weak, the vulnerable. People often say, “When it rains, it pours”, “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”- we already have a sense that evil will come after us when we feel we can least bear it. You’re being tempted. You’re being drawn in. We must be even more aware at these times.
The devil is trying to engage Jesus. He’s trying to draw him into his game of temptation, worldly rules and concepts. It is, in reality, all the devil can offer- deception, lies, illusion, the wares of a temporary world. In the same way with us, the devil invites us into his house of mirrors. He wants us to turn away from God, from Truth, and fall into a never ending maze of worldly ideas. He can’t tempt us with the real truth because evil, the devil, literally cannot offer truth.
We struggle when we begin to accept the judgment of others, get involved in ideas of success or failure, status, class ad infinitum. Our inner voice begins to take on the character of the temptations we allow ourselves to be drawn into. Have you ever see a friend or loved one begin to voice negative thoughts about themselves that you know are totally false, but have somehow infected their thinking? Victims of horrible abuse often internalize the trauma of their experience as if it was somehow a part of their true identity. People who are bullied can begin to believe the things the bully says. This is us allowing ourselves to be draw into the devil’s game.
So, what is Jesus doing that’s different from what we tend to do?
It’s not as if Jesus summons the power of God the Father, as His son, and blasts the devil with a mighty lightening bolt. Jesus is always careful to show us that it is not something supernatural, different, about Him that we are to identify with. Jesus is one with us, and we with Him. We, however, often want to contend with evil like a superhero or warrior. We want to engage it, fight it, use power. We love to watch all the superhero movies where the good guys get to do what we often can’t do. Our instinct is to fight- but this is actually part of the temptation, and Jesus shows us it is an error.
Jesus doesn’t actually get rid of the devil until he has totally deprived him of participation in his game. As the devil tries to draw Jesus into his world, Jesus asserts Truth. Jesus knows the devil has no defense against Truth- he can only play in the world of illusion. It is only when the devil has been deprived of any ability to engage Jesus on a level of lies and illusion that Jesus then delivers the ultimate blow- that God is, only God is. God alone deserves our attention.
Now, back to us. How do we apply this? We don’t turn to evil to fight it, we turn away to attend to God, to Truth. We deprive evil of the attention it needs to survive. We turn to Christ, where evil has no footing. Practically speaking, this means doing things like praying for, rather than against; it means resisting the temptation to be drawn into the dramas that so often encroach on our lives. Most of us have known someone who lives for drama, for attention. Positive or negative attention, they just want to be fed. They literally can’t handle being ignored, however. Be so busy with God that you miss the world, the devil, tapping on your shoulder. Deprive the hungry demons in your life what they need to survive.
This does not mean that we are to allow evil in the world. It means we are to disallow it to rule over us, to draw us in, as we vanquish it. This is very important. Jesus did not allow the devil to play his game. In the end, he was sent away. It is how this was done that is important. Jesus remained untouched. Truth remained pristine, abiding. All the while, the devil was soundly defeated. We are shown that we can oppose evil, yet remain grounded in the divine. The battle is a spiritual one, not a worldly one. When you are grounded in Truth, as Jesus was, the worldly problems cease to have power to touch us. Christ calls us to come to the Truth in Him, to allow Him to fight our battle, and for us to be set free.
If I make this all sound easy, or even clear in a conceptual sense, that is not my intention. It is often hard, messy, blurry, intermittent. In some ways it is like a spiritual diet, with all the pitfalls associated with normal diets. We have moments of weakness, confusion, set back, mixed with clarity, motivation, progress. With this diet, we are starving the evil and temptation in our lives of attention and energy.
Even more confounding is the need to give up your ‘effort’ to starve evil in Christ’s Truth. This can be both liberating, and confusing, all at the same time. What effort do I give up? Isn’t giving myself to Christ a kind of effort? This is part of the lesson of Christ in the wilderness, being alone and quiet. It’s a part of our spiritual journey that we must experience, not just talk about, our real spiritual identity. It is a giving up of listening, reading, thinking, conceptualizing and a turning toward real communion with Christ.
You are probably going to find that you have some mental and spiritual whiplash after reading this sermon. Hopefully you find some lifelines, some starting points, but, most assuredly, you will also find what might feel like some mysterious, unknown territory. The latter is also a starting point. It’s a starting point that begins to bridge that illusory gap that I mentioned at the start- evil coming from outside versus inside. More specifically outside versus inside. Christ and you. Separation and communion. The end of the verses above, the assertion of God as the one and only ground of all, is the ending of temptation, and the realization of Truth you can only experience.