Sermon for Sunday 1-18-2015

January 18, 2015
Was It Really This Easy?
Matthew 4:1-17

Once upon a time, a girl (let’s call her Hannah) coming close to the time of her bat mitzvah began to test the boundaries of what it meant to be a Jew and whether or not she wanted to take up that identity for herself. Hannah was at the age when a lot of kids like to have slumber parties, and since not all her friends were Jewish, there was a fair amount of pepperoni pizza being served. (Pepperoni is not kosher, since it’s made in part from pork; and even if it were made of only beef, the pizza would not be kosher because of the rule about not mixing meat and dairy.) But Hannah, at these gatherings with her friends, tried pepperoni pizza, and found it quite tasty.

So, as she pondered her Jewish identity, she asked her parents, “What is wrong with pepperoni pizza? If God created the earth and everything in it, what could be wrong with enjoying the taste of pepperoni?”

Well, Hannah’s father was a wise man, and he knew better to get himself drawn into an argument with an adolescent or provoke a rebellion by simply saying she could not have pepperoni, end of discussion. Instead, he told her, “You will have to decide.” Then he buttoned his lips and held his breath, as she went to slumber party after slumber party and enjoyed who knows how many slices of pepperoni pizza.

Then, one day, Hannah announced the decision she had reached on this very important matter. “There is nothing wrong with pepperoni pizza,” she said, as her parents’ nervousness was kindled. “God made it, and there is nothing wrong with it. But there is a lot,” she continued, “that is right about learning self-control. So when I smell pepperoni pizza, I will remember that I am a Jew and I know how to control myself.” (story from the Narrative Lectionary commentary for this week at, embellished a little bit for the sake of storytelling)

It can’t have been an easy decision for her, given that she was at an age when the approval of her peers would have become very important. She’d be going to these gatherings with her friends, and would stick out like a sore thumb because she would not be able to eat what they were eating. I can imagine her wondering, “Do I really want to be a Jew if it means my friends might make fun of me, or stop inviting me to their slumber parties because I can’t eat pepperoni pizza, which everybody likes?”

If you have ever been twelve or thirteen years old, you know how important this question can be. And it’s not a question that we outgrow when we become adults. What would Hannah have to deal with as she grew up, graduated college, moved into the business world, started a family?

“Some of the work I am being asked to do violates my understanding of God’s commandments. If I say no, I could lose my job; and in this economy jobs aren’t all that easy to come by.”

“My kids’ sports program schedules games on the Sabbath, at the same time as their religious education classes at the synagogue. How can we keep the Sabbath and still have our kids in the sports they love?”

Lest you think such questions are only the domain of an observant Jewish person like Hannah, can you imagine yourself struggling with similar temptations? Maybe we wouldn’t have to question pepperoni pizza, but there are other things…Perhaps Hannah the young Christian girl might struggle with whether or not to join in when she’s at a slumber party and the other kids decide to see what’s in the parents’ liquor cabinet. Or Hannah the new employee discovers some very unchristian practices that are commonplace in her company. Or Hannah the mom has to figure out what to do when the kids have sports practices scheduled on Sundays or on youth group night.

Temptation is not just a Jewish, or a Christian, matter. It’s something all humans face, regardless of their religious preference or even if they have no religion at all. Is this activity in keeping with who I am, who I want to be? Will I be able to live with myself if I do this?

Temptation is a human thing. We all face it, at one time or another. And it isn’t necessarily a trivial or humorous matter, as you’d gather from the world around us in which phrases like “I can withstand anything except temptation” or “I have no bad habits, but I’m open to suggestions” are commonly tossed around.

Temptation is a human thing, and so Jesus, being fully human as well as fully divine, had to undergo temptation. We would hope this means, among other things, that Jesus knows how hard it is for us to stand against temptation. But the temptations Jesus faced might have been just a little bit bigger than the ones we often face—even bigger than, perhaps, the temptation to sacrifice our principles to keep a job that we need so we and our family can have a roof over our heads.

In the wilderness, Jesus faced questions of how he would live out the identity that was confirmed by the heavenly voice at his baptism. “This is my Son, the Beloved; in him I am well pleased,” God said as Jesus came up out of the Jordan.

And the devil’s first statement was, “Well, if you are the Son of God…” (Actually, in Greek that if probably means something more like “since,” so the devil is saying, this is something that you ought to be entitled to as God’s Son.)

Okay, Son of God, you know that you don’t have to be hungry like other mere mortals get hungry, especially as they wander in the desert. So why don’t you turn a stone into bread and spare yourself that unpleasantness? After all, you’re the Son of God, and you can.

And Jesus comes back with a response: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” He is quoting from the book of Deuteronomy, in which the people of Israel are being reminded of how God took them out of slavery and into the barren wilderness, where they could not grow or gather food for themselves; and God fed them every day with manna.

We need to know that original story—how the people discovered that the wilderness wasn’t all going to be like the splendid oasis where they spent their first few days of freedom, and they complained, and tried to get Moses to lead them back to Egypt, where they might have been slaves, but at least they had food. And we need to understand Deuteronomy’s interpretation of that event, which is that God led them into that hungry place so they could learn to depend on the word of God to sustain them. If we understand those two things, Jesus’ response to this test makes a little bit more sense.

Matthew wants us to recognize that Jesus passed this test his ancestors had struggled with. But was it really this easy?

In all three three temptations, Jesus just turns and says, “It is written,” and then quotes from the book of Deuteronomy, each time referring to an incident from his ancestors’ time in the wilderness when they faced a decision about how they were going to be God’s people.

The first one was, as I just mentioned, about the giving of the manna. In the second case, Jesus is tempted to throw himself off the top of the temple, to prove that God would rescue him. In his response he quotes again from Deuteronomy, but leaves one phrase out. Deuteronomy 6:16 says, “Do not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.” Massah was the place where the Israelites, apparently, first realized that there’s not a lot of water to be had in the desert. True to form, they complained; but this time their complaint wasn’t just a gauzy-eyed remembrance of how in Egypt they had water to drink. This time it was about theology: Is the LORD among us, or not? If he is, then he can prove it by giving us water.

Jesus said, no, I am not going to ask God to prove himself. Putting God to the test is a sign that we don’t believe God can be trusted.

The third test is the one that Israel failed not just in the wilderness, but over and over and over again until God finally had enough and sent them to Babylon for a time-out. The devil says, “See how much I can give you—reign over all the nations on earth—if you’ll fall down and worship me?” (Of course, the implied rest of the question is, “…instead of God.”)

Tomorrow we have a federal holiday in honor of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who led a struggle against racial segregation and the ongoing violence that people of color faced—and still face—as they try to make their way through life. Imagine how Jesus taking over political power could have changed that! Would there have even been racism and segregation for Dr. King to fight against? Or could he just have had a quiet life as a husband, father, and pastor?

But Jesus said no, because it was too high a price to pay—and political power comes with a host of compromises and unintended consequences that could well have taken him so far from God’s will that he couldn’t find his way back. And he quoted again from Deuteronomy, a commandment that is repeated in one way or another throughout the Torah, including in the Ten Commandments: “Worship the LORD your God, and serve only him.”

But the way Matthew (and Luke, in his turn) describe this whole episode, Jesus doesn’t even break a sweat, doesn’t even furrow his brow, doesn’t have any trouble at all slapping down the devil’s temptations. Was it really that easy? Jesus may have been the Son of God, may have been God incarnate, but he was God incarnate as a human being; and withstanding temptation is actually pretty difficult for us human beings. Was it really that easy for him?

Well, I don’t know. What I do know is that the whole episode is laid out here in Matthew to show that the temptations Jesus’ ancestors couldn’t withstand in the wilderness didn’t faze him a bit. Because of that, actually, because Jesus swatted them away like little more than an annoying housefly, we see once again that Jesus fulfills Torah, fulfills the whole of God’s Law in a way that God’s people could not do on their own, even in more than a thousand years of trying.

Dealing with temptation is very hard for us humans. It evidently wasn’t all that hard for Jesus—and these were big temptations, well beyond the temptation to toss a box of Little Debbie cakes in our grocery cart if we shop hungry.

Do you suppose, maybe, that as we study and become more familiar with Scripture—for it was with Scripture that Jesus fended off the devil’s temptations—and as we grow closer in our relationship to Jesus, withstanding the most important temptations might get a little easier for us, too?

It has to be worth a try.


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