Sermon: Matt 4:1-11
Sunday February 10, 2008, Saint Gabriel’s Episcopal Church
Sometimes you only think of what you should have said long after the fact. You know how it works: you get into an argument with someone, they say something sharp, and you stand there, just feeling stupid. No quick retort, just something like, “well…ummmm…ermmmm…yeah.” And then you go home, stewing about it the whole way. And you go to bed that night, cranky and feeling small and beaten. And at two o’clock in the morning, you suddenly think of the smart reply you SHOULD have made, but didn’t.
Then you hear this gospel. Jesus, saying exactly what was necessary to respond to the devil. We wish we had a little of that. In our moment of weakness, to have a calm knowledge of how to respond, not to win the battle, but to end it…we wish we had a little of that. This gospel is an object lesson in how to overcome, even our moments of weakness, with grace.
It’s been an interesting sequence of stories over the past couple of weeks. John has baptized Jesus. The Transfiguration has occurred. And now Jesus has gone off into the desert, and has had a shout-down with the devil.
It’s the Gospel of Matthew, of course, so the focus of these stories, as our sermon series says, is all about who Jesus is.
John names who Jesus is, and God confirms it: “This is my son.”
Then Jesus gathers up a few disciples by the Sea of Galilee.
And last week, Jesus and the disciples are up on the mountain, and suddenly Jesus’ face changes – it’s almost unbearably bright, and Moses and Elijah are standing with him.
Peter, as usual, gets it all wrong…he wants to pitch some tents. But the booming voice of God comes again: “This is my son”.
All this is good, and it’s typical Matthew: he wants to remind the Jewish Christians who Jesus is, and how his coming is a fulfillment of the prophesies. That question, who is Jesus, is answered time and time again in Matthew’s story.
But here we are now in Lent, and in this story, we go deeper into the question and into the answer..
In this passage, for the first time, Jesus owns who He is. It is a beginning for Him.
Many cultures have rites of initiation for young men beginning their journey to manhood. For Native Americans, it may be a vision quest. For some tribes in Africa, it is a solo hunt with little more than a spear to kill a lion. Aboriginal youth in Australia go alone into the outback, on walkabout. More often than not, the young man is sent out into the wilderness, with limited resources, to prove his ability to stand up to the elements, to conquer something within himself and outside himself. Sometimes, the young man has visions. He comes back from the experience fundamentally transformed. It is viewed as a spiritual quest.
In some ways, Jesus’ trip out into the desert has the feel of a rite of initiation. He goes to the desert to think and pray and prepare himself for his active ministry. And as the young men on their vision quest have some very strange things happen to them, so too does Jesus. Instead of hallucinations, he sees something much more terrible. It is the evil one, the deceiver, Satan.
For the first time, Jesus says who He is. In each of his responses to the devil, He says who He is. Not quite “I am the Son of God,” but pretty close. He’s the one quoting the Scripture. He’s the one who answers the devil’s questions, those teasing questions that start out with “IF you are the son of God…”
The Evil One wants to derail Jesus’ ministry. And what better way than to try to tear apart Jesus when he is at his weakest, after being alone without food in the wilderness for forty days? What better way than to dare him to prove who he is?
I don’t know about you, but I’m most vulnerable when I’m tired, when I’m angry, when I’m lonely, when I’ve missed breakfast and lunch and can feel my stomach growling. It’s when I am physically weakest, when I am at my most human, that someone can pick an argument with me most easily. And make no mistake about it, after forty days in the desert, Jesus is most human. He’s tired and hungry and lonely and achy.
The Evil One knows that. So he does what my kids would call the “Double Dog Dare .”
“If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.”
There it is. The double dog dare. Prove it. Because if you don’t, we won’t believe you. And you don’t want that, do you?
And it would be ever so easy for Jesus to do it. He’s got the power. But he doesn’t use that kind of power. He simply reminds the devil that bread isn’t the most important thing, that there are other things that are more important.
So the devil ups the ante. Now it’s not just about hunger, it’s about proving His value to God, to the angels. Throw yourself off the Temple. Show me how the angels will catch you. Prove that you’re worth it, that you are who you say you are.
And it would be so easy for Jesus to do it. He knows that the angels would catch him, and then he could shut up this aggravating devil. But he doesn’t. Once again, he quotes Scripture: Don’t test God.
Now the Evil One is really frustrated. How to torment this Jesus? Play to his ego, maybe? He takes Jesus to the top of a mountain and promises him the world, if Jesus will honor the devil. After forty days of fasting alone in the desert, with his body exhausted, what will he do? Will he take the devil up on the offer? Not a chance. Jesus fights back, but his weapon is words, is scripture. God is the only one to be worshipped. Not a mere devil. He brushes him off like so much lint on his garment. The devil skulks off, and then the angels come and care for Jesus.
Jesus could have done each of those things the devil challenged him to do. He had the power. He is God. He could have turned stones into bread, just by thinking of it. He could have leapt off the pinnacle of the temple, and called the angels to catch him, and they would have done it. He could have used the overwhelming powers of his divinity to smack down that devil.
But he didn’t. He wrestled with the devil not with divine power, but with his vulnerability, his humanity. An extraordinary thing, for Jesus to be so fully human and to respond to temptation with his humanity…and to succeed. What a gift to us, that he showed us that even in weakness there can be strength! That’s the message here: Jesus shows us that we don’t have to be God to defeat the devil! We’ve got tools! We can turn to scripture, we can own our vulnerability, we can rely on God to help us through. Jesus defeated the devil by following the covenant that had been agreed upon between God and His people Israel. With each temptation, when He quoted the Scripture, He reminded the devil of that covenant: God’s words count most of all. God should not be tested. Worship only God. He put on the armor of the covenant, and He defeated the Evil One, more surely than if He had driven a sword through his dark heart.
Jesus told us precisely who He was in the Gospel, not by what the theologian Johann Metz described as “the empty shell of power,” using His divine power like it was a circus trick, but by his very humanity, and by his willingness to trust and to live the covenant. He overcame the devil as a man, so we would see that we, too, could overcome evil even in our weakness by living that covenant.
That’s the marvelous gift Jesus gives us here. It is easy to use the excuse of our weakness, to say we aren’t strong enough, when we are tempted. But Jesus reminds us that we can do it, we can fight back against the evil one, with the power of God’s word, with the humility that we do it with Jesus at our side, even when we doubt we have the strength.
Lent is forty days. This is our time in the wilderness, our vision quest, as we prepare for the resurrection by praying, and fasting, and meditating, and wondering how best we can fulfill the covenant. Know that each one of us is alone on this quest, and yet we are not alone. We have the Word, we have the love of Christ, we have each other, and we have the sure knowledge of the coming Resurrection. What more do we need to overcome evil?