Sermon - 5th March 2017
Scripture - Matthew 4:1-11
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Matthew tells us today that we are witnessing the start of Jesus’s ministry. And right at that very starting point, Matthew places a question which will follow Jesus to the very day he dies. It’s a question which acts like a golden thread throughout the gospel story, and it sits at the heart of our understanding of the truth about the carpenter’s son from Nazareth.
Immediately before today’s reading, we hear of Jesus being baptised in the Jordan by John. And during that event we are told a voice from heaven affirms Jesus with the words, “This is my own dear Son...”.
And then, when Jesus retreats into the desert we hear that each of the devil’s temptations begins with the phrase, “If you are the Son of God...” followed by the challenge to prove it in this way, and that way, and another way.
And the question will come again, in a slightly different form, but no less demanding, when the soldiers mock Jesus in his final hours as he hangs on the cross, with their words, “If you are God’s Son, save yourself.”
Jesus’s faith in God was not only tested at the start of his ministry when he spent time alone with his demons: it was tested every time someone said, “If you are who you claim to be, prove it”.
We tend to think of the physical deprivations Jesus suffered in the desert as the reason behind his temptations. But was he really battling the desire for relief from hunger and other bodily needs, or was the deeper challenge more to do with Jesus’s faith in his own identity and his own calling, constantly bedevilled as he was by that question, “If you are the Son of God...”?
The temptations devised by the devil are demanding. Jesus uses his knowledge of Jewish scriptures to brush each one aside with a quotation about the true nature of God’s covenant with humanity. But there are deeper meanings to what is on offer and what is being declined.
Turning stones to bread might serve to satisfy Jesus’s immediate hunger, but it would remove him from the company of the many multitudes who lived with hunger as a daily reality. The challenge which Jesus so often gave to others was to bring about a kingdom where all are fed. So was there was a bigger principle here than to simply attend to his own needs? - something about compassion for other people coming before the needs of self?
And what is the point of dominance and sovereignty over all the kingdoms of the earth when God’s purpose for the earth and its people is not driven by power and domination?
Worldly power, achieved by a conqueror who would lead a war of liberation, was what the Zealots wanted and was certainly one vision of what a Messiah would bring about. But Jesus knew that to pin one’s faith on worldly power or authority is to invest in values which can pervert and corrupt God’s own will for creation. So, is there something in this temptation about commitment to the values of God’s Kingdom?
And is it ever our place to test God’s love for us? When we launch ourselves into freefall from the pinnacle of our own lives, expecting to be saved from the consequences of our own actions, are we not perhaps playing childish games with the one who knows us better than we know ourselves? Or are we really asking continually for proof, when we are actually called as disciples to live by faith? So, was there a bigger principle here about faith in God’s love leading us beyond our own behaviours?
Jesus’s experience in the desert was not really about physical hardship, endurance, or the hallucinations brought on by bodily deprivation: it was about identity, self-awareness and belief.
If we read it on that level, the gospel asks us to reflect on how the temptations that we face today measure up to those themes of:
- compassion for all people,
- commitment to God’s kingdom,
- and faith in God’s love.
Maybe we fall short in compassion when we are tempted to live in ways which focus on self and have little left to share with our communities and our friendship circles. Compassion is something we may need to receive from others, as well as something we may show to others. It is a response to which we open ourselves; it engages the emotions; it’s a shared experience; and it builds on friendships and community connections which already exist. To experience compassion, we have to be open, accessible, vulnerable, and open to rejection. And being vulnerable can feel dangerous.
And perhaps we lose our commitment to God’s kingdom when we are tempted to stand back from challenges around justice and fairness instead of standing up to them. How closely do those values match our own? What will we challenge and campaign for? Where can we make a difference which moves us a step closer to the Kingdom? To experience the coming of the Kingdom, we have to be ready to use wisely the strengths we have, ready to stand up for justice, and ready to challenge the damaging use of power by others.
Or perhaps we fail to make a reality of God’s love when we are tempted to think there is no forgiveness for our own actions or the actions of others. Letting go of baggage in our lives is never easy.
Often we say we forgive someone, but we hold onto feelings of distrust and memories of past hurts. To experience God’s love, we have to trust ourselves to love others as unconditionally as we can, to understand ourselves as deeply as we can, and to love ourselves as generously as we can.
Many things in today’s world can tempt us to stray from the values which Jesus shared in his teachings and showed in his life. And we can choose whether or not we will respond to those temptations.
Some of us may even undergo the ‘wilderness’ experience: times when difficult living conditions, bodily hunger, spiritual thirst, isolation, loneliness, or a whole range of other experiences all serve to tempt our weakened bodies and our battered spirits to abandon our faith, or to lose confidence in our own identity and calling as a Christian disciple.
These are all aspects of being human which Jesus himself shared, and he has never told us that we must be superhuman, or that weaknesses are not permitted, or that failure will result in rejection.
All he asks is that, where we can, in the world we face, and in the spirit of his example, we should show compassion when we’re tempted to focus on self; work for the coming of God’s Kingdom when we’re tempted to chase after worldly power and influence; and trust in God’s love for all people.
People in this church know what it means to have our identity, self-awareness and belief challenged. They are the questions and conversations which form a golden thread which runs through our lives. Think of how often we need to ‘come out’ about one or more aspects of our personalities or personal histories.
Perhaps what we may not have recognised is that during his time in the wilderness, Jesus was there before us, facing his own demons, addressing his own fears, and ‘coming out’ to himself about who he really was and where the journey of his life would lead him.
Scratch the surface of this story and it becomes a story of our time and of our experience, because when our people talk to each other they talk about identity, and justice, and hunger, and endurance, and power, and deprivation, and coming out, and self-belief, and sometimes even about faith.
And if we are the disciples we seek to be, by the grace of God and in the love of Jesus, we will talk about them as well, because Jesus was there before us.