Sermon - 9th March 2014
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 point of initiation, 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...” prove it in this way, and this, and this.
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 “If you are the Son of God...” question?
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 wasn’t 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 value 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 wisdom or authority is to invest in values which may not match God’s own will for creation. So, is there something here about commitment to 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 for proof, when we are actually called to live by faith? So, was there a bigger principle here about faith in God’s love transcending 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.
Perhaps 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 tends to build 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 fall short in bringing about God’s kingdom when we are tempted to stand back from challenges around justice and fairness instead of standing up to them. Jesus gave many insights into the values which underpin God’s vision for the world. How well do we embrace those values? How closely do those values match our own? What will we challenge and campaign for? And 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, to be ready to stand up for justice, and to challenge the damaging use of power by others.
Or perhaps we fall short in making 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. God’s forgiveness is complete and uncompromising, yet fear of the future makes us hold onto recriminations from the past. 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 harsh physical conditions, bodily hunger, spiritual thirst, isolation, loneliness, or a whole range of other drives and demands 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 as the force which drives creation forwards to where God is leading us, in the faith through which God blesses each of us, and in the hope which the Good News of Jesus reveals to us.
Because if we are the disciples we claim to be, by the grace of God and in the love of Jesus, we will prove it.