Good morning, Friends!
This morning I’m going to take us back to a story that I haven’t told for quite a few years now. It’s a story from the very beginning of when Jesus was first starting out. I always like to go back to “beginning places”, to stories about how things began, because I always think that’s where our roots are.
There are lots of stories about beginnings in the Bible. Christmas is one of those times, of course, with the birth of Jesus. Easter is another “beginning time”, because without the resurrection and the experience of the living Savior, Christians wouldn’t have any “later times” at all.
Last week we looked at another “beginning time” story, when Jesus called his first group of friends. Today’s story takes us to a time when Jesus went out into the wilderness, and was tempted.
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “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.’”
Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
– Matthew 4:1-11
It may seem like kind of a strange thing for Jesus to have gone up away by himself into the wilderness. Actually, this was the beginning of Jesus’ life-long habit of returning to the quiet, of going away to find quiet places to pray and to be alone with God. This was something Jesus did not just once, but many times.
It says that Jesus fasted. That seems like a pretty strange thing to us, too. I mean, why starve yourself? Isn’t that unhealthy? To us it seems unnatural.
I don’t know whether “fasting” means that he didn’t eat anything. It could mean that he only ate simple things, or that he lived off the land.
I’ve fasted myself on occasion, for a day or two. It can be a pretty interesting.
The point of fasting isn’t to prove how tough you are. It’s not to show that you can take it, or even to show how much you can give up. The point of fasting is to strip away some of the artificial hungers, some of the artificial wants and desires we all have, and see what we really need. The whole point of fasting is to find out what we’re really hungry for.
In a lot of ways, the quiet prayer that Quakers go in for is a kind of fasting. It’s not that we don’t enjoy talking with our friends as much as anybody else. I know a few Quakers right here in this meeting who can talk the leg off an iron pot. (I won’t name any names!)
But quiet prayer can be a kind of spiritual fasting, a kind of fasting from words. It takes us back to the place where all of those words come from. Going out into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights may not be something that we’re all called to do. But spending maybe 40 minutes of quiet, every now and then, might be worth considering.
Back when I was in college, I joined Friends in an unprogrammed meeting, the kind where they don’t have a pastor, and where quiet worship is what they do all the time. And I have a lot of sympathy for people who are hungry for that quiet. I know how much it can mean.
But I also have a lot of sympathy for people who can’t get used to a lengthy quiet time. I sympathize with the bored and fidgety children, and with all of you throat clearers and foot shufflers who find just 4 or 5 minutes of quiet time pretty tough to take.
Just remember that fasting and quiet time can be genuine spiritual disciplines. Part of why I chose this story this morning, was to remind us of that.
Well, after 40 days and 40 nights of prayer and fasting, most of us would probably be ready for a couple of Big Macs. That would be our weak point.
It says that the devil came up to Jesus and told him, “If you really are the Son of God, how about you tell some of these stones around you to become bread.”
And Jesus probably could have done it. You and I couldn’t have, but he could. The only trouble is, that the point of having power, isn’t always to use it for yourself. Spending his time doing magic tricks was never what Jesus was about.
The lesson from the wilderness, the lesson from the quiet time that Jesus learned, was that there is more to life than just what we eat. “We do not live by bread alone, but we live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. . .”
Without the Word, every day, we starve. Without God speaking in our hearts, calling us back, turning us around, we die inside.
Our society tries to stuff us with so much spiritual, emotional and mental junk food. Society offers us games and addictions galore. We feed ourselves on all of the hundreds of channels on TV every day, on all the garbage that’s on the air waves and the Internet, and we wonder why we’re so hungry. I mean, who needs the devil tempting us, when we’ve got all this stuff around us every day?
The great lesson the people of Israel learned in the wilderness, for 40 years, was that God provides fresh bread, every day. Took them 40 years to learn it, and they forgot it almost right away.
Jesus knew that he depended on God. Later on, Jesus fed the crowds – thousands of people at one sitting, starting with just five loaves of bread and two little fish.
Jesus understood hunger. He told people, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to Me will not hunger. Whoever believes in Me will not thirst. . .” (John 6:35)
Jesus taught his friends to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread. . .” (Matthew 6:11) But it was never just about bread for Jesus. There’s outward, physical hunger. And there’s inner, spiritual hunger. Jesus cared about both. But he knew that one kind of bread won’t feed the other thing that’s bothering us.
And the test for Jesus, and for all of us, is to figure out the difference. Who are we depending on – God, or someone else? What are we stuffing ourselves with – the living Word, or a lot of junk food?
Next, it says the tempter took Jesus up to Jerusalem, and stood him up on the highest point of the Temple. The commentators I read this week said it was over 180 feet high, and one said that it stood at the edge of a cliff, which made it a 480 foot drop. Pretty tall.
The tempter said, “Go ahead. Jump down. God loves you. Doesn’t it say, He will give his angels charge of you? Doesn’t it say, “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike you foot against a stone”?
I guess the devil can quote Scripture any way he wants to. Or maybe I should say, temptation is when we let something twist us away from the Truth, or tear us away from the Holy Spirit.
The lesson Jesus learned in the wilderness was that you always trust God. You don’t try to control God. And you don’t try to test or tempt God.
God can’t be tempted. That’s just the way God is, because God is always the Truth about the way things are. The Truth wins out, over all of our temptations to lose sight of God, and over all of our temptations not to trust in God. But there’s more to trusting God, than putting God to silly tests and trying to make God jump through the hoops at our bidding.
I guess that’s the message that really keeps coming through to me in all this – there’s more to faith than what we usually think.
Jumping off high places is not one of my personal temptations. I’ll climb up on a ladder and clean the gutters, but that’s about as high as I like to go. I like to stand and look out at Niagara Falls – I went there again last summer – but I’ve never hankered to go over the Falls in a barrel.
That’s about what Jesus said. There’s a difference between trusting God, and putting God to the test. One of them is the ultimate wisdom, and the other is the ultimate stupidity.
Trusting God is crucial. Listening to God. Obeying God. Following God. Those are all good.
But testing God – doing something stupid and daring God to catch us – that’s dumb. I don’t know what would have happened if Jesus had jumped off the Temple, but Jesus knew the difference between faith and craziness.
And then, it says, the devil took Jesus and stood him up on a high, high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and all the pomp and circumstance and glory of them. And he said, “All of this can be yours, if you want it. Just worship me…”
That kind of temptation is not as removed from us as we might think. There are times when most of us wouldn’t mind having POWER! Maybe not the power to hurt people, but certainly the power to stop them, or to punish them. I don’t know about having the responsibility for everyone and everything, but I think we wouldn’t mind having the influence and the recognition of being in power at times. Wouldn’t we?
But the lesson Jesus learned in the wilderness, the lesson he learned for good, was that there’s only one God. There’s only one kingdom, and that’s God’s kingdom. And Jesus talked about that kingdom, for the rest of his life.
What you learn in the quiet isn’t how to be more powerful, but how to lay down your life for other people. The lesson of the wilderness is that there is more to life than power and control.
I think that in a way, what Jesus spent the rest of his life doing was telling people, “There is more. . .There is more. . . There is more. . .”
There is more to life than our daily bread, even though God knows we need it. There is more to trust than falling down and expecting God to catch you, even though God is always there. There is more to power and strength than we usually think there is. It isn’t about beating other people up or being arrogant. Real strength comes from living in the Truth, from living in the Kingdom.
And the other great thing is, that no matter how many times you learn those lessons, there is always more to learn.
The love of God that Jesus talked about is something deeper, and higher, and taller, and broader, and more exciting, than anything else you can ever experience in your whole life.
You can go from one pastor to another, you can read all the books you could ever have time to read, you can spend a lifetime learning about God’s love, and never be finished.
When Jesus says to us, “There is more. . .”, he’s also saying that we can never finish the joy of discovery.
We can go back into the quiet, and spend some time every day with God, and always find something new.
All the endings that you’ve ever experienced, are only beginnings. All of the things that you ever thought you understood, only get deeper, and more exciting. There is more. And Jesus can help us discover it.
I want to say one more thing before we finish this morning. There’s one more reason this story is in the Gospel. A lot of the time, these Bible stories highlight how special Jesus is – how powerful, how divine.
But in this story, Jesus is showing us how human he is. At every one of these three temptations, the tempter says, “If you are the Son of God. . .”
Jesus never denied who He was. But He was also one of us. We are tempted all the time. So was Jesus. Part of the reason for this story is to show us how human Jesus is.
In another part of the Bible, in the book of Hebrews, it says that Jesus “was tempted in all ways like us, but without being broken or lost.” It goes on to say that Jesus is “able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and who are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. . .” (Hebrews 4:15, 5:2)
A lot of people go around feeling that God condemns them and is going to punish them for making mistakes and falling down, for forgetting things and not being brave enough at times.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus knows our every weakness. Today’s story only mentions three big temptations, but Jesus knows all about being tempted.
The good news is, Jesus didn’t blow it. He didn’t fail. He gives us powerful examples of how to resist temptation. He gives us dozens of examples of God’s forgiveness.
Jesus is always showing us how trusting in God helps us to overcome our failures. And he promises, over and over, that God loves us and forgives us and wants to start over with us and make things right again.
It was difficult for Jesus. And often it’s hard for us. But Jesus shows us a way forward. We fall, but we can rise again. We make mistakes, but God does forgive us. We are tempted, but Jesus shows us what sons and daughters of God can do.