It might seem like your pastors have gotten the order of the biblical
story mixed up: shouldn’t we confess after we are tempted?
If Jesus had already fasted for forty days before he was tempted,
then shouldn’t this Sunday be the end of the forty days of
Lent, rather than just the beginning? Rather than trying to convince
you that Elizabeth and I know what we’re doing, let’s
go back and look at our text from the gospel of Matthew.
Scholars call Matthew, Mark and Luke the Synoptic gospels. They
have many of the same stories, mostly in the same order, and even
a lot of similar wording. I have a chart in my study Bible -- I’m
sure many of you have something similar -- of parallel passages
between all four gospels. Most scholars believe that the gospel
of Mark was written first, and that all three gospels share common
source material which no longer exists. There is no account of the
temptation of Jesus in the book of John, but Matthew, Mark and Luke
are very similar. So similar, in fact, that it’s interesting
to note the few differences and wonder why they’re there.
Each account begins with Jesus being led into the wilderness by
the Spirit. The wilderness is a real place, but it also has symbolic
meaning: it is a desolate place, an isolated place, a place without
natural sources of food or water. It’s where Moses led the
children of Israel around for forty years; it’s where the
prophet Elijah hid out when he was being hunted by King Ahab. It’s
a place that nobody goes through unless they have to. But the wilderness
is also the place where people encounter God: where Jacob saw angels
going up and down a ladder to heaven, where Jacob wrestled with
God, where the children of Israel followed God in a pillar of cloud
and fire, where Elijah heard a still, small voice. The wilderness
is a place where we don’t want to go, but we have to get through.
I had a wise counselor years ago who helped me during a difficult
time. I was probably being whiney and self-pitying at the time,
but these are the words which have stuck with me: “Rosanna,”
he said “Sometimes the only way out is through.”
The Spirit is taking Jesus into the wilderness, and Matthew’s
gospel is the only one to add, “to be tempted by the devil.”
I have to wonder -- because Matthew doesn’t tell us -- did
Jesus know before he went that he was being taken into the wilderness
to be tempted? When did Jesus know? Why would he go? Would you walk
into that situation?
The other small, but significant addition which Matthew makes is
that while the other gospels say Jesus fasted for forty days, Matthew
says for forty days and forty nights. This doesn’t change
the actual length of time, but it’s a coded statement for
any Jewish readers. Remember last week when we talked about Moses
on Mt. Sinai for forty days and forty nights before receiving the
Ten Commandments? This would have been a tip-off that we’re
talking about a prophet, someone like Moses who knew and spoke with
God, but a human being who would be famished after not eating for
And when Jesus is weak and hungry and alone, the tempter -- the
devil -- shows up. The devil speaks to Jesus three times, and Jesus
answers three times with quotes from the Deuteronomy: one of the
books of the law. I believe that these are not three distinct temptations;
they are variations on a theme. It is a familiar theme, and it has
a great deal of contemporary resonance -- in the church and in politics.
That theme is power and control. The devil leads with “If
you are the Son of God . . .” but it could also be translated
“Since you are the Son of God . . .” or “Because
you are the Son of God . . .” the devil isn’t asking
for proof that Jesus is the Son of God, the devil wants Jesus to
start acting like the Son of God. Do something that will impress
people, even make them worship you.
The first temptation is about satisfying physical needs -- it isn’t
only Jesus who is hungry. There are a lot of hungry people. If you
can feed people, they’ll follow you anywhere; they’ll
become completely dependent on you. If you can create jobs for unemployed
people, you will win their support and loyalty. Give the people
what they want and take care of yourself at the same time.
The second temptation is about spectacle and celebrity. Itinerant
rabbis are a dime a dozen. What good is a message from God if no
one’s paying attention? You gotta make a big splash and start
this ministry off with something that will really make you stand
out from the crowd. What’s that book you’re always reading
. . . oh yeah, the Psalms. Doesn’t it say something in there
about God having his angels take care of you? Let’s try that
out in the middle of Jerusalem from the top of the Temple. That’d
be amazing, right?
The third temptation is about world domination. I know that sounds
like something out of an Austin Powers movie, but that’s the
final play -- for big, BIG power. Of course Jesus, you’re
one of the good guys, so you’d use ultimate power for good,
and we’d all be better off. I’d let you have all that
power and all you’d have to do is worship me.
I know this sounds melodramatic: it’s easy to imagine the
devil as oily and obvious and maybe even a little ridiculous --
world domination, c’mon. Maybe you and I aren’t tempted
by ultimate power but I bet we have all wished for an easier life.
God, could you just point me toward the shortcut around the wilderness?
Because I really don’t want to go there. I don’t want
to be hungry and uncomfortable; I don’t want to be sick; I
don’t want people I love to die; I don’t want to die.
And this, friends, is why I believe we need confession. If we start
Lent by swaggering into the wilderness, because we’ve got
great camping equipment and some pretty solid survival skills; betcha
they could do a reality TV show about how I conquer the widerness
-- we are in trouble. These are precisely the temptations which
Jesus resists: temptations of power and control and celebrity. The
devil loves it when we think: I can handle anything. Confession
is acknowledging that we are led to places where the GPS doesn’t
work. Where our education and ingenuity and effort aren’t
enough. Where things fall apart and we can’t put them back
together again. Nobody wants to go there, but sometimes the only
way out is through.
Confession means turning our backs on the power and control that
the world offers and acknowledging that we are limited, and the
only way we’re going to make it through the wilderness is
if God meets us there. Our greatest temptation is to try to short-circuit
this process. But we don’t meet God by taking shortcuts. Jesus
was a human being like us, with free will; he was also the Son of
God. He could have used the power he already had in the ways the
devil suggested and skipped the whole terrible story of betrayal
and suffering and crucifixion and death. And where would that leave
us? Lost. Lost in the wilderness with only our best guess at how
to get through. Lost in our lives without Jesus’ example of
love and sacrifice. Lost for eternity, because without going through
death, there is no path to eternal life. The only way out is through.
You have in your bulletins a half sheet of explanation and some
suggestions for this coming week of the Christian practice of fasting.
Fasting has a long history in the church, in part because of this
story from the gospels of Jesus fasting in the wilderness. Like
any Christian practice that the Church has tried to legislate and
tell people that they must do it and how they have to do it, fasting
has some unfortunate baggage for some people. Here’s how I
see fasting, and how I would explain its benefit as a Christian
practice: I asked at the beginning of this sermon that if you knew
you were being led into temptation, would you go there? And at least
for me, the answer is Yes! Of course. I go into bookstores, I visit
art galleries, I go to potlucks, I look at Amazon Prime: and these
are just the temptations I’m willing to talk about in public.
Of course we go to places where we’re tempted. Or maybe we’re
tempted to stay home and do nothing. The reality is that we all
have things that distract us from or destroy our relationship with
God and with other people. And the most dangerous people are the
ones who deny this. Addiction groups are full of people who say,
“Yeah, I can quit any time I want.” Those people are
in denial, not in recovery.
Fasting is a way of being aware of the things which we think we
can’t do without. What do you have trouble saying NO to? Being
aware of those things helps refocus us on God and what is most important
in our lives. Fasting from food is traditional, because eating is
a human experience: everybody needs food. But even just changing
when or what we eat can make us aware of food in a different way,
and remind us that there a people who can never take the next meal
for granted. Other things to fast from could be watching TV, checking
social media, shopping for non-essentials. I’m not going to
tell you what you ought to fast from, but I am going to encourage
you to fast from something during the coming week. Make that choice
for yourself. Remember, the point of fasting is not to make yourself
miserable by giving up something that makes you happy, it’s
to make you more aware of other things in your life -- including
the good things which God provides which we forget to acknowledge.
Take your bulletin home so you can read what’s there. If you
leave here saying, “Pastor Rosanna said I have to skip a meal,
and there’s no way I’m doing that.” God bless
you, but you have missed the point.
Here’s the end of our text from Matthew: it’s a word
of comfort in the lonesome valley of the wilderness, “Then
the devil left [Jesus] and suddenly the angels came and waited on
him.” Our closing chorus captures this thought. And I will
raise you up on eagle’s wings is based on Psalm 91. This is
the same psalm that the devil quoted to try to get Jesus to jump
from the Temple mount. It is only when we go into the wilderness
that we can truly appreciate God’s protection and provision.
May God bless this Lenten journey: because the only way out is through.