Sermon for Lent 1A

Matthew 4:1-11

The process for someone to be ordained as a pastor in the ELCA is a lengthy and involved one. There is acceptance into candidacy by the candidacy committee of the synod, which involves an essay and an interview. Then there is seminary training. Then, before the person can go on internship, there is another essay which must be written and another interview with members of the candidacy committee, which results in endorsement. Then, after the internship, another lengthy essay must be written for the final approval interview with the candidacy committee. All of these essays and interviews go on simultaneously with the master’s degree level classwork that the person works on at seminary. Needless to say, it can be very stressful.

I’d like to tell the story of my final approval interview. It happened in December, a couple of weeks before Christmas, and it involved an approximately 4-hour trip from Gettysburg, PA, to Richmond, VA, on Interstate 95. If anyone here has ever driven I-95 in that area of the country before, then you know this is not something that anyone ever wants to do. Try five lanes of traffic, and, if there are no jams, then cars are speeding past you even while you’re already driving 10 miles over the speed limit. So add the stress of driving on I-95 to the stress of preparing for the approval interview, and I was pretty tense when I arrived at the place in Richmond where the interviews were to be held. And even the presence of a pastor who was designated as a chaplain couldn’t calm the butterflies in my stomach.

The time arrived and I was called in, where I went through a rigorous questioning of my time on internship, what I had learned, how God was calling me, and some other things. Now let me say that none of the questions the committee asked were unreasonable, and they were not being hostile towards me. When candidacy committees interview candidates for pastoral ministry, they generally ask these good and probing questions because they want to make sure we are prepared for ministry and that the ELCA is getting qualified candidates who have truly been called to ordained ministry. But after this rigorous interview and a tense waiting period, I was called back in to hear the announcement that they had approved me. I don’t remember much after that except literally trembling with relief and somehow making my way over to the local Olive Garden, where I was meeting my parents for dinner. They had made the 2-hour drive down from the Charlottesville area to meet me and to hear the news. I walked in to where they were sitting, collapsed in the chair, and announced, “I need a drink.”

Why am I telling this story? Because today’s Gospel lesson about Jesus in the wilderness has often been called “the temptation of Jesus” when the Greek word is actually closer to “testing”. And there’s a difference between temptation and testing. This story is not like us being tempted to eat chocolate when we’ve given up chocolate for Lent. This story is more like us when we undergo testing, such as pastors who go through a process leading up to approval for ordination, or lawyers who have to take bar exams before they can be licensed to practice, or doctors going through medical boards. This story of Jesus in the wilderness is a story of testing to see if he will truly act as the Son of God should act.

So, let’s back up for a moment. Since our lectionary skips around quite a bit, we might be a bit confused as to what has led up to this moment in Jesus’ life. Matthew has started us out with Jesus’ genealogy, the story of Jesus’ birth, the visit of the wise men, the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, Herod’s massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem, the return of Jesus and his family to Nazareth, and then, skipping straight over Jesus’ growing-up years, Matthew goes to the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River. At his baptism, Jesus saw the Spirit of God descending on him like a dove, and heard a voice from heaven proclaiming that he was God’s beloved Son, with whom God was well pleased. It is immediately after that that Jesus was led by the Spirit to go into the wilderness. I’m thinking that, after an announcement from God at his baptism that Jesus was God’s Son, Jesus needed some time by himself to discern what it actually meant to be the Son of God. And at the end of those forty days and forty nights, this is where the devil found Jesus. The devil knew that Jesus was physically weak from not eating, and most likely to fail the test on what exactly it means to be the Son of God.

So, let’s look at the three test questions that Jesus has to answer. The first question is this: “If (or since) you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” In other words, “Hey, Jesus, as the Son of God you have all of these fantastic powers. Why are you denying yourself? Snap your fingers, turn these stones into loaves of bread, and stuff your face.” Jesus was hungry enough that this was a really hard question to answer. But perhaps he thought back to today’s Old Testament story, where Eve desires to be like God and reaches out for the fruit of the tree. There is nothing inherently wrong with knowing the difference between good and evil; rather, her test was one of whether or not she would have control over her appetites and her desires. She failed her test. Jesus, on the other hand, reached deep down into the training in the Word of God that he had received, and found there the knowledge that even though he had the power to satisfy his appetite with the snap of a finger, God desired him to have control over his appetite. And so, even though he was famished, he remembered his Scripture and said, “One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” First test: passed.

From the test of changing stones into bread, the devil says, “Okay, good, so Jesus knows his Scriptures. I’ll quote some Scripture to him out of context and see what he does.” So the devil says, “All right, Jesus, next test. You trust in God and his Word so much? Throw yourself down off of this high spot. Surely, if (or since) you’re God’s Son, God will send angels to rescue you. It even says God will do this in the Psalms.” Picture this test as people today who don’t take their child to a doctor for a broken bone because they trust in God alone to heal the child. The broken bone may heal, but it’s a good bet that it won’t heal straight and that child will limp for the rest of her life. But with Jesus, it’s a little bit more than that, because we assume that, even if no angels came to rescue him, Jesus would be able to rescue himself. The question that Jesus must answer is, will he be subject to the laws of nature, as the rest of humanity is? What would it mean if the laws of nature had no meaning for him? Would he then not be subject to moral laws, either? And what would it mean for those who choose to follow him? Thankfully, Jesus again reaches into his training in Scripture and says, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” He chooses obedience to God instead of unlimited power over the laws of nature. Second test: passed.

But the devil has one more test to give Jesus, the test that will be the hardest of all to pass. He tells Jesus that he will give him all of the kingdoms in the world, and all their splendor, if Jesus will bow down and worship the devil. Matthew doesn’t tell us if Jesus stopped to think about this one. But what if he did? Imagine, Jesus: all the kingdoms of the world. Unlimited power. You could feed everyone. No one would ever be slaughtered again, as your family was in Bethlehem after you and your parents fled. Everyone would come to you and love you, and you wouldn’t have to go to the cross and die. Wouldn’t ordering the world the way it should be run be worth the price of bowing down and worshiping the devil? But Jesus says no. Perhaps he realizes that a benevolent dictatorship is still a dictatorship. And again, he falls back on his training and remembers that Scripture that says, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” And God’s way does not mean grasping power and claiming to be on the same level as God. It means humbling oneself and serving one another. Jesus has passed the third and final test, and he is deemed worthy of the title, Son of God.

We have many tests in our lives, too, to see if we are worthy of carrying the titles given to us in our human vocations. But does God send us tests to see if we are worthy of the name, “children of God”? That’s a difficult question to answer, I think, because although Scripture is full of stories of people who face tests from God, like Job, or like Abraham when he was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac, we also have at least one Scripture text which says, “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’.” And so, I am not going to speak to any individual situation that you may encounter. But I would suggest that there are times in life when God may be testing us. Are we going to choose self-fulfillment, power, and a desire to make ourselves gods? Or are we going to choose love for others, humble service, and the way of the cross?

It’s a little frightening to think about God testing us. Like any test, we would worry about whether or not we would pass it. But here is the good news: Jesus has already passed the tests for us. He has gone to the cross for us, and because of this, every time that we have failed the test has been forgiven. And we can know that Jesus walks with us in every situation, and that he is always urging us to follow the way of the cross as he did. And the way of the cross is not the way of self-fulfillment, ultimate power, and a desire to be God. Rather, it is the way of emptying oneself, serving one another, and walking in the way that God would have us walk. We are not going to pass every test sent us in life. But when we fail, we know that Jesus is with us to forgive us, to pick us up, and to urge us to keep on going. As we continue our walk through Lent, let us never forget that Jesus is always by our side. Amen.


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