Matthew 4: 1 – 11_Tempted_March 1, 2020


Matthew 4: 1 – 11


(preached on March 1, 2020)


A few little words can make a big difference in your life.  A few little words can move you to a whole new place.  After those few little words are spoken, you can never go back to the place you were before.  Your life has changed, forever.


The little words, “I now pronounce you husband and wife” make a big change in your life.  One life, the life you knew as a single person, ends.  A new life, married life, begins.   The little words, “You have a fine, healthy baby!” mark the end of life as a couple without children.  Those little words open the door to a whole new life, life as a family.  Now you’re not only husband and wife.  You’re Mom and Dad, too.


A few little words can make a big difference in your life.  A few little words can mean a big change in life as you knew it, and the beginning of a new and unfamiliar life.  Some years ago, life changed for me forever when the phone rang in the middle of the night.  Life would never be the same after I answered the phone and heard a caring voice say, “This is the hospital calling.  I’m sorry, but I’m calling to tell you that your father passed away a few minutes ago.”


A few little words can make a big difference in your life.  All of a sudden, the door closes on the way things have been.  Another door opens onto unfamiliar territory.


In our gospel passage for today from Matthew, only a few little words are exchanged between Jesus and the figure Matthew calls the devil.  But those few little words set the direction for Jesus’ ministry.  With just a few little words, Jesus proclaims that God, not his own needs, will be the center of his life.


This encounter with the devil is at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  After living for years in Galilee, working with his hands as a carpenter, Jesus responds to God’s call.  He travels from Galilee to the Jordan River and comes to John to be baptized.  He stands with John in the river and lets John hold him, leaning him back so the waters of the Jordan can wash over him.  As Jesus rises up out of the water, he hears the voice from heaven, saying, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love.”


Hearing those words must have brought him great joy, but Jesus doesn’t get much time to savor the joy of his baptism.  Jesus doesn’t get much time to bask in the glory of being God’s beloved Son.  He barely has a chance to dry off before the Spirit leads him away, far from the lush banks of the river, into the barren wilderness.  The Spirit leads him away from the voice of God to the voice of God’s adversary.


It might seem curious that Jesus’ encounter with the devil happens here, right after his baptism, at the very beginning of his ministry.   It doesn’t seem like what should happen when someone begins a new career.  When someone becomes a minister today, they go through years of training.  In fields like medicine or education, new professionals are expected to work up to the big challenges gradually.  There are internships and residencies and student teaching posts where beginners can practice their new skills.  They don’t have to deal with the tough stuff until they’ve mastered the basics.  But here is Jesus, just baptized, a brand new minister, called by the Spirit into the middle of nowhere, and tested.


Did you notice that Jesus doesn’t decide on his own to go to the wilderness?  It’s the Spirit who leads him into the wilderness.  The Spirit of God, the same Spirit who comes down like a dove of blessing at his baptism, that same Spirit now leads him into a time of trial.  So, maybe, when you think about it, this is just the right time for Jesus to go into the wilderness.  It’s just the right time because his whole career is ahead of him and he has a big decision to make.


For years, deep within, Jesus has felt the growing conviction that God has called him to bring God’s saving love to humanity.  Jesus has come to believe, in his bones, that he is the One who will embody God’s saving power.  But Jesus has to decide what kind of Savior he is going to be.  With the voice from heaven still ringing in his ears, claiming him as a beloved Son, Jesus has to decide how he will embody God’s salvation. That’s a tough decision.  Maybe he needs to head for the wilderness.  The wilderness is free of distractions.  With lots of open space, it will be a good place to decide.


Today is the first Sunday of Lent.  Lent is a season set apart for reflection.  During Lent, we think about the ways we have wandered from the paths of goodness and mercy that God sets before us.  We reflect on what it means to be daughters and sons of God.  We ask God to help us change our hearts and lives and follow God’s ways.  The traditional number of forty days in Lent has roots in Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness.  Lent is a time to remember how Jesus, lonely and hungry, tired and thirsty, was tested in a very immediate, personal way.


Here, in the wilderness, the devil is determined to distract Jesus from his purpose as God’s beloved child.  The devil tests him with temptations when he’s weak and vulnerable.  The devil taunts Jesus with temptations that hit him in the deepest parts of himself.


After forty days Jesus is famished, and the devil says, “Show your miraculous power!  Turn these stones into bread!”  Here, at the beginning of his ministry, he’s not sure how it’s going to go, and the devil says, “C’mon!  Prove that you’re the Son of God!  Jump off that high place and let your Father come to the rescue.  Just give me the authority and we’ll show everybody who’s really in charge!”


Within each of these temptations is a question.  The question is, how is Jesus going to go about his ministry?  Is his ministry going to be on human terms, or on God’s terms?  Is Jesus going to put his own needs front and center, or is he going to make God’s self-giving love the center of his life?  He has to make a big decision.


You and I also face decisions in the course of our lives.  The decisions we make show whether God is front and center for us, or only around the edges of our lives.  In our family lives and our work lives, our decisions show whether we’re living by God’s righteous ways or according to our own needs, leaving God on the sidelines.


The following story shows what can happen when we leave God on the sidelines, especially when we push aside God’s call to be honest in all our dealings.  The story is more of a fable really.  It’s about a man named John Smith, a carpenter who worked for a very successful building contractor.  One day the contractor called John into his office and said, “John, I’m putting you in charge of the next house we build.  I want you to order all the materials and oversee the whole job from the ground up.”


John accepted the idea with great enthusiasm and excitement.  For ten days before ground was broken at the building site, John studied the blueprints.  He checked every measurement, every specification.  Suddenly an idea took hold of him.   He said to himself, “If I’m in charge, why couldn’t I cut a few corners, use less expensive materials, and put the extra money in my pocket?  Who would know the difference?  Once the house is painted, it will look just great.”


So John set about his scheme.  He ordered second-grade lumber, but his reports indicated it was top grade.  He ordered cheap concrete for the foundation.  He put in cheap wiring.  He cut every corner he could, yet he reported the purchase of much better materials.  When the house was completed and fully painted, he asked the contractor to come and see it.


The contractor was very impressed.  “John!” he said.  What a magnificent job you have done!  You have been such a good and loyal carpenter all these years that I have decided to show you my gratitude.  As a thank you, I would like to give you this house you have built, as a gift!”


John was tempted to cut corners in building that house.  He gave into the temptation and had to live with the consequences.


That day in the wilderness, with just a few little words, the devil tested Jesus.  With just a few little words, Jesus responded.  Saying no to temptation, he set the course his ministry would take.  He would use his God-given talents: not to fulfill his own needs, not to bring glory to himself, but to bring glory to God.  He would make known God’s loving ways.


His ministry would involve miracles, like transforming a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish into a feast for a multitude.  But the purpose of the miracles was not to prove his own power.  The miracles were to feed the hungry.  His ministry would include supernatural acts, like walking on water, but the purpose of those supernatural acts was not to prove his power, but to encourage the fearful.  His ministry would reach out to all the world, not to prove his own greatness, but to make known the great self-giving love of God.  Jesus would hold God at the center of his life.  His gifts and powers would be used in the service of the God he called Father.


Like him, you and I also have gifts.  We also have power.  We may not think of ourselves as people with a lot of power, but we have tremendous power.  In our relationships with other people, we have the power of love: to give it or to withhold it.  We can use our love in a way that gives life, a way that encourages the other person to grow into the person God created them to be.  We can use that love to hold God at the center of our lives.  Or we can use that love in a way that puts ourselves and our needs front and center, and leaves God on the sidelines.


All of us struggle with the temptation to leave God on the sidelines.  Even Jesus struggled with that as he was tempted in the wilderness.  He had a decision to make.


Jesus made his decision with just a few little words.  “Worship your God!” he said, “and serve only Him.”  With those words, Jesus  showed what kind of Savior he would be.  He committed himself to the life of a servant.  The life of a servant led him all the way to the cross, to show the world that God’s way is not self-satisfaction, but self-sacrifice.


Friends, you and I will have times when we’re in the wilderness with a big decision to make.  We’ll have to decide: do we want to keep God on the sidelines of our lives?  Or do we want to follow in the way of Jesus Christ?  Do we want to put our own needs front and center, or do we want to center our lives around God’s self-giving love?  It’s a decision that will change the course of our lives:  a decision we will make with just a few little words.







Rev. Elva Merry Pawle

Lent I