A sermon based on the temptations of Jesus – Matthew 4:1-11
Forty days and forty nights of being out in the wilderness. That’s like leaving now and coming back at the end of February. Good thing Jesus wasn’t in Canada doing this in winter, because he might have gotten kind of cold.
Before we dive into the text, I’m going to go on two separate tangents.
Number 1 – I could have taken many angles when preaching this text, but I simply don’t have time. I could have talked about the nature of the devil here, the tempter, and how exactly the devil took Jesus to the highest point of the temple if he was in the wilderness. But I don’t think that’s the primary purpose of the text, so I’m just going to read it at face value.
Number 2 – Both the devil and Jesus are quoting Scripture at each other. This points out to me that simply quoting scripture doesn’t make one right. So if anybody thinks that they can end an argument with the words “Well, the Bible clearly says…” you can tell them that they are being just like the devil. That’ll win you some friends at family gatherings.
Back on topic. Jesus. Jesus has just been baptized, and we have learned his identity has God’s beloved son, in whom God is well pleased. And then Jesus is immediately led to the wilderness where he is tempted.
He is tempted three times, but they’re all rooted in one bigger question:
“What kind of Messiah are you going to be?”
(Much of the following is from The Upside Down Kingdom by Donald Kraybill.)
Let’s talk about bread first.
“You’re hungry Jesus. Turn these stones into bread.”
Jesus answers, “People don’t live on bread alone, but on the word of God.”
This temptation isn’t about Jesus’ own hunger, because Jesus responds to the devil in the plural with the word “people”. This temptation is about the people. And often, the quickest way to the heart of the masses is through their bellies. In a world with a ruthless superpower, huge economic class differences and crushing poverty, free food would surely bring the crowds to the cause of Jesus.
But the crowds coming to Jesus to be fed isn’t the cause of Jesus. The cause of Jesus is announcing the kingdom of God, the rule of God in our hearts and in our world. Feeding the hungry is part of it, an important part of it, but not the only part of it.
Feeding the masses and calling it a day means Jesus isn’t challenging the greedy. Giving people bread isn’t asking questions as to why people need bread in the first place. Jesus didn’t want to turn rocks into bread and then relax in his Jacuzzi.
Jesus is saying no to simply feeding people and letting the rest of the world go by.
By saying no, Jesus is pointing to his own life as a new foundation to live. And his words about wealth , about economic justice, about poverty, aren’t very comforting to some of us.
“Blessed are you who are poor. Woe to you who are rich. Blessed are you who hunger now. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. ” Luke 6:20-21, 24-25.
Also worth noting here is that Jesus faced this temptation while he was hungry and sleeping outside. Jesus was a poor carpenter. Jesus was homeless. Jesus didn’t go on winter vacations. His life was not only one of solidarity with the poor, but of being poor.
This temptation is a question of bread. But it’s also a question of poverty, economic justice, and how we live our lives.
Let’s talk about the temple at the temple.
“Throw yourself off from the very top! The angels will save you, and everyone will see you.”
Jesus responds that he’s not going to put God to the test.
I think the real temptation here is for Jesus to be the religious super hero. He’d be an instant rock star, flying from the temple, with everyone trying to take a selfie of them with Jesus. Beatle mania, Trudeau mania, Justin Bieber mania… that kind of thing.
The fact that it was the highest point of the temple is important here. The temple was THE center of Jewish life in ways that we don’t really understand. When we think of temple, we envision a big church. A better comparison would be a big shopping mall covered in gold and silver. There were 18,000 priests and lay leaders who worked at the temple, there were hundreds of animal sacrifices and other rituals occurring daily, and during festivals it would be the destination of almost 200,00 people. This place was big and important. Being hailed a hero at the temple meant that he would immediately be at the top of religious pecking order. Jesus would be able to write a book and get millions for the movie rights.
And he says no. That’s not how I’m going to role. Why?
- The temple was where they interpreted and made Jewish law. While their intent was good, by the time Jesus came around, it was kind of legalistic. Some of the rules were missing the original intent. By Jesus not becoming the rock star of the temple, he wasn’t giving validation to the existing structure. Rather, he was proclaiming that “something greater than the temple is here,” (Matthew 12:6) – Him.
- The 18,000 priests and lay leaders had a hierarchy to them, with only certain people being able to do certain roles, and certain parts of the temple only being accessible to certain kinds of people. By Jesus not being the top of this, he didn’t give validation to the existing classes of people. Rather, he ended up rejecting most of them, and declared new heroes of the faith – The throwaways of institutionalized religion. The sinners, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the outsiders, the least of these… These are the new center pieces of the faith (Kraybill 72).
Jesus’ approach to religions wasn’t about maintaining order and rituals and hierarchy, but rather the lost, compassion for the poor, and love for all.
Let’s talk about the mountain.
“Look at all the kingdoms of the world. I can give it all to you.”
“Away from me Satan! Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”
On one hand, this temptation is clearly about us choosing to worship God and not idols, so we should stay away from those pesky golden calves and statues of God.
But on the other hand, this is about much, much, more than golden calves. This is about power, and politics, and our approach to it.
Quite frankly, the devil was offering Jesus the chance to be Prime Minister, President, the king, the big cheese of the world. He could be the benevolent ruler who brings peace and security to all through good government. He could make lots of action plans to create jobs, grow the economy, protect our wealth, protect our freedoms, and stop enemies from harming us.
And he said… “No.”
Why would he do that? Think of all the good he could have done! Think of all the signs he could have put up by all the infrastructure projects. Good jobs. Good economy. Good action plan. Brought to you by Jesus, King of Kings. Vote for Jesus!
Why would he say no?
Who’s offering him the Kingdoms? The devil. They’re his to give? Luke’s version of this temptation uses even stronger language.
6 And the devil said to Jesus, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours.” Luke 4:6-7
Just these verses deserve a sermon on its own, as does the mountain temptation, as we try to figure out how the devil got control of the kingdoms. Who’s really in charge of our governments? Who gives governments their power – God or Satan? Was the devil lying? When we vote in modern day democracies, are we participating in a system that the devil is running anyways? And what about when politicians give thanks to God? Should they really be thanking the devil instead? So many questions…
I’ll try to keep it simple. I think the temptation on the mountain is the very real temptation that we can advance the Kingdom of God through political power, be it monarchies, democracies, or any other form of government. Jesus says “no” to that, because there are insurmountable differences between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this world.
(The following comes from Greg Boyd’s 5 differences between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the World)
One Kingdom trusts in the sword. The other trusts in the power of the cross.
One Kingdom is self-serving and seeks to control behaviour. The other is self-sacrificing, and seeks to transform lives from the inside out.
One Kingdom is tribal, always is always defending one one’s own people group. The other is universal, for it is centered on simply loving as God loves.
One Kingdom is tit-for-tat, and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and thus fights earthly battles. Just listen to what our elected leaders say in the face of violence or terrorist attacks. The other seeks to love their enemies and bless those who persecute it.
But the temptation is real, isn’t it? “Think of all the good you can do.” Even when we meet with our MP about murdered and missing indigenous women, and want them to do something, I remember that Jesus rejected the political power because there’s most likely a demonic element to it.
And I’m intentional about using the word “demonic”, because according to Matthew and Luke, the devil is somehow involved. And also, when you consider history and reflect on the Indian Act, or Japanese Internment Camps, or Nutritional Experiment on First Nation children in Residential Schools, or Chinese immigration head taxes, or women not being allowed to vote, or billions of dollars to buy new military weapons while underfunding the mental health of military veterans, or refusing to sign arms deals that keep weapons out of countries that violate human rights, or that our former Mennonite MP in Provencher gave the authority to use information acquired via torture, or that First Nation women have a murder rate 4 times higher than the rest of the population, to the simply dreadful and boorish behaviour of elected officials during Question Period, the word “demonic” seems to work quite well. And that’s just Canada. And we’ve been a democracy (albeit, sometimes incomplete) since the beginning. We consider ourselves the good guys.
And Jesus said, “No.” My kingdom is not of this world.
I know I’m not being very fair this morning. Jesus had 40 days to wrestle with these questions. I had 2 weeks to prepare this. I’ve given you 20 minutes this morning.
What kind of Messiah was Jesus going to be? This was the big question of the temptations. How was Jesus going to interact with the temptations of wealth, with religion, and with power.
I think it’s also a question that we can ask ourselves.
What kind of Jesus followers are we going to be? How are we going to interact with temptations of wealth and religion and power?
I’m going to end here this morning with 3 temptation questions for you to ponder.
Bread – How do Jesus’ harsh words about wealth make you feel?
Temple – Does our church building and budget reflect that we are for the lost, the poor, and love for all?
Mountain – Can governments love their enemies? Does it matter?
These are hard questions, aren’t they? I think that’s why they’re called temptations, and I think that’s why the devil asking them.
My hope and my prayer is that as followers of Jesus, we continually wrestle with our relationship to wealth, religion, and power.