Temptation in the Desert – Combined Worship

Temptation in the Desert – Combined Worship

Reading: Matthew 4:1-26
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain.

We are continuing to follow the Gospel of Matthew using the Narrative lectionary. Phil will be tying together how this experience of Jesus confronting the adversary in the desert with the bigger picture that Matthew is trying to paint in his first discourse of this gospel – exploring what it means to follow Jesus and to live as a child of the kingdom.

Links that are referred to in the service:

Sermon Text

Now before we do a deep dive into this passage and hold that alongside our learning about the Gospel of Matthew … I am wondering whether we first need to first address the issue of the devil.  Jesus is led by the spirit into the wilderness and is tempted by the devil.   If we are going to engage with the passage, we probably need to first clarify our understanding of who the devil is or what this devil is representing.

Many of us were brought up in an era where we were taught that the devil is a real spiritual person – a rival of Jesus – who is in a battle for the souls of people.  We were taught that in Matthew 4, Jesus is actually talking to Satan. 

But the idea of evil and the devil was a bit more symbolic in the pre-Christian world.  In the Hebrew tradition – all things come from God and as such, there is no thing or no character responsible for evil.  Rather evil is understood as the absence of God or comes from people stepping outside the will of God.

Instead, the idea of Satan is more about an adversarial role – symbolically representing the things that oppose or obstructs us from walking the way of God.  The Greek term for Devil literally means “one who throws something across one’s path”. 

The early church developed this further and within a dualistic world view, personified this adversarial role into the understanding of Satan we have now – where God (and people) fight against Satan as a projection of our own internal struggles.

So – is Satan a real person that Jesus talked to in the desert or a symbolic representation of the temptation to step outside of God’s will or way of living?  It doesn’t really matter – both work in this passage.  But the important thing when approaching this passage is that around the time of Jesus the dominating view was that Satan represented the things that oppose or obstructs us from walking the way of God and that for Jesus – the devil was trying to throw temptations in front of him to distract him from the path he was walking.

Why did I take time to explain all that?  Because Matthew doubles down on this idea from the way that he structures the five sections or discourses in his gospels.

Did you all watch the New Year Day sermon where I explain the structure of Matthew?  Yes … ok … let me give you a 60 second catch up.

Matthew in his gospel is all about revealing to us who Jesus is – a great leader, teacher, healer and ultimately the Messiah.  Matthew does this by having and introduction and conclusion –but the bulk of his gospel is five broad sections or discourses.  In each of these discourses Matthew has a narrative of different things that Jesus did followed by a large block of teaching.  Our bible reading today is the first part of Matthew’s first discourse which runs from Matthew chapters 4 through to chapter 7.

Remember, each discourse has a narrative of things Jesus did followed by a block of Teaching … so in this first discourse we have:

Narrative of Jesus’ actionsTeaching
Temptation in the wildernessAnnouncing the KingdomCalling the first disciples to follow him (to walk in God’s way).The sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7)Ethical teaching on how to live in God’s kingdom (or to follow Jesus’ example)Upside down kingdom – love your enemies, turn the other cheekTransforming people

Scholar’s sometimes refer to this first discourse as the “ethical discourse” or “living the way of God’s kingdom” and you can see how the three stories that Matthew aligns with the sermon on the Mount teaching are all practical examples of this…

Jesus first words in his ministry in Matthew 4:17 were “repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near” – or turn from your ways and live in the way of God’s kingdom.

Jesus them immediately calls Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow him, to be his disciples – to learn and walk in his way. 

But before this could happen, Jesus had to go through this experience himself – making the decision to walk in God’s way instead of being tempted to take short cuts or to take another path. 

Can you see the bigger picture that Matthew is trying to help us see? 

Ok … let’s jump into the actual passage.

Matthew 4:1-3. 

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.”

There is a lot of symbolism happen right at the very beginning of this passage.  Jesus is lead into the wilderness for 40 days.  Matthew is hoping that we will see the clear link to another Old Testament story when the people of Israel were lead into the wilderness … not for 40 days but 40 years.  Matthew is revealing to us that Jesus is like the new Moses – a great leader who can show us the way of God.

If you remember back to the story of the Exodus – the people of Israel were also tempted to do things their own way and not God’s way (and didn’t really do a great job resisting that temptation) but in the end through the leadership of Moses and Joshua learned to trust in God and trust in the way of God.  How will Jesus go when the adversary throws temptation in Jesus’ path?

“If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off this temple.”

“All this I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me.”

Now I am going to assume that you may have already heard  sermons on the symbolism behind these three temptations – things like representing the lusts of our eyes, minds and bodies – or representing our need for food, for security and for affirmation etc.  If you would like to explore that more, jump on your phone and google – there are loads of great sermons and articles on this.

Today, I wanted to particularly tie it back into Matthew’s bigger discourse idea that we were talking about before… the idea that Jesus calls us to follow his example and to walk in God’s will or way.

You see, on the surface, the first two requests don’t seem to be tempting Jesus to do evil as such.  Meeting someone’s physical needs by turning stones into bread seems like a good thing.  And if Jesus did jump off the temple, you would sort of hope that the angels might come and save him from the fall. 

The way that commentators seem to answer this by suggesting that these things are not bad in themselves – but they were not part of God’s larger plan and therefore Jesus was being tempted to step outside of God’s will.  To do things his way instead of God’s way.

Jesus had been sent to earth to love and serve others and to set the example of how to live in the way of God, not use his godly abilities to bend the laws of nature for his own gain.  And Jesus was committed to doing God’s will.  You can see in Jesus’ answers – “man shall not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” and “it is written, ‘do not put the Lord your God to the test’ – that Jesus was all about taking the spotlight off himself and pointing it back to God.  The plan was about declaring a new way to live – the kingdom of God – and inviting people to turn from their way and follow God’s way.

And this is the key to the last temptation – where Jesus is offered a short cut to his early mission.  Jesus had come to show the full extent of God’s love by offering himself as the perfect sacrifice or payment for our sins. 

This was God’s grand plan to bring all people back into the family of God, to open the door so that we can be children of the kingdom.  And whether or not the devil actually had the ability to offer this, Jesus is offered a short cut to achieve that goal – not by having to die on a cross but simply to bow down and worship the devil.  Jesus doesn’t even seem to blink –  “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

It seemed easy for Jesus to show that obedience to God’s will and not take a short cut, but I think that this is one of the most challenging temptations currently facing the worldwide church. 

As a church, we desire, we pray for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  We want all people from all nations to embrace the love, and grace and peace that God offers us through Jesus.  We know that the world would be a much better place if all people would follow Jesus’ example of loving God and loving each other – in showing forgiveness, and grace and acceptance and tolerance to all.  This is the world that God’s wants and what we want.  Agree?

And as we are going to explore over the next three weeks as we explore Matthew 5 to 7 – Jesus sets out some radical ways of living to help transform people’s lives and communities and ultimately transform our world.  But it is not easy.  The challenge of living out the Sermon on the Mount is huge.  It requires sacrifice, it requires a servant heart and it requires us to daily seek justice, show mercy and walk humbly with God. 

This is what we are called to do – to be like Jesus and to make sure we are reflecting or pointing back to God in all that we do and say.

But recently, elements of the world-wide church have been wondering whether we can achieve the same outcome but through other means.  Rather than transforming the world into a place where the kingdom of God reigns through sacrificial love and grace – there are some Christian in different countries who are tempted to think that they can make the world a place where the kingdom of God reigns by enforcing Christian ideals on all people through political means or even through a Christian dictatorship.

Do you know what I am talking about?  The most visible example of this is the conservative church in the United States.  Their goal is to make sure that what they understand to be conversative Christian values are the foundation of their country – and they see that passing laws or gaining certain Supreme Court decisions will help them to achieve that goal.  But it feels like they have sacrificed standards and compromised values to get to that point – and explain it away by saying that the ends justify the means.  But do they?

That would be like Jesus saying – actually … I could win all the kingdoms of the world for God … it would all become God’s kingdom – all I have to do is bow down and worship this devil.  Would that ends justify the means?

As I said, there are elements of the church all around the world who are being tempted by this.  During the week we saw people kneeling in prayer as they stormed the presidential palace in Brazil.  They claim that God was helping them take back their country for Jesus by force.  I am sure this is not what Jesus meant when he said to follow him. 

But I can see the temptation for the church to pursue this path.  This is a real quote from about 2 weeks ago, “We have tried turning the other cheek but it gotten us nothing.  Now it’s time to fight”.  I can see the temptation – if it feels like we are loosing ground in establishing God’s kingdom on earth … then I can see how some might be tempted to use other means to “win the war” so to speak. 

But if we are serious about following the way of Jesus, about living the kingdom of God, then it is not about forcing people to live God’s way through power or violence or manipulation.  It is a path of transforming the world through servanthood, grace, peace and love.  It is the life that Jesus lead.  Jesus didn’t give into the temptation of the short cut but was obedient to God’s will – all the way to the cross.   Likewise, today I call on us all to recommit to way of God, to living out the values of God’s kingdom.

What are these values?  Well that is what the next three weeks are about as we work through Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7.

We might be called to walk the tougher road but there is hope.  I love the imagery in verse 11, as Jesus committed to God’s will that the angels came and attended to him. 

When we commit to God’s will, to living out Kingdom values, we too will have that experience.  We are not alone.  Help in on hand.  In verse 16 Matthew reminds us that although sometimes it might look like the darkness is winning, that a light has dawned.  Jesus declares that the Kingdom of heaven has come near to us!  Then invites us to step into the light, to live as children and of the kingdom and to follow him.  May we recommit to that today.  Amen.