February 25, 2007
The Tempter and Angels May Come
Matthew 4:1-11

As we begin our journey with Jesus toward the cross, we quickly find ourselves witnessing an unlikely event in an equally unlikely place. An unlikely event in that it is, at least for many of us, difficult to imagine Jesus experiencing temptation in any genuine sort of way. When 80 college freshmen at a southern university were asked a few years ago if they thought Jesus was really tempted, only 5 raised their hands. We can imagine Jesus walking, eating, sleeping and growing frustrated—even dying—but sweating it out in the face of temptation is quite another matter. “He was God,” people say, unaffected by temptation. Temptation remains the common domain of us earthly types, not the Son of God.

And an unlikely place insofar as the wilderness hardly conjures up images of decadence and lustful living. We might have pictured instead a shopping mall or a classroom during final exam week, a night club or darkened theatre with a scantily dressed co-worker, an unlocked car with the keys in the ignition or a tax return with hypothetical loop-holes. But the wilderness, where even thorn bushes struggles to grow? Frankly, I can think of few places—perhaps Houghton College—further removed from standardized temptations than the wilderness in Judea.

But what Jesus encounters here is no standardized temptation—no mere flirting with pocket change. There are no darkened rooms. No unattended cash registers. No belly dancers. No suggestive videos. No uncovered test papers. No cheap tricks. No enticing gimmicks. Who needs them? Jesus, after all, is alone in the ring with the Devil himself, and there is no one and nothing for him to lean on.

The tempter comes to Jesus—he has free access. The benefits of being God in the flesh apparently do not include an invisible fence or shield protecting our Lord from the attacks of the evil one. Jesus shares the realities of temptation with every one of us—he is not exempt—and he experiences temptation here in its most blatant and gut-wrenching forms. In the exchange that transpires, the tempter appeals to what must be the three most basic longings of the human heart: the longing for pleasure, the longing for popularity, and the longing for power.

As the tempter begins his assault on Jesus, he first encourages him to turn a few stones into bread (v. 3). The suggestion, it seems, is simple enough, perhaps even helpful. Jesus, after all, has not eaten for 40 days and 40 nights. Many of us get hungry when we haven’t eaten for 40 minutes! In reality, our hunger pangs initially subside after fasting for just a day or two. If we continue to fast for a few weeks, however, our bodies begin consuming our own healthy cells and eventually break down. At that point, hunger returns with a vengeance. Jesus, needless to say, is hungry as he stands before the tempter. He wants food—he needs food—but there simply isn’t any to be found.

“Jesus,” the tempter quietly and, I suspect, caringly suggests. “Here are a few stones. They don’t belong to anybody. No one is using them. They aren’t part of a house or wall. Think about it. Don’t they in a way resemble fresh, warm bread? Just imagine, after all these weeks of going without food, how good they would taste. Why, if you are the Son of God, turning these stones into bread should be a simple exercise. Go ahead—satisfy your longing for pleasure.”

Jesus, however, refuses to comply. He sees the tempter’s words for what they really are: an encouragement to put comfort above obedience. An invitation for Jesus to use his own resources and God-given authority for purely personal, self-serving purposes. An enticement to place physical pleasure over and above spiritual well-being. Isn’t that what a lot of temptations are really all about? Elevating pleasure and our supposed needs above godliness? “Go ahead,” the tempter whispers in our ears. “It will taste great.” “Come on. You are lonely, and it will feel good. And anyway, who will it hurt?” “You have never had much. Who will ever know if you take it?” “Jesus. Turn these stones into bread. You can do it—you have the ability. You deserve it. Wouldn’t they taste good?” “One does not live by bread alone,” our famished Lord responds, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus refuses to yield to his longing for pleasure.

The tempter, however, is not one to give up too readily. Wouldn’t it be nice to know that, after enduring a bout with temptation, you are home free? But it doesn’t work that way, does it? Instead, the tempter reloads and returns again, this time focusing on Jesus’ longing for popularity. “Throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple,” he dares our Lord. And it is no mystery what he has in mind. The temple, the center of worship, was located in the very heart of the city. Great crowds gathered there regularly, much like they do at the Western Wall or the Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem today. Imagine, if you can, thousands and thousands of people gathered on the lawn outside of our building here in the shadow of the steeple. Wouldn’t you be impressed if I, as your pastor, climbed to the very top, threw myself off, and gently fell to the ground in the hands of countless angels?!? Even my detractors would stand in awe.

Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and renowned writer on subjects related to the spiritual life, suggests that perhaps no factor is of greater significance in our spiritual journeys—for better or for worse—than our attachment to our self-image. Our longing for acceptance—to be popular—Rohr continues, often leaves groping for human affirmation and unable to accept the simple fact that we are truly loved by God. I continue to struggle myself with this need for acceptance at times—the desire to look good and to be liked. I think, for example, how difficult it is to discuss my faith with my brother or people like him without sensing the need to make myself look bigger and better than I am. Because my brother is a nationally known architect who is successful in every earthly sense of the term, I find myself wanting to talk about books I’ve written or places I’ve visited whenever we discuss what I believe. I want to look good and to make my faith sound competitive and attractive by his standards. I want, in other words, to throw myself off of the pinnacle of the temple and impress him.

I felt much the same thing, if I may be so honest, when I was in Zambia this past summer. I was having dinner with a Zambian church leader who now serves a church in London, and I felt this longing to share with him my various accomplishments. As he spoke, I found myself hoping that he would ask a question or two and thereby open the door for me to tell him all that I have accomplished. I wanted to be accepted, to look good. I wanted to climb to the pinnacle of the temple and throw myself down.

It is even common for us to struggle with this temptation for acceptance—for popularity—at a congregational level. In a culture dominated by the bigger and better, we are sometimes enticed to believe that it is in the best interests of our Lord to put on our happy faces and dwell on our own, corporate accomplishments. The longing for popularity leaves us competing with congregations down the road and covering the true heart of the Gospel with worldly veneer—all for the sake of popularity. We want to climb to the pinnacle of the temple, throw ourselves off, so that people are impressed and stand in awe. Jesus, I’m quite certain, struggled with these feelings as well. Such a longing for acceptance—for popularity—lies at the core of who we all are.

“Jesus,” the tempter whispers into his ear. “You have got more than a small challenge ahead of you. Your message of service and self-denial is hardly a popular one. My suspicion is that many people will flat out ignore you and even make fun of you. Others who might listen at first will soon grow weary of what you say and will move on to bigger and better things. What you need to do is perform a great miracle. Offer potential followers an overwhelming sign that leaves your credibility and message no longer in doubt. You’ve got to do something to make yourself look good, to attract the crowds, to impress them! To pad your résumé. And what better way than this—climb to the pinnacle of the temple and throw yourself down. If you are the Son of God, the Bible says that ‘the angels will come and protect you.’” Good grief. The tempter even uses Scripture—he quotes Ps. 91:11-12 here! Is it any wonder that you and I need to know it as well?

“Don’t test me,” Jesus responds, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16 in his defense. And in the same way that he set aside his longing for pleasure, our Lord moves beyond his longing for popularity. Confident that he is loved and accepted by his Father, Jesus has less need to be popular among his peers.

But the tempter is still not satisfied. Again he comes to Jesus, this third time concentrating on the human longing for power. If Jesus could have avoided anything in his life, can there be any doubt that he would have chosen to bypass the cross. Just recall for a moment his penetrating plea in the garden of Gethsemane moments before his arrest. “My Father,” he cried, “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me….” “There must be another way,” he surely thought. “A way around the cross.”

And there was, albeit a counterfeit one. The tempter offers it to him here in the wilderness. Standing at the top of a tall mountain overlooking all of the kingdoms of the world, the devil looks squarely into the eyes of Jesus—what a penetrating gaze that must have been—and announces, “All these I will give you, if you fall down and worship me.” And I, if not you, have no difficulty imagining that Jesus paused for at least one moment to consider the offer. Avoid the cross. By-pass persecution. Throw away the crown of thorns. Control my own destiny. Abandon discipleship in favor of the easy life, and all the while still gain control of the world. Some years ago there was a relatively popular book entitled, How to be a Christian without Being Religious. One day my mother mistakenly titled the book, How to be a Christian without Trying. That’s the tempter’s offer to Jesus here. It’s a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t accept? Bow down and forget the rest. It’s like having your cake and eating it, too! “Worship the Lord your God,” Jesus clearly replies, “and serve him only.” Jesus rejects worldly power in favor of the power of God.

Pleasure, popularity and power, as I mentioned earlier, are unquestionably among the most pervasive of all human longings, and it is precisely these longings that the tempter tries to expose as he meets Jesus face to face. Temptation is, after all, what Fred Craddock calls an offer of “upward mobility.” “No self-respecting devil,” Craddock concludes, “would approach a person with offers of personal, domestic and social ruin.” The tempter assures us instead that we will feel good, be well-liked, and control our own destiny. Pain, guilt, wasted opportunities and death—these are in the small print at the bottom of the page. But Jesus ultimately refuses to buy it. Pleasure? No turning stones into bread. Popularity? No heroic free-falls from the roof of the temple. And power? No bowing down to the devil. In these few, short verses, Jesus confronts and sets aside his longing for comfort, his thirst for acceptance, and his deepest fears—facing the cross. Rather than playing God and reaching for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as so many before and after him have done, Jesus denies himself and takes God at his word.

And where does all of this leave him? Hungry. Weary—all of us who have battled temptation in any appreciable way know just how exhausting it can be. And all alone, lying on the ground. The devil, after all, has now left him.

But is he alone? Was he ever really alone when he stood face to face with the tempter? No more so than are you and I when we struggle with those nagging longings for pleasure, popularity and power. No more so than are you and I when our cravings for comfort, acceptance and security seem to fly out of control. No more so than are you and I when we feel nearly overwhelmed by our fears and anxieties and wonder where in the world God is. No more so than are you and I when temptation seems unbearable and an easier alternative desirable. Jesus was never alone, and we are not, either. What began with the leading of the Spirit—“Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness”—now concludes with these words of tenderness and compassion: “…suddenly angels came and waited on him.” God was there in the beginning, and he was no less present at the end. God, in fact, was always with Jesus, just like he is always with us. It is only the tempter who comes and goes.