by Sarah Klaassen
This morning’s gospel lesson begins: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil…” In the first three chapters of Matthew, Jesus has been conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He has been visited by wise men from the East and then fled to Egypt with his parents. It hasn’t been a dull life. A few years pass before he is baptized by John the Baptist in the river Jordan, anointed the Son of God… and now we can get started. But to be led with Jesus to the desert, you can’t simply begin here in Matthew. To know where you are, you have to know where you come from.
So our New Testament story for today doesn’t begin with Mathew chapter 4, verse 1. It doesn’t even begin with those other stories in Matthew.
This gospel belonged to a mixed first century community, some of whom who grew up with Jewish stories and Jewish customs. They believed that their Christian community of both Jews and Gentiles was a continuation of the people of God, another chapter in a story that began long ago – long ago, before time started flowing, long ago in that poetic, prelapsarian paradise. There was Adam and there was Eve and one day in the garden there came the serpent, clothed in temptation.
You were confronted there with Adam and Eve, confronted by something that promised to make you different, another person besides the you God created you to be: smarter, prettier, stronger, wealthier, younger, skinnier, less human.
The trick is that we fell for it, there in paradise. The tempter said, “For God knows that when you eat of the fruit your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The tempter’s taunting voice echoes today – you will be less like yourself and more like who you think you should be, smarter, prettier, stronger, wealthier, skinnier, less human. And so they picked and ate. No doubt when its first fresh drops of juice landed on their tongues it was tasty, but the aftertaste, oh the aftertaste.
We didn’t become more like God that day, not by a long shot. If anything we became less – we saw our own ugliness, our tendency to blame others for our mistakes, our capacity for shame, guilt, and alienation. The world began spinning, subject to the centrifugal force that propels us away from each other and away from ourselves into fragmented reality. Out of the garden we fell, angels blocking the gates, thrust into a wilderness ruled by systemic forces of oppression and injustice and personal forces of insecurity and despair.
And that is where the story began, Eden, temptation, wilderness.
It’s no surprise that Matthew picks it up again, this wilderness. In telling powerful truths about the human condition it was part of his story as it is part of ours. So we arrive back at Matthew chapter four verse one. “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” There’s no Eden any more – we lost that back in Genesis chapter three and so the gospel finds us here. “He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.”
These forty days of Lent that we just began recall Jesus’ fast in the wilderness. Think what that would be like – alone with your thoughts for forty days. Every mistake, every deficiency recalled, humanity stripped the core, bare, naked. Those times you missed the mark coming up in your spirit again and again through the incessant rumblings of hunger.
Most of us run from this kind of confrontation with ourselves and our own limits. The spiritual journey into the wilderness flies in the face of those formational American myths:
- you can do anything you put your mind to
- be all you can be
- just do it
- bigger is better
Success, security, achievement, and the pursuit of happiness mask the exposed humanity we encounter out here. Oh to look deep into our addictions, to slow down and face who we really are – it’s tempting to avoid such a wilderness, to resist the Lenten journey. It’s easier not to live down our fears, not to sit in mortality, or ponder that haunting line: Seattle Mennonite Church, you were created from dust and to dust you will return.
Jesus could have resisted the wilderness confrontation too. He could have turned around, headed out of the wilderness and walked right back to Nazareth away from temptation. Temptation is a powerful part of the human condition, after all, overlapping desire and satisfaction, pleasure and need, sacrifice and ease isolation … as we constantly seek something outside of ourselves to soothe the loneliness and find fulfillment. It’s no coincidence that many of us pray every day the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation…” The testing, pushing our very beings to the limits. Who wants to go there?
But we know the story. Instead of turning around, our Jesus stands right in the middle of it, dialoging with the devil. For each temptation he has a response:
- Stones to bread? I don’t think so, for God sustains us as much as any food.
- Jump down from the heights into the arms of angels? I don’t think so, for God’s realm is beyond testing.
- Worship the devil in exchange for the power of the greatest king? I don’t think so, for I worship the Lord God whose isn’t about power and dominion.
Our temptations may be the same or they may be different. They may come through evil personified, a modern day devil on the shoulder or maybe they come through systems of domination that seem benign as we participate out of habit each day. We are tempted to bypass suffering, to win the approval of others, to justify our mistakes by blaming others or fulfill our own longings without regard for the consequences. We are tempted by individualism, self-sufficiency, wealth, popular culture.
We are tempted to put something besides God at the center of our lives. To flee from that wilderness confrontation, and head the other way.
And sometimes we do hightail it out of the wilderness. We take one look at Jesus on that journey to the cross and run the other way.
And sometimes by the grace of God we don’t.
The tempter was wrong back in Eden, you see, when he said you’ll become more like God and less like yourself. The devil was wrong in the gospel when he says that bread or power can make you whole.
Saint Augustine famously wrote: “Our hearts are restless until they find our rest in thee.” I think this is what Jesus knew there in the wilderness – that nothing can replace God at the center of our lives. Maybe it was easier for him with that whole incarnation thing – he was God put on flesh, after all. But maybe it wasn’t – he was human too.
Head into the wilderness and miraculously, through no effort of our own, we begin to become more human, sharing with Jesus the hunger and weakness, our pain and his mixing together. Despite all appearances to the contrary, this is extraordinarily Good News, my friends.
No you are not defined by your addiction or your temptation or that mistake you made last year or yesterday. No you don’t have to take on the world or fix it either.
The truth is to become more yourself is to become closer to God and to become closer to God is to become more yourself. The authentic spiritual life is rooted in who we are as human beings, temptations and all. Created in God’s image, the truth is, you are already worthy. You are already enough. You are already loved.
Thanks be to God.