A sermon on Matthew 4:1-11 by Pastor David Jacobson
A few years ago I learned that there is a Japanese TV show that’s been running for 30 years called “My First Errand.” Apparently, it’s common for Japanese parents to send their kids out on a first errand at a very young age. Kids as young as five or six are sent across town, sometimes via public transportation, with instructions about what they are to do and bring home. The TV show has hidden cameras placed along the route to track the kids’ progress. According to a 2015 article in the Atlantic about this show, the goal of this practice is to demonstrate “[n]ot self-sufficiency, in fact, but ‘group reliance,’… ‘[Japanese] kids learn early on that, ideally, any member of the community can be called on to serve or help others.’”
I think that sometimes, God will do this type of thing with his kids. God will give us a clear task, not to foster self-sufficiency, but to demonstrate God-sufficiency. God might be out of sight, but that doesn’t mean that God is far off.
The scripture says that “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.”
Jesus had just been anointed by the Spirit of God at his baptism. He had just heard a voice from heaven speak, “this is my Son with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus had had a powerful experience of God, to say the least. Sometimes people who have experienced God in a powerful way make the mistake of thinking that times of comfort and ease are ahead. After all, you can’t have a more powerful friend than God. Shouldn’t life be smooth sailing?
That isn’t frequently the case, though, is it? It’s very common that on the other side of a life-changing encounter with God, someone will find that they are facing profound new temptations. But we shouldn’t be surprised that an advance of the kingdom of God is often met with a counter-attack from the kingdom of darkness, if you will.
When Jesus begins his ministry, he will be on the front lines of the battle between those two kingdoms, facing the attacks of the enemy all day, every day. And so, it seems that in preparation, the Spirit of God leads him into the wilderness to face the core temptations that would come his way.
But Jesus’ temptation is also more than that. Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness. In Deuteronomy 8:2–3, Moses reminds the people about their years in the desert. He says, “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart…. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, … in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Sound familiar?)
Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness. Jesus spends 40 days. It’s a representative amount. Jesus fast represents Israel’s time in the wilderness. He’ll face the same temptations.
Let’s look more closely at the temptations that Jesus faced.
It says that “He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.” And the devil said, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
The hunger must have been awful after 40 days in the wilderness. When Israel got hungry in the wilderness, they grumbled at God. Would Jesus require instant gratification at the end of his fast? Or would he trust God to provide?
Jesus answered the devil, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” He is remembering the words of Deuteronomy 8. I think Jesus understands exactly what is going on. His job is to succeed where Israel had failed.
The temptation for instant gratification is one of the greatest that we face. Unfortunately it’s also something that our culture values, cultivates, and enables. And obviously they’re many benefits and conveniences of our instant digital age.
But in the long run, living a life fed by instant gratification leads to despair. What we really need is a deeply dependent relationship with God combined with God’s revealed word.
Jesus had both. He walked with God, and he knew his Bible. He was formed and shaped by this life-giving relationship with God and his word. And that’s what’s needed to stand against temptation.
When temptation comes, we don’t usually have the desire or the means to seek God and study the written word. A mind that hasn’t been deliberately formed and renewed by God will always fall for cheap instant gratification rather than choosing the difficult, but faithful path.
Perhaps this Lent is a time for you to recommit to learning scripture well. I continue to recommend the Bible in One Year App by Nicky Gumbel as a means to do this.
Jesus’s second temptation has to do with testing God
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
This is the part where we say, “Oh great, the devil quotes scripture.” It’s Psalm 91:11-12 to be precise.
From the first temptation, we know that it’s necessary to know the bible. But here we’re taught that knowing the bible is not enough.
- we need to not take passages in the bible out of context, and even more
- we need to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
The devil knows scripture, but he “prooftexts.” He takes passages out of context. And, more importantly, he refuses to be led by the Holy Spirit. Jesus too knows scripture. He also sees how he fits into its grand narrative. And more importantly, he’s led by the Holy Spirit. He can face temptation out of that knowledge and that relationship, and say, “Actually, devil, it says ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
We aren’t to be people who test God. We don’t come up with our own plans and ask God to bless them. We seek to discover God’s plan. God what are you doing already? I’m going to come alongside that, and in doing that, I’m going to be blessed. Amazing things can happen when we’re obedient to God.
Finally, Jesus’ third temptation is that of idolatry, or false worship.
“The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’ ”
Jesus’ mission on earth is to bring the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” That means reclaiming territory out of the kingdom of darkness. If the king of darkness himself surrenders and hands it all over, that would be perfect. But that’s not what’s on offer here. The devil is offering an exchange. “No one will ever have to know, Jesus. You just worship me a little bit, right here, right now, and I’ll hand it all over to you. And think of all the good you could do.”
You see the grain of truth? Jesus doesn’t dispute the devil’s power. He doesn’t say, “Oh you could never deliver on that.”
But it is only by defeating the enemy by his cross and resurrection that God’s mission for Jesus will be fulfilled. No shortcuts. The end doesn’t justify the means. The means of self-giving love is itself essential to the mission. The means matter. People who follow Jesus should never see that their ambitions happen by any means necessary.
And so Jesus says, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ”
It says, “then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”
I don’t know where you are today. I don’t know what temptations you’ve been facing. But God knows. James 4:7 says, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Jesus’s wilderness encounter displays the truth of that. Don’t let the devil make you doubt your identity in Christ. Strive for faithfulness rather than instant gratification, physical comfort, and even false worship.
Perhaps you’ve given up on resisting the devil. Lent is a time to face the temptation head on. It’s a spiritual reset. It’s a time to get back to the basics of our Christian lives. Prayer, fasting, meditating on the scriptures, caring for the poor, and so on.
May you follow Jesus in devoting yourself to the grace-giving practices of the faith. May you face your temptations head on, resisting the devil. And as he flees, may you too find yourself ministered to by angels. In Jesus’ name. Amen.