“Tempted in the Wilderness” Colchester Federated Church, February 26, 2023, (Matthew 4:1-11) First Sunday in Lent

We begin the holy season of Lent with Jesus in the wilderness, fasting for forty days and forty nights so that the devil could tempt Jesus.  Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister described Lent beautifully when she wrote, “Lent requires me, as a Christian, to stop for a while, to reflect again on what is going on in me.  I am challenged again to decide whether I, myself, do truly believe that Jesus is the Christ—and if I believe, whether I will live accordingly when I can no longer hear the song of angels in my life and the star of Bethlehem has grown dim for me.  Lent is not a ritual.  It is time given to think seriously about who Jesus is for us, to renew our faith from the inside out.”[1]

Lent has begun, this time to renew our faith from the inside out.  Some of these Lenten Gospel texts we will hear over the next few weeks are especially thought-provoking.  Our Gospel story today for instance has two main characters—Jesus and the devil—and a great deal of dialogue between the two.  We’ve heard this story before.  It can be found in Matthew Chapter 4, Mark Chapter 1, and Luke Chapter 4.  We hear this story on the First Sunday in Lent, and this story of Jesus in the wilderness is why we observe Lent for forty days in our Christian tradition. 

Because Jesus is out there in the wilderness fasting for forty days and forty nights.  In some ways, Jesus is like Moses who came before him because Moses also fasted for forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai.  In Jesus’ weakened physical state, the tempter comes to him.  The devil is presented by Matthew as a being who interacts with Jesus.  The devil brings Jesus to various places and shows him three temptations while he is starving and alone.  It’s fascinating that the name Matthew sometimes uses for the devil is “the tempter” because that action is what the devil is up to in this passage.  Tempting Jesus and trying to lead him astray right after he is baptized in the Jordan, named and claimed by God. 

The first temptation Jesus faces is the tempter asking Jesus to command stones to become bread.  “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread” the tempter sarcastically says.[2]  The devil knew that Jesus was starving, so there’s that element to this temptation.  Jesus was a hungry human being.  If he had turned those stones into bread, he could have satisfied his hunger.  Though it also brings to mind the miracles of multiplication to come.  Because Jesus will take simple loaves of bread and fish and help feed thousands of hungry people.  Jesus could have tested that miracle here in the wilderness.  He could have turned those stones into bread and traveled to the closest village to feed hungry people.  But he doesn’t because the tempter’s test is inherently insincere.  Jesus’ response to the tempter is simply, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.”[3]

For the second temptation, the devil takes Jesus to Jerusalem.  They stand together at the highest point of the temple.  The devil says, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.[4]  If Jesus had the desire to show the might of God to the devil, he could have done this.  He could have proven that he really was the Messiah and thrown himself from the Temple.  Perhaps there would have been an army of angels to ensure that not even his foot was injured on the rocky ground below.  But Jesus remembers who’s asking and why.  He remembers that he doesn’t need to prove the power of God or his own identity as God’s Son to the tempter.  Jesus chooses to not test God because what would be the point of that test anyway?

The third temptation must have been the hardest for Jesus to overcome.  Because this time the devil brought Jesus to a very high mountain (again with those mountains!) and from that vantage point the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  The devil says, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.”[5]  The teachings that Jesus would give to his followers were about the kingdom of God.  That upside-down kingdom where the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  That kingdom where we are to love God, love our neighbors, and love ourselves.  If Jesus had accepted this offer to have all the kingdoms of the world in his possession, he would have ruled justly.  That was his whole motivation as a preacher and teacher—to instill those kingdom values to others to carry on following the Way.  But where would Jesus’ power ultimately have come from?  Not from God.  So Jesus responds with, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.[6]  At that moment, the devil leaves Jesus and the angels come and take care of him.

If we believe that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, we must know that Jesus could have been overcome by these tests.  Jesus was starving and alone.  The tempter kept needling him with “since you are God’s Son”.  And on the surface, none of these temptations seem that bad—commanding stones to become bread, throwing himself off the temple for the angels to save him, ruling all the kingdoms of the world.  But what would it have cost Jesus in the end?

When thinking about temptations as a topic in general this week I was reminded of the work of Professor Brene Brown on vulnerability and shame.  Brown wrote a fabulous book called Daring Greatly, and she reflected: “We must also remember that our worthiness, that core belief that we are enough, comes only when we live inside our story.  We either own our stories (even the messy ones), or we stand outside of them—denying our vulnerabilities and imperfections, orphaning the parts of ourselves that don’t fit in with who/what we think we’re supposed to be, and hustling for other people’s approval of our worthiness.”[7] 

If we want to see Brene Brown’s modern teachings on vulnerability and shame in action, look no further than Jesus living inside his own story out there in the wilderness with the devil.  Seriously.  If Jesus wasn’t fully grounded in his own story and in his identity as God’s Son (and the Suffering Servant Messiah he would become)—there is no way that the story would have ended with Jesus telling Satan to just go away and leave him alone already.  This Gospel story we hear on the First Sunday in Lent is like a textbook case study on the power of remembering our own worthiness and living inside our stories.

And I know what you may be thinking, “Well, that’s great, Pastor Lauren.  But we’re not Jesus!”  Well, no.  Of course we are not Jesus.  However, Jesus was a human being like you and like me.  Jesus also had a family and friends.  Jesus ate and drank.  Jesus slept and sometimes got super angry.  Jesus wept.  So to act like it’s impossible to walk in the ways of Jesus isn’t exactly accurate either.

Our worthiness—that core belief that you are enough—comes when we live inside our own stories.  The good and the bad.  The highs and the lows.  The mountains and the valleys.  We always have the choice to own our stories or to stand outside of them and deny anything that is imperfect about us, let alone parts of ourselves and our stories that make us feel vulnerable.  Brene Brown advises that we consider it a long journey (but one worth taking) to get from “what will people think?” to “I am enough.”[8]

So maybe we don’t begin Lent by contemplating the ways that we fail time and again.  Sure we do.  We’re human.  But if we give into the exhaustion of perfectionism and hustling for the approval of others, we’ll end up in terrible shape.  Live inside your own story.  That is the invitation.  Why?  Because you are enough.  Thanks to be God.  Amen.

[1] Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life, pg. 111.
[2] Matthew 4:3, CEB.
[3] Matthew 4:4.
[4] Matthew 4:6.
[5] Matthew 4:9.
[6] Matthew 4:10.
[7] Brene Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, pgs. 132-133.
[8] Brown, Daring Greatly, pgs. 131.

Photo by Rev. Lauren L. Ostrout