Sermon: “Temptation as Teacher” (Lent 1-A; Mt. 4:1-11) [3/5/17]


And so our Lenten journey begins…where it always begins—with Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by the evil one.  The story thus far:  Jesus is born, grows up, works until he’s 30, then makes his way to the Jordan River where his cousin John baptizes him.  Immediately after his baptism, maybe even before his clothes have dried, Matthew tells us that “Jesus is led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”

Wow.  Most baptisms these days are followed by celebrations, a big meal or a reception with a cake.  But heading into the wilderness for forty days of fasting then a time of temptation?  Doesn’t sound like much of a celebration to me.

So, what’s up with this temptation thing?  And why does it follow so closely on the heels of Jesus’ baptism?

Let’s think about it for minute.  You’re Jesus, right?  (Just imagine!)  All your life you’ve sensed that God has something special for you to do, something really special, so special that the people around you can’t imagine that thing for you.  Even so, you carry this sense of calling with you until one day it becomes so powerful, you head down to the river to be baptized.  You approach the river, wade into the water, face your baptizer, then shift to the side and let him lower you into the water.

One of the things we miss with our baptismal practice of sprinkling, is the moment of submersion, that couple of seconds when you’re under water–the trust of it, the silence of it…then the, yes, the breaking of the water, as we are raised up and born again.  In Jesus’ new birth, as he emerges from the baptismal waters, he has both an optic and an aural revelation of God.  First, he sees the spirit descend from heaven like a dove; then he hears a voice:  “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.”

So in that moment, everything Jesus had sensed about his life is confirmed.  He is claimed by God.  Jesus learns that he really is called to something special—he is to be God’s proxy on earth.  It makes sense that Jesus would want to spend some time thinking about that calling; heading to the wilderness for some prayer and reflection makes sense.

But 40 days!  After 40 days of thinking about being God’s son, after 40 days of eating no food…in that weakened state, it’d be pretty easy to start thinking some wild, maybe grandiose thoughts about being THE Son of God.  That’s when the temptations start—when Jesus is full of himself and empty of food, when he’s spiritually strong and physically weak.

Have you given up anything for Lent—TV or ice cream or Facebook?  So, what have you been thinking about, dreaming about, obsessing about since Wednesday?  What are you thinking about right now?  Yes.  When you’re tempted—and resist the temptation—it’s natural to obsess on the thing you’ve given up.

But if you can resist the temptation—and keep on resisting it—you can learn a lot about yourself.  You might, for instance, learn about an unhealthy dependence on ice cream or TV or Facebook.  Once in touch with that dependence, you can explore the causes for it.  What is it that makes me feel like I’m not complete without this thing I’ve given up?  Why does this substance or experience have so much power in my life?

What tempted Jesus?  He didn’t need to explore his relationship with ice cream or TV or Facebook.  None of those things existed yet.  So, what tempted Jesus?

Across the centuries, there has been lots of speculation about Jesus’ temptations.  Why these three?  Why in this order?  What does each temptation represent?  Turning stone to bread, taking a header off the temple, world domination… What is the significance of Jesus’ temptations?  Theologian John Douglas Hall suggests that “there are not really three temptations, but three variations on the same basic theme.  The devil has a one-track mind…from the beginning, he tempts his victims to go for power.”  (FW, 44)

Taking this tack, each temptation Jesus confronts is a question about how he will use his power as the Son of God:  Will he use it to do a self-serving miracle (turning a stone into bread)?  Will he use it to make a spectacle of himself (taking a header off the temple)?  Will he use his God-given power to gain political power (world domination if he worships the tempter)?

Here’s one thing I wonder.  I wonder if Jesus knew how he would respond to temptation before he was tempted.   Do you think he knew before the tempter came along that he would pass the temptation tests?  Were the temptations written up so that we could see how Jesus would respond, or—here’s my real question–did the temptations happen so that Jesus could see how Jesus would respond?  Did Jesus know for certain how he would use his power before the temptations, or did the temptations help him get clear about how he would use his power?

Maybe at heart, that’s what all temptations test—our relationship with power.  What will we allow to have power in our lives?  How will we use the power we have been given?

Power often gets a bad rap, like it is, in and of itself, bad.  But power’s not inherently bad; power is neutral.  Power becomes good or bad in how we choose to use it.

Psychologist Rollo May talked about five kinds of power.  Every human being has the potential to use all five kinds, he said.  It’s up to us to choose how we’ll use our power.  Exploitative power, the first of May’s five, is used to cause others suffering; manipulative power tries to control others.  Competitive power—that’s like a fight between equals.  Nutritive power…that’s using our power to nurture others.  And finally, integrative power combines our own power with that of others for the common good.  Exploitative, manipulative, competitive, nutritive, and integrative…Helpful ways of looking at power.

Applying May’s five types of power to Jesus’ experience of temptation in the wilderness, you see that the tempter entices Jesus to use his God-given power to exploit and manipulate.  The temptations themselves are a form of competition between the tempter and Jesus.  In the end, Jesus resists the temptation to use his power for exploitation, manipulation, or competition.  He instead chooses to use his God-given power to nurture and integrate, to give life, not squelch it.

That’s how Jesus used his experience of being tempted to reflect on how he would use his power.  How about you?  How do you use your power? …as a parent?  A teacher?  A spouse?  A boss?  A follower of Jesus?  Do you use your power to manipulate or compete?  Or do you use it to nurture and to work with others for the common good?

A few years back there was a TV show called “Secret Millionaire.”  One episode followed a millionaire for a week as she visited organizations that help a community near Knoxville, Tennessee.  The premise of the show is that a millionaire finds organizations that are doing good in a community, “infiltrates” the organization(s), then at the end of the week, awards the organizations with sizable donations.

Image result for secret millionaire picture

Part of the draw of the show for me is that I secretly want to be a secret millionaire.  I’d love to have a lot of money to give away to help others who help others.  In the Knoxville episode, the happiest person by far seemed to be the millionaire as she distributed checks to three very deserving organizations and one deserving family.  It was obvious that using her wealth–her power–for good made her happy.  Very happy.

But I don’t have the kind of power that millionaire has.  I’m not in the position to go write checks for 10, 20, $40,000.  Great for the secret millionaires…but I can’t do anything like that.  I don’t have that kind of power.

Which really isn’t the point, is it?  The whole question of power, as we’ve learned from Rollo May, isn’t how much we have, but how we use it.  What kind of power do you have?  How are you using it?

The other draw of the Secret Millionaire show was seeing the dedication of the people who started and run the three organizations that were featured on the show—twin elderly sisters, Ellen and Helen who run the “Love Kitchen,” a food service for the poverty-stricken;

Image result for secret millionaire picture ellen helen

a former orchestra conductor who started a music school for under-privileged children;

Image result for secret millionaire picture music school

a bedroom-decorating service that caters to children who are critically ill.

Image result for secret millionaire picture bedroom decorator

Those folks didn’t have money; in fact, two of the three organizations were close to closing.   Didn’t matter.  The people used the power they had to do what they could do.  And when they got access to more power through the generous donations of the millionaire?  The first response of every recipient was, “I can use this to help so many more people.”  A beautiful testament to nutritive and integrative power.

What holds power in your life—TV, ice cream, Facebook, competition?  What gives you power—a sense of accomplishment, creativity, your relationship with others, your relationship with God?  How do you use your power?  Do you use your power for good, or for other things?  How might you use your power to help build God’s kin-dom on earth?  Just one of the many questions that will accompany us on our journey to the cross this Lent.  How will we answer?

In the name of God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2017 (2011)


About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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