Matthew 4:1-11 (NRSV)
4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 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.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
When I looked at the slide show yesterday and got to this one, I thought to myself, “Who is that guy?” It occurred to me after a minute that it’s Bob Barker from The Price is Right, and that this picture is exactly what I asked for. I just never realized how much he looked like a preacher before! People have been going on that show to win great prizes since 1956! Bob Barker was the host from 1972 until 2007. And he was sort of a preacher . . . every episode ended with him talking about how important it is to spay and neuter your pets. But the reason I wanted a picture of him is because he would say things like, “It can all be yours! If the Price is Right.” And people would come on the show to demonstrate how well they knew the prices of common and unusual products, and even, sometimes, the price of A New Car!!! Of course, even on the Price is Right, the prizes aren’t entirely free. You have to pay income tax on the full list price of whatever you win. Everything in life comes with a price, also known as, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”
Jesus went away into the wilderness, to fast and to pray and prepare himself for the ministry that lay ahead. He went away by himself to be closer to God, to avoid all the day to day worries and temptations so he could concentrate. You know the sort of things I mean - the phone call that comes just as you are about to start your personal Bible Study, or the invitation to go do something with a friend instead of your daily workout, or the smell of Kentucky fried chicken in the air when you are looking at the spinach salad you brought from home . . . all those little daily things that interfere with doing what we know we are supposed to be doing. Jesus went away into the wilderness to avoid all that, and what happens? Satan shows up.
According to Matthew, God’s Spirit led him into the desert to be tempted by Satan . . . and maybe that is so, because Satan did have a job to do, after all. Throughout the scriptures, Satan fills his role as the one who is sent by God to test those most loyal. He did a serious number of Job, you will remember, but Job remained faithful. So now it’s Jesus’ turn. Here’s a man hungry and tired and dirty, who has just spent forty days and nights off on his own, camping rough and fasting, and Satan shows up to tempt him to use his powers for his own personal comfort. “Are you really ready for this Jesus?” “Yup, Satan. I’m about as ready as I will ever be.”
I don’t know about you, but when I read this I sort of puff up a bit thinking, “See, there Satan? You can’t tempt Jesus! He’s Jesus! Perfect in every way, sinless, and un-temptable!” But I am not sure that’s right. After all, if Jesus was un-temptable, why would God set this up? And Matthew makes it pretty clear that God set it up, just like Job’s temptation was a set up. We have to remember that Jesus was fully human, which means not only that he got hungry and dirty and tired like the rest of us, but that he was also prone to temptation, like the rest of us. The whole point of Jesus being human is so that we would understand that what he did was do-able for all of us. The whole point of Jesus being human is so that we would know he grieved when Lazarus died, just as we grieve. So that we would know he felt the pain of the lash and the nails, and of death, just as we do. So that we would know that he had to push aside temptation . . . that his saying “No” to the temptation to turn rocks into bread and let angels rescue him and take ownership of the world was real. Not the “No” of someone who was never tempted to say “Yes,” but the “No” of someone who had to think about if, even if just for a second. The whole point of Jesus being human is so that we would not sit around saying, “Well, yeah, but that was Jesus! I’m not at all like Jesus! He’s God! I can’t do what he did!”
It’s tempting, though, isn’t it? To decide that we can’t follow in Jesus’ footsteps because we aren’t Jesus? We aren’t perfect. We aren’t the son of God. We don’t embody God’s Word, as Jesus did. We can’t do miracles, or cast out demons, or make the blind see or the lame walk, or feed the 5,000, or raise someone from death. We’re just human. It is so tempting to think that we are just human and that Jesus wasn’t and so, of course, we can’t do what he did. But the thing is, Jesus was human. Jesus was like us, and we can be like him. And the temptation to believe that we can’t be might be the most terrible of all the temptations we face.
A side note: For those of you who remember comedian Flip Wilson’s character “Geraldine” - the devil can’t make you do it. For those who don’t remember, Geraldine (who was Flip Wilson in drag) would tell all these stories about things she and her boyfriend Killer got up to, and would always excuse her behavior by saying, “The devil made me do it!” That is just plain not true. The devil can’t make anyone do anything, but can only present us with temptation. Some are small temptations - like cookies. Some are larger - like Grand Theft Auto. But the devil can’t force us to behave badly, and God won’t force us to be good. We have free will. We get to choose in every situation what we will do. Sometimes the choices we are faced with aren’t great, but we always have a choice.
Just like Jesus did. More than once in his ministry, he had a choice. He could have given in to Satan’s suggestion that he turn stones into bread. He had been fasting for 40 days, so minimal food and drink for over a month! And the idea of bread, right now, must have been tempting. But he said no, that God’s word was more satisfying than bread. Satan’s other offers may have held more or less attraction, but I think the food thing after 40 days of not much food would be hard to resist. Of course, that’s just me. I always find food hard to resist, and that’s without fasting. Maybe being king of the world would have been more tempting to Jesus. I dunno. But I do know that later on, right near the end, Jesus asked God if he could let the cup pass from him. He could have chosen, even at that late date, to walk away from the hard road ahead. He could have given into the temptation to prolong his life. But he chose to go forward to the cross.
Jesus was human, just like we are. There is nothing he did that we cannot do. We maybe can’t do it to the extent that he did, but listen. How many people do we feed at Christian Cafe? How many people do we feed at the SMART center? Maybe not 5,000 all at once, but still, a lot of hungry folks are fed. How many hearts do we heal every time we make it really clear that at this church, “All means All.”? How many demons of pain and fear and unworthiness do we drive out when we hug someone who has never felt truly accepted before? Maybe we can’t say, “Get up, take up your mat and walk.” But we can say, “Your sins are forgiven” and know that we have spoken the truth. That’s what Jesus did. And that’s what got Jesus in trouble.
Jesus mostly did human things, not great marvels. If he had done great marvels, I suspect it would have been harder for the Temple to act against him. I mean, if someone could make armies of angels appear at his back, would you stand against him? No. Jesus didn’t do those huge things that Satan suggested. Jesus mostly did small, every day things. Human things. Do-able things. He healed hearts and souls. He inspired others to share their food. He laid his hands on people who weren’t used to being touched. He encouraged people to help one another. He welcomed those who felt unwelcome. He turned away from those who would have him hold himself apart, who would treat him like a celebrity instead of “just” a teacher. He reminded everyone of God’s desire for all of us to be reconciled with God and with one another.
Our theme for the season of Lent is “With faith the size of a mustard seed.” The way to avoid the great temptation to think that you cannot possibly follow in Jesus’ footsteps is to have just that much faith - faith the size of a mustard seed. The Good News is that a tiny speck of faith is all it takes to step out and do the things that Jesus would have you do, the things that Jesus did. Feed the hungry. Heal the sin sick soul. Comfort the lonely, the tired, the rejected. Remind people that they are forgiven. Assure people that they are loved. Love the unloveable. Stand against oppression - against bullying and hateful talk. Act in all ways like a child of God, with faith that in Him all things are possible. Go out from this place today, and be like Jesus.