This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Matthew 4:1-11
Credits: The original exegetical insights for this sermon came from the book by Russel Rathbun, Post-Rapture Radio: Lost Writings from a Failed Revolution (Jossey-Baas; San Francisco, 2005), pp. 45-51.
Dear friends in Christ, at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel we are told that the name of Jesus will be Immanuel, which means “God with Us”. That name becomes the theme, then, for the rest of Matthew’s Gospel. God is with us in Jesus. And even at the end of the book, when Jesus ascends into heaven, he assures us “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the Age.” God with us. Immanuel. God is with us.
The story of the temptation of Jesus which we just read needs to be understood in the light of this overarching theme. Jesus is being tempted by Satan to sever his relationship with God. It is about no longer being with God, about no longer being Immanuel, God with us. Jesus can strike out on his own and make a big splash all by himself. All the temptations are really about that, about not being with God anymore. It is not really about bread; it is not really about being dramatically rescued when you fall off temple towers; it is not really about owning all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.
It is about subtracting God from the whole equation. It is about going it alone. There was a young boy once of about 8 years old, who learned to play euchre, and with almost every single hand he received, he would spend a long time looking quietly at his cards, and then finally he would peek up above the cards and announce slowly and dramatically: “I’m….going……alone.”
My friends, have you not felt this basic temptation in your own life as well? Our biggest problem is not the various little sins and peccadillos we all get into. We all have faults, we all have problems, we all have little hang-ups or issues or chips on our shoulders, etc. That’s not usually what kills us. What kills us is that we are fighting with an urge inside us that says “Why don’t you go it alone? Why not chuck God out the window altogether. Who really needs him?” Job shows what a profound spiritual child of God he is, when he summarizes all of us in this manner: “People say to God, Leave us alone. We do not desire to know your ways. What is the Almighty that we should serve him? And what profit do we get if we pray to him?”
Adam and Eve were not having a problem with the apple. See, it was not the apple that did them in. It was the little voice inside that said “You can be like God…. You don’t need to settle for just being with him. Break off the present stalemate. Get ahead. Claim your throne. God is in your way. Get him out of the way. Beat him to the punch. Grab centre stage.”
For Jesus too it was not about bread or temple pinnacles or kingdoms. It was about stopping the Immanuel process, and launching the independent “I alone am God” business.
Wait a minute now. Hang on a second here. Where have we heard this before? When did these three temptations first surface? This all sounds vaguely familiar…………..
Ah, yes. Now I remember. This is a replay. This is a sequel. Just as Jesus stands here at the threshold of the new heaven and new earth, the nation of Israel had once stood at the brink of entering the promised land. Moses says to the nation in Deuteronomy 8:3, “God 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.” Jesus quotes that. Israel was hungry before entering Canaan. Jesus was hungry before unleashing the renewed cosmos. What they learned, he learned. What Moses says to them, Jesus repeats to Satan.
Immanuel. God is with us. Jesus is with us in the most vulnerable moments of our history. There, where we were most hungry, he got hungry too. There where we thought we would never get into that promised land, he sides with us. There where we felt that it was all a hopeless case and we needed to somehow learn to trust in every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord -- haven’t you been there???? --- Jesus says to us “I had to learn that too. I am with you. Immanuel, God is with us.”
If Jesus would obey Satan, God would no longer be with us. Because God would no longer be with Jesus. It would no longer be Immanuel. It would just be one more razzle-dazzle display of divinity. Haven’t we had enough of those dog and pony shows in the tragic history of our human race -- and in our pathetic personal journeys to stardom? Jesus cares about everything you have ever gone through, every temptation you have ever resisted or wished you had resisted or hope you will resist next time. He understands. He was not exempt from your tribulations. He understands the desire to be in control, to manipulate the situation, to be Numero Uno, finally on top.
Throw yourself down from the temple. Number Two. It is written, replies Jesus, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Where was that written? Right. Of course. That same Deuteronomy passage. As they are standing there at the lip of the promised land, Moses says to the nation, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Jesus is verbatim harking back to where we all have been. It is déjà vu all over again. The nation is at a turning point. The people are in a do or die moment. If Jesus leaves us now, we will no longer be with God. For he is, “God with us.”
Look at all these kingdoms and nations and all their splendor. You can have all of that if you just fall down and worship me. Number Three.
Israel had stood on top of a mountain too one time. Moses stood on top of a mountain, and saw all the countries below, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Philistines. Jesus is going through exactly the same three-fold grind that Israel went through. What do you want? What matters most to you? If it came down to a choice, either you could have the nations, or you could be with God, what would you choose?? I choose to be with God, says Jesus. After all, that is my name. Immanuel, God with us. I cannot and will not sever that relationship, not even for the sake of ruling over all the nations that I can see from this mountaintop.
What a comfort it must have been would be for Israel to see their Messiah suffering all the birth pangs they suffered. What a comfort it is for us. Being anguished with all the same crises that tormented them and that devastate ourselves. He is with us, that is the message. He is Immanuel. It is not that Jesus replaces Israel, as if they were simply failures and now he is going to do them one better. No, it is that Jesus stands with Israel, alongside of Israel, as it together with him contemplates the new landscape down below at the foot of the mountain, where the Gentiles are now streaming towards Jerusalem to honor the God of Israel. Jesus knows how hard this is. He knows how tough this is going to be. And he says “I am beside you. When Satan tried to get me to break the bonds between myself and the Father, which means the bonds would also have been broken between you and the Father, I resisted. Just like you wanted me to. Just like you always wanted to yourself as well, but you couldn’t, you couldn’t. Sin was too powerful. The devil was too persuasive. It was always such a hopeless battle for you. But look at me. Look at me!! We can win. We are at a new turning point. We have reached the crux of the matter for a second time. We are at the shores of Canaan, revisited. This time, we will win. This time we will become a blessing to all the nations, as God promised to our ancestors Abraham and Sarah. This time nothing will stop the onward victorious march of our God, who longs to be with us all, and who, in my coming, has already declared his presence. I am Immanuel, God with us. Lo, I will be with you always, even to the end of the age. Tell all the nations.
Jesus was not tempted so that we would view from afar his heroic solitary strength. He was tempted so that we would feel ourselves becoming stronger.
Jesus was not tempted so that we could admire him. He was tempted so that we could become more admirable.
He was not tempted so that he would be fit to cross the Jordan into the promised land. He was tempted so that we would be fit to conquer all the nations for the Kingdom of God.
Jesus was not tempted so that we could put him under a microscope. He was tempted so that we could look at ourselves in a mirror. The mirror of God’s eternal presence.
He was not tempted so that we would think about everything he went through. He was tempted so that we would rethink everything we have ever been through, viewing it all now in the light of God’s presence. “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with us, says the book of Hebrews, but we see Jesus, who was tempted in every way just as we are, but without sin.” For he was Immanuel, God with us.
Jesus was not tempted so that we would have a story to tell around the campfire. He was tempted so that the fire of his holy passion would burn within our hearts eternally.
If he had given in!! O if he had given in!! What then would have been our lot? The temptations were real. He could feel them. Just as we have felt it. He could sense it. Just as we have sensed it. All of humanity hung in the balance. He could have said “I am Lord, and I alone.” But he chose to stay close to the Father, so that he could continue to be God with us, and we could continue to be with God.
Perhaps Mel Gibson should have made a movie about this passage, rather than the Crucifixion. Because in some ways the cross was easier. You know when you get near the end that you have to hang in there for a little while yet. But here he is at the beginning. The pain has hardly begun, and a new vista has opened up before him. He can have it all!! All he needs to do is discard us, who so recklessly abandoned him in the Garden of Eden and would so shamefully run away again in the Garden of Gethsemane. All he needed to do was say, “All right then, I claim the nations as my heritage, and I command theses stones to be bread, and yes, let’s play a little game of catch me if you can with the angels and their parachutes.” It was so possible. It was so doable. But because of us, because of the relationship between God and us that he was instructed to forge and to cement and to establish, because of the Immanuel brand, he stayed true to himself in the epic battle that we all recognize, because we have all been through it, and the whole country could see that it was them all over again. Here we go again. We have received a second chance to enter into the promised land. This time we will not fail
“Since our great high priest, Christ Jesus, bears the name above all names,
Reigning Son of God, surpassing, other titles, powers, and claims
Since to heaven our Lord has passed, let us hold our witness fast
Since we have a priest who suffered, knowing weakness, tears, and pain;
Who, like us, was tried and tempted; unlike us, without a stain;
Since he shared our lowly place, let us boldly seek his grace.
Sacrifice and suffering over, now he sits at God’s right hand
Crowned with praise, no more an outcast, his pre-eminence long planned
Such a great high priest we have, strong to help, supreme to save.
Love’s example, hope’s attraction, faith’s beginning and its end
Pioneer of our salvation, mighty advocate and friend:
Jesus now in glory raised, our ascended Lord, be praised!
Let us now sing that song, #230 in our Gray Psalter Hymnal. Amen.