I have a confession to make: I am easily tempted. Yes, it’s true.
- It could be ice cream.
- Or it could be potato chips. (You see, I don’t discriminate, I like both the sweet and the salty.)
- Or it could be a new, really cool electronic device that does something amazing (that I probably don’t need, but nonetheless…I’m tempted!)
- Or it could be ice cream
- Or maybe, it’s when I really should be doing chores around the house, and the couch and Netflix call out to me. (“Come…come…”)
- Or it could be ice cream
Yes, I am easily tempted. How about you? Now, these kind of temptations are relatively easy to deal with. I can approach them rationally and logically…I can weigh the pros and cons…I can come to a good decision. (Well, except for the ice cream one. ‘Cause if it’s Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough… just forget it, it’s just all over.)
But these temptations are fairly superficial. There is another kind of temptation that is more dangerous…more insidious, that we also have to tend to. It is when temptation does not look like or feel like a temptation. And these are the kind of temptations that Jesus faced in the wilderness.
But first, a little context for our Gospel story might be helpful.
The Gospel writer, Matthew, was really interested in showing to the Jewish people just how “Jewish” Jesus was, in hopes that they would come to accept him as Messiah.
So when he wrote his Gospel, he put a high emphasis on the stories that could be related to Jewish history, or to Jewish lineage, or to Jewish faith practices.
It’s a theme throughout the Book of Matthew, and nowhere is this more clear than in our story today. Matthew highlights that Jesus was in the wilderness for these 40 days. Why? Because that is a direct parallel to the 40 years that Moses and the Israelites wandered in the wilderness after the Exodus, thousands of years before Jesus.
- They too were hungry, like Jesus.
- They too were exhausted, like Jesus
- They too were tested, like Jesus
- And they were often referred to as the “children of God,” just like Jesus was called the “Son of God.”
So, there are these strong parallels between these two stories.
And the Israelites, they were tested by temptation while they were in the wilderness. And how did they do? Do you remember? Well…not so good. They failed their test. Remember how Moses went up the mountain to talk to God, and received the 10 Commandments? But the Israelites became impatient, and lost faith in God, and they created a golden calf to worship instead. They created their own God.
They gave in to their temptation. They forgot their identity as God’s chosen people. And Matthew was trying to show his Jewish readers that Jesus was able to fulfill what Moses and the Israelites could not; that he could resist temptation. That Jesus is the real deal.
In our Gospel. The devil says to Jesus:
- “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to turn into bread, so that you can eat.” And Jesus says “no,” right?
- And then the devil challenges him to leap from the top of the temple, a great height, and to call on the angels to save him. And Jesus says “no.”
- And then, to swear allegiance to the devil, and Jesus could command the whole world. And Jesus again says “no.”
Easy peasy. Case closed.
Except here’s the thing: I don’t think that this temptation is really about hunger, I don’t think it’s about safety, and I don’t think it’s about power. It’s about something much, much more significant.
It is the first words of the temptation that catch my attention. The devil says: “If you are the Son of God…” If you are the Son of God? That’s kind of an odd way to begin the temptation. Of course Jesus knows that he is the Son of God. And for that matter, so does the devil. It’s a rhetorical question. If the devil didn’t know this, why would he be wasting his time with just some guy off of the street?
The devil is saying to Jesus, “yeah, you are the Son of God…but because you have all the power, you don’t have to be who God wants you to be, you can be who you want to be.”
The temptation put in front of Jesus is to abandon his identity. He is being tempted to let go of who he knows he is, and to become something else.
And that is the most dangerous kind of temptation of all, because when we face that temptation, I think we don’t even realize that we’re being tempted.
It’s the slippery slope. We make a small, bad decision (it’s not a big deal, right?)…and then another…and then another…and then it gets easier…and then another, and then suddenly we aren’t who we think we are…who our family and friends think we are…and who we want to be. We become someone else.
It’s a common storyline in books and movies. It’s the emperor tempting Luke Skywalker (“come to the dark side”)…it’s the power of the ring, tempting Frodo…it’s Elton John, in the movie, “Rocketman,” being tempted by the alcohol, the drugs, and the lifestyle that could destroy him.
It’s an equally true storyline in real life as well.
Chuck Colson was one of Richard Nixon’s closest advisors. He was known as Nixon’s “hatchet man.” He was also the first of the major players in the Watergate scandal to change his plea to “guilty,” after he experienced a religious conversion while in prison. In an interview a couple of years before his death in 2012, Colson talked about why he did what he did:
“I lost my sense of self.” He said. “I had so much pride and over-confidence. And these was the qualities that President Nixon admired most. So whenever I did something prideful, or mean, the President praised me. And that made me want to take it farther…and then farther…and then I was in over my head. It wasn’t President Nixon’s fault that I did what I did. I take responsibility. I became more interested in being who President Nixon thought I was than in who I thought I was, or who God thought I could be.”
The devil says to Jesus “If you are the Son of God, use your power for yourself.” Three times, the devil did this. And each of the three times, Jesus replies “that’s not who I am,” and points back to God the Father. Jesus says:
- First, follow the Word of God alone
- Then, do not put the Lord your God to the test, and;
- And finally, worship only the Lord your God.
Yes, Jesus resisted the temptation to turn the stones into bread, or to leap off of the top of the temple, or to grab power, but more importantly, Jesus kept his sense of who he was: The Son of God.
Theologian Melinda Quivik has written about this text that: “Jesus sees through the traps. He will not let the tempter make him give up his self for the sake of his physical needs or desires. He will not let the tempter narrow his understanding of God’s Word so that it becomes simply a litmus test for faith. He will not yearn for or grab influence in the way of human beings who find themselves unsatisfied unless they have status…”
This story, and this understanding makes me think that maybe we need to rethink how we respond to temptation.
Yes, the surface level temptations are real. What to eat…what we want…how we spend our time…yes, we need to pay attention to these things.
But more importantly, what about our sense of identity? How do we maintain our values, our ethics, even our faith, in a world that is always pulling us in different directions? In a world that is always tempting us to become someone we’re not?
Because if you aren’t secure in your identity, on who and whose you are, there are lots of people out there…business out there…causes out there… ideologies out there…who are all more than happy to make up your mind for you.
The temptation we face, is to forget who we are.
We can learn from Jesus’ example here. Each of the three times he was tempted, Jesus pointed back to God.
When we step onto the slippery slope of temptation…which happens pretty much every day…we can hold fast to who we are by remembering our identity and by pointing back to God.
- When tempted by greed, we can remember, and say, “I am a child of God, and I am loved.”
- When tempted to say, or do something that is hurtful, we can step away from that and say “I am a child of God, and I am loved.”
- When tempted to not do something that we know we should, we can resist that urge, we can step up to do the right thing and say “I am a child of God, and I am loved.”
- Say it with me: “I am a child of God, and I am loved.”
My friends, we are all tempted, every single day. But know that God does not forget who you are. The God who created you, who promises that he knows every hair on your head, who called you by name before you were born…God knows you…God knows everything about you.
The key element to resisting this temptation is to always remember who, and whose we are. Resisting temptation becomes an opportunity for us to say “yes” again to the God who already said “yes” to you, who loves you and who called you by name. It is a chance to be reminded, of who God created you to be.
Child of God. Remember who you are.