Jesus is tempted - Matthew 4:1-11

When I visit a nursing home near my church, I say hello to the receptionist, and ask her how she’s doing.  Her answer is always the same.  “The devil is busy,” she says firmly.  Sometimes, if the phone isn’t ringing, she elaborates with news of her family’s struggles, or an illness or a problem she’s having.  In view of the world, the devil is hard at work.  Jesus could say the same, after his desert encounter with the tempter.

Read the Working Preacher commentary by Dr. Jeannine K. Brown here.

Read the scripture here.

The devil is working hard to offer Jesus things that seem like good ideas.  He offers, not just lunch but many loaves of bread.  Why feed everyone who’s hungry?   Why not check to make sure God is really on his side, before he starts this dangerous and lonely work for God?  Why not have all the kingdoms of the world at his disposal, instead of starting with one fisherman at a time?  Quoting Deuteronomy, Jesus has an answer for each tempting offer.

After the third offer, Jesus tells the devil to go away, and it happens.  Apparently, Jesus could have told him to skedaddle any time, so was he wanting to hear the devil out?  Listening politely?  Exercising his skills in resisting?  Once the devil is gone, there’s space for the angels to come and wait on him.  He has more resources on his side than we imagine when the conversation begins.

It may be, given that the landscape of the Bible, that the devil and the angels appear in bodily form.  Or, after a long time of fasting and prayer, this whole battle may happen within his spirit.

The lectionary selection adds the imprisonment of John to the temptation story.  Jesus has another, parallel, withdrawal after he hears the news about John.  First he goes to the desert, and then he changes location again, and goes to Galilee.  We’re left to ponder the mixture of emotions he has.  Grief for his cousin?  A deeper sense of call, as John’s work ends, and space opens for his work?  Anger at Herod?  Worry about his own future?

Sermon possibilities:

Matthew has the Spirit “lead” Jesus into the desert, as opposed to him being driven there.  Either way, the gospels convey that Jesus’ encounter with his own depleted self, and with the forces of temptation, is necessary for his ministry.  The sermon might look at similar battles in our lives:  quitting drinking, when it becomes a problem, or battling an addiction to substances, managing mental health issues or learning to manage money responsibly.  We all have places of spiritual battle, whether the source is internal or external.

Or, perhaps we have smaller temptations that are nibbling away at us, places where we think, “it’s not that big a deal.”  The little things add up.  Are there places we need to examine?

Or the sermon might look at what happens to John.  I wonder if John’s arrest offered a fourth temptation to Jesus, to pull back from God’s work?  Was he tempted to seek his own safety over God’s call?

Or the sermon might look at the temptations faced by a community of faith.  Turning stones into loaves of bread feels a lot like the temptation to focus on numbers, instead of substance.  Are we counting attendance, or faithfulness?  Number of people who received a free meal, or our engagement with the community?

Where are your thoughts taking you this week?  We would love to continue the conversation in the comments section below.

Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit, a diverse Presbyterian church.  She is the author of Meeting God at the Mall.  The image above is from the Jesus MAFA Project, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

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