Sunday, March 12, 2017

Temptation One: The Denial of Denial

Good morning once again, brothers and sisters. Glad to see you again as we continue our Lenten journey out into the desert with Jesus. If you were here last week, you'll remember, we reflected back on the days of Moses – on how God brought the people out of Egypt, but his Spirit led them out into the desert. And the desert is no pleasant place to be. And yet, after their baptism through the sea, that's exactly where God took Israel, a band of misfit tribes he collectively called his son (Hosea 11:1).

And so Jesus, too, after being acclaimed the Son of God by a heavenly voice at his baptism, was led by the Spirit out into the desert. While we're prone to think the Spirit will lead us away from the desert and into a garden, the truth is, we learned, that God's Spirit will often lead God's children to places we'd call bitter and evil (Numbers 20:5). That's where he sometimes leads us, and just so, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness,” the desert, “to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). By the end of the forty days of fasting, Jesus was starved and famished.

Matthew makes an understatement when he says that “after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry” (Matthew 4:2). Jesus wasn't just peckish. He wasn't just looking for a snack. He wasn't inclined to shrug his shoulders and say, “Eh, I could go for a bite, I guess.” No, no – that would be a gross understatement. You know how, in the old cartoons, characters in hunger start looking at everything and everyone and hallucinate that it's turkey legs or sausage links or big ol' hams? This is the sort of hunger that can make you look at those nice, round stones and start thinking of warm, succulent loaves of bread.

Jesus had never been hungrier than that moment. His body was on the verge of starvation. In many cases, a hunger strike of that length can be fatal. So when Matthew says that Jesus was 'hungry,' hear that he's at the limits of what a human can survive. Hear that his body and flesh are weakened to the brink. Hear that every bodily impulse he has is united in saying one thing: “The only way to live is to get food!”

And so, when Jesus is pushed to the limits of human survival, when he's made weak and vulnerable and exposed, that's when the devil chooses his time to strike. And so the devil approaches, and what he does is, he starts offering Jesus various ideas of what it might mean to be God's son. That's what we have here. The devil says, “If you are the Son of God, just say the word, that these stones become loaves of bread” (Matthew 4:3). The devil tempts Jesus with what his body most cries out for: food.

But here's what the devil is really suggesting. “Being a child of God, having the right to call God your Father, means getting your way here and now. Being a child of God means having what you crave, when you crave it. Being a child of God means you don't have to have patience. It means you don't have to be disciplined. Being a child of God entitles you to be comfortable. It entitles you to put your own desires first. Being a child of God means self-satisfaction and self-indulgence. So,” the devil tells him, “don't deny yourself. Just speak, just say the word, and make it happen. Just do it. Satisfy your urges.”

And the devil's picture is an awfully enticing one, isn't it? Because pretty often, it's exactly what we fall for. Here in America, we're enthusiastic for the idolatry of efficiency. We want instant gratification all the time. We don't want to wait. We don't want to have patience. We don't want to be disciplined. We think we're above those things. We just want to consume. We want to satisfy our urges – to have whatever we crave, whenever we crave it.

We are always looking for faster, easier ways to get what we want. We pop little trays in the microwave to get food quick – and we sure keep plenty of food around. We sit and flip through a hundred or more channels of entertainment options. We get bored easily, when we aren't being catered to. We are commercialized, from the oldest to the youngest.

When we're in church, what's the question we always ask ourselves? “What am I getting out of this?” – we evaluate worship like a product, and if it doesn't sufficiently cater to our tastes, we behave like good little consumers and take our business elsewhere. Even worship becomes a consumer good: Does it give us what we crave, when we crave it? Does it amuse and satisfy us? It's why televangelists are so popular – they're so convenient, you don't even have to leave your couch – and why their prosperity gospel sells, since it's basically the devil's own nicely packaged message here: that being a child of God means taking action to get what you want the easy way.

We are drawn to any message that tells us we can have it our way. We long to have things cheap and have things easy. We're addicted to instant gratification. We're allergic to suffering – we've come to think of it as abnormal. We don't want to hear that we have to suffer. We don't want to think about the end of all flesh. Life is long, so there's plenty of time to make a change. But life is short, so make the most of each moment, enjoy yourself. All that matters is feeling good, being happy, being self-fulfilled and self-satisfied. That's the way we're prone to think.

And if we're honest, the way we live our lives from day to day, the thing we usually hold of first importance is bread – the basic stuff of material life, the thing we need to consume to see another day. And if life is all about bread, or whatever it is that can satisfy your cravings in the moment, or whatever it is you expect will make you feel good, then there's only one thing to do: get it for yourself wherever and however you can. And what this message is saying to us is, being God's child means being special; it means being entitled to just that, to satisfying yourself and never denying yourself. You're God's child, the reasoning goes, so you're worth it. Just reach out and take it.

This apparent angel of light comes to Jesus in the desert, and that's the gospel he comes bearing: the gospel of satisfaction guaranteed. The gospel of bread-on-demand. The gospel of the day-to-day. The gospel of having it your way. The gospel of health and wealth, respectability and prosperity. The great and glorious news of the TV dinner. The gospel of the American Dream. That's what it means to be a child of God.

Or so the devil says. And, of course, the devil is trying to tempt Jesus – and us – to adopt a rather wrong-headed view of things. But notice how Jesus reacts to temptation. He could simply snap his fingers and call down fire from heaven to scorch the devil to ash. But it isn't time yet. He could just tell the devil, “Get lost, because I'm God, so you're wasting your time.” That's true – Jesus, as God, could not have sinned. He could not have surrendered to any sinful temptation the devil offered him – just like a skilled tightrope walker over a sturdy net can't hit the ground. What actually stops him from hitting the ground isn't the net; it's the fact that he can walk across the tightrope without falling, and the net doesn't need to come into play. What stops Jesus from sinning here isn't his divine nature; it's his obedience to God as a human, “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus is determined to face temptation by making use only of what's available to each and every one of us – and so the resource he brings to bear as his shield and sword is nothing less than scripture.

Now, if you remember from last week, when Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the desert for forty days, Jesus was following in the footsteps of Israel. Israel was called the son of God, but when tested in the desert for forty years, flunked miserably and sinned. And at the close of that wilderness period, Moses summed up the lessons they'd learned in the Book of Deuteronomy. Jesus has gone out to the desert for forty days to do what Israel didn't. Like Israel, he's the Son of God, but unlike Israel, he's not going to flunk this test. He's going to resist temptation. And he aims to do it with the very arsenal of scripture handed to Israel in the desert.

Because when Jesus reads the eighth chapter of Deuteronomy, he finds in there a whole different notion of what it means to be the Son of God. The devil has one theology of sonship, but Deuteronomy has another one altogether. Deuteronomy presents Israel's time in the wilderness as a test for Israel as the child of God: “You shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2). That's the question here: what's in Israel's heart? What kind of son will he turn out to be? He's heard God's commandments, but will he be obedient? Will he pass the test?

What's more, this whole journey has been hard on purpose. God has been disciplining his son Israel: “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God disciplines you” (Deuteronomy 8:5). Now, when it says 'discipline' here, Moses doesn't mean 'punish.' Because this passage isn't about punishment. The hardships of the desert weren't a punishment. Israel wasn't being chastised, for the most part. Israel was being disciplined – allowed to go through hardship for the sake of character growth.

That's what a father offers a son: occasional denial and deprivation, under loving guidance, for the sake of growth and preparation for life. And that's what God was giving Israel here. Moses adds that God's intention was to “humble you and test you, to do you good in the end” (Deuteronomy 8:16). It may not have been what they'd have chosen for themselves – it certainly wasn't – but it was meant for their benefit, to build their character and make them a more mature son of God.

After this time of testing, this humble fast where they're forced to rely on God's fatherly provision in God's time, forced to walk by faith and not by sight, eventually they'll obey the commandments and will “live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the LORD swore to give to your fathers” (Deuteronomy 8:1). And when they do, their fasting will turn to feasting. “For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out of the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing … and you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you” (Deuteronomy 8:7-10).

But first they have to learn the lesson from their test. And there in this passage is the lesson, the thing God wanted them to learn, wanted to make them know. It's the point of the whole journey. And here it is: “He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD (Deuteronomy 8:3).

In other words, God gave them the gift of hunger, put them in a position to depend on him entirely for food, and then gave them a food they found mystifying, so that they would learn one thing: that bread is not enough for real life, and it isn't the most important thing. What really gives life isn't bread; what really gives life to human beings is God's instruction, which alone is primary and alone is sufficient. Because God's word is what sent the manna to sustain them, and God's word showed them the way to go, and God's word was food for their souls.

When God first sent them manna, he sent it with instructions. And God explicitly says that even the manna was a test: “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not” (Exodus 16:4). They weren't supposed to try to stockpile it, except for the day before the sabbath, when it wouldn't come. On the first day, second day, third, fourth, fifth days of the week, they were supposed to gather only what they could eat that day. “But they did not listen to Moses. Some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and stank, and Moses was angry with them” (Exodus 16:20). And then on the sixth day, they were supposed to gather a double portion and not look for it on the sabbath – and yet “on the seventh day, some of the people went out to gather, but they found none” (Exodus 16:27).

They tried to stockpile it. They tried to steal it. They wanted to get it any way but God's way. They gave in to the devil's version of sonship. They wanted to get the advantage. They wanted to have their own way. They put their satisfaction and gratification first. They wanted to make their lives easier. They wanted to be more efficient consumers. They wanted to live by bread alone.

But “man” – the word in Hebrew is actually 'the Adam' – “does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD (Deuteronomy 8:3). Adam needs more than bread, Adam needs more than shiny fruit. Adam is more than a machine of meat. Adam is more than a bundle of desires. Adam needs a relationship with God. Adam needs to cultivate his soul. Adam needs to trust God's wisdom, follow in God's ways. Adam needs to keep his hand back and wait for God to send the right food at the right time. Adam only lives because the word of God brings him to life, the word of God sends him food in season, the word of God orders his steps. The word of God, and not food, is what it's all about. And that goes for any Adam, any human – for Israel, for Jesus, for you and me.

What's most important is God's words, the decrees and instruction and counsel that comes from God's mouth. God's word shows us the way to go and sustains us as we go that way: “So you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him” (Deuteronomy 8:6). God's words give us a life that hunger can't steal. And so God's word is more important than bread. You can't live by bread alone; you need God's word.

And so when Moses went up the mountain to seek God's word, he turned away from bread so that he could focus on the more important thing. Hear what Moses says for yourself: “When I went up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant that the LORD made with you, I remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water. And the LORD gave me the two tablets of stone written with the finger of God, and on them were all the words that the LORD had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of fire on the day of the assembly” (Deuteronomy 9:10-11). Moses disciplined himself. He went up and patiently fasted, accepting God's discipline, denying his own cravings, because God's word was more important. Moses knew he didn't live by bread alone; he needed every word that came from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3).

So it's this passage that Jesus uses to deflect the devil's temptation, the temptation to deny denial. Jesus just retorts back to him, “It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God'” (Matthew 4:4). Jesus has heard the devil's version of what it means to be God's child, but Jesus uses Deuteronomy to show that the truth is much different. The devil says that being a child of God means getting what you want, when you want it. But Jesus sees that being a child of God means being grateful for God's fatherly provision in God's wise time.

The devil says that being a child of God means reaching out and taking whatever bread you can get, because you're entitled to it. But Jesus sees that being a child of God means humbly accepting a life that has to be lived by faith, not by sight; it doesn't mean reaching out and grabbing for more, but holding up open and empty hands for the Father to fill when the Father chooses.

The devil says that being a child of God means prosperity and instant gratification, a life free from discomfort or hardship. But Jesus sees that being a child of God means refusing to take the shortcut, it means turning away from the easy road. It means patiently letting God shape and mold our character, even when it feels like we're starving – even when it means not grabbing at forbidden fruit or an ill-gotten loaf.

The devil says that being a child of God means living by bread, focusing on bread, whatever it is that satisfies you in the moment, whatever you can consume and control. But Jesus sees that being a child of God means obeying your Father's wise instructions and being sustained by the faith it evokes. Jesus sees that real life is about so much more than bread, and that our sustenance comes on God's demand, not on ours. And so, even when Jesus was at his hungriest, even when Jesus was most tempted to break his fast, Jesus chose to defer to his Father, who would say the word on when Jesus would get bread.

And that's exactly what happened, of course. In the end, Israel left the desert and their sparse manna diet behind, moving into a promised land where they could “eat and be full” (Deuteronomy 8:10), to “eat bread without scarcity” (Deuteronomy 8:9). And in the end, when the devil departed and Jesus' forty days and forty nights were fully concluded, and when Jesus had passed the test that Israel failed, it was God who sent angels to minister to him – and that includes bringing him food (Matthew 4:11). The devil told Jesus not to deny his cravings, but Jesus did exactly that. Jesus chose to trust his Father to provide in the time, place, and way of his Father's choosing. Jesus chose to live by God's word, and not to try to get life from mere bread alone.

So whose vision do we agree with? Because make no mistake: if you're saved, if you're a believer, then you are a son or a daughter of God, for “to all who did receive [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). You gathered here this morning, if you have received him and believed in his name, are God's children. But what does that mean to you? How do you live out being a child of God? Do you live for instant gratification? Do you live to consume? Do you quest after prosperity? Do you take the easy road? Do you reach for bread? Then you live out the devil's vision for being a child of God.

Or will you instead follow Jesus? He says to you, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). If that's what you're aiming to do, then learn to accept God's discipline – not as punishment, but as hardship necessary to humble you and test you. Learn to trust your Father God to provide for you, in his time and in his way. Listen to his every word; study and meditate on his word, enough so you'll have it ready to sustain you when the tempter comes your way. Listen to your Father's word, obey his commandments, to walk by faith in his guidance.

Even when it feels like starving, even when it's sweltering, trust and listen to your Father, who will feed and sustain you on things you never could have expected. It may not be what you crave in the moment, it may not meet your “felt needs,” it may not amuse or entertain you, it may even make your body feel empty, but it will fill and grow and stretch your soul in due time. Then, and only then, will we be ready to appreciate God's feast after the fast. That's the life of a child of God. Hallelujah. Amen.

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