Sunday, March 17, 2019

Temptation One: The Denial of Denial (Matthew 4:1-4)

The first few days hadn't been so bad. But after that, things had been... a challenge. He looked around. There was nothing. Nothing but rock and dirt and sand, and the occasional tuft of dry grass. He used to hear the wind as it rippled and roared over the plains, down the ridges, through the dry river-beds. But that was before. All he could hear now was the roaring inside, loud as thunder. He was nauseous, he was dizzy, every breath was a struggle. He had never before felt this weak; every movement was agonizing. His tongue clung to the roof of his mouth, and to speak out loud seemed pointless anyway. Each day dragged on endlessly now, feeling like the year it represented. He watched the course of the baking sun – it was blurry, and there looked like two of them – as the sun traversed the blue dome arching overhead. And in his heart, he squeaked out a thanks. It was harder and harder to keep focus. Every cell in his body felt like it was dying. Starvation. Dehydration. He was on the verge. He was weakened to the brink of his demise, stretched to the utmost limits of human toleration. It felt like nothing mattered but the thunder from his emaciated muscles, from the ruptured capillaries in his arms and legs, from his dry and cracking skin, from his vacant stomach. He looked around and scarcely knew where he was. He only had a distant thought that his people, long, long ago, had sat and grumbled while looking at the same round stones over a thousand years before. And an even more distant thought that he remembered it.

He wrestled – tried to recite the stories to himself, give himself something to focus on, a goal, an anchor for life. The words floated through his mind as he mentally grabbed their syllables, one by one. So hard to focus. But it was the whole reason he was out there. He knew he hadn't come there on his own initiative. Had been sent into the wasteland, led on by the flight of the dove, pulled by a familiar presence, walking in the footsteps of a tale he so well knew. He'd bade his cousin goodbye, the crowds goodbye, at the river bank. He knew the voice he'd heard. He recalled what it had said. What it had called him. “Beloved Son” (Matthew 3:17). And he'd known what that meant, and what he had to do. He had a purpose for living. He had to shoulder the burden of a whole nation, a whole species, a whole universe. Retrace their steps, rewrite the story. So out here he was. Starving in the desert, arguing with his body about whether it would be his grave. Oh, he remembered what he'd heard, recalled the voice from up above. But that had been over a month ago. And a hungry body is so, so forgetful.

As he fought his body's inclination to pass out and give up, the world seemed to swirl around him. The stones, hot under the sun, looked so appetizing – like nice, fresh-baked loaves of bread, the kind he used to excitedly wait for his mother to bake in her village hearth. Above them, the air swirled and danced. Hallucinations atop mirages atop double-vision. He shut his eyes, fiercely determined to focus his last ounce of concentration on the words, visualizing the scroll in his hands, reading with the one back recess of his brain that was a refuge from the crashing thunder inside. Until he smelled an approaching presence.

A bright figure, warm and inviting, leaned toward him with a gaze of compassion. A messenger of relief? “You poor man! Why are you doing this to yourself? You'll starve to death out here unless you do something! If you're really the Son of God, just say the word, and these stones will become loaves of bread. Isn't that what you really want now? Bread? Nutrition? Why are you denying yourself what you want and need? What else is being a child of God good for, if not having what you crave, when you crave it? Surely being a child of God means getting your way here and now. What's all this talk of patience and discipline? If you're who you say you are, you're entitled to live, to be free, to be comfortable, to put your own desires first. So go ahead. With a bare whisper, you can fix all this. If you're really the Son of God, just do it. Satisfy your urges. Feed yourself.”

That's what the devil whispered to tempt Jesus, right when Jesus was physically at his most vulnerable. And we have to admit – it's a strong temptation. Not just because it hit him with what his body cried out for most, but because the devil's picture is an awfully enticing one. Pretty often, we fall for the devil's vision, his version of what it should mean to really call ourselves God's children. 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. Surely we're above those things. We just want to consume. 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 hundreds of entertainment options. We get bored easily, when we aren't being catered to. We're commercialized, from the oldest to the youngest. It was already true in the 1950s when Billy Graham accused America of being “materialistic, worldly, secular, greedy, and covetous,” and it's true in 2019 all the same.

See, 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. If it doesn't come with the right accessories, trade it in. And so even worship becomes a consumer good: Does it give us what we crave, when we crave it? Does it amuse and satisfy us? We have preferences, and we want to pick them out of a menu. We're 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. What are we always told in the world? “Life is long, you've got plenty of time to make a change. But life is short, so make the most of each moment, enjoy yourself. What matters is being happy and 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, whatever can satisfy your cravings in the moment, whatever 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 you're special, you're entitled to just satisfy yourself and not deny 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 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! As God, I'm necessarily sinless, so you're wasting your time.” That's true – Jesus, as God, could not have sinned. He couldn't 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. But what stops him from hitting the ground isn't the net; it's that he can walk across the tightrope without falling. What stops Jesus from sinning here isn't his divine nature; it's his obedience to God as a man “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 is nothing less than scripture, those words he memorized and on which he meditated.

Remember: When Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the desert for those 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 God through Moses spoke a different 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 Deuteronomy reveals is that the journey was not made to be easy. Israel was led to bitter places – “evil places” – by the Spirit. And that was the Spirit's intentional choice, because God had thereby been offering his son Israel a taste of parental discipline: “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God disciplines you” (Deuteronomy 8:5). Not punishment; discipline. Israel was being allowed to go through hardship for the sake of character growth. That's what a father offers a son: occasional deprivation, under loving guidance, for the sake of growth and preparation for life – carefully administered by wisdom. And that's what God was giving Israel here. Moses adds that the intent 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, but it was meant for their benefit, to build their character and make Israel 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 wise time, this season where Israel was forced to walk by faith and not by sight, the plan is that 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 just 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, all 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). 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).

Israel tried to stockpile it. They tried to steal it. They wanted to get it any way but God's way. They wanted to get ahead, to turn it into a manna-gathering competition. They wanted to hoard, wanted to manipulate, wanted to master. They put their satisfaction and gratification first. They wanted to make their lives easier. They wanted to be more efficient consumers. They didn't want to organize the rhythms of their lives according to the word God spoke. They wanted to live by bread alone. They gave in to the devil's version of sonship.

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, no matter how “good for food” or “delight[ful] to the eyes” or “desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). 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 on the plate, 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, even at its strongest. And so God's word is more important than bread. Bread alone does not add up to a life, no matter how much our society insists it does. But God's words open the gates of life in the land of good and plenty. 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: “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 fasted. Moses patiently accepted God's discipline, because God's word took priority. 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 doesn't bicker endlessly with the devil, he doesn't try to reach a compromise position, he doesn't take the devil's vision for a test drive. 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 when God's word doesn't lead down it. It means patiently letting God shape and mold our character, even when it feels like we're starving. 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 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 and how Jesus would have his hunger satisfied, his bodily needs addressed.

And that's exactly what happened. 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 included satisfying his hunger and restoring his body to health (Matthew 4:11). The devil told Jesus not to deny his cravings, but Jesus overrode them with a higher craving, and as a result, his other cravings were all answered in God's time. Jesus just chose to trust his Father to provide in the time, place, and way of God's choosing. Jesus chose to live by God's word, and not to try to wring life out of 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 really have received him and really do believe now in his name, are God's children – right here, right now, you are sons and daughters of God. 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 insist on 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. 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 those words 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, even when all things are dry and the thunder inside is crashing and booming and the other voices whisper, 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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