St. Matthew 4:1-11
St. Matthew 4:1
Then Jesus was led up, by the Spirit, into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
In 1974 Ronnie Milsap won a Grammy Award with Kris Kristofferson’s song “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends”.
I was reminded of that song this week, because I think, at times, that it is helpful to read some stories from scripture without knowing, or at least without immediately thinking about, how the story ends.
The story of Jesus, as it begins here in the wilderness, is one of those stories.
The story of Eve and Adam in the garden is another.
And although it isn’t directly from scripture, it does come from the same author and source: the same is true for your own life story, as it has played out thus far. It is to read it without knowing how the story ends.
If you didn’t know how the gospel story ends, if you could suspend your knowledge about Easter and Palm Sunday and that week in between that was filled with so much courage and cowardice, faith and frailty, loyalty and betrayal, if you could put all of that out of your mind for the next few moments, what would you make of the story of the temptation of Christ?
Here’s what the story tells us: a man is going to make some decisions as how he will live his life, how he will do the job that God wants him to do.
And the temptations are clearly there in front of him.
Will it be material possessions that define the living of his life? Can he just take common stones and turn them into bread? He has just ended 40 days of fasting, so a bite to eat would sound good.
Or will it be the big dramatic gesture that defines him? Will he insist that God prove his trustworthiness, over and over again? Or will he simply live with a certainty that God will care for him when needed.
Or will it be power and glory, all that this world can offer? Will he abandon God in exchange for being the ultimate winner in a world where winning is said to be the “only thing”?
These were the three temptations that Jesus starts his story with.
Or would it be more accurate to say that these were really just three variations of one temptation, one that we struggle with, in our lives, throughout our stories.
That one temptation that we have all known is there in the small, simple word that Satan speaks to him: “if”.
“If you are the Son of God . . .” how will you live?
And the seeds of doubt are sown, the insecurities are planted.
But Christ rejects them, he rejects the doubts and the temptations, he will trust God and he will not do things the wrong way.
Now go back to the old story of the first people to work out their relationship with God, the first people to struggle with temptation, actually the first people: Adam and Eve.
And again there are decisions being made on how to live.
The serpent plays on the same insecurities that Satan would hit Christ with.
Will they trust God?
There is little to no explanation, in the story, as to why the fruit of that one tree was banned, but that isn’t unusual, there is much in the will and heart of God that we cannot understand.
We aren’t called to understand God and God doesn’t seek our approval, we are called to obey God and God seeks our trust.
Yet Eve and Adam gave God neither obedience or trust.
Eve and Adam sought their own way to fill that which every human wants and needs: a deep and profound sense that we are leading lives with meaning.
Eve and Adam didn’t commit themselves to finding the meaning of their lives in their relationship with God, that would take years and decades to evolve and to recognize, instead they seized the easy fruit that was right in front of them
One writer put it this way, “It is the temptation to be self-sufficient, to establish their identity on their own, that seduces the first humans.”
Interesting thought and a troubling thought for the likes of us. For don’t we pride ourselves on our self-sufficiency? We can handle ourselves no matter what, in good times and bad, we don’t need anyone else, do we?
And it works pretty well for us, most of the time.
Until the forces of nature – floods, earthquakes, tsunamis – toss all of our securities aside, or until the forces of human nature – deceit, betrayal, greed, ignorance – toss our emotional securities aside.
Isn’t that the reality of life stories, thus far?
Isn’t that the reality that we fear?
How will we live in the face of these fears?
Let’s go back to Christ and Eve and Adam.
It is hard to follow Kristofferson’s advice, it’s hard to not tell ourselves how the story ends, in fact we know the stories so well that we have lost our sense of wonder about where they go from here.
Unlike our own lives, we do know how those stories end.
We do know that Christ rejects the temptation, and we follow his path from here to the cross. He knew who he was and he trusted God.
We do know that Eve and Adam did not reject the temptation, and we follow their path out of Eden and into a shattered relationship with God. They lost sight of who they were and it all came undone.
But it is our story that intrigues me this morning.
And I can’t tell you how it all ends because it starts anew each day.
The temptations come at us new every day.
How will we respond?
Do we trust God enough to say “No” as Christ did.
Or will we grab the easy fruit that is in front of us?
It’s not easy. Do you remember when Nancy Reagan urged us to “Just Say No” to drugs? I remember at the time thinking the problem was the use of the word “just”. It is a dismissive word, a diminutive word, a word that fails to recognize how hard it can be to say “no” to temptations, “just” makes it sound so easy.
We all know people who have lost careers and marriages and faith and friendship as they failed to say “no”. It’s not easy. And, in our honest moments, I will bet that we all know how close we have come to saying “yes” to all sorts of wrong things.
It’s not easy.
Our culture is built on mega-industries that have developed in order to get us to say “yes” to things we have no need for and they want us to believe that these things will fill the emptiness within us. Drive the right car, wear the right fragrance, slip into the right clothes and the whole world will love you!
They will just leave us with closets, garages and basements full of stuff that we don’t need and a deep, aching awareness of how flawed and incomplete we still are.
The need to fill that emptiness within us is an essential reality of being human. We have what we have come to know as a “God-shaped blank” within us and we are continually restless as we seek to find ways to fill it. St Augustine, the African Bishop of the 4th Century, captured it well in his “Confessions”: "You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”
Yet, just as Adam and Eve saw that fruit and were sure that it was the exact shape of that blank spot within them, so we try to ease our restlessness and fill our blank spots with the perfect house, the perfect job, the perfect life and we work and we sacrifice and we struggle and then we discover that those things don’t fit into that space.
Because it is a God-shaped blank and only in our relationship with God, only in our identity as his daughters and sons, brothers and sisters to each other, can that blank be filled and the purpose and meaning of our lives discovered.
And we find our identity when we serve others rather than ourselves; when we are motivated more by love than by fear; when we seek wisdom instead of wealth; when we work for freedom more than security; when we place our relationships above our jobs.
That’s the way we want the story to end, the way we want to be known and remembered, isn’t it?
And that’s the way we live on our best days, our good days, the days when we actually think about what we are doing and why.
And yet here is what we experience: no matter how many time we do it right, no matter how many times we fill that blank spot, no matter how many times we have those mountaintop experiences, no matter how many times we find ourselves fully aware of God’s love and experiencing the blessings of abundant life in the here and now, still we turn around, we come back down to the valley and we are besieged by the doubts and fears and temptations.
Can’t we get this taken care of, once and for all? That has been my argument with God for decades. Can’t we get this taken care of, once and for all, and find our happily ever after?
But, slowly because I’m not all that bright, but slowly I’ve come to realize that this is a central core reality of what it means to be human.
We don’t get the blank spot filled once and for all, because it is our relationship with God, and one another, that fills it. It’s the repetitive nourishment of bread and wine that fills it. It’s the continual discipline of prayer and study that fills it. It’s the daily commitment of service and sacrifice that fills it.
Faithful trust in God will not do away with the struggles and difficulties of our lives, but it will allow us to stand, in the midst of all of the economic and political and social and relational temptations and pressures that the world brings upon us, with the awareness that God stands with us.
Our stories are still untold, endings are still unknown, we don’t know how the story ends and that is a blessing. We could scarcely live if we knew the tears and heartaches that lie ahead of us, they would be too much.
But we can know, and we can tell, the parts that are before us now.
We can say No and we can say Yes today and throughout this Lenten Season, we can choose to not only do the right things, but to do them the right ways and for the right reasons and at the right times, as we choose how we will live each day.
"You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you."?
Then Jesus was led up, by the Spirit, into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
To God alone be the Glory, today and forever. Amen
Clover Hill Reformed Church
Sunday March 13, 2011