Meditation on Matthew 4:1-11
March 1, 2020
The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
I am happy to be here with you today. I stand in solidarity with all who have survived the Ohio cold of last year and now the Ohio flu. I am one of you! I am grateful to God for my healing and to my community, who reached out to me with kind words through texts, emails, messenger and Facebook posts.
Thank you, my friends! I really missed you on Ash Wednesday.
The illness took me by surprise. I was feeling well enough on Tuesday. I had just visited four of our flock in Genesis hospital. It was a good day. I am at my best when I am visiting and caring for the sick. I feel as if I am being my true self—the person God wants me to be—when I am walking with you through your time of suffering and struggle, praying with you and for your healing. It is my hope that you will feel the love and peace of the One who suffered through trials and pain, and has promised to be with us always, to the end of the age.
Our Lord teaches us in today’s gospel reading in Matthew chapter 4 that the faithful response to trials and suffering is to trust God and not be afraid to be vulnerable, to be real. Notice what doesn’t happen here. Jesus suffers, but he doesn’t ask His Heavenly Father to make his suffering go away. As Jesus prepares for his public ministry immediately following His baptism, he doesn’t use his special relationship with God to seek any benefits for himself.
Jesus expects the opposite of comfort in the wilderness. In Matthew, he has actually been led by the Spirit of God into the wilderness to be tempted, right after the voice from heaven declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus hasn’t gone to some wilderness retreat for rest and prayer and to attend to his self-care. He is training for and doing spiritual battle. Through this experience, he will bear witness to the power of God’s Word and be strengthened to do His Father’s Will.
He is fasting 40 days and nights, not living on locusts and wild honey, like his cousin John who made the wilderness his home. Verse 2 tells us that Jesus is famished; therefore, the first temptation the devil throws at him has to do with food. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Now, you can be sure that the tempter knows exactly who Jesus is. The word translated if might be better translated, “since.” “Since you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” The point is to see what being the Son of God will mean. How will he live out his relationship to God? Will he use it to meet his own needs and receive protection from the vulnerability of being human? The answer, of course, is no. He will reveal himself through this test to be “truly human,” as we say in the Nicene Creed, and yet fully God, “of the same Being with the Father.”
Everything that happens to Jesus in the wilderness points back to the story of Israel, beginning with the allusions to 40 days and 40 nights, fasting, and being led by the Spirit. Where Israel fails, Jesus is faithful. This is not to underscore Israel’s failure, but to emphasize the grace of God in sending the Son, the fulfillment of the law and prophecy, to be the Savior for all people. Bread in the wilderness reminds us of God’s response to His children’s hungry cries: manna from heaven, settling like dew every morning for God’s people to gather and eat. The Israelites’ wilderness is full of toil and trials, danger and discomfort, even death. But it is also a place where God can clearly be seen in miracles, such as the parting of the Red Sea and escaping the Egyptian army, and water gushing from a rock when they have no water to drink. They must learn to rely on God as a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night for every step of their journey, especially since they have no idea where they are going and what trouble might be lurking in the distance.
The one who will say, in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty,” answers the tempter by quoting from ancient’s Israel’s wilderness experience in Deuteronomy 8:2-3. “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
For the second temptation, the tempter takes Jesus to Jerusalem and up to the pinnacle of the Temple. Then he quotes from Psalm 91, twisting a beautiful passage that reassures us of God’s continual care through his angels to persuade Jesus to throw himself down—take his own life. Jesus brings us back to Israel’s story by quoting Deuteronomy 6:16, when Israel argued with Moses about the lack of water. “You must not put the Lord your God to the test,” he says.
The third temptation is to possess kingdom, power, and glory, if he will bow down and worship the devil. He answers with Israel’s great creedal affirmation, the Shema, Hebrew for “hear,” in Deuteronomy 6:4-5. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
The tempter leaves Jesus, then, proving that professing our love and faithfulness to God makes the demons flee. Suddenly angels come and minister to him in his weakness. Jesus is not afraid to be who he really is before His God. And this is how God wants us to come before Him—and to be with one another, unafraid to be our authentic, truest selves.
This is what I hope and pray for all of us, especially throughout these 40 days, when we choose to retreat to the wilderness to draw nearer to God and become more like the Son. For when we are real—and allow others to see the caring, sensitive, hopeful, grateful people whom God is making us to be—then we are truly walking in the footsteps of our Redeemer.
When I was too sick to come on Ash Wednesday, I was tempted to feel sorry for myself. I always look forward to Ash Wednesday. The evening service in the chapel invites a sweet intimacy. It is a time for opening our hearts to God, for confession and forgiveness, and for the promise of new beginnings by His breath that continually reforms us, God’s precious dust. I am not going to say that wasn’t sad on Ash Wednesday, because I was.
But with the love of family and friends, the Lord kept me from discouragement. And God kept bringing to mind my visits on Tuesday, right before I got sick, which served to strengthen me through my wilderness and remind me of who I am and to whom I belong.
I kept remembering, especially, Velma Hoffman’s deep gratitude to the Lord and her beautiful joy, in spite of a persistent infection in her leg that led to her being hospitalized. She said, more than once, that she had so much to be thankful for. And her face was shining. Though she was not permitted to leave her bed that day, she was walking in the footsteps of her Savior.
Hers was a faithful response to trials and pain, trusting that God loves her and will care and provide for her throughout all her wilderness experiences. She knows who she is and to whom she belongs. And that God is with her and will always be.
Friends, do you know who you are and to whom you belong? Are you willing to be vulnerable with God? It comes down to a question of trust. Do you trust Him? Do you trust His Word? Do you believe in his promise to always be with you? Do you trust your church family enough to be real with us as we journey to the cross?
Let us pray.
Gracious God, thank you for your everlasting love and promise to be with us always. We thank you for your Son’s example to us in the wilderness, fasting and being tempted for 40 days and nights, yet never giving in to temptation. Help us, Lord, to not slip into discouragement or doubts amidst our trials and suffering, but instead to trust in you and believe in your purpose for our lives and the ultimate good that will come from all things, working together. Bless our flock, Lord, especially those who need your healing touch. Give us a faith to walk in the footsteps of our Savior throughout any wilderness experience and be real and vulnerable with you and one another. In Christ we pray. Amen.