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Sermons : Matthew 4:1-11

On being tempted

Read Matthew 4:1-11


Our reading starts with the word, ‘Then…’ so it’s worth a quick recap of where we are. Matthew is good in that he reveals the story of Jesus in a series of steps. He shows us Jesus born into the world, into a family in which he faithfully performed the duties expected of him whilst growing into adulthood, and reaching that point when he would begin the tasks that God was preparing him to do.

He tells the story of John the Baptist and how Jesus recognised that now was the time for him to emerge from the background, if you like, and take centre stage. This is when he had that visual confirmation by the Holy Spirit that he was the Chosen One of God and knew deep inside that the road he must follow started now but at some point would end in the Cross.

There was much to be planned and carried out. Time was short. He was to bring the human race, God’s lost sheep, back into the fold. How do you do something like that so quickly, by military conquest or sacrificial love? The military way was the way of the times he lived in, the way people were expecting, but not God’s way.

There was so much to think about, lots of internal conversations and time needed for prayer.

And so, Jesus goes on retreat, to be alone.

And, we are told, within that isolated place he was tempted. Now, when we think of that word I’ll bet it almost always speaks of bad things. But the word we have translated as ‘tempt’ is more properly understood as testing. It’s the same word used of Abraham who almost got to the point of sacrificing his son Isaac on that mountain. God would never ask someone to murder his son!

But testing, that’s something different. Testing can have a positive outcome, and rather than weakening us can make us stronger as we overcome. It proved Abraham’s faithfulness and loyalty to God. Rather than make us bad, testing can build us stronger and make us good. God often tests those he calls, not to cause them to fall, but to build them stronger!

Which is what happens to Jesus.

And the temptations that Jesus faced, the decisions he made in that time of retreat, were ones that could only come to someone who had very special powers and abilities. They were about how to best use the gifts and powers that he had, To use them for himself, to build himself up into some kind of military superhero in the minds of the people (like the Marvel characters that appear in so many films these days and are followed so diligently by millions of fans), or to become the Messiah that he knew God wanted him to be, who would not win the world through strength and violence but through sacrifice and love.

Humanly speaking that didn’t seem the best road to travel. How tempting to become the Messiah that people wanted and not the Messiah that God wanted.

Can you even begin to understand what it must have been like for Jesus with all those internal conversations going on in his mind?

It even makes Eve’s simple choice over an apple seem trivial.

One way of persuading people to follow is to offer them an incentive, give them something in return. Give them what they crave. To the Israelites in the wilderness it had been manna. Jesus could have used his powers to satisfy people’s cravings, but that would be bribery don’t you think? Jesus was going to be calling people to a live of service, a life of giving, not one of getting. It wasn’t a comfortable message, the PR folk would struggle to approve it today, but it was the one that mattered.

People’s hunger was not so much about satisfying the physical but rather their spiritual needs after generations of drifting away from God and embracing the world around them, only to return when things got bad. That’s no way to have a relationship with God!

Another way of persuading people to follow you is to do something spectacular. Maybe Jesus could leap off the top of the temple and have God’s angels pluck him out of the air to a blast of trumpets or something similar. That would get people talking!

But many false Messiahs had come and gone, promising amazing things and delivering nothing. The way of sensation was never going to work, because people would clamber for bigger, better and more magnificent tricks and , and Jesus would end up almost like a circus performer, rather than a Messiah. It would all be a big distraction.

The final thought, put into his mind, was simply to compromise, to win people over by a little deceit here and there, to put aside some of that awkward sacrificial life thing, and opt for more of the smooth political approach and then they’d flock to him. To fully embrace the world, represented in the story by the devil.

But Jesus knew that you can’t defeat evil by embracing it. The world had to raise itself to the level of God, not the other way around.

So, Jesus emerged from his spiritual retreat. It had not been easy, there had been lots of thoughts to wrestle over, but his mind was made up. He must never bribe anyone to follow him. The way of sensation was not for him, and there would be no compromising with the message and his demands on those who followed.

It was a choice that meant the Cross, but that did not mean defeat, as Easter and Pentecost were to prove.

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