The Story of the Temptations (Matthew 4:1-12)


Temptation Sunday – The First Sunday in Lent- Matthew 4:1-12

What is Temptation Sunday?  Jesus goes out into the wilderness, following his Baptism, to be tempted by the tempter, the devil, Beelzebub, el Diablo, old Mr. Scratch, Satan, or as his French friends call him, Louis Safér.

Why be tempted? (Remember, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the Wilderness.  The Temptation, according to Matthew is divinely initiated.  Wilderness journeys are a part of heroic literature for many centuries.  Great heroes have always faced a time of testing.  From Native American cultures, to Siberia, and in aboriginal societies all around the world, young men are often sent alone into the wilderness to face physical and spiritual hardships.  Jesus’ journey, as recorded in Matthew 4, is similar to those in other cultures.  In many ways, given what comes next; his message, preaching, and teaching, the event makes sense.  It wouldn’t be right if he didn’t start out with an experience such as the one Matthew describes.

What happened in the Temptations? Bread, Temple/Angels, Kingdoms of the World

What do the Temptations mean?

How are we to understand the Temptations?

The first mistake we make is to assume the temptations means we are all about sin.  Jesus is not going to sin.  Jesus is Jesus, right?  The relationship between sin and temptation is taken off the table.  So what do these temptations mean? In the case:

Temptation means we are placed in a situation where our judgment, and our judgment alone will be all we have to make the right ethical decision.  No one else is going to help us. 

We can’t phone a friend.

You can’t ask your Facebook peeps for help.  “Hey Ocracoke Facebook peeps, I’m out here starving in the desert, anyone got any ideas about the best kind of bread I can turn these stones into?”  That’s not going to work.

The decision, rightly or wrongly, rests with you.

This is what happens when Jesus is faced with the choice to turn stone into bread.

I can farm out the decision and take advice from the guy who is here with me.

Notice, that’s what the tempter does.  He essentially offers “Facebook peep” advice.

He offers ill conceived but seemingly rational “conventional wisdom”.

Of course, you’re hungry.  Who would fault you?  Why not eat?  Who would find fault with you?  I’ll even give you recipe, says El Diablo.

And the temptation is this:  do you listen to others or do you listen to yourself?

You know what’s right and wrong.  Does the crowd? Even if the crowd is one other person?

It’s often said the second temptation is about testing God.  “Thou shalt not put the Lord your God to test.”

Let me tell you this:  we test the Lord our God every day, whether we are on top of buildings in Jerusalem with Satan or walking down a road in Ocracoke with a friend.

We test God each time we get in a car or fly on a plane.  We weren’t meant to defy the laws of gravity, physics, or nature; but we do.  When we go from here up the beach at speeds which exceed the posted speed limit, we are testing God’s grace and mercy.  It’s a miracle that we arrive home safe and in one peace.  Every time you pass that slow driver with out of state tags on that long section of highway 12, you’re testing God.  Keep telling yourself, you’ve got somewhere to be.

Don’t pretend testing God is some Wiley E. Coyote act of walking off a cliff and waiting for  gravity to kick in.  We test God when we drink too much alcohol, flirt with melanoma by staying out in the sun, and smoking too many cigarettes.

Our lives are one continual attempt to test God.  We never see it this way.  What many of us view as issues of freedom and personal choice are ways we’re putting God to test.  We fail this Temptation every day.   We gladly test God without Satan’s help.   Satan doesn’t have to show up for this one.  We do it on our own.

To paraphrase the Commander in Tweet:  Sad!  Let’s at least put up a fight against the Prince of Darkness.

The last temptation is the big ticket item.  Remember, Satan offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if he’d only fall down and worship him.

I call this the empathy temptation.  Or more correctly stated: the wrong use of empathy temptation.

I think there is good empathy and bad empathy.

I am often tempted to put myself in someone else’s shoes to make them feel more comfortable and at ease.  This is a good thing.  However, sometimes this can backfire.

A couple of weeks ago, the pest control professional (aka the exterminator) and I were talking outside the church.  He asked if I’d seen anything that might merit his special attention.  I tried to think of any bugs, flying things, or other creepy crawlies around the church.  Because I like to seem intelligent on all matters under the sun and didn’t want him to feel like he made the trip for nothing, I did recall hearing the buzzing sounds of stinging things near my office window and by the bathroom.

“I might have heard some yellow jackets by the window again about a week or so ago by window,” I said.  His face grew a little pale. “Yellow jackets,” he paused. “Oh, no I hope it wasn’t yellow jackets. Are you sure it was yellow jackets?”

“Yep, I think so.” I was getting a little hesitant of my ability to identify predatory stinging creatures.

“Why?” I asked.  “Cause if it’s yellow jackets I’m going to have to get my boss to come down here with his special suit.  They can be mean suckers, with their nests in the ground.  I can’t work with them yellow jackets.  That’s a whole other ball of wax.  You got to have special yellow jacket training.”

I don’t have yellow jacket training.  I have theology training on which I’m still making expensive monthly payments.  And the dirty little secret is, I couldn’t tell a yellow jacket from a wasp, or a honey bee if it stung me on the butt.  You see, in an effort to be empathic, I was playing fast and loose with a language I didn’t speak.  I tried to put myself in the exterminator’s shoes and it clearly didn’t work.

I had to admit my ignorance.

“Jeff, dude, maybe these weren’t yellow jackets,” I said.  “Now that you’ve shared a detailed description of their size, living conditions and mating rituals, I’m certain I saw something else.”

I saw something else.   I don’t know what it was but it wasn’t a yellow jacket.

Jesus saw something else when he looked at what Satan wanted him to see.  This last temptation is about bad empathy, using the wrong language for power, control, and authority, and Satan hoping Jesus would see the world from Evil’s perspective.  That’s what the tempter wanted.  El Diablo wanted use bad empathy so Jesus would see a distorted version of the world.   If you start seeing the world from Satan’s perspective, you’ve got a problem, that’s not a healthy respect for your enemy, that’s giving Evil too much credit.

It’s clear that the two men weren’t speaking the same language.  Like my conversation with Jeff the exterminator, it was a conversation that had to die so he could go his way and I could go mine.  Bad Empathy temptation lesson learned.