Sermon Feb 26 2023  Jesus in the Wilderness (Matt 4:1-11) Rev. Betsy Hogan

We pray about it every single week in what we call the Lord’s Prayer – the collective prayer distilled by the early church out of the teachings of Jesus, as recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. 

In which Jesus says to his disciples, “When you pray, pray like this…” and off he goes. 

Beginning with the “Oh God, you are so very big” reverence that ALWAYS begins Jewish prayers – in this case, “hallowed be thy name” –

And then continuing into a broad set of daily petitions. For the world to be as God wants it to be, for enough to eat, for the capacity to forgive…

And then – “lead us not into temptation”. It’s really quite striking. In what’s meant to be a sort of all the time, every day, whenever we pray, catch-all sort of prayer – the disciples are taught be Jesus to pray specifically… “lead us not into temptation”.

Almost like it’s an all the time, every day, whenever we pray, catch-all sort of thing that we MIGHT be. Led into temptation. At any given moment. Whatever the circumstances.

And I think that’s quite striking. Mostly because I suspect that if we were to stop and consider it, it’s NOT actually something that we usually think of as being a clear presenting issue At All Times. Not unless we’re working very hard on a one day, one hour, one minute at a time recovery -- which has a real intensity that just ISN’T sort of a broad general catch-all sort of thing and it’s very much its own self. 

And so setting that aside, because it IS its own self – I think it’s actually quite striking that “lead us not into temptation” is in the Lord’s Prayer. As though that’s a clear presenting issue all the time. Because for the most part, broadly speaking, I don’t think we really feel as though it is.

We tend on the one hand to use the word ‘temptation’ colloquially in relation to things like rich desserts or second helpings or other nice delights – can I tempt you with this cheesecake or this chocolate or this beach resort vacation in a Caribbean paradise --

And then on the other hand, we have Jesus on the first Sunday of Lent every single year getting cast out into the wilderness and tempted by the actual bona fide devil, in three ways and in relation to three things that can only be described as sort of epicly dramatic.

He’s tempted to misuse his own power first to make bread from stones when he’s starving and then to save himself from death by summoning God’s protection, and then he’s tempted by the notion of MORE power – in the shape of authority over all the kingdoms of the world.

It’s all very dramatic, it involves a personification of evil in the shape of “the devil” that sort of trickles into Judaism and Christianity as a kind of adversary – ha shatan – with whom we struggle…

And what it very much ISN’T… is in any way ordinary or the slightest bit relatable. 

If associating temptation with unnecessary but delicious treats is trivializing – and it is – then associating our own experiences of temptation with what Jesus has to go through in the desert, in this story we hear every single year on the first Sunday of Lent, before he then begins his ministry – it just seems to make no sense for us.

It’s all far too epic. It’s completely unrelatable. Whatever temptations we may face ourselves in our day to day living, it’s highly unlikely that we’re bravely doing battle against turning stones into bread, testing God’s willingness to summon safety nets of angels on our behalf, or accepting jurisdiction over all the kingdoms of the world. 

And yet – and yet, Jesus teaches his disciples, he teaches us, to pray “lead us not into temptation”. Just… every day, on the regular. And there’s no way it’s just supposed to be about cake.

And of course it isn’t. 

It’s no accident that Jesus being cast into the wilderness and tempted by “the devil” happens at the pivotal moment between his baptism on the one hand, and the beginning of his ministry of teaching and healing on the other. 

That pivotal moment between “Who am I?” – when in the moment of his baptism by John in the River Jordan the heavens open and a voice says “You are My Son, My Beloved” – and “What am I for?” as he chooses disciples and heads out on the road.

Because “who am I?” and “what am I for?” – these are questions of identity, but more deeply they’re questions of capacity. They’re questions of power. 

What power do I have, what capacity, what potential. “Who am I?” – where does my power come from, what’s its source, what’s the me-ness of me? 

And at the same time, “what am I for?” – how am I meant to use this me-ness, this potential, this capacity, this power. 

Jesus rises out of the Jordan at his baptism, and who am I? He’s hearing the voice from heaven: “You are my son, my beloved”.

That’s his identity, his capacity, with its power. And if “what am I for?” for him will be embodying Godness in his teaching and healing – and it will: he’s about to begin his ministry -- 

Then this is the pivotal moment. His power’s been named. 
Now… how’s he going to use it.

It’s no accident this temptation happens for Jesus between ‘who am I’ and ‘what am I for’. When his power’s been named, and now it’s about how he’s going to use it. 

And it’s arguable, of course, that due to the fact that he’s Jesus he was never going to break down and give in to any of those temptations that “the devil” dangled before him, but that’s not really the point.

The point is that ALL of us in our humanness have to grapple with our own power too. With whatever capacity, potential, is wrapped up in our own answer to “who am I?”… and then with how we’re going to use it: That capacity, that potential, our power, in our answer to “what am I for?”

And in Jesus in the wilderness facing down temptation, we see that named out loud and openly and unashamedly. The temptations Jesus faces are all about power. They’re about being tempted to misuse the power he has, and they’re about being tempted to seize even more. 

In ways that he recognizes would make his “what am I for” inconsistent with his “who am I”. Because “who am I?” “You are my son, my beloved.” “And what am I for?” “NOT these misuses of my power.”

It may still all feel quite unrelatable. But that’s really only the case if we’re not used to, or if we’re uncomfortable with, the notion of thinking about our own power and how we choose to use it. 

Because it can be tempting, haha, to pretend we don’t have any or to avoid even considering it. Far easier to imagine we’re more acted-against than acting – to minimize any sense of our own responsibility. 

But Jesus in the wilderness won’t let us do that. Who are we? We’re created, we’re beloved, we were made by God with capacity, with power, meant to fuel ‘what are we for’. And what Jesus in the wilderness reminds us is that the greatest temptation, the pervasive, every day, all the time, catch-all temptation that presents itself to us all the time, because we’re human, is the temptation to misuse that power. In ways that aren’t consistent with what we want to be for.

It's kind of ironic, though probably it’s just self-protective, that if we’re not talking about temptation in relation to ‘Oh I couldn’t possibly’ rich desserts, we tend to ramp it up to a thousand and call it addiction.

Because the truth is that the temptation to veer off-track in terms of what we really want to be FOR as the beloved children of God that’s who we are, it’s most of the time in the muddy middle of the ordinary.

I’m tempted all the time to buy pretty things I don’t need. I have strong STRONG convictions grounded in faithfulness and justice, about waste and about consumerism and about unjust labour practice – and I’m tempted all the time to buy pretty things I don’t need. 

I’m tempted by ease. I’m tempted by convenience. I’m tempted by the access we’ve built to anything we want at any time. I’m tempted by not wanting to sacrifice ANY of these – even though what I want to be ‘for’ as a person of faith who tries to love my neighbour and care for creation, is eating local and getting off fossil fuels. 

And these temptations, as mis-uses of my capacity that subvert what I want to be ‘for’ – I don’t think they’re trivial. What they are… is ordinary. They’re just every day, all the time, muddy middle, ordinary. But I think for Christians in the affluent west, they’re the most serious temptations that we face. Being tempted by ease and convenience and the availability of anything we want, whenever we want it. Even if we don’t need it.

And they can be hard. When we’re trying to be faithful, the children of God that’s who we are. When we’re trying to be what we want to be for. We get tempted by what we don’t need. We get tempted by ease and convenience. We get tempted by not wanting to sacrifice either of them, by not much wanting to make sacrifices at all. 

They’re hard temptations to face down, and they’re… ordinary. They’re everyday. We get tempted to mis-use ourselves and our capacity, our power, and to not be what we want to be for. Over and over and over, every single day.

But dramatics in the desert aside, the good news is this. Jesus clearly didn’t imagine that we were going to one-and-done temptation in some sort of epic battle involving swooping angels and pinnacles of temples and all the kingdoms of the world. Because we get “lead us not into temptation” in our ordinary, every day, catch-all prayer he taught his disciples. Because he knew. Some days we’re superstars and some days we’re not. But every day is new. 

Thanks be to God, who’s with us one day at a time. Amen.