Temptation – Matthew 4:1-11 by Revd. Alex Pease

Matthew 4:1-11


Why didn’t Jesus just zap him?

I don’t know if you have ever watched the television series ‘Outnumbered’.  It’s a comedy about the daily rollercoaster of life with growing children.  In one scene the three young children are filmed at a wedding reception where the luckless vicar has been seated at a table with them and they proceed to ask him questions about Christianity, which, basically, he can’t answer.  One of the questions is “why didn’t Jesus just zap Herod?”  “Well, Ben, Jesus is not a power-ranger”.

Do see the episode for yourselves – the You Tube clip details are in the sermon sheet – and thus you will understand why vicars tend to decline invitations to attend wedding receptions: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jg_dKXwXGgI

But it’s a really good question.  How Jesus is going to use his power is at the root of all the devil’s questions to Jesus in the wilderness.  The period in the wilderness, this period of testing is the starting point of Jesus’s ministry.  The devil tests Jesus and, in the answers Jesus gives the tempter, he reveals something of God’s character to us. How God uses power. How Jesus uses power.  And he never uses it for himself, for his own comfort.  He always uses it for others.  He is totally focused on God and others.

You see there is something very odd about Jesus.  If we believe that he is God (which Christians do) and his objective is to bring humanity back into relationship with him, then why doesn’t he use that power to achieve what he wants in, what we might think, is the most efficient way?  Why doesn’t he appear like Zeus or Thor or one of the pagan Gods – shaking mountains and terrifying mankind into submission?  Or why doesn’t he change us to make us all want him? If you are the Son of God and have at your finger-tips all the power of the Creator of the universe, why have any truck with the Herods, Pharisees and Romans of this world? Zap them!

We all, from time to time, ask why does an all-powerful God allows suffering to exist in the world.  But perhaps the real mystery, which we don’t ask ourselves so often, is why an all-powerful God allows himself to suffer, through his son Jesus?  Although it is trivial in comparison with the suffering he endures later on the Cross, there he is, sitting in the desert, having fasted for forty days and nights and Matthew says: “and afterwards he was famished”.  Why would he not convert a nearby stone into a nice grilled cheese Panini?  What is the point of this hunger?  Why bother with being famished, when you have the power to create bread out of stones and as he effectively does when feeding the 5000 later – why not use that power to make a Panini when he is alone and famished?

And, it’s the same with the other two questions:  In verse 6 the devil points out that if Jesus jumps off the top of the Jerusalem temple, he would not be harmed, as angels would prevent him from being hurt.  In other words: the devil asks ‘why not show people who you really are’?  Why the great mystery? Why doesn’t Jesus just remove the veil which screens heaven from earth and show everyone that he can defy the laws of gravity.  Why does Jesus hide his identity – so it’s not completely obvious who he is?  Why leave us with a choice as to whether we believe or not – when you could take the choice away, by proving it beyond doubt?  Why go through the pain and suffering of being thought to be a blasphemer by the Jews and a trouble maker by the Romans?

And, Verse 9, if he is the Son of God, why go to the trouble of persuading people to follow him, the almost impossible task of getting people to love him – when, if Jesus just worships the devil, they can all be in bondage to him too anyway.  One slave owner hands over his slaves to another.  Easy, done.  No persuasion necessary.  No difficult kindling of love from rebellious humanity.

Why would Jesus go through all the pain; why take the risk of being misunderstood; why risk being taken for a blasphemer, why go to the Cross?

The answer is ‘love’.  God’s nature.  And Jesus must act in accordance with God’s nature because it is his nature also.

And there are no short cuts in love.

If you love someone and want them to love you, you have to let them choose.  You cannot force anyone to love you.

But how can we love God?  Why should we choose to love God?  For many this will seem like loving an abstraction.

Well it works like this.  Humanity has been so sinful that it has built up a barrier between man and God.  God is just and cannot simply ignore this sin.  He cannot act as if it had not happened.  If he did, it would be like a judge releasing a convicted murderer back into the community immediately with a pat on the head.  How would the bereaved feel?  What would it mean for other murderers and other victims?  There are consequences for sin.  A penalty has to be paid.

It looks like this: – if we imagine that this hand is humanity and this book sin and above is God and this other hand is Jesus – the sin blocks our relationship with God but Jesus takes this on his shoulders and clears the way for our relationship with Jesus.  If we let him.  The penalty is paid and we are reconciled to God.  Theologians call this the atonement – we become at one with God.

When we understand this.  When we appreciate, when we take on board – the horror of what we have allowed ourselves to become, how we have separated ourselves from God by our own choices and what God has done for us, what he has released us from – there is only one result, we do love him.

And we want to do all the things he has asked us to do.  We hate it when his name is trashed or used as a swear word.  We are no longer embarrassed when the name ‘Jesus’ comes up in conversation.  We want to discover more and more about him.  This is what being a Christian is about – a lifelong journey to be closer and closer to Jesus, to God.  A lifelong journey of discipleship.

It is that relationship of love that God came into the world to re-establish with us and for us.  There can be no short cuts – Jesus has to pay the penalty for us – he has to suffer.

But you may say “come off it Alex – the suffering of Jesus in the Desert is nothing in comparison with the suffering of the Passion – of crucifixion – which we remember on Good Friday”.  But the point is that in the wilderness Jesus is being tested in small things, to show what kind of messiah he is going to be, how he is going to use his power, so that eventually he is ready to make the decision in the Garden of Gethsemane to go to the Cross.

So the temptations in the wilderness are the precursor to the passion which we mark on Good Friday.  They are the time when Jesus shows what sort of messiah he is going to be.  His resolute rejection of the devil’s temptation towards short cuts – to take the easy path – sets him on the track for the Cross and for the suffering which means that, when we as Christians die, and we go before the Father, we are not judged on the basis of what we have done in our lives (the terrible sin that we all carry) but on the basis of what he has done for us – we have been saved.  This in a nutshell is Christianity – it is the gospel.

So what does this mean for us today?  What example should we take from Jesus’ temptation as we approach Lent?

I want to make three points.

Firstly, we should spend Lent thinking about our own sinfulness – maybe as if it was us going to the cross or that judgment seat on Good Friday and not Jesus.  Don’t, as someone said to me this week, think “oh I thought I could wait to think about all that until later, and now it’s so difficult” Do it now!  Don’t wait until it’s too late.

Think about all the times where we have made other things our god instead of God – the one thing we will never give up – the top of our list of priorities – perhaps our career, our children, our houses, our possessions, our pride or even our churches.  This is the root of all sin.  As the first commandment says “you shall have no other god before me”.  Write down on a piece of paper all the things and people that have been important to us in our lives, in order of priority.  Where does God come on that list – in practice, in reality, in the everyday decisions that we make?  How important is God to us?  If the answer is ‘not really at all’ ‘I had not realised that I should take God into account in any of the decisions I take’ then for Lent at least – Reflect on Sinfulness

Secondly, we should make a serious effort to repent of putting these other things first.  We should be determined never to do so again and ask for forgiveness for doing so.  And when we do this – I expect that we will feel a sense of forgiveness, a sense of relief as we are freed from the bondage that we have endured to these other priorities. A sense of peace. So for Lent at least Repent of Sinfulness

Thirdly, we need to use the little power that we have in the way that Jesus used his power.  Let’s try this during Lent, at the very least.  Not focused on ourselves, but focused on others.  You may say “well I don’t have the power to make cheese Paninis out of stones” but we do have some power – all of us.  Power as consumers, power as parents, power as managers, power as colleagues, power as citizens, power as owners of property; power as holders of money.  How do we use that power – do we only focus on ourselves and what we want?  Or do we focus on others?  Do we focus on what God wants for our lives?

We should try for Lent at the very least, just to use our power for others.  In every conversation, let’s resist the temptation to be constantly ventilating our own point of view – find out what the other person thinks.   We can even be courteous to the call centre person who calls us out of the blue.  And if he or she really won’t give up on harassing us, we can explain to him or her gently about Jesus.  We may find that we don’t have the problem again!

For Lent at the very least, in the tiny decisions of every day, think how we can make them not focused on our own interests, but on the interests of others.  How can I serve this other person in this dealing I have with them?  Just for Lent, at the very least, let’s not be focused on justice for ourselves and our family, but justice for others.   Just for Lent, at the very least, let’s not be focused on food for ourselves, but food for others.  It’s a really good time to give to the basics bank. http://winchesterbasicsbank.co.uk/   So for Lent at least let’s do a Power Fast – not a new way to look thinner – but a new way to exercise our power.

Reflect on Sinfulness

Repent of Sinfulness

Power Fast

As we use Lent to practise using power the way that Jesus did in the desert, then we will learn more about God, we will find it easier to put him at the top of our list of priorities and easier to love him.


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