The four temptations of Jesus

First Sunday of Lent
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
10 March 2019

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The tradition of Jesus spending some time alone in the wilderness being “tested” (tempted) by Satan is found in three of the four Gospels, but is unknown to the Gospel of John.  It is a well-known tale that is deeply embedded in our souls.

In the so-called “Q Gospel”—the material preserved only by Matthew and Luke—this meme is developed into a story with three episodes.

Many stories in the western cultural canon have three episodes. It is how we like to tell stories, or even construct sermons.

“Forty days” is itself a biblical meme that occurs repeatedly in the Scriptures. It indicates an extended period of time during which major developments may occur.

For the anonymous Christian storyteller who shaped this story, this is the time when Jesus undergoes the challenges that any ancient hero was expected to survive in order to demonstrate their character and their skill.

This story is not a memory of a historical moment, but a meditation on the deeper truth that Jesus constantly had to choose faithfulness to God’s call on his life, rather than be seduced by second-best; an acceptable action in itself but not what God required of him.

That is a challenge we all face every day.


Turn these stones into bread

The first temptation …

And what can be wrong about a hungry person turning a few desert stones into warm bread rolls?

Nothing in itself, but context is everything.

The reply Jesus makes to the Satan figure in this story points to a spiritual crisis from which we mostly avert our eyes: “One does not live by bread alone.”

The “daily bread” for which Jesus teaches us to pray is not at stake here, but rather our insatiable appetite to acquire and consume.

We want … morefasterbetterimpressiveconvenience

And we want it now.

But in our heart of hearts we know that we are not defined by the baubles for which we compete.

We do not live by “bread” alone …


Look at what could be yours

The second temptation …

Come with me to an imaginary mountain from which one can survey the entire world, stretching out in all its immense flatness before us. As far as the eye can see, and then some …

Can you see that, Jesus?

Let’s cut a deal.

I can make you successful, and powerful. One of a kind. All you need to do is play by my rules.

Power is seductive, but Jesus would never take that route.

He chooses the path that leads to a cross in the garbage pit outside the walls of Jerusalem, rather than the highway that leads to power.

We are not called to be powerful, or successful.

It is enough to be faithful.


At the temple’s edge

Temptation three …

Now things are getting a little weird.

Let’s see what you are made of Jesus; and whether God really cares about you at all.

Come over here to the very edge of the temple in Jerusalem and throw yourself from the highest point. You will be fine, eh? After all, you are special. God will look after you.

Jesus would be offered that wrong choice another time: when hanging on the cross. The clergy from the temple say to one another: “Let’s wait and see if God will rescue him, since he claims to be God’s son.”

None of us would ever fall for that one, right?

We would never think that God exists to keep us safe from our own stupid choices or the hostile actions of other people?

We would never treat the planet like it exists for our sake, rather than the other way around?

We would never take advantage of other people for our own short term satisfaction?

Selfishness may be the worst temptation of them all.



Until next time …

“When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:13)

Spiritual victories are never complete.

There is always next time.

Jesus was not given a green pass after his successful completion of the inaugural testing regime.

There would be other opportunities to fail.

Other moments of vulnerability.

There always are.

The authentic life is a commitment to persistent and recurring faithfulness, not an easy jog to the finish line after some early successes.

We are in this for the long haul.

So is the dark one.

But so is God.


The home town crowd

They know us better than anyone else. Probably better than we know ourselves. If we are truly blessed, they love us despite knowing us so well.

They are the home town crowd, or simply our family and friends.

Fresh from his spiritual challenges in the wilderness, Jesus heads home to Nazareth and goes to the synagogue for worship on Shabbat.

It does not go well.

The home crowd is a tough gig.  Always has been.

Jesus reflects somewhat ruefully on a dynamic known across the centuries:

“Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”

That is one of the rare sayings of Jesus which is is found in all four Gospels.

Another temptation perhaps?

Living with criticism from those we love?


We have two choices

The modern Jewish philosopher and social critic, Noam Chomsky, has the last word this week:

We have two choices. We can be pessimistic, give up, and help ensure that the worst will happen. Or we can be optimistic, grasp the opportunities that surely exist, and maybe help make the world a better place. Not much of a choice.



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