Next Time You’re Tempted to Turn a Stone into Bread

Next Time You’re Tempted to Turn a Stone into Bread

Robert P. Hoch

First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Baltimore MD 21201

March 1, 2020

Matthew 4:1-11
1Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”4But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Jesus feels temptation. Matthew tells us that right after Jesus was confirmed as God’s very own child, the Spirit led him into a wilderness for forty days and forty nights. And after forty days and forty nights, with neither food nor water, Jesus was famished. Hungry. Exhausted. Tempted.

The story of Jesus’ baptism, which we only just finished in Matthew, doesn’t prepare us for this at all. Baptism was kind of like Jesus’ graduation day. God beams with pride and then, in the next instant, seems to put in question Jesus’ identity, exposing him to a devil’s question, “If you are the Child of God” — as in, “Go prove it!” Didn’t Jesus get all the confirmation he or anyone else needed?

That’s odd.

But maybe that’s just one part of our text’s oddity. The text also feels a bit cartoonish, doesn’t it?

A devil? You wonder, Did he have horns? Was the devil red? Or maybe the devil had a comb over, and tan lines around his eyes, an orangish hue to his skin? I mean, what is the devil, anyway? When’s the last time you had a chat with the devil? Maybe you shouldn’t answer that question!

But it’s weird in another way, as in other-worldly. Being taken up to a high mountain, seeing the world laid out for you, feeling as if the fantasy of being a king for a day were an actual possibility — that’s weird. I mean, maybe all of us say, “If I were president, this is what I would do. . . .” But we know it’s not likely, that’s why we say it. But if I went on to say, I am the president, you might become worried not for the State of our Union but the state of my mind!

And back to that devil. I’m really intrigued by him, her, it, they. Am I to take that character seriously? I’m a person of faith but that doesn’t mean I necessarily view my struggles as something the devil sends my way. Just don’t see it that way. I know some people probably do. But I don’t.

Maybe this text feels odd, especially when we consider what our temptations really feel like. When viewed from that perspective, it’s not only an odd text; it can become a distancing text, where we don’t even really know what it means that Jesus was tempted because the temptations that he struggles with seem so different from the ones we struggle with. It’s like Rolling Stones song, the line that goes: “He can’t be a man cause doesn’t smoke the same kind of cigarettes as me!”

It feels like distancing text. Jesus can’t be real. Jesus’ wilderness may be a forty-day treatment, but it doesn’t look like anything I know. No one’s whispering in my ear, saying, do this or don’t do that. There’s no devil making me do it. And maybe I would be tempted to turn a stone into bread, if I had that ability, which I don’t.

I don’t often find myself tempted to climb our 270-foot steeple, to fling myself off in order to prove God’s love. I don’t know that I’m tempted to bow down and worship some clownish character, wearing a devil outfit — maybe tomorrow if I’ve got some time. No, when I feel temptation, it isn’t some devil at my elbow, giving me a surreal tour of the universe. When I feel temptation, it’s more glandular, in bowels, in my guts.

I mean, like the person in addiction recovery who really, really wants a drink, a hit, and will do just about anything to get it.

I mean, like the stab of loneliness, and the thirst for just about anything to take that feeling away.

I mean, like a businessperson, who’s struggling to break even, and sees an opportunity to cut a corner, maybe not pay their employees all they are due. They might notice, but they won’t say anything because they’re just thankful to have a job. I mean, like being an adolescent, and what you really, really, really want is nothing more than to be liked and admired by your peers. I mean, like when I’m really feeling successful, and I feel as if maybe I can satisfy my own selfish appetites by being a tiny bit exploitative of another person’s vulnerability. And last, biggest issue, if I am God’s child, but continue to disappoint, and thus introduce a shadow of a doubt, am I truly loved by God? Or am I flaming disappointment?

I’m glad Jesus resisted sin. But that only begs the question: What does Jesus know of our temptations, of the things that wring us out and leave us empty, at their mercy?

Maybe part of the clue comes in the genre of this text. This isn’t so much history as we understand it, but salvation history as understood by the biblical authors. And in salvation history, God is the hidden actor and the devil is the hidden opponent — and the conflict between Matthew’s Rule of Heaven and Satan is, as we see it, a conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities; or Jesus and Herod; or Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. The talk of the devil and Jesus isn’t so much literal as it is a way of showing us the God whose invisible hand moves through this story. The clash, we are told by Matthew, isn’t simply a clash between scribes and Pharisees, Herod and the oppressed, but a cosmic clash between two opposing kingdoms.

So, for example, the devil, or perhaps better, the opponent “tests” Jesus, just as the religious authorities will do. Jesus answers the devil’s tests with quotes from scripture, as he will do in subsequent chapters when answering religious authorities.

By the way, we shouldn’t be comfortable with Matthew’s implied analogy, that the devil is an analogy for Jewish leaders. Among other things, Jesus is a Jew. He is also a Jewish leader. Let’s give ourselves permission to reject Matthew’s analogy as incompatible with our worldview. And, at the same time, still value this text. The truth is that any of us, and maybe all of us, will find ourselves opposing Jesus — or really opposing our true humanity as it is represented in Jesus.

Jesus is truly human and truly God. In that regard, the NRSV gives us a really bad translation here. It says that Jesus’ opponent, the devil, says, “If you are the Son of God. . . .” The Greek here can be translated as either “if” or “since” — Matthew doesn’t give the devil the honor of “proving” whether Jesus is the Child of God. Matthew says that God has already spoken Jesus’ name as the Child of God — in Jesus God is well pleased. No, if about it.

Better to translate our opponent as saying, “Since you are the Child of God. . . .” The next temptation was, since you are the child of God, fling yourself off the temple tower to prove God faithfulness. And the final was that he took Jesus up to a very high mountain and said, I will give you everything, all you have to do is bow down and worship me!

What would all of these have done? The short answer is that Jesus wouldn’t have to live every day of his life. Or he would live, but he would live a much smaller version of himself. That’s the heart of the temptations. Jesus’ call is as high as the heavens and as deep as the seas.

Ours is too. We began by wondering what Jesus could possibly know about our feelings of temptation. But now I’m beginning to think that, in fact, Jesus knows them better than I initially imagined.

Our temptation isn’t to be fully human but to sell our humanity short. Why not self-medicate rather than do the slow, often difficult work of healing? Or why not racially segregate rather than reconcile? Segregation is fast and it is also less than fully human. Segregation keeps our relationship with our neighbors on an even keel; reconciliation takes determination, tenacity, humility.

Being human doesn’t come naturally. Ironic, isn’t it? Born human but we’ve no clue! I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve spent some time on a therapist’s couch. I’ll tell you, for one, it’s not a couch. Or at least not in my case! Only on TV. But what’s interesting, with coaching, or therapy, or a good friend who is real with you, so real they can tell you the truth and you listen to them because you know there’s real love there — what they say to you, it seldom gets you out of your pain, or your selfishness, or your power hungers, all of that — if they’re genuine, they offer a forty-day treatment or really a life-long course in human restoration. And while what they say in that context of human restoration is important, what’s also important is how they say it.

Jesus freely chooses to work out his humanity by being with us — that’s how he says it, for the long-haul, when we’re sick. When we’re not our best selves. And Jesus accepts us because he has accepted our humanity as his own. Jesus knows us not at a theoretical level, but at the level of exhaustion, hunger, thirst. And especially he knows us in love, a love more powerful, more patient, truer than any temptation to a quick fix.

The psalmist says that sin is stronger than we are. But God’s love is more compelling than even the strongest, purest high you could ever imagine. Could it be that God experiences something like this, a thirst for us?

Even though John’s gospel doesn’t include a temptation story, John gives us a Jesus who thirsts and knows our thirsts. Jesus turns water into wine, as his first miracle. Curious, don’t you think? All those thirsty guests and there was plenty of wine and then some. We’re always thirsting for a good time. But Jesus gives us something better than a good time, if we’ll follow him.

Not long after that, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well, drawing water. He asks her to draw him some water, because he is thirsty, and he would like some water to drink. Jesus thirsts.

As the conversation between them unfolds — and she is by degrees increasingly amazed by Jesus’ way of speaking — he says to her that if she knew who it was who asked her for water, she would ask him for water, and he would give her living water, the kind of water that continuously satisfies. You won’t even know what thirst is. She says, “Give me this water so I don’t have to keep coming to this well.”

I can’t tell you the whole story here, but in the end, she loses it, forgets that Jesus is thirsty, forgets her water bucket, and runs off to tell her neighbors about this peculiar person who knows everything about her. And who thirsts. And Jesus will be thirsty again, as he is dying on the cross. He will say, “I am thirsty” and a jar of sour wine will be lifted up to him in a sponge. To the wedding guests, Jesus gave fine wine, even heavenly wine. To the woman at the well, he gave living water. And when Jesus thirsts, we give him sour wine. Maybe that’s a symbol of our exhaustion, or our quick fix mindset, sour wine.

Sour wine . . . segregation.

Sour wine . . . selfish exploitation.

Sour wine . . . self-medication.

Finally, Jesus’ is given something to drink. We wonder, “How will he react?” Let’s see how John shows this thirsty Jesus: “When Jesus had received the wine — not the sour wine, not the wine on a sponge — but the wine for which he thirsted, the wine of our salvation — did Jesus turn the sour wine into salvation promise, just as he changed water into wine? After he drank, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:30).

The forty-day season of Lent is a season of human restoration. What short-cuts might you give up in the name of being more human? We can text in a second. But to write a note, that will take thought, mindfulness.We can look for a church where people don’t need to confess, to forgive, or to be reconciled. The services will be shorter. The people more agreeable. More successful. Or even no church at all, with no one but me to worry about.

It’s all very tempting.

But will it satisfy?

Since you are children of God, will that sort of bread satisfy?