Rev. Danielle K Bartz February 26, 2023
Matthew 4:1-11 “Seeking: Who Will You Listen To?”
We have entered one of the most important seasons in the church year – Lent. It is a season of preparation for the coming miracle of the resurrection. And it is a season of reflection, of asking questions of ourselves and our spirits. We do this in order to make room for Christ. It is my favorite season of the year because I love to ask myself, and you, questions to help all of us understand more about our connection to God and one another. So, this year during Lent, we will be focusing on questions. Using a phenomenal resource from a liturgy organization called Sanctified Art, our theme for this season of Lent is “Seeking Honest Questions for Deeper Faith.”
This theme of seeking and questioning is a reflection of the Gospel texts we will be considering throughout Lent. Each text is an encounter, of someone asking questions and seeking awareness. Each week we will read about and consider the story through the lens of asking questions. And this week, the question we are wondering about is “Who will we listen to?” This is the central question in today’s text, the traditional story we hear to open the season of Lent. Jesus, compelled by the Holy Spirit to go into the wilderness immediately following his baptism, has an encounter with evil, or Satan, as the text is translated to say. Jesus is tempted by evil, he is tempted by a voice that offers him an easy way out of the tension that he lives in – the tension we all experience by living in a broken and hurting world, but still believing, knowing even, that God’s Kingdom is possible. This tension between living in this world with all of it difficulties but at the same time knowing that this is not all there is. And with that knowing comes the obligation to never settle for the status quo, or to go along with injustice because it is easier. This tension that we experience today is the same tension that Jesus carried with him into the wilderness for those 40 days. The voice of evil was whispering in his ear, but he chose to instead listen to God.
There are three temptations in this story as it is told by the Gospel of Matthew. Each temptation is offered by Satan, who in Biblical understanding, was a fallen angel. It is important, I think, for us to understand that because it can help us to see the temptations for what they really were, and why we continue to be confronted with the same temptations today. In ancient Jewish understanding, Satan was once an angel of heaven but who ‘fell’ when they turned their allegiance away from God’s Kingdom and instead served the broken power of earth that we can understand today as injustice, persecution, hatred, greed, and fear. So, the tempter, Satan, in today’s lesson has turned away from the hope and possibility of God, and instead rules over and maintains the brokenness that God is trying to remedy. In order to maintain the brokenness of this world, that status quo must be maintained. Jesus came to disrupt the status quo, and to challenge the apathy and separation that comes along with it. Jesus came to serve God’s Kingdom and to make it real for all of us. When given three opportunities to listen to evil, Jesus chose to listen to God.
The first temptation, when Jesus is told turn stones into bread, is ultimately about seeking easy comfort by turning allegiances away from God and instead aligning with evil. This temptation is about physical comfort, in this case Jesus was famished, having been fasting for 40 days. When evil whispers in his ear to simply use his power to turn the stones into bread, Jesus has to resist. Which, initially, may seem odd because he goes on to perform feeding miracles – miracles that fed thousands of people. But this temptation is not about food, not really. This temptation is about easing the tension of a life that is devoted to God by filling our lives and our bodies with things that are truly empty. If Jesus had given into this temptation, not only would his allegiance with God be broken, but he would ease temporary discomfort for himself for a moment and a moment only. He would maintain the status quo by letting go of spiritual fulfillment for all people by instead meeting his own personal needs. It would have been easier, yes, but the fulfillment of the need would not last, and the needs of the many would go unmet. Jesus chooses to listen to God.
The second temptation is much more dramatic than the first. Satan takes him to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem, the very top of the center of spiritual and communal life for the people of Jesus’ community. On that pinnacle, Jesus is tempted to throw himself down and demonstrate his power by not allowing himself to be hurt. The tempter is even more devious this time because he tries to convince Jesus to do this by quoting, though inaccurately, scripture. But again, Jesus does not give into this temptation. He does not do the bidding of evil, he continues to listen to God. And by not giving into the temptation of demonstrating God’s power in a public and spectacular way, Jesus once again does not choose the easy way out. You see, if he had done evil’s bidding by putting on such a public display, perhaps the people who witnessed it may have been more likely to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. But, Jesus knew that to do so would not align the people with God, it would align the people with great displays of power. And those displays of power would have continued to maintain the false understanding of what true power is. To serve God is not about showing off, by doing something grand that is ultimately meaningless. To serve God is to do the small things, to do the uncomfortable things, to lessen our egos in order to make room for God. Jesus chooses to listen to God.
The final temptation is more insidious, and I believe ultimately more frightening because of its power. Satan takes Jesus to a high peak so they can see all of the land around them – all of the kingdoms of the world and their splendor as the scripture says. Satan tells Jesus that if he simply falls down and worships evil, then all of those earthly kingdoms and all that splendor will be given to Jesus to rule over. Which means two things: it first means that all of the earthly kingdoms and their splendor belong to evil, and are ruled by evil. And the second is far more important: by refusing this temptation, Jesus reminds all of us that his purpose was not, and is not, to control this world as it is, but to change it to make real the promise of God. Jesus did not come to maintain the brokenness of humanity, but rather to heal it by sharing with all of us the voice of God calling us to listen. Jesus chooses to listen to God and calls on all of us to do the same.
The temptations that Jesus faces in today’s scripture lesson don’t feel all that relatable to us today, but they really are. Every day we encounter voices that ask us to take the easy way, to ease the tension of our lives of faith that are founded upon the promise of God’s Kingdom by instead giving into false comfort or empty gestures of power or opportunities to maintain the status quo. Those were the temptations that Jesus faced and those are the temptations that we face. So, the question we must ask ourselves, over and over again, is whose voice will we listen to? Will we listen to the voices that bombard us every day with temptations to let go of the hope and commitment we have to God’s Kingdom? Or will we choose instead to listen to the still speaking voice of God. A voice that, if we care to listen, will ground us in hope and faith, give us courage and fortitude, and comfort us with real and lasting peace. The choice is ours to make every moment of every day. And there will be times when we all listen to the wrong voice, but God will continue to speak into our spirits and offer us an alternative. God will continue to provide for us the possibilities of something greater, if we take the time to listen. Amen.
Still-speaking God, your voice comes to us in many different ways. Sometimes you are easy to hear, and at other times we must strain to listen over the noise of this world. But you continue to speak to us, to call us to live a life devoted to you. For this ever-present voice in our lives, we give you great thanks and it is in this gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
This world, God, is filled with temptations that lead us away from our devotion to you and your Kingdom. Help us to always listen to you, even when doing so means doing the harder thing. Your love and grace are always ready and eager to guide us. And the glorious hope you have for this world and our lives is extraordinary, so extraordinary that doing the harder thing is always worth it.
One of the ways, God, that we listen for your voice is by opening our spirits and hearts to you. In these moments of silence we give over to you all of the cares that we carry, creating space for you to offer us comfort…
Good and loving God, you came to us in the person of Jesus Christ, who faced the same temptations that we do, and who showed us the way to hold on to you and your Kingdom. For his presence, his teachings, and his examples, we are so grateful. We pray all of this and so much more in his name and now in the way he taught…Our Father…