03/09/14 Sermon (March 09, 2014) "Not By Bread Alone"

posted Mar 11, 2014, 10:49 AM by David Hawkins

03/09/14 Sermon (March 09, 2014)

"Not By Bread Alone"

Scripture Reading: Matthew 4:1-11 (Pastor)

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

But he answered, “It is written,

    ‘One does not live by bread alone,

         but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying 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.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written,

‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Sermon: "Not By Bread Alone"             Rev. David Hawkins

One of the benefits of preaching from the lectionary is that every three years or so, you get another crack at tackling a difficult scripture passage.

As we enter our season of Lent, we are once again presented with this story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. It’s nice to have another go at a big Bible text like this one, because there is simply too much in here to talk about it all in one go around, although, God knows, we preachers sure do like to try, don’t we?

I think the last time I preached on this passage, I focused on the second of the three temptations, the temptation for Jesus to throw himself off of the pinnacle of the temple, and be rescued by angels’ wings, proving once and for all, that he really was the son of God.

And I think that I may have talked at that time a little bit about how this scripture passage warns us against assuming God’s protection as a sign of our faith. Specifically I might have said something about this sort of “Jesus Take the Wheel” theology maybe isn’t the best way to go through life. Putting God to the test as an expression of our faith is something that Jesus doesn’t do as the Son of God, and something he’s pretty sure we shouldn’t do as well.

A friend of mine teaches at a Christian College, and he has said to me that he runs into this kind of theology all the time. Some of the students at his school simply assume that if God wants them to know algebra, then God will make sure that they know it, so they don’t really need to study. Or, if God wants them to be able to play baritone, then he will give them the skill to play baritone, so they don’t really need to practice.

Of course, these students are surprised and little bit disheartened when they flunk out, but I suppose they are comforted by the thought that, well, I guess, that God just doesn’t want them to have a college education.

But I’m pretty sure that there is more to the life of a disciple than to simply sit back and passively be filled with knowledge by the Holy Spirit. Discipleship is not like being uploaded with Karate lessons, or how to fly a helicopter, by some kind of brain uplink, like in the movie ‘The Matrix’. That would be cool, but it just doesn’t work that way.

God expects us to grow, to think, to make decisions, and to act. We are not puppets in this lifetime. We are an active part of God’s ministry on earth, and that means that we bear some of the responsibility for making wise decisions about important things.  We can’t just abdicate responsibility for our lives, throw our hands up in the air, and hope for the best. We are participants in what happens to us.

I’m especially reminded of that as I recently read about this third generation snake handler preacher, Jamie Coots, down over in Kentucky who got bit by a snake, of course, and then died after refusing medical help.

Now, I admire this preacher’s faith. But, I disagree with his exegesis. It seems to me that every time he fiddled with these poisonous snakes, he was putting God to the test, and, to my way of reading the Bible, that’s not such a good idea. And Jesus doesn’t think so, either.

So, if any of you are feeling guilty about the fact that we Presbyterians don’t do enough snake handling, I encourage you to hang onto to this verse, Matthew 4:7. We don’t need to get bit by a rattlesnake in order to prove our faith. In fact, my friends, we don’t need to do anything to prove our faith to anybody. Jesus has already done that sort of heavy lifting for us on the cross. If his death and resurrection isn’t already sufficient for our salvation, then I’m not there’s anything we can do to make it more so. Can I get an amen?

These three temptations, and the the scriptures that Jesus quotes to resist them, remind me of the exodus of the Hebrew slaves in the desert. Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days and nights before beginning his ministry, Moses was on the mountaintop for forty days and nights before descending with the law; Jesus was hungry after his time in the wilderness, the Israelites were hungry after their time in the wilderness, and both Jesus and the Israelites had to rely on God to sustain them; Jesus was tempted to test God, and the Hebrew slaves wandering in the desert were warned by Moses to not test God. Satan promised Jesus the world if he would worship him, instead of God, the Israelites in the wilderness were tempted by a golden calf.

For Matthew, Jesus is not just a good teacher, or a preacher, he is the new Moses, the deliverer of a people, the prophet-king of Israel. And so these stories about the temptation of Jesus are meant to tell us about who Jesus is, rather than to simply provide us with model of righteous living.

So it’s important for us to not simply reduce this passage to an example of how to live like a disciple. Jesus is much, much more than a disciple. This is the story of the Son of God, hungry, thirsty, alone, and being faced with the temptations that have plagued the people Israel from the beginning of their history, and overcoming them. And because he overcame them, he is in a position to lift us out of our bondage to them as well.

And, if you think about it, these three temptations are really just variations on one ultimate temptation, the temptation that lays at the root of all human sin, the temptation that is offered by the snake to Adam and Eve, the temptation that we, too, can become like God.

That’s what each of these temptations boil down to isn’t it? Satan is whispering in our ear that we can become God. We can depend on ourselves. We can sustain ourselves by turning stones into bread. We can command armies of angels to do our bidding. We can rule the world, if we so choose. It’s up to us. We are in charge of our destiny.

And perhaps this is the greatest sign of all that God has truly become human in Jesus Christ. The fact is, He could have done all these things that Satan suggests. He could have fed himself, but doesn’t. He could have taken a ride on the wings of angels, but he doesn’t. He could have become the most powerful king in the world, but he doesn’t.

Jesus could have done all these thing and more. And Satan knows it. Satan knows who Jesus is. Satan has no problem acknowledging Jesus as the son of God. He has no problem acknowledging his power and authority.

But what Satan wants to do is draw Jesus out. To make Jesus prove himself. To make Jesus use his power and authority for his own benefit. To make Jesus to not just be God, but to act like God. To make Jesus give up his essential humanity in order to prove that he really is God to the world.

But Jesus resists this temptation to prove himself. And, he doesn’t just resist it here, in this part of the scriptures. Over and over and over again, Jesus warns his disciples and the people that he heals, to not tell anyone. To keep it a secret.

You know, scholars have debated this strange aspect of the stories about Jesus, that Jesus tells his disciples not to tell anybody about what’s really going on. Scholars call it the “Messianic Secret” and most of them think that it’s some kind of rhetorical device, a storytelling technique that heightens the tension of  the plot, something that makes the Gospel message more dramatic, somehow.

And maybe that’s true. But, it’s also true that Jesus used his healing and miracles for the good of those in need, rather than for his own benefit. And this is the thing that Satan wants to change most of all. Satan wants Jesus to use his power for himself, not for others. To lift himself up, to sustain himself, to glorify himself, to make himself look good, rather than to humble himself, and serve others, and trust in the providence of God.

And this is nothing new. That’s what Satan always wants. Satan always wants us to think that we can do it ourselves. Satan wants most of all to convince us that we really can feed ourselves. That we have the power to create something out nothing, and be fulfilled by our own actions. That we can take care of ourselves, without the help of God, or anyone else.

And if we are perfectly capable of determining our own fate, of our destiny, we are not responsible for the fate of others. I’m on my own, and that means that you are on your own, and it means that they are on their own. Each of us are responsible only to ourselves. We don’t need each other, and we are not accountable to each other. This is Satan’s plan to divide humanity against itself.

We are our own little gods. We take care of ourselves. We make our own future. We are in charge of what happens in our own lives. If we are rich, it’s because we worked harder than everybody else. If those people are poor, it’s because they’re lazy. If we are healthy, then it’s because we ate the right things, if those people are sick, it’s because they didn’t take care of their bodies.

Everything that happens is a result of our own efforts, and we are not in any way responsible to anybody else for anything. It’s all up to us. Because we are like God. Because we can make our own bread. And if we are like God, then we don’t need anybody else.

But Jesus rebukes Satan. Jesus rebukes the notion that we are truly capable of taking care of ourselves. Even the son of God recognizes that he is sustained by God, not by his own power. Even the Son of God recognizes his own limits, and refuses to test God. Even the Son of God humbles himself, refusing the promise of an earthly kingdom, if it means turning his eyes away from God. Even the Son of God needs bread, water, sustenance from God.

The Son of God chooses to be human, and for Jesus, that means being dependant on God for his very existence. Even to the end of his life, when Jesus could have called all the angels from heaven to lift him off the cross, Jesus chose the life and a death of a human being, trusting only in the power of God, even on the mount of Calvary.

Jesus is the Son of God, but he abides by human limits. He is God-with-us, but he chooses to subject himself to the same weaknesses we face. Jesus knows what hunger, thirst, exhaustion feel like. Jesus knows all about anger, fear, and sorrow. Jesus has faced his own temptations, pain, and betrayal, and has trusted God to see him through them.

And in doing so, he’s not proving his divinity. He proves his humanity. And this is what Satan desperately wants to stop.

Because being human means feeling hunger, and thirst and exhaustion and anger and fear and sorrow and pain and betrayal. Being human means daily facing temptations to trust in our own power, to become our own little gods, to feed ourselves, to think that we can handle life on our own. This is the human condition, and Jesus so loved the world that he is willing to completely and utterly embrace it. All of it. Even the hard stuff. Jesus takes on not just the spirituality of being human, but the physicality as well.

I wonder if we are as willing to embrace the physicality of our humanity the way Jesus did. I wonder if we don’t sometimes reject our humanity, detest it. I know that I have a tendency to neglect my physical body, to deny that it has needs, that it needs care and maintenance. And when I do pay attention to it, I despise it, I wish that it would go away.

And don’t think I’m alone in this. We all have our hang-ups about our bodies. Some of us hate the way we look, some of us love it too much. Some of us detest our bodies, some of us worship them. It’s hard to find a balanced, spiritual way of thinking about the gift of our physical humanity.

Part of my hope for the church as we take a look at this Daniel Plan Bible study is that we might begin a discussion about what it means to embrace, or at least accept our human nature. I wonder if we might begin to think about what it really means to be able to love ourselves and our neighbors in the same way that Jesus does -- in the same, out-pouring, life-giving, self-sacrificing way that Jesus does.  

There’s something about being alive, about being physically human that God honors by choosing to live among us. There is something somehow necessary about our journey. It’s not just a stepping stone between being born and dying. It’s important, this life, this body, this existence. Important enough that God joins us in it.

And so, during this season of Lent, this season of spiritual reflection and meditation, I would to encourage all of us to also think about our bodies, and they way the way they are a part of our spirituality. I don’t know if the Daniel Plan will take us there, I but I do hope that it might make us think just a little harder about what it means to be human.

Above all, I hope that we can each find in ourselves some sense of the joy that Jesus takes in our humanity, and be reminded of the promise that in Jesus Christ, we find both the bread and the word of God that sustains our lives.

Thanks be to God. Amen.