Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 26th of Second Month, 2023
Speaker: Brian Young
Scripture: Matthew 4:1–11, NRSVUE:
1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 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.’ ”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ”
11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Good morning, Friends!
Last week when Lucy Price spoke, she reminded us of the season known as Lent, the season we have now entered. Lucy made the standard Quaker disclaimer that we Friends are generally not all that invested in the church calendar and its seasons. But I found it helpful that she reminded us of the rhythms of nature, and the seasons of the garden—seasons that perhaps many of us are more aware of, more sensitive to. For those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, we are in the season of late winter. It’s cold still, though here in Richmond we’ve had a few deliciously warm days recently. The trees are still bare, but here and there, there are buds. The mystery of growth is still mostly hidden underground, but the seeds and the bulbs are preparing to burst forth: in the southern exposure of our garden at home, daffodils and tulips have begun to send up their shoots. So Lucy observed that just as the quiet of late winter is the preparation for the joy of spring, the quiet of Lent is the preparation for the joy of the resurrection.
Lent is traditionally associated with fasting, modeled on Jesus’ 40-day fast in the wilderness, the story that we’ve just heard read from Matthew’s Gospel. Fasting doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, does it? As a spiritual practice, fasting is meant to clarify, to purify, and to prepare. In Jesus’ time, observant Jews would have fasted at certain times of the year, in preparation for some of the festivals prescribed in the law, or in a time of mourning. And Jesus’ fast is certainly about preparation. If you think about where we are in Jesus’ story, you might recall that we are still close to the beginning; his public ministry has not yet begun. He has just come from the Jordan, where the Spirit descended like a dove, and a voice from heaven declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17). This is as John baptizes him in the waters of the Jordan. Then that same Spirit leads him into the wilderness, to fast, and to be tested.
So we read this story in this season because of the connection with fasting, with an encouragement for us to model our spiritual practice on Jesus’ practice. Now, few of us are led to a fast as thoroughgoing as the one that Jesus chose, and, thanks be to God, I’ve never encountered the devil in the way that Jesus did (!!). But it is true that a fast seldom runs smoothly. (In fact, if it does run smoothly, there’s probably something wrong.) Struggle is a part of the process, whether you experience that struggle as a metaphysical one with a supernatural entity, or a more psychological one within yourself.
Over the years I have sometimes practiced a Lenten fast—sometimes by subtraction, by taking something away; other times it’s by addition, by picking up a new practice during that season, to see if it might speak to me, to grow my spirit. This year, I have chosen to fast from watching broadcast and cable and streaming TV. And the struggle is already there. Walking through the living room when the TV is on, it's just magnetic—my eyes go to that screen—you can’t keep away from it. And the other piece of this is that I am tempted to take up the slack with social media, to spend as much time on my phone as I would in front of the TV—when in fact, I think that time is meant for something else. So my hope is that, in the time that I gain from not being in front of the tube, God will lead me to clarify, to purify, to prepare. Part of the clarity I hope for is: when the fast is over, how do I want to consume media? Going back into it, how much of my time do I want TV to take? How might this fast prepare me to be a better steward of the time that God has given me?
Often when I speak about this story (which appears here in Matthew, and also in Luke 4 and Mark 1), I remark upon the connections with the story of Israel. There are many parallels between Jesus’s story and the story of the Hebrew people as they become a people, as they become Israel. Just a few of these: first, the wilderness setting—both of these stories happen in the wilderness, where there is nothing to rely upon but God. Israel has to rely upon the manna that God sends. Jesus relies upon the word of God that sustains him, and the Spirit of God.
And the number 40 shows up: it’s 40 years wandering in the wilderness for Israel, 40 days here for Jesus. There are also 40 days (and nights) for Moses on Mt. Sinai; Moses spends that time on Sinai preparing to bring the Law of God to the people. And so in these kinds of parallels and others, Jesus is the one who is faithful. Jesus is the faithful Israel; while the human Israel was tested and found wanting, Jesus is tested and prevails. Jesus is also the prophet like unto Moses—the new Moses, who brings the word in a new way.
Now, the temptations, the testing that Jesus encounters here, are all based on a distortion of desire; they are aimed at distorting a good gift that God gives—a thing given to us, to Jesus, to all of us in our humanity—that the adversary twists around.
So, the first temptation: stones into bread. “If you are the Son of God,” he says—when a voice from heaven has just said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”—but the tempter says, “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread...” This is another place where we think of Israel's experience, the manna that God provides, the food in the wilderness. Of course Jesus is hungry; Matthew tells us he's hungry. So Satan here attempts to distort the good desire for food, one of the most basic of our needs that God has given to each of us in our humanity, and turn it to his own ends. Now it's not that Jesus couldn't do this. It's not that he's not up to the challenge. We know that he does it later, when 5,000 people need to be fed on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. But it's not his to feed himself now by some magic act. Here he is to rely upon God, just as he has been doing, just as the Hebrew wanderers did when they waited for manna that came each day.
So Jesus resists the distortion of the good desire for food—then to the high point on the temple in Jerusalem: “Throw yourself off. God won't let you be harmed, for isn't it written, ‘He won't let you strike your feet against a stone?’” Again there, distorting the sense of the Psalm, if you read Psalm 91 (91:11, 12). So here the temptation is to twist one of God's promises. We know that God could save Jesus if he fell, or if he jumped. The good desire for safety, the need that we all have to be physically secure, is here twisted to the ends of the tempter. Again, we know God could do it—think of the resurrection. But it doesn't belong to Jesus to determine the time or nature of his trial. That will come soon enough.
Third: “fall down and worship me, and I will give you all of the kingdoms of the world.” Here Satan attempts to distort the good desire for Jesus to be effective in his ministry, for Jesus himself to do good. Jesus wants to follow God's will. But following God's will means something more in this circumstance, and certainly not worshiping anyone other than God. I think also of the place later in the Gospel, where Jesus asks, “What shall it profit the one who gains the entire world and yet loses his or her soul?” (Matthew 16:26). Jesus knew of what he was speaking.
One of the difficulties that I have with this passage is in how to interpret those temptations for our experience today. Are Jesus’ trials meant to represent universal human temptations, things that we all experience in the same way? Should these three tests that Jesus undergoes map onto specific struggles that we each have? I confess that I’m not able to give you a complete, universal correspondence, but here are a couple of thoughts:
I once heard Mary Kate Morse, an Evangelical Friend from the Northwest, suggest that the temptations generally are about complying with someone else’s agenda—someone else’s agenda aside from what God might will for you. Certainly, the accuser is trying to get Jesus to sign onto his program, by means of the distortion of desire. This may resonate especially for those of us whose desire for harmonious relationships can be distorted into people-pleasing. I’m one of those—and if you’re like me, we can be tempted to over-perform; to take unwise risks; or to misuse power, all in service of an agenda that is not what God has willed for us.
And there may be one or another of the three temptations that is more of a problem for you than the others. The one that probably bears the most gravity for me is the third, when the devil offers Jesus power in exchange for worship. As a pastoral minister, I have to take particular care with how I exercise authority. We can all think of many instances where people with power in the church—usually men with power in the church—have abused or misused others. The good desire to serve and to help others becomes distorted into the desire to dictate to and control. This is actually one of the places where being a pastor among Friends is a particular mercy. Because we believe in the potential for all to minister, I have to allow space for others in the work that we share. Now, sometimes this means that the lines get muddled, so we have to clarify—this is mine to do, that is yours, and this other belongs to us all. But that is far better than my crossing all sorts of lines because I feel I have the right, or even the responsibility, to do so.
Now, other aspects of this story may resonate with you more—or perhaps nothing resonates, particularly. But I don’t believe any of us us free of temptation. I believe we all experience the distortion of desire in some way or ways. And so we all have a need for clarification, for purification, and for preparation to do God’s will in the world, and do it more thoroughly.
Friends may not be very invested in fasting as a spiritual discipline. But our practice of waiting worship is something like a fast, one that we observe each week when we are here together. For at least a few minutes, we fast from words, from action, from most movement, and we become still. We empty ourselves, not simply to be deprived, but that we might be filled with God’s Spirit. In the quiet, we are seeking an opportunity with the Inward Christ—to have God clarify our thinking and our motivations; purify our distorted desires; and prepare us for ministry in a world where we can so easily lose contact with these divine tenderings.
Let us keep that little fast now, together—
that God might clarify, and purify, and prepare us.
New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
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