SERMON: There is more to life than our physical being

SERMON: There is more to life than our physical being

St. Mary’s Iffley, Lent 1,
5 March 2017

To-day’s Gospel invites us to consider the testing of Jesus – a better word than temptations. The Hebrew Scriptures record that both Abraham and Job were tested and their triumph over their testing in the most extreme circumstances proved their faithfulness to God. Jesus would face that kind of ultimate test in Gethsemane and on Golgotha. But right at the beginning of his ministry his fitness to be God’s Son is put to the test.

While Mark makes only a brief allusion to Jesus being driven by the Spirit into the desert where he was tempted for forty days, he does not specify the nature of his testing, Matthew greatly elaborates Mark. Luke probably copied Matthew though he puts the temptations in a different order. To-day’s Gospel passage must then be seen as Matthew’s own creation and if we are to understand it aright, we must interpret it in the light of Matthew’s overall theology.

When I preached to you last, I pointed out how in his birth narrative Matthew parodied the Exodus story. So while there it was Pharaoh who murdered all the Hebrew male babies, in Matthew it is the Jewish king Herod who orders the slaughter of the boys at Bethlehem. And whereas Moses fled out of Egypt for safety, in Matthew’s account it is of all places in Egypt that the holy family finds sanctuary. So we must expect that this playing with the Exodus narrative will continue. And it does.

Prior to the account of the testing in the wilderness, Matthew records the baptism of Jesus. Looking at the two narratives together we are meant to recall Moses leading the Israelites through the waters of the Red Sea followed by their forty years of wandering in the desert. So Jesus goes through the water of baptism and as the exodus confirmed Israel as God’s chosen people, Jesus’ baptism confirms him as Son of God – a key ascription in Matthew. And continuing his liking for parody, just as Israel repeatedly put God to the test in the wilderness, in contrast it is Jesus who is tested in his wilderness. And just as Deuteronomy records that Moses spent forty days and forty nights on Mount Horeb, the Deuteronomic name for Sinai, before receiving the ten commandments, so Matthew will shortly describe Jesus giving his disciples his law, what we call the Sermon on the Mount. For Matthew’s readers all these allusions would have been obvious.

Our Gospel passage for to-day begins with Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Mark records that Jesus was driven there just as Adam was driven from the garden. He is the second Adam who will redeem Israel from Adam’s disobedience. Matthew changes the verb to led – again an echo from the Exodus narrative where the Israelites were led by the cloudy pillar. And by saying ‘led by the Spirit’ Matthew indicates that Jesus’ testing was by divine permission. God not merely allows it but ordains it. At his baptism, Jesus had been told ‘You are my beloved Son’. But is he capable of living up to that Sonship? Before he starts his ministry he must show that he is qualified for the job.

The tests are all about power and they are deeply insidious for the power offered is in effect illusory. All are vicious traps which if fallen for would have invalidated Jesus ministry at its very inception.

After forty days and forty nights fasting, Jesus must have been at the limits of physical endurance. So the devil plays on his natural weakness. Jesus clearly understood his fasting as a commitment to his Father. What was under attack was his singleness of heart. He was after all flesh of our flesh which made the testing so dangerous: but he was as the devil mockingly reminded him supposed also to be Son of God. Let him prove it. Could Jesus in the weakness of his humanity live up to the reality of his calling?

Scripture provided the answer. Matthew makes Jesus quote from a speech by Moses in Deuteronomy: Man does not live by bread alone. He is more than his bodily needs. He has spiritual needs to which God will provide. Until then he will wait on his word, remain dependent on him alone to sustain him.

The scene now switches to the temple in Jerusalem. There the devil plays Jesus at his own game by quoting from Psalm 91. If Jesus is who he says he is, then he will be divinely protected from any hurt. ‘He will give his angels charge of you’. Jesus is being tempted to seek divine proof that he is indeed Son of God. But it is not for man to seek proof of God’s faithfulness but faithfully to wait on God. Once again Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy: ‘You shall not tempt the Lord, your God’ – itself a reference back to an incident in Israel’s desert journey recorded in Exodus where the Hebrews provoked God to prove himself by asking ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’.

Finally the devil and Jesus go to a very high mountain from which they can see all the kingdoms of the world. Here the devil promises to convey them to Jesus if he would worship him. In ancient Israel as well as in the time of Jesus legal transfer of realty was not by a deed of conveyance but only occurred when the purchaser physically looked over the vendor’s property thereby taking possession. Matthew is again thinking of the story of Moses who just before his death as recorded in Deuteronomy climbed Mount Pisgah which overlooked the land of Canaan to take possession of it on behalf of his people, though he was to die before his people crossed the Jordan.

But again Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy.: ‘ You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve’. He will not come into possession of his kingdom by any insidious acquisition of power but through the powerlessness of the cross. That kingdom would be won through utter dependence on his Father. On Golgotha nailed to the cross there seemed no reason to go on in faith. Like Job, he could have cursed God and died: he didn’t and lives. In losing all, all was gained and humankind redeemed. They may not yet fully acknowledge him: but the devil has been vanquished for all time. The power of love has overcome the love of power.

So Jesus maintains his integrity. He is indeed fit to be Son of God. Angels, members of the heavenly court, can come and minister to him. But what has all this to teach us as we in our turn are tested in our faithfulness, tempted in the light of so much that seems to deny a loving God, tempted when he seems so powerless, tempted when he seems totally absent, tempted to reject him, to rely on our own power.

First there is more to life than our physical being. We are also spiritual beings and need to wait on God in order to be who we have been called to be. And that is in his hands. Second we should never be tempted to test God, to get him to prove himself. We live by faith and faith alone. But faith means going on without proof but believing. For though we cannot prove him, we can know him. And that’s what matters. Finally it is not for us to seize power. Indeed it is in our very powerlessness that we most reflect the testing God, for then we allow him to work in us his own loving will rather than impose our self-centred will on him.

So in his forty days in the wilderness, Jesus remained faithful to the Father who had designated him his Son. And when the ultimate test came, a test like no other, the test of Godforsakeness, although he was to cry out with the Psalmist ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’, in his utter powerlessness he could yet triumphantly cry ‘It is finished’ and surrender to his Father. May we have the same courage whatever test is thrown at us to remain in our own powerlessness faithful to our Father until we can also say, ‘It is finished’, and find that same Father who is his Father running out to embrace us.

Anthony Phillips