Updated: Apr 18
“DON'T TEMPT ME”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.
February 26, 2023
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.
Chocolate? “Don’t tempt me,” I say. Okay, how about Dark Chocolate French Silk crème pie with 3 inches of whipped cream on top? Oh, don’t tempt me, I say! Ok, so now we have determined I can be tempted, it is just a matter of what it takes, right? But be real, my French Silk pie may not tempt you, but a 30,000 square foot mansion on the edge of the bay might be what tempts you. Isn’t it all just a matter of degree?
This morning we begin a six-week spiritual journey Christians call Lent. The word comes from a Latin word meaning “to lengthen.” The days are lengthening with spring coming on. It represents the forty days our Scripture tells us Jesus spent in the wilderness.
Let me begin by turning our attention from worrying about literal details. Don’t get caught up in how big the rocks were, how hungry Jesus was, or whether “Beelzy” [ my nickname for the Tempter here ] had his red suit and pitchfork or the black suit with horns and fire on. There isn’t much to learn from that. That is only a distraction from living in response to temptations today. The greater meaning is as a metaphor for the cosmic battle between good and evil. Then we can ask its meaning for us today.
Let’s start with what it tells us about temptation. The problem with temptations is that evil very often looks, sounds, and tastes like good. Good intentions can often go galloping off to evil destinations. “We want to “purify” our schools of dangerous ideas for our children! I know, let’s get rid of all the books.”
Someone else says, “No, let’s burn them.”
And another shouts, “let’s imprison the people who let our children see them, and the people who wrote them. And let’s burn them at the stake as witches. We just want to protect our children!”
It’s a slippery slope from the glory of good to the horrors of evil.
First, let me say a word about the context of these temptations for those who first heard this Scripture being taught. They came from the Jewish tradition and Scriptures that teach that God designed the three major systems of human life to be used to bless all people. God intended a world where all people were treated justly, fairly. The economic, political, and religious systems were given to us by God. God intended those systems to relate to each other by holding each other accountable to do what is just and right for all people. When any one of those systems treats some people unjustly the other systems should speak up for the benefit of those who suffer. And the prophets of our Bible spoke out about these injustices and God’s judgment upon them.
So let’s look at the three temptations Jesus faces. “Turn stones into bread, feed the world.” Perfect, right? Looks like a good thing. In its reality this is a metaphor for the desire to manipulate economic systems. What often starts as a good thing economically falls to human sinfulness and greed. They tell us inflation is our fault for what we buy, not their fault for using supply and demand as a means to inflate profits. Statistics show the world produces enough food for every person on the planet to have enough to eat. But governments and corporations manipulate and control the supply for their own benefit and profits and children, by the millions starve to death literally.
Jesus refuses the temptation to do what looks good. He knew we cannot wave a magic wand to solve problems. We as humans have a responsibility to hold the economic systems accountable to the vision God has for the world and for all people. We cannot wait for a Savior to save us from our own willingness to let greed and selfishness continue to blight humanity for the sake of profit and power.
Look at the next temptation. “Ok, Jesus, you want to invoke ‘God’ then prove you are God’s son. Call CNN, Fox, and all those YouTube influencers, and the international press corp. Tell them to meet us at the bottom of the Mormon Tabernacle. I’ll give you a little push, but make it look like you jumped on your own, then let them record the moment the angels of heaven swoop in and save you from hurtin’ your “teensy-weensy” little toe on the rocks below.”
The religious systems are responsible to hold the economic and the political systems accountable for justice for all people so that all people have an equal economic and political say in their lives and the world. But again, because of human greed and selfishness, religious systems too often simply mouth the rhetoric of whatever ruling party is lining their pockets rather than speak out against the abuses of politicians and the economically powerful few.
In Jesus’ own day the Chief Priests and the Pharisees and the Council for the Temple had given in to the power of Caesar and his armies. They did what they were allowed to do religiously and kept their mouths shut about the way the Empire crushed the poor, stole from all to fund their armies, and hammered anyone who dared to oppose them onto a cross with nails. Jesus stood in witness against this. We fuss about no politics in the pulpit. We use the “separation of church and state” line without realizing it has nothing to do with our calling from God to hold political systems accountable to do what is just in God’s eyes regardless of political party. This isn’t about partisan politics. That’s actually what too many churches are doing in violation of their tax status. They want to impose their false vision of Christianity and a Christian nation on everyone.
The “Church” in America – and elsewhere - is failing because it has failed its responsibility to speak out against the oppression done in God’s name. The white churches of the south supported segregation in the face of Civil Rights. Churches did not speak out against war or gun violence but take positions to support the status quo. The church must either be reborn with a commitment to Christ’s values and God’s purposes or it deserves to wither away for being little more than a Sunday social club for those who have a habit of “going to church.”
Are you squirming in your seat yet? I am. We all want to come to church sing the songs and hear the sermons that make us feel good. “The Power of Positive Thinking?” Right? Robert Schuller raised millions doing that in the Crystal Cathedral. Remember them? Nice guy, Schuller, I suppose. Do you know where all that is now? Dr. Schuller is dead, his kids couldn’t hold his water, and his Crystal Cathedral now belongs to the Catholic Dioceses of Los Angeles. Cheap grace is what we call feel good religion that does nothing to hold us accountable to what God demands of us.
Jesus tells “Beelzy” that the Scriptures say we shouldn’t test the Lord our God. I suspect many of us living here would rather ignore the problems of the rest of the country. We came here to escape them if you will. After all, we can’t do anything about these problems. Let’s just pray for a miracle. Don’t test the Lord our God, says the Scripture. As a church seeking to be open and affirming, a church that works at supporting mental health we stand for a different set of values than many churches. We have to keep working at these things because those who oppose these things are loud and powerful.
Finally, “Beelzy” says, “Look JC, I have keys to ALL the kingdoms and I will hand over the ring if you just announce you have declared ME your God! After all, I am the one with all the political systems in my control. C’mon Jesus what’s the problem? Deal, or no deal?” Where is Howie Mandel when you need him?
I sometimes wonder if Jesus had to take a moment. If he swallowed hard at the temptation to out trump Caesar. I wonder if, knowing all the ways Caesar and the Empire abused its mighty power, if Jesus knew he could do better and was tempted to do so? The NRSV puts an exclamation point at the end of Jesus’ statement, “Away with you Satan!” I wonder if Jesus shouted it so that he didn’t softly say “deal.” After all think of all the good if we just installed a “real” Christian as President, or King or Emperor of the World?”
But here’s the real truth. The Tempter, in whatever form we imagine him, does not have that power. It is a false claim. It is God who holds ultimate power. It is the power of the cross. It is the power of love that conquered the power of Caesar, the power of false religion, and the power of those who only love power. So Jesus rejected the Tempter’s claims and chose the way of God’s perfect love. He chose the power of love to conquer even death itself.
How does the power of love conquer? At the risk of making this too simple, think about it this way. Temptation one: stones to bread… when someone offers you a way to satisfy your hunger ask yourself what you really hunger for. What we are tempted by may really not be what we need or want to fulfill what we most long for. Temptation two: throw yourself down to make God prove God loves you. When circumstances, or people are telling you that God doesn’t love you because you are this or you aren’t that, stop. And speak the truth with love: tell them to stop. The one thing in life you can be certain of beyond death and taxes is God’s love. No one gets to decide if God loves you but God, and God has already decided in your favor. Third temptation: go all in on the side of evil… but remember, most people do not choose evil, they choose what they believe will satisfy them. I wonder if we can practice this ethic: In the face of decisions about how to deal with others, can we choose the way that we would choose if they were our best friend? How would I say this to a dear friend? I think we would treat a best friend with love, even if they are wrong. My theory is, how do you tell someone tempting you to do something wicked, to go away nicely? I have this strange idea that God’s love is more powerfully satisfying than any other option for dealing with this world.
I don’t know. Maybe I am wrong about all this. But I know this is true: Chocolate pie is good, people can be crazy, but God is good and so is God’s love. Go be the best friend to anyone you can. AMEN.