Matthew 4:1-11 – First Sunday in Lent
I always hope to preach on the themes of the Gospel that we are in and I still hope to do that this week. However, Year A will jump into the Gospel of John for the last 4 Sundays in Lent and make thematic preaching a little harder. So, using this Matthean text to set up the season of Lent could be very helpful. Also, it is a good chance to dispel some of the modern myths and bad theology of Lent and return to some of the spiritual practices that are intended to bring us closer to God.
With how the lectionary is structured, it’s easy to take this pericope out of context and look at it as an anomaly or a weird scene that’s out of place. Reading it in context however, we can see that it takes place in one long scene that establishes Jesus’ authority before the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is baptized by John at the river and the voice speaks. Jesus is tempted by the Devil and does not succumb. Jesus calls the first disciples, and they follow with no pushback. Jesus preaches and heals all across Galilee.
This temptation scene is critical to continue building up Jesus’ authority before he really even begins his ministry. So, how does this scene build him up?
R. Alan Culpepper posits that Jesus’ temptation with the Devil in the wilderness serves multiple functions.
- It identifies Jesus with Israel’s period of testing in the wilderness.
- It clarifies Jesus’ work as the Son of God.
- It mirrors the conflict between the kingdom of God and the power of Satan.
- It emphasizes that Jesus’ ministry fulfills the Scriptures.
- It offers Jesus’ followers a model for resisting temptation (more on this below).
What many commentators note is how Matthew, being attentive to his audience, weaves this interaction together beautifully for the familiarity of the Jewish listener. Matthew is still establishing a connection between Jesus and Moses. Matthew is still establishing how Jesus is the connection with the prophetic tradition of old and is a Moses figure that is proclaiming the message of the law and the prophets. In this scene, the 40 days in the wilderness and the progression of the temptations connect with the Israelite Exodus: Exodus 16: doubting God because of hunger; Exodus. 17: testing God; Exodus 32: idolatry or forsaking God.
Some commentators have argued that the temptation scenes of Luke and Matthew offer a brief synopsis of the entirety of the Gospel. In Matthew, the order is wilderness, temple, high mountain. Whereas Luke reverses the final two: wilderness, high mountain, temple. In both Gospels, the last temptation seems to correspond to the conclusion of that Gospel; Matthew ends on a high mountain, Luke at the temple.
I truly think that this scene is an authoritative moment for Matthew. But as preachers we can view this as cosmically as we’d like. This could be an opportunity to talk about “spiritual warfare.” That is a phrase that is used by a lot of denominations that isn’t talked about nearly as much in the white mainline protestant traditions.
What does it mean that Jesus is confronted by the devil?
What does it mean that the Spirit leads Jesus to the wilderness in order to be tempted by the devil?
What does it mean that Jesus comes face to face with the devil at the beginning of his ministry but then is confronting the world after?
There is room to explore and reframe concepts of spiritual and cosmic forces if that’s something that you haven’t preached on much before.
Dispelling the myths of Lent
I can’t tell you how many sermons I’ve heard that start this Lenten season off with a kind of “If Jesus can defy temptation, so can you” rally.
This is somewhat dangerous for a few reasons.
First, it seems that historically the conversation of temptation got mixed in with the ideas of Lenten disciplines (fasting, praying, and alms giving)…which ultimately led to the colloquial practice of, “giving something up for lent.”…Which was then associated with “we need to give up something that we might be tempted by.”
We need to give up chocolate, ice cream, and all sugar products all together. We need to give up TV. We need to give up Candy Crush or Words with Friends. We need to give up video games or social media.
Because of this pushing, we believe (or have been told) that we need to give up something that we think might not be best for us, or that pulls too much of our attention, or might serve be a quick health trick to try. We need to give up something that brings us joy because we need to forcefully put ourselves in a position of temptation so that we can try to abstain from this thing that brings us joy.
No sugar. No distractions. No escape. Do not succumb to the temptation of a Reese’s peanut butter cup after a challenging day or you have succumbed to the temptation of the devil (I hope that you can see the straw man argument that I’m building here).
Our gospel text today has nothing to do with Jesus denying the temptations from the devil of things that bring him joy. Jesus is not denying temptations of simple pleasures and joys that provide a person with some relief or happiness in their day-to-day life.
Jesus is rejecting offers from the devil that lead to greed, or power, or rejection of our own faith in God.
The Lenten disciplines of fasting, praying, and almsgiving, are not about depriving us of things that give us joy. And they are certainly not about depriving or starving ourselves physically at all. The actions that we take are for a purpose that puts us in closer connection with God, our community. They help up recognize areas in our life where we may not be living our best life. Our most faithful life. Our most caring and compassionate life. And then help us to orient those parts of our life back into faithful actions.
We do not have to give up something in the season of lent for the sake of giving something up. We do it with the intention of being closer to God.
So, if giving up chocolate somehow puts you in right relationship with God, by all means lay the Hershey bar aside for a time. But our actions, the Lenten disciplines, are about putting us in connection with God in our community more fully and not about giving up simple pleasures.
This is Not a “How To” to Deflect Temptation
Completely disagreeing with Culpepper and many other commentators, this is not a guide to resisting temptation. As an alcoholic in recovery, this is one of the more dangerous routes of preaching—saying that Jesus can defy the devil’s temptations, so we must too (especially because the Spirit leads Jesus to be tempted by the devil). This is not a one-to-one comparison with human temptation and addiction.
We are not Jesus. If we could easily defy the temptations of this world and the devil (greed, power, addiction), then we wouldn’t need Jesus. As an alcoholic in recovery, I have come to know that I need Jesus in order to say no to a drink. I need community, accountability, and the steps. I hate to think of being the wilderness alone with the devil and needing to say “no” and have it all depend on me. Because I would fail.
The point of this text is not to “do what Jesus does.” It is to point to the fact that we NEED Jesus because we can’t do what he does. We need Jesus who will defy the powers Satan and the powers of this world that rebel against God. We need Jesus who will lead us and guide us toward a life of community and not of self-preservation. We need Jesus.
 Culpepper, 68.
 Culpepper, 68.
 Culpepper, 68.
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