By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
March 1, 2020
Matthew 4:1-11 ESV
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And 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, “’Man shall 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 set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said 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, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall 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 glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “’You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
Now what? This is where we left off last week. This is often where we find ourselves throughout our journeys through life. You are born, now what? You enter school, now what? For nineteen years you are in school you graduate, now what? College, now what? Job, now what? You meet a wonderful person and the relationship grows, now what? You get married, again now what? Kids are added to the family, you scream in the night NOW WHAT? Your career draws to a close and retirement is just over the horizon, now what?
Every mile stone we experience in life is coupled with choices. With each choice we make a pathway opens before us that ushers in infinite possibilities. It does not matter if you are religious or not each individual has to come to some sort of conclusion as to what direction they will go. How we make those decisions speak a great deal about the character of the individual.
Last week, Jesus was up on the mountain of transfiguration, and the disciples saw a glimpse of his full glory. A voice spoke to them on the summit and told them, “This is my son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” They wanted to remain on that mountain, but Jesus left their retreat to re-engage the world. This was his rhythm of life. This was and is his lifestyle. He made it his custom to worship with the community at their synagogue, he withdrew often to the isolated places to pray, and he would minister to the needs of the people within the community. This is the life he called the disciple to participate in. This is the lifestyle that he told Peter would change the world to such a degree, that it would make one feel like a fish out of water, because it would change the very perspective, we approach the world with. That was last week. That was near the end of Jesus’s ministry. That was something the disciples experienced after they had already experience so much. They had already determined in their own minds that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. They knew and experienced much, yet they still struggle
Today, we meet Jesus early in his ministry. We meet him after his baptism. He had lived thirty years in the family of a common laborer. He had spent seventeen years mastering the family trade and he was known as the son of the carpenter. Jesus had lived and experienced a complete life up to this point. We should always remember this as we reflect on the life and lifestyle of Jesus. He experienced a full life; he was not someone that lived a sheltered or cloistered life. He lived in the world. He had similar struggles, similar problems. He had clients who did not clearly communicate their desires, and he was required to deescalate the situation. Do we recognize that Jesus really did exist as a man?
Jesus had lived and entire life, and as he approached the waters of the Jordan, as he descended into the stream and emerged from those depths, Jesus faced one of the greatest trials of his life. I often do not fully appreciate this era of Jesus’s life, we just quickly read these verses and we understand that Jesus was tempted, but do we sit with it? At this moment Jesus walks out into the wilderness and he is facing the question we all face, now what?
Jesus is about to turn from thirty years of his life. He is about to walk away from a job he had participated in for seventeen years. Leaving a business that the people closest to him for the past thirty years depended on for their survival. He knew the destination, he knew the plan, but that does not lessen the real emotions and trauma of the process. His family would not fully grasp why he needed to leave them to pursue this divine journey, to those closest to him, to those in his community this new journey would appear to be contrary to reason. He was a carpenter, not a rabbi.
When we face crossroads in life we do not fully know how to proceed, when we have faith, we have a place to go to help us in our discernment. This is what Jesus shows us through his trials of temptation. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan and was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness. I want us to really think about that. He was led by the Spirit to the wilderness. There is something very symbolic about the wilderness. It is the unknown place. It is that area veiled in darkness. It is like walking in the night and trying to see beyond what is illuminated by our flashlight, that area just beyond the light is the wilderness. The wilderness has risks and dangers, storms could come in, flash floods, tornados, lions and tigers and bears oh my. The wilderness is filled with unknowns, but the wilderness is also filled with awe and wonder.
For forty years, Israel wondered in the wilderness. They wondered that wilderness because they were not yet ready to enter the land of promise. They were not prepared. We look at their lack of faith and think how could they not trust God? They had seen the most amazing things human beings had ever seen. They literally saw their God bring the greatest nation of the world down to their knees and provide their freedom from bondage in a manner of days. They had walked out of Egypt, not only free, but with the wealth of Egypt and went out into the desert being led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They made it to the shore of the sea only to find that the greatest army of the world was chasing after them, and they had nowhere to go. Yet in that great trial God parted the sea and provided a path through the waters where they could walk to the other side. Then when they reached the other side, they turned only to find Egypt still in pursuit, taking the very same path that God had provided for them, and all at once the military might of an empire was covered under massive waves.
The story is amazing. If God can do that why did they struggle, why did they lose faith? They were in the wilderness, the unknown, and as they walked, they began to realize we do not have enough food, we do not have enough water, we do not have… They had watched God do something amazing, but life came crashing in on them, reality set in and they were out in the wilderness and all they no longer knew what to expect. They had fear of the future as they walked across the sand, because they did not know what was in front of them, but at least in Egypt they knew what to expect.
They grumbled, they worried, they acted like each of us. Yet in their fear, God provided. We do not have food, they cried, and God provided manna from heaven. We do not have meat, and God provided quail. We do not have water, and God directed Moses to touch his staff on a rock and the water flowed. They had seen God do amazing things, yet they grumbled.
They wondered because they had to learn to become a people of faith. They had to learn to trust God, with the big things and the little things. They had to become a people whose identity was on God and not themselves. They wondered because they did not trust. God showed them the destination and they said how? There are giants in the land we cannot possibly take the land. God showed them the destination and they said there is no way that we can do it. God showed them and they had not yet trusted God.
Jesus was led by the Spirit to the wilderness, to be tempted by the devil. We often become fearful of the word tempted. We approach the word cautiously because we perceive it to be a trap. But temptation is not all bad. Temptation is simply a choice, a decision that must be made, that has consequences attached to it. We are tempted every moment of every day. Lunch is approaching and my stomach is growling, I need to eat, but what? There is a McDonald’s across the street and a salad in the deli cooler. What do I do? But there are even more options available to me. Each option will fulfill my need, but which will I choose? Why did I go to work without a lunch in the first place? Temptation and choice whatever option we choose is the path we now walk.
Jesus was led into that wilderness to be tempted, and after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. As I contemplated this passage this past week, the concept of fasting resonated with me. Fasting is not something unique to our faith. To fast is an activity that is found in most ancient religions. The basic meaning of the word is, “one who has not eaten, who is empty.” We often think of fasting in terms of not eating food. And usually we participate in this discipline because we hope to have some return. Many ancient cultures believed that demonic possession could occur from eating. So, they would fast before they would participate in religious rituals so that they could enter their various temples pure from corruption. This idea did not originate in the Hebrew culture but it did become incorporated to some degree, and Jesus addressed that when he said that what we eat does not make us unclean because the food goes into the stomach, but what makes us unclean is what fills our hearts.
Fasting became to many cultures, including the Jewish culture, a type of magical rite. I will not eat, and this will force God to answer my prayers. This idea is not at all what the discipline of fasting is about. It is the discipline of emptying. I will abstain from something, empty myself from my desire so that I can replace it with that of God. I will fast from food, not because there is some magical property that will force God’s hand to answer my prayers because He is concerned that I am hungry. But I fast because by abstaining from food for a period I am saying my life and sustenance comes not by my own hand but God. I will empty myself, I will abstain, not to force God, but to redirect my attention to God.
Jesus fasted for forty days and nights and he was hungry. Jesus abstained from worldly pleasures for forty days and nights out there in the wilderness, in that place of unknowing. He went out there to show us how to approach our own lives.
While he was in that isolated place in prayer, while he was out in that place embracing the life and preparing for what was to come, he was met by the tempter. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Jesus is abstaining from food, and he is hungry. Is it a sin to be hungry? I am hungry pretty much ever four hours. If I do not eat within six hours, I will likely have a sever headache. Hunger is a primal need that often drives us. To abstain from food for a set period we will know the temptation to eat. It does not take long for our minds to become distracted and while we attempt to abstain so we can become closer to God, our selfish desires scream out at us. Get a sandwich! What do we do in that moment?
We empty ourselves, because that is what Jesus commands. If we want to be his disciple, we must take up our cross and follow him. We must die to ourselves and live through him. To be his disciple we must empty ourselves so that we can be filled. And the first thing that comes to mind as we try to turn to God is, eat! It does not matter if we abstain from food or any other activity we regular partake of when we abstain it becomes a distraction to us. All you want is that one thing. The practice of fasting shows us just how addicted to things we can become. Abstain from TV if you like to relax in its glow and as soon as you get home the first thing you will want to do is watch a show. Abstain from alcohol if you drink that and the first thing you will want when you want to relax is a drink. Abstain from coffee, and someone will probably die if they get in your way. We struggle with a fast of any type because we have become comfortable with those things.
Jesus answers the temptation to eat with scripture. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” When we fast, when we abstain, or empty ourselves of our own desires, if we do not fill that void, we have created with the word of God, we are left empty. If we abstain only for the sake of abstinence what do, we accomplish? Notice he said, man shall not live by bread alone. We need food, but we need more than food. The fast is there to show us our need. To fulfill our desire alone will still leave us empty, because we need the guidance of God. We need to empty ourselves so that we can allow God to fill those areas of our life. And it begins with trusting God with the little things, like what we eat.
Jesus was led out to the wilderness for more than just a fast. He was preparing his body to embrace the mission set before him. His destination is to bring Israel and the world back to God. Every aspect of Jesus’s life and lifestyle is dedicated to bringing people to God. That is the end goal. It is a wonderful goal, but how does he get there? We often find ourselves at crossroads like this. We know where we are supposed to go. We have prayed and we have discernment and clearness in ministry. Maybe we have had a longing in our spirit for years, but where how do we get to that destination from here?
Jesus is wanting to bring all of Israel into a right relationship with God. How will he attract their attention? Well there is the long game, where you build relationships one at a time, or you can go all in with a bang. “Throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple, because it is written that he will command his angels concerning you and on their hand they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” The temple is the greatest attraction of Israel. People from the entire empire travel to see the Temple. If Jesus jumped off the top of the temple and landed without a single scratch or bump, he would have had the attention he desired. People would marvel and say wow look at that he jumped and didn’t get hurt, he must be very important. But they would only be following the celebrity not person. They would miss out on life with God because all they would want is the miracle. Jesus would often tell people not to speak about the miracles because he wished to avoid that. He would heal not for the show, but to prove a point and if that point was not needed to deepen the faith of that person, then the miracle did not happen.
How does this temptation apply to us? How many times do we act before we pray? How often do we plan before we take the time to seek the guidance of the Spirit? How often do we argue in a business meeting when our testimony is that we make decisions under the guidance of the Spirit? We often jump before we think. We assume it is the right direction, but we rush in.
The last temptation mentioned, not that these were the only three temptations Jesus faced but it is the last mentioned, all the kingdoms of the world were shown to him in an instant. This was the ultimate end goal that Jesus had. For God so loved the world that he sent his son, all the nations of the world we shown to him, in an instant because it was not just Israel, but the whole world that Jesus was coming to save. Does the end justify the means? Is it ok to let one thing slide for the greater good?
We each face crossroads in our journey through life. We each have goals and destinations we believe are placed before us. We all have dreams and desires that we feel are directed from God himself. But along the pathway we walk through the wilderness. We walk through areas where we do see clearly, or we do not know exactly how to proceed. What do we do? Jesus approached the crossroads of his life through fasting in the wilderness, in the isolated place. He abstained from personal pleasures and desires for a time to realign his focus. He did this not because he needed to but because we needed him to show it to us. We have left the season of now what and are starting down the mountain to enter the world. We are being led by God, but life’s distractions are pushing in. How are we going to face our world, so we get to the destination Christ is calling us to? We take on the lifestyle of Christ. We worship, we pray, we minister. And at times we should abstain so we can recognize where our true strength comes from.
Let us now enter this time of open worship, seeking communion with God. Allowing his Word to satisfy our desires in a way that the things of this world cannot alone.