This sermon was originally preached on March 10, 2019 at North Star United Methodist Church and Kenai United Methodist Church.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only God.’”
Then the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
‘God will command God’s angels concerning you,
to protect you,’
‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
I get to do some really meaningful work inside and especially outside this congregation, with people on the margins, people who we might consider to be oppressed, based on their orientation, gender, or status. In this work, a common tool that gets built up is knowing the scripture that will be inevitably be used against them. There are certain texts, that had once been assigned to place harm and push out certain people groups, that if used out of context, seem to provide some semblance of ‘proof’ as to why they don’t belong, or why they need to change. Sometimes we call these things clobber texts.
So if someone falls into the people group that is being oppressed by society, they will often learn those texts, study them in depth, so that when the time comes for someone to challenge their existence, their worth, they cannot internalize the inappropriate usage of the text, and also defend it with how context matters.
Perhaps you fall into one of those people groups. Maybe you’re divorced, or too old, or too young, or too poor, or too single. We end up having to defend parts of our humanity to those who think they can recite the Bible better than us, and it can be tempting to enter the great unknown land of playing into that game.
Our scripture today gives us a comparable encounter, when Jesus encounters the devil. The devil had unsuccessfully tried to tempt Jesus for the past forty days he was in the wilderness fasting. And now this scene enters Jesus, who certainly is incredibly hungry, and I’d imagine hangry too. This scripture is the final three temptations Jesus encounters in the forty days.
In each temptation, the devil uses scripture to try and convince Jesus to play the devil’s game. The devil tries to tempt Jesus by de-valuing his identity. The devil tries to claim that Jesus is not the son of God, by asking him to perform tasks that focus on self-indulgence, self-centeredness, and self-serving-ness.
When I imagine this story, I like to believe that Jesus could have done each of these tasks. In fact, we’ve seen the miracles Jesus did perform, so that isn’t really a huge stretch to believe that he could have. But Jesus doesn’t do any of them. He doesn’t make bread out of stones, worship the devil in exchange for the land, or throw himself off the temple.
Jesus instead tells the devil each time, ‘you’re missing the point. I’m here, and that alone, is testament to my humanity’ and in his case, his divinity. Jesus, each time, responds to the devil’s backhanded quotations of scripture, by responding with quotes of his own that show his commitment to be dependent on God, that show his awareness of the true source of his life and his identity.
In this passage, Jesus shows who he is, and his life has been a testament to the life-giving nature of God’s intent for scripture. Not to bring people down or to nickel and dime them into doing something or believing something harmful, but to continue giving voice to the two most important commandments from the gospel: love God, and love neighbor.
The truth about the bible, is that you can make it say pretty much whatever you want it to say. If you are looking for something in the bible, you can find it somewhere in there. The bible addresses slavery, women being silent, men lying with other men, hurting children, and the list goes on. Anybody, the devil included, can page through and find a verse or two that can harm, that can ‘prove’ why someone doesn’t belong, why someone isn’t worthy. And because this book was recorded thousands of years ago in a language most of us don’t understand, in a place that most of us have never been to, there’s not a lot we can do about it. Because the bible has stood the test of time, a lot of time.
But what this scripture teaches us, is that the bible has not stood the test of time because it’s a weapon. It stands the test of time because over and over, Jesus points us to the life that comes from it. Love God and love neighbor. Jesus points us, over and over, to the fact that God is love, and through God, we were created with love in mind. Jesus’ job, in this passage, was to not stoop to the level of the devil, who tried to tempt Jesus by using the text to produce bad fruit, fruit that would lead to, well, nothing fruitful.
Jesus’ job, in this passage, was to remind himself, as he was fasting, being tested, that his worth came from God, and that this reality was completely enough. Similarly, our relationship with God is between ourselves and God. The outside voices who try and bring us down, who attempt to creatively weave poorly used scripture verses into a part of our story that the outside voices only know a piece of, those voices do not follow love God or love neighbor.
At the end of the day, we call ourselves Christians because we believe in the validity of Jesus’ words, his ministry, his resurrection. We have said that this guy is worth following, his teachings, his commitments, his agenda. If we were interested in the bible because we wanted to use it to invoke harm, if we truly believed that was the purpose for it, we would need to find ourselves another name to be called, because Christians doesn’t really lead to that.
Each time the devil asks Jesus the question, he begins with the word ‘if’. If you are the son of God, do this. If you worship me, you will gain everything. If you are the son of God, throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple. The word ‘if’ is conditional. It implies that whatever is being claimed by Jesus is not true.
The devil sets up a far too familiar trap. We probably have heard this interpretation in our life as well.
If God really loves you…
If you’re going to be forgiven…
If Jesus was the son of God…
These ‘if’ statements set up a false narrative, where we as the recipient of the statements, are being asked to prove our worth, prove what we know. Jesus, in this encounter, teaches us that we don’t have to.
For each ‘if’ statement from the devil, Jesus responds in his own way, by removing the ‘if’ and replacing it with a few little words of his own; it is written.
Jesus teaches us that it’s not a matter of if God loves us. Instead, it is written: God loves you. It is written: I am the son of God. It is written: You are forgiven. Our worth is never determined by what we can quote, by how creatively we can construct an argument, by how convincing our exegesis work is. Instead, Jesus reminds us here, and reminds us throughout the gospels, that our worth is ultimately determined by God, and if we can remember God’s two greatest commandments, love God and love neighbor, we are set.
So as we leave today friends, may we remember that our worth is not determined by how much of the bible we’ve memorized. Our belovedness has nothing to do with the amount of proof we can conjure up. And may we never forget that the story of Jesus will always lead us to the reality, that our relationship with God is a relationship of love, and it will always be valid, worthy, and holy.
God of goodness and love, we praise you for your constant presence, your reminder that we need not be tempted by forces that work to pull us away from you, or doubt your love for us. Remind us that you created each of us as your beloved children, and nothing can take away from that. In your hope-filled name we pray, Amen.