A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, March 5, 2017
Matthew 4:1-11 GNT
In May 2000, I was privileged to enjoy a nice buffet lunch with my traveling companions at the Mount of Temptation Restaurant near the old city of Jericho. One of the barren mountains within view of the restaurant is the traditional site of the temptation of Jesus spoken of in today’s reading. In case you ever have the opportunity to go there, the restaurant boasts of having “the largest food buffet in the Holy Land.” It was a wonderful experience to be able to dine there.
Of course, no one can be 100% sure of the exact mount where Jesus was tempted. And I am not sure that today’s story was intended to be interpreted as 100% historical fact either. As with many of the stories in the gospels, the literal story often is the vehicle or framework for the spiritual truths contained therein.
As I read this story again this past week – the traditional reading, by the way, for the first Sunday in Lent – I sought to universalize the truths contained within it as they might apply to our everyday lives.
For instance, the first point of the story has to do with daily provisions. Jesus, as the story goes, was tempted to try to turn stones into bread to satisfy his physical hunger. Yet, Jesus realized that “Human beings cannot live on bread alone” (4:4). We all need bread to eat to sustain us (with bread being a general term for daily food provisions), but we also need much more. We need soul sustenance or provisions for the spirit as well.
For Jesus, that spiritual sustenance or provisions for the spirit was the Hebrew Scriptures. As Matthew tells the story, Jesus quotes the Hebrew Scriptures three times in the course of this story – three times from the book of Deuteronomy, or the Law of Moses. And for many of the faithful down through the centuries, Jews and Christians alike, the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures have provided the spiritual sustenance their souls have craved.
But spiritual sustenance or provisions can take many forms. For many, like myself, the Sunday morning worship service is a form of spiritual provision. Small group studies like a Sunday school class or book group is a form of spiritual provision. For many, the arts, including music, drama, painting, photography, pottery making, writing poetry, and so on can be a form of spiritual sustenance. And for others, like myself, the world of nature provides spiritual provisions for the soul. One of the most famous quotes of naturalist and environmentalist John Muir, referring to what would become our national parks, is “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” I love and resonate with that thought!
And Mary Lou and I learned this past summer, as we visited Death Valley National Park, that even the desert can be seen as a place of beauty and a place to pray in, and a place to cheer and give strength to body and soul alike. Perhaps during his time in the desert, Jesus realized this as well.
Another point of Jesus’ temptation story has to do with pride. The temptation to jump off the highest point of the Jerusalem temple sought to appeal to Jesus’ pride that he could put God to the test to send angels to catch him and keep him from being injured when he fell. The temptation was an assault on his ego which tempted him to think of himself more highly than the situation called for, putting himself in a position that fed a sense of grandiosity and over-inflated self-image.
One of the lessons of Lent surely is the reminder of the fact that we are humans with frailties and shortcomings. It is important that we do have a positive self-image; I am the first to admit that. But at the same time, we do well to keep ourselves in check, from allowing ourselves to have a sense of grandiosity, an over-inflated ego, to the extent that we lose touch with reality and our place in the world.
Pride, you know, can lead us to do all kinds of foolish things that can result in all kinds of negative consequences. At some point in our lives, most of us allow pride to lead us to purchase or consider purchasing a much larger house than we really need or can afford, or buy a much more expensive automobile than we really need or can afford, or seek a job or position for which we are not really suited, but one that holds the promise of prestige or social standing. Over the years, I have found myself in such situations, and maybe you have as well.
And so, Lent serves as a wake-up call of sorts to remind us of what is really important in life; things like staying grounded, self-realization, and that simpler often is better when possible.
A third point of Jesus’ temptation story speaks to the issue of priorities. This temptation involved gaining the whole world by bowing to and pledging allegiance to the evil one. The import is that by gaining the whole world Jesus would lose his soul in the process. Indeed, Jesus would later say, “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and yet lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36) Jesus’ priority was to be faithful to God, faithful to what he knew in his heart was right, and faithful to his sense of self.
We, too, often face situations in our lives when we must choose between priorities involving faithfulness to what we feel in our hearts is right versus what we perceive to be most convenient, advantageous, or expedient. We sometimes are faced with the prospect of gain at the possible loss of our sense of self.
Allow me to illustrate with a personal example. About ten years ago, when we were looking to make a move back to Tennessee, I interviewed with a church that was in the right geographical area, with a good package, and was, in fact, a church I had longed to move to as a young man right out of seminary. In fact, 35 years ago I saw it as “the perfect church” to move to. But since those early years, I had changed dramatically and had arrived at a clearer sense of self, and so ten years ago I realized the church was no longer “the perfect church” or a good fit for me personally. The theology and denominational affiliation were no longer compatible with whom I had become. But for weeks I struggled with the decision, and every time I thought about moving there, my stomach would get tied up in knots. By all outward appearances, it would have been a smart move for me, professionally and financially speaking. In fact, a minister colleague said to me, “You would be crazy to not go there!” But I also knew by going there I would not be true to the self I had become and realized. Such a move would mean self-betrayal; indeed, a very loss of soul. So I turned down the offer, even though it meant passing up an opportunity of returning to Tennessee from the cold Northeast and passing up financial stability. What if another such offer never came around? I wondered over and again.
But about six or eight months later, I saw an ad in Christian Century magazine posted by the United Church of Oak Ridge, seeking a minister. And I applied. Had I sacrificed my soul for the earlier opportunity, I would have never had the opportunity to become minister of this United Church. What a tremendous loss that would have been to me and Mary Lou as well! “Good things come to those who wait,” they say. And perhaps to those who resist the temptation to compromise and sell their soul in the process.
Yes, as we journey through the 40 days of Lent, we do well to be reminded that: provisions for the soul (in whatever form those soul provisions might take) are just as important as daily food for the body; pride is an ever-present danger that we must guard against, as it can cause us to lose touch with reality; and every now and then we need to take stock of our priorities, reminding ourselves of those things that are really important to us and our own sense of self.
The truth is, the story of Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness—whether it is interpreted as historical fact or not—is every man’s and every woman’s story – it is my story and your story. Because soul provisions, dealing with pride, and the need to revisit our priorities and sense of self again and again is universal, common to all us. May such give us food for thought during these 40 days of Lent. Amen.