Matthew 4:1-11– “Only Human”
February 10, 2008; Lent 1
For me, sometimes the Christmas season and the Lenten season fall a little too close together for spiritual comfort. The season of Christmas is all about joy and peace on earth. And suddenly, in a matter of weeks, we are turned toward the cross and told to walk down that road of agony and violence.
The emotional shift is hard. And the theological shift is possibly harder. During Christmas the focus is on the divinity of Jesus—his Godness. We have a miraculous conception. We have angel choruses in the sky. We have mysterious strangers following a star to worship the child. Sure, any of us who have been around babies can surmise that this child nursed and spit up and messed his swaddling clothes. But that’s not the focus of our stories at Christmas time. It’s all about angels and stars.
Then, wham, it’s thirty years later and Jesus is getting dunked under the water and thrown into the wilderness where his humanity is painfully evident. And just so we know how human Jesus is, the writer of Matthew assures us that, after fasting for forty days, Jesus was hungry.
It must have been so hard for Jesus, throughout his life, to wrestle with these two natures inside of himself. To have insights, abilities, power of God. To have thoughts, emotions, limitations of humanity.
Jesus’ childhood and adolescence is mostly lost to us, but writers from ancient times to now have put forth some interesting and entertaining ideas about what it might have been like when the son of God was younger. —-reading from Lamb (7)
While I don’t imagine this particular scene is historically accurate, I think it does capture some of the tension that existed in Jesus’ life. Talk about an identity crisis. No wonder Jesus needs to go off by himself for awhile to try to figure things out.
Now me, personally, I would prefer to get away from it all at a cozy country retreat. Maybe a bed and breakfast in the fall when the wind has a little nip in it and the leaves are blazing red and yellow on the trees.
But, unfortunately for Jesus, the Spirit did not lead him to a hillside bed and breakfast. The Spirit led him into the wilderness, the desert. Most of us Kansas folk don’t really understand what a desert is. The Moyers have lived in Saudi Arabia, so they might have an idea. And some others of you may have really experienced the desert. It is brutal. Unbearably hot with no shade for relief. Sometimes people who spent long periods of time in the desert would make mud with their urine and smear it over their entire bodies. Which doesn’t sound pleasant until you consider the alternative, which was to literally have the skin burned off your body.
Now me, personally, when I go on retreat I go to read, pray, reflect, write.
But notice that the Spirit did not lead Jesus into the wilderness to study Torah, or to contemplate his mission, or to pray. Jesus may have done these things while he was in the desert, but the writer of Matthew tells us that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
“If you’re God’s Son, turn these stones to loaves of bread. You know you’re hungry.”
“Come up here on top of the temple. Everyone’s watching. Throw yourself down and let them all see the angels come save you.”
“Look at these empires. The Romans down there are oppressing your people. You can have all of their wealth. Take over all of their power if you just worship me. Go ahead.”
“Go away,” says Jesus. He uses the law—scripture from Deuteronomy—to neatly dispatch each of Satan’s temptations. It goes smoothly in the story. I wonder if some of the indecision, the struggle, didn’t get recorded.
Jesus knows he has a divine nature. He can turn rocks into food. The angels would catch him if he fell. He could claim military and political power over the empires.
Preachers like to equate the temptations of Jesus with various types of temptations we face today. I will admit there are some parallels to be made, but really we do not face these types of temptations. Tempting me to turn a rock into bread would be like tempting me to play “Flight of the Bumblebee” on piano. It’s no temptation at all, because I simply can’t do it.
The temptations of Jesus are unique to Jesus. Satan tempts him to settle his identity crisis the easy way—by acting out of his divine nature and leaving behind that pesky human stuff. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, Jesus’ options come down to this: he “could play God, or he could remain human.”
Remaining human is a tough call, but a necessary decision for Jesus to make if he is going to fulfill his role as Messiah, savior, the one who will reconcile God and humanity. But these are not easy temptations for Jesus.
Lucky for us, we are not fully divine, as Jesus was. We are human; we really have no choice but to remain human. So we don’t have to deal with this terrible temptation.
Except we do. And we have since, literally, the beginning of creation. The Old Testament reading for today is the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent and that darn fruit. You know, the only kind of fruit God told them not to eat. And how does the serpent convince them to eat it? By telling them that if they eat it, they will be like God.
Somehow, even though we can’t turn stones to bread; even though we’ll most likely just die if we fall from the top of a high building; even though we can’t begin to control the empires of our world, we are still tempted to play God.
And here’s the problem. It’s not that the things we try to do as God are bad things—feeding people, attracting people, stopping oppressive forces. The problem is that if we are playing God, then we are not worshiping the true God. If we are speaking as if we are God, then we are not listening to the whisper of God’s voice.
Unfortunately, the media is filled with Christians who have succumbed to the temptation to play God. You have televangelists with air conditioned dog houses and marble toilets. Conning money out of poor people by performing god tricks. I recently read that a man who lead a popular marriage ministry was filing for divorce. In announcing the break-up, he referred to “the story of the shoemaker who was so busy that his own wife had to go without shoes.” He said, “I have been that shoemaker.” So intent on being a god that he forgot he was supposed to be following God.
It’s easy, too easy, to find these public examples of people who have given into temptation. But what about us? Surely us humble Mennonite folk know better than to play God. We’re all about gellasenheit, right? That good old Anabaptist principle that means we are yielded to God’s will.
We don’t pick our stances on issues and then go searching the scriptures and praying for confirmation that we are right. We don’t go on crusades for our causes, heedless of the destruction we leave in our wake. We don’t get so busy with all of our good works that we forget to even consult the one who calls us to do good.
Well, maybe every once in awhile. The brownies you can put in the dishwasher, but that forbidden fruit just dangles there out in the open all of time. Being human is such a rough deal sometimes. If I could play God for just a little while . . .
There is, of course, another problem with playing God. Besides distancing us from God, it also distances us from other people. We place ourselves above them in ways that prevent the true equality that we ultimately want in the Kingdom of God.
In writing The Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs decides that he should follow the biblical command to feed the hungry, so he helps out at a local soup kitchen—the largest in New York City. He writes:
“Even at the soup kitchen, I’m able to find slights.
On my most recent visit, I get assigned to kitchen duty—then immediately demoted. They tell me it’s because of my beard. I understand. No one wants an unpleasant surprise in his rice pilaf. I am fine with it, until I spot some other volunteer working in the kitchen—despite having his face covered with a bushy beard of his own..
Why the discrepancy?
“Oh, I’m shaving my beard tomorrow,” explains my rival volunteer. . . .
I get reassigned to garbage duty. My job is to take the plastic trays from those who have finished lunch, remove the cutlery, bang the trays forcefully against the side of the garbage can—clearing off all the mashed potatoes and string beans—and then hand them to the stacker. I think I am doing a pretty decent job, which is confirmed by the garbage team captain, a guy in a Jets T-shirt who tells me, “Good job.” I am feeling pumped.
Then, after an hour and a half, I am the victim of a soup kitchen power play. This older guy named Max—he has a droopy face and a permanent scowl—comes up to me, hands me an iced tea in a particularly aggressive manner, and says, “Drink this. Then go away.” . . .
As far as I can tell, he is no higher on the volunteer food chain than I am; for reasons unknown, he just wants my garbage duty spot. (p. 82)
While this scene certainly seems extreme, it speaks to the way that we can get caught up in our own egos, even as we do something as seemingly selfless as serve at a soup kitchen. Are we serving God or trying to play God?
It is sometimes a difficult distinction. But I think the way we treat the people around us can give us a good clue. When we remain deeply in our own humanity as we seek to serve God, we recognize and respect that same humanity in the people around us.
I have an image stuck in my mind from when I was a child—grade school age I guess. My parents and I were going to our car after being at some event, and there was a drunk guy—possibly homeless—hanging out by our car. This was a long time ago. I don’t remember what he said or what my parents said. All I remember is how my fear of the man melted away as I saw my parents talk to him as a fellow, equal, human being.
And it seems to me that one of the important lessons Jesus learns in the wilderness is that you have to live with and respect your own humanness before you can really accept and respect other human beings.
Lent is, ironically, the church season during which we look toward the divine as a way of learning to be more fully human. And while we’ve (hopefully) all taken down our Christmas lights and packed away the nativity sets, maybe we haven’t moved quite as far away from Christmas as we thought.
Maybe we have overestimated the distance between joy and agony, between violence and peace, between the Divine and the human.