The Power and the Glory

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11


Good morning. Last week, I was talking with one of our members. She asked me if I ever got nervous when I preached. I told her that unless I was talking about money or something else that can be controversial, I don't get nervous. You know what? I lied. I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to lie to you.

It wasn’t exactly a lie. I just left out the truth.

Do you want to know when I get nervous?

Do you want to know what really scares me in ministry?

Can anyone guess?

Children’s sermons! That’s right. I feel a lot more comfortable than I used to, but when I first started ministry, nothing scared me more than children’s sermons. I’m a single guy. I have no kids, so I have no idea how I’m supposed to talk to kids or teach kids. I have no idea if what I’m telling them is getting through. I don’t know what to do if a kid asks me a question and I don’t know the answer. And that gets to my deeper fear: I’m afraid of losing control. Up here in the pulpit, I’m in control. Or at least I think I’m in control—unless Paul Heinsohn gets up to challenge me. But when I give a children’s sermon, I have to abandon the idea of control. For me, that’s frightening.

Power and control are at the heart of this morning’s Gospel lesson. It’s a familiar story: The Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness appears in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. We hear this story every year, and usually on the first Sunday in Lent. It’s very easy to oversimplify this story: Jesus fasted for forty days, he was tempted by Satan, and he resisted temptation. The end. Now all we have to do is give up chocolate for forty days and we’re good to go!

Remember, Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, after God declared that Jesus was the beloved Son. Then he is tempted by the devil:

First, Jesus is tempted with food. He’s famished, and the tempter said to him: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Notice that there’s more than one stone, and thus, more than one loaf of bread. Jesus is being tempted to “amass more than his share of food.”[1]Jesus is being tempted with more than his daily bread!

Second, Jesus is placed on top of the temple, and asked to throw himself to the ground below, knowing that angels will angels will catch him—if he is truly the Son of God. Of course, Satan knows that Jesus is the Son of God. But it’s quite possible that there were crowds of people at the temple; had Jesus thrown himself to the ground, many people would have seen him fall and then be caught by angels—it would have been a public demonstration that Jesus was the Messiah.[2]There would have been witnesses.

Finally, the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the earth; he offers Jesus power over all the kingdoms of the earth. Satan said: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

We need to look at these temptations not as three separate events, but as a complete set: Satan is offering Jesus the ability to fulfill his earthly mission. If Jesus can turn rocks into loaves of bread, then no one will go hungry. If Jesus has power over all the kingdoms in the world, there will be no more wars. This also means that the Jews will not be under the dominion of the Roman Empire. And after all that, if anyone still doubts that Jesus is the Son of God, well, he can always jump off another tall building and get caught by angels in full view, for everyone to see. This might be a bigger deal than giving up chocolate or potato chips for forty days. Just sayin’. But I want us to move beyond a shallow reading of this story.

The name, Satan, is one of the few words in the English language that comes to us directly from Hebrew. When we hear that name, I think most of us picture a guy with red skin, horns, and a tail. He might even have bat wings and he may be holding a pitchfork. These images come to us from medieval artwork and popular culture, not the Bible.