Lent 1A

Matthew 4:1-11

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, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

There’s a great song on Alanis Morrisette’s 1998 album that has now made its way into the Broadway musical Jagged Little Pill.  The song is called “That I Would Be Good.”  We heard a terrific rendition of it at Open Mic Night a couple of weeks ago.[i]

The song, as I hear it, is filled with the longing to be accepted just as we are – in all situations.  It’s about wanting to be whole, to feel like we are good enough even when there are voices around us – or maybe within us – trying to tell us that we are not.

The voices in this song want to be good, want to be OK, want to be loved even if, we hear, even “if I got resentful…if I gained ten pounds…if I act like a child…if my hair stays wild…”  The song cries out for love and acceptance in other difficult circumstances: “Even when I was fuming…even if I was clingy…even if I lost sanity.”

And in the middle of the song a character named Jo sings what I think is the heart of the matter: “I need to know that I would be loved/even when I am my true self.”

All of those “ifs.”  They capture our struggle to be OK…if I gained ten pounds…if I lost sanity.  If…if…if…

We might have different ones, but we all carry those “ifs” around with us: “Will I be loved if….”  Those “ifs” hit like drops of water that erode our confidence and our security bit by bit.  Sometimes the “ifs” try to persuade us that we can be enough if we only do more or do better.

If I just had more money…

If I worked a few more hours…

If I were a better parent…

If I were a better kid…

If I were stronger…

If I could fix it…

If…if…if…

The devil in today’s gospel uses “if” like a weapon.  We find Jesus in the wilderness, hungry after forty days and forty nights of fasting.  Jesus is desperate – for food, for comfort, for rest, for shelter someplace where he could wash the gritty sand off of his body.  Into that vulnerable place enters the devil, ready with temptations designed for just this moment.

Listen again to the three temptations that the devil serves up:

If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.

If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down [off this temple].

If you will fall down and worship me, I will give you all of these kingdoms.

I have to hand it to the devil.  It’s a clever strategy.  Because all three approaches depend on lies that we tell ourselves so easily[ii]:

Approach #1:

If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.

What’s the lie?  The lie is that you can depend entirely on yourself.  You have the power to get what you need.  You don’t need anyone else.  You certainly don’t need help from other people.  Just do it all on your own.  Make your own bread.

Approach #2:

If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down [off this temple].

What’s the lie? The lie is that when others are urging you to doubt God – or maybe when you doubt God yourself – it’s definitely a good idea to put God to the test.  Stake your entire faith on one dramatic moment and your expectations of what God should do in that moment.  And if God lets you down in that one moment, then by all means give up.

Approach #3:

If you will fall down and worship me, I will give you all of these kingdoms.

What’s the lie?  The lie is that you can depend entirely on the false promises of evil.  There will always be something or someone that promises to numb your pain, to take away your problems, to give you the power or the freedom or the confidence that you want.  The false promises of evil offer instant, magical solutions to your problems.

If…if…if…lie…lie…lie…

How does Jesus resist these temptations?

First, as I always love to point out, Jesus uses scripture.  Which the devil does too, by the way, often quoting from scripture himself to try to persuade Jesus to do these things.  But each and every time, Jesus has a response that is rooted in God’s holy word.  There’s a reason we read scripture every week – and sing pieces of scripture throughout our worship service.  It helps us to carry reminders of God’s promises with us.  As we sang a few minutes ago: “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  We read that verse this past week on Ash Wednesday (Joel 2:13), and we’ll sing it throughout Lent.

The most important defense that Jesus has against the devil’s temptations happens right before Jesus spends those forty days in the wilderness.  The scene just before this one is the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan.  The baptism in which the voice of God comes from heaven to say: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

So look at what we have side by side.  God’s voice saying “This is my Son.”  And the voice of the devil: “If you are the Son of God…”[iii]  We go from “This is who you are” to “If you are really this…”  Jesus can resist the voice of the tempter because he has another voice ringing in his ears, the voice of love.

We hear it in our own baptisms.  God says: “This is my beloved child, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”  We have that voice of love ringing in our ears too, the voice that says: “You are enough – not because of anything you do, but because of what I have already done for you.”

But, as one of my favorite preachers, Anna Carter Florence, says: “The waters of baptism are so warm and soft, and we don’t get to stay in them very long. The way back from the Jordan leads straight through the wilderness, and we go round and round until we are famished. We start to wonder: Will I survive? Is God really in control? Does God love me anymore? Am I who I thought I was?” [iv]

That’s why we return again and again to those promises of baptism.  You are my beloved child.  That’s why we come again and again to this table to be fed.  It’s what nourishes us when we try to rely on our own power or when we want to test God or when we turn to all those other voices that offer false hope.  It’s what frees us from trying to prove that we are good enough to be loved.

Jesus is the Son of God.  No ifs or maybes or conditions.  Jesus is God’s beloved.

So are we.  We are God’s beloved.  And that gives us all that we need – no ifs necessary.  Amen.

 

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ap-e_pOY4h4

[ii] Today’s sermon is influenced by the conversation at Working Preacher’s Sermon Brainwave podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1234

[iii] From Anna Carter Florence, “First Sunday in Lent” in Preaching Year A: Reflections on the Gospel Readings

[iv] Ibid.

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