Temptation in the wilderness

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…


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.


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.


Luke 4:1-13

Jesus answered [the devil], “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”  Luke 4:12

I read a beautiful essay this week in which the writer, James Marcus, describes the last months of his father’s life.[i]  I don’t know if it’s my profession that draws me to memoirs about death and dying or if it’s just that I’m weird.  But it was powerful reading during this week when we take our first tentative steps down the Lenten road toward Jesus’ death.

James’ father Aaron was a hematologist, someone who specializes in the study of blood.  Here’s how James describes his father’s focus on his work:

[My father] was a physician and a scientist, who had spent decades pursuing the secrets of blood: how it flows, pools, clots, conducts intracellular conversations with itself. Too frail for what had been a daily commute into Manhattan, he was still running his laboratory in absentia…He wanted to find a new treatment for stroke…[he] wanted to win the Nobel Prize and wear his tuxedo to accept the check from the King of Sweden.

Given his life’s work, it’s a cruel irony that Dr. Marcus was eventually brought down by a subdural hematoma – bleeding in the brain. It didn’t kill him right away, but for months he experienced hallucinations.  He said a man in a brown suit had shown up demanding proof of his identity.  He insisted that his beloved Uncle Eddie had visited.  Uncle Eddie had died 50 years ago.

Dr. Marcus learned before his death that he was to be awarded an incredible honor – the Wallace H. Coulter Award for Lifetime Achievement in Hematology.  He had worked for many years with no recognition at all, slogging through a variety of research projects that did not lead where he had hoped.  So it was a proud, though bittersweet, accomplishment to receive such a prestigious award.  One of the last coherent things he said lying in his hospital bed were the whispered fragments of the acceptance speech he had hoped to deliver. For about an hour he spoke in fits and starts, occasionally falling asleep and then waking up to continue the lecture.  It didn’t make much sense, but it was as if he really believed he was speaking to an audience.  He died in his sleep two months before the awards ceremony.

This essay touched my heart in many ways, but I was especially reminded of how much each of us wants to know that our life matters, that the world is somehow changed for the better because we have been here.  And how often the way we feel that we matter is connected to a particular identity that we hold.  Dr. Aaron Marcus was a scientist, and that identity shaped how he viewed his own significance.  It made a difference in how he lived, and it made a difference in how he died.

For some of you that sense of purpose comes from your profession too – in what you do and how you do it. Most of us also see our identity and purpose as rooted in relationships.  For the people who are dearest to us, family members and friends, we hope that we can leave a mark on their lives in the way that they have marked ours.

And when we inevitably face those life and death struggles, it is our deepest identities that anchor us.

I see this happening in Luke’s account of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness.  Here we see quite viscerally what it means to be the Son of God, both human and divine.  I am usually drawn to the evidence of Jesus’ divine nature in this story. I love that even though he hasn’t eaten in forty days, he can still go toe-to-toe with the devil.  He withstands each and every one of the temptations that the devil offers up, and he usually does it by quoting some scripture: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”…”It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ “…”It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”  Jesus the Divine One can handle himself in a fight with evil.

But this time I realized just how much this story points to Jesus’ human nature.  The devil has designed the temptations to appeal to those longings that most humans hold deeply.  If Jesus is only divine, then it’s not even a fair fight.  But because Jesus is also human, these temptations are real for him. He must struggle against giving into them.

The first temptation appeals to hunger.  The devil urges Jesus to turn stones into bread, and I can’t imagine how good that would sound after forty days of eating nothing.  We all have our hungers, not just for food, but for anything that will fill us when we are feeling empty.  You know what that is for you.

The second temptation speaks to the human desire for power and recognition. The devil says to Jesus: “You worship me, and I’ll give you authority over all the kingdoms of the world.”  I’m not sure what made the devil believe that he had that kind of authority over the world, but the devil sure is looking to leverage it.  We may not want to rule the world, but we all want to have a certain kind of power and influence in our own lives.  We do not want to be controlled by someone else.  Most of the “isms” that divide humanity arise from a corruption of power that seeks to coerce and control others.

The third temptation is the promise of safety.  The devil promises that if Jesus jumps off the top of the temple, he will be OK.  The devil even quotes the psalm we read together a few minutes ago, reminding Jesus that God promises the protection of angels.  This one might be the most human temptation of all.  We do not want to be vulnerable.  When we are in a risky situation, when we’re not sure whether or not to take a leap of faith, we want to know that we will be safe.  And we can’t always know that.

A full stomach.  Unlimited power.  Guaranteed safety.  It’s a pretty enticing set of promises for the very human Jesus.  But he knows they are false promises.

The devil keeps saying “If you are the Son of God” as if both he and Jesus aren’t completely aware that Jesus is the Son of God. That’s the identity that allows Jesus to remain steadfast in the face of these temptations.  The devil can keep whispering in his ear, but the voice of God got there first – in Jesus’ baptism, when God said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

There will always be voices that try to undermine our sense of who we are. Sometimes those voices will be inside us, when we are filled with self-doubt or when we compare our lives with the lives of others and feel we come up short.  At other times those voices will come from the outside, when we encounter people who seek to diminish us and make us feel insignificant.

Those are the moments when we are the most vulnerable to temptation – when we feel that we do not matter.  When we believe that we are not enough.  That’s when we’re most likely to choose what will hurt ourselves or others.

In those moments of temptation we can hold fast to one unshakeable identity: We are children of God.  I am a child of God.  You are a child of God.  And that means that you are enough and you do matter and you don’t need anything more to prove your worth.

God has made us to be both human and holy, and God is indeed our shelter and shadow, our refuge and stronghold.  Of that we can be sure.

Theologian Howard Thurman once gave a commencement address at Spelman College in which he urged the graduates to trust in who they have been created to be.[ii]  He said:

There is something in every one of you that waits [and] listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself…You are the only you that has ever lived…and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.

You are the only you that has ever lived.  You are a child of God.  Amen.


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





Thank you to Professor Karoline Lewis for pointing me to this address in her “Dear Working Preacher” column this week: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5294


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