Do you know the old country music song “Rose Garden” by Lynn Anderson or Martina McBride? The woman singer tells her husband, “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden…” She says she promised many other things… but a marriage made of only roses and good times wasn’t it. There’s going to be hard times, rain, too.
We are the bride of Christ, and our bridegroom Christ has never promised us perfect sunny weather and roses. God never promised us, “You shall not be tempted; you shall not be troubled; you shall not be distressed.” God promised us many other things, but an easy life has never been one of those promises.
To be human is to be tempted, troubled, and distressed.
Jesus was fully human, and so felt and knew these things.
Our scripture today happens right after Jesus has been baptized. He has just given his life over publicly to God. He has confessed his faith in God’s coming age. The Holy Spirit has anointed him. It’s like we spoke of last week – Jesus is having a mountaintop experience, an everything-going-great experience. And then he is driven to the desert by the Spirit. Deserts are the Bible’s way of saying a person has entered the time for fasting, for prayer, for study, and for identity. Jesus may be wondering: what does it mean to be God’s child?
During Lent, we follow Jesus’ model. We fast, pray, study, and wonder: what does it mean to be God’s child?
And just as we are tempted to leave our following of God, so too was Jesus tempted. In those forty days, the thorns on the roses, the rain of the garden, the dust and ashes of the desert set in.
And, διάβολος diabolos, tempts Jesus. Diabolos is the Greek word we translate as devil. In Greek, it means the Slanderer, the Accuser, the Defamer, the Backbiter, the Harsh Critic, the Condemner, the One-Who-Destroys-Others-Realtionships.
In other words, the devil, just like the snake in the Garden of Eden, is the one who works to accuse us of sins. Sins destroy our relationships with ourselves, with each other, and with God. Sins make us isolated and alone. We get lost in our own lonely sin-deserts and can’t find our way back to the green valleys and still waters of the Lord’s.
Out here in the desert of 40 days, the devil begins to look for weak points in Jesus’ commitment to God and God’s promises.
Hunger is the first weakness the devil sees. People have bodies. We have needs. We need food and water, and shelter. Jesus is low on all of these basic needs. So the devil points out a single stone to Jesus and says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of manna, a loaf of bread.”
As Jesus and we all know, manna came from heaven from God. It was gifted to the Israelites in the desert. The heavenly, miraculous bread came every morning. What, tempts the devil, would be the harm in making a SINGLE loaf of heavenly bread to sustain yourself? You’re famished, Jesus! Use the power of God. Sustain yourself.
I think Jesus must have been sorely tempted. His body is weak. He has ate ‘nothing at all’ for forty days. No one is looking. No one would be harmed. It’s just a single loaf of bread. And God used to rain loaves upon loaves.
I think you’ve been in similar situations. I know I have. You find yourself there, looking at just a little sin, and you know no one will ever know, and no one will get hurt, and it’s just a little sin to meet a real need… Who is going to miss a few dollars here and there? Who is going to miss these office supplies, this cookie, these seeds, this gas, when so much is available? What will this little lie, or omission, hurt? No one will ever know.
Little sins, little theft, little misuses of power and trust is a really, really big temptation. It’s one I think we face more often than others. I think it’s one we succumb, we give in to, more often than other temptations too.
Jesus, ever our role model, our guide, our shepherd – gives us the response to say when these temptations hit: “One does not live by bread alone… but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
We need basic things like food, shelter, water… but these things alone don’t keep us living. They may sustain the body, but the soul needs more. The soul needs God. The soul needs love. The soul needs relationships. Sins server these relationships. They make us isolated, alone, lonely, and our souls don’t get fed by others and by God. So although we may be well fed with bread, and in a nice house, with clean water to drink… we may still be dead inside. We cannot thrive without relationships. We cannot thrive mired, burdened, with sins. Like dirt on a window, speck by speck, little sins build up until no light shines in and we cannot see out.
Jesus tells us to refuse the little sins and remember the big damage they do over time.
So the devil, that tempter, tries another tactic Jesus is shown all the kingdoms of the world. The Celts ruling in Europe, the Han of China, the great Roman Empire stretching over most of the known world. The Pharaohs, the queens, the kings, the Mayans and chieftains and village elders. Everyone who has power. Jesus could have it all. All he has to do is worship the backbiter, and it is Jesus’.
You see, we reflect who we worship. If Jesus would begin to worship the devil, and use the devil’s tactics — backbiting, accusing, slander — Jesus could control all these kingdoms. And then, well – he could do with the world as he pleased.
Think about the temptation! With a few lies, a few well placed rumors, some gossip, some blackmail.. Jesus could end war and bring about world peace. Jesus could end world hunger. Jesus could make the nations work together to solve all our problems. Jesus could rule over the world here and now.
What would you do if you controlled the world? I think very few people would say ‘let it continue as it currently is.’ Most of us have great wishes for a better world. The end of poverty. The end of slavery. The end of environmental destruction. The end of terrorist rulers and violent occupiers.
… The power to make those who do wrong hurt.
… The power to do justice.
Once again, I think Jesus had to have been sorely tempted. He wasn’t going to abuse God’s power for selfish means like he was tempted with the bread. No, he’d do a literal world of good. All it meant was replacing God with the devil. Replacing the giver of forgiveness, the giver of second chances, the giver of grace… for the giver of zero tolerance, final strikes, and preemptive attacks. It meant ruling as the world rules rather than as God rules.
Do the means matter if the end is good?
Does it matter what we do, if in the end, all things turn out okay?
Does it matter how we live our life if those who sin and those who don’t sin; those who worship God and those who don’t; seem to have the same luck and misfortune in life?
Jesus’ answer is yes.
Although it rains on the just and unjust alike, how we go about our lives matters. How we achieve our goals, whether noble or shameful, matters. Stealing a thousand dollars to give half of it to charity is still stealing a thousand dollars.
Jesus’ answer is that the purpose of our lives is to worship and serve God. Glory and power belong to God alone. When ever we have other idols before God — even if those idols are established with good intentions — we’re still making something else more important than God. So we’re sinning.
Once again, this temptation references the Exodus story. The Israelites were not able to keep from making idols.
The third temptation comes. Now the tempter ups the ante. Now Jesus stands on the temple in Jerusalem and way, way, way down below is the city. Anyone who looks up can see them, standing there, poised on the edge. And the devil cites scripture back at Jesus: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself from here. For scripture says ‘He will command his angels to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”
It sounds like a silly test. We know people fall off buildings when they step off their roofs. But then again, we know Jesus walked on water. So gravity doesn’t really seem to be that big of an issue for him. No — the temptation here isn’t whether or not gravity has a hold on Jesus… but whether or not Jesus believes in God without miracles; whether Jesus believes in God after going through a desert, and hunger, and isolation, and temptations. This is about if Jesus’ faith is dependent on signs and evidence of God.
It sounds like the silliest test when we first read it; but this test is the biggest test, the climax, the finale.
Do you believe in God when things are bad?
Do you believe in God in trials and temptations?
Do you believe in God when prayers go unanswered?
Does your faith depend on seeing results, seeing benefits of being a moral person, of prayer, and following God. Do you threaten God with leaving your faith if God doesn’t do as you demand? Can your faith be broken by scripture that contradicts itself, devils that plague us, or the too-often silent response to our prayers?
David Blumenthal, a Jewish theologian, argues that protest is a form of worshiping God. God can handle our anger, our protest, our frustration. Protest is still talking with God. It’s shattering the relationship, leaving God, demanding a test and then giving up when God won’t play by our rules… that is the sin. For then, the relationship among us and God is severed, destroyed
And the devil here is trying to destroy that relationship.
Jesus’ answer is more scripture from Deuteronomy: Do not put the Lord your God to the test. Which is just what the Israelites had been doing in the Exodus again and again and again. And each and every time God was looking out for them. They didn’t always see it, but God was there with them.
Jesus’ answer is don’t give up, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 1:11) Our hope, our faith, our trust in God’s presence and promises must be deeper and stronger temptation, trial, or evil of the earth.
Once Jesus has passed these temptations, and given you and I the hope and promise that with Jesus, we – too – will overcome our temptations — angels come and administer to Jesus… just as in the wild, God cared for Elijah, and the Israelites.
We’ve never been promised a rose garden. We’ve been promised that our great gardener, however, will never abandon us. We’ve been promised that in our temptations, God has empathy, sympathy, and mercy. Although we sin, God loves us and offers us forgiveness. Although we break every single law, and are rowdy disobedient sheep, the good shepherd seeks us out and gives us a second chance. All authority in heaven and on earth has not been given to the Record-Keeper, the Harsh Critic, the unforgiving… all authority has been given to Jesus – the merciful, the Good Shepherd, the doctor for the sin-sick, the one who wipes away our tears and washes us clean of sins.