A sermon on Matthew 4:1-11; Hebrews 4:12-16 preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church
Computers and the internet have not only changed the way we access information in and do business with the world around us. They have changed the way we think about our interactions with other human beings, even the way we think about the way we think. They have provided us with a new realm of metaphors for our own mental processes and our social encounters. Consider the following snippets of conversation you might hear even around this place:
“We need to get his input on this. I’ll try to interface with him later this week.”
“That’s just not the way I’m programmed.”
“I don’t think I have the bandwidth to deal with that on top of everything else.”
“That’s just a lot for me to process right now.”
“It’s about time to reboot the evangelism committee.”
So, rather than fight the trend, I spent some time searching for an appropriate computer metaphor for the role that the Scriptures appear to have played in Jesus’ formation prior to his encounter with the Tempter in the desert – and, by extension, the role that the Scriptures ought to play in our ongoing formation if we are to share in his triumph over the Tempter.
I landed upon the idea of the “source code.” Now I’m not sufficiently computer-savvy to explain this in a finely nuanced fashion; fortunately for me, very few of you are sufficiently computer-savvy to critique my explanation. (I realize that I may be unfairly generalizing on the basis of the phone calls that I get from time to time from two of our congregation’s members, who shall remain nameless, about problems they’re having with their computers and how to fix them.) A program’s “source code” is the version of that program that real-life programmers use to communicate to one another about the program and to outline its parameters and functions. It’s the version of a computer program that human beings can actually read and fairly well understand. It is not yet the “machine code” version of the program that the inanimate computer will actually read, on the basis of which it will actually run the program. The source code contains the essential information, but also has to be “translated” to be put into practice in a computer’s functioning.
Scripture speaks to us, for the most part, very clearly. It communicates, very clearly, God’s vision for how we will live our lives together, for where we will fix our desires and aspirations, and even for how we will recognize whether the impulses that surface within us come from his Holy Spirit or from some other source. Of course, we still have to figure out which parts of it apply in particular situations; we still have to do the work of translating it from source code to machine code, from words on the sacred page to some real-time, real-world response that we are going to make in a given situation. But we can all read and, for the most, understand quite well the details of the program God is seeking to install in each one of us as we, together with the Holy Spirit, do the real work of pushing the divine “source code” of Scripture into the “machine code” of our actual impulses and responses.
In Satan’s encounter with Jesus in the Judean desert, Satan is trying to mess with Jesus’ programming. He’s trying to inject some subroutines that will actually cause the whole program to break down – “If X, then Y”; “If you’re the Son of God, then….” Jesus is so well-grounded in the Word, however, that he recognizes and rejects these suggestions, these sidetracks, these viruses, and returns to that program that God has successfully put in place as Jesus has worked with, internalized, and continues to apply the divine source code.
The Judean desert is mercilessly hot. It’s blindingly bright. It’s bone dry. Forty days out there without food, going who knows how long between water sources, will break a person down to the level of his or her most basic instincts. It will show what a person is at the very core. So of course, this is the point at which Satan decides to have a go at Jesus, when Jesus is broken down to his most vulnerable. And what does Satan ultimately encounter? Truly, the Word-made-Flesh – not the weak flesh that he is accustomed to overthrowing, but the flesh-made-strong by the Word that has permeated and steeled it. He comes against Deuteronomy – the Law of God – incarnate. Jesus may give expression to it in a parched, raspy voice, but it is Deuteronomy itself that speaks: “It is written, ‘Human beings will not live on the strength of bread alone, but on the nourishment that comes from every word that proceeds from God’s mouth’”; “It is written, ‘You will not test the Lord your God’”; “It is written, ‘The Lord your God is the one whom you will worship; him only will you serve’.”
The first and the last thing I would have you all take away from this story is how central this internalizing of Scripture was to Jesus’ own success in staying on track, in continuing to move in line with the Father’s program – and, if for him, how much more for us! In the story of Jesus’ temptation we see the perfect embodiment of the psalmist’s declaration: “I have hidden your word in my heart so that I might not sin against you” (Ps 119:15). Over the course of his first thirty years Jesus had devoted himself to the study of the Scriptures and to their implementation in his daily life. He had reprogrammed himself so that Scripture itself had become his operating system (to confuse the computer metaphor even further); when everything else was stripped away, the Scriptures and continuing to walk in line with the Scriptures was what was left. This disciplined internalization of God’s Word empowered Jesus – even here at his most vulnerable – to recognize whether the source of a suggestion was God or something other; his disciplined commitment to walk in line with God’s promptings and God’s alone, then, empower him to reject the suggestions. During this season of Lent, take up the Word with renewed interest and devotion. Read it; internalize it. As Jesus’ half-brother James wrote in his letter, “receive with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls,” and as he admonishes, “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (Jas 1:21-22). Don’t just read the divine source code; keep working diligently to implement it in your life, allowing it to shape your responses, your aspirations, your practices, your very instincts.
Now, I’ve read a lot of books by scholars interested in the “Historical Jesus,” and I can tell you that this particular episode doesn’t fare too well when it comes to scholars trying to sift out the legends from the history. I think, however, that these scholars aren’t being critical enough in regard to their own reading of the story. If we visualize this episode as involving Satan showing up in a black suit or, as in one movie version of the life of Jesus, as an alluring woman in a red dress, of course we’re going to think of it as legend. But when does Satan ever actually show up like that? When does he not prefer to manifest himself as that thought that just occurs to you and then burrows in and seeks to take root?
So I see a famished Jesus looking at some nice round stones baking in the Judean sun and visualizing some hot, fresh bread. If you’ve got the power, why not satisfy that gnawing hunger inside you? There’s nothing particularly insidious about the suggestion; no one’s going to get hurt if Jesus turns a few stones into bread – heck, no one’s even going to notice. But it’s not just the content of the suggestion that’s important; the source is also important. Why is Jesus out in the desert to begin with? To practice some miracles, or to learn to recognize and overcome demonic tests? Why is Jesus in this world to begin with? To satisfy his own cravings or to do whatever it is that God prompts? Is it God telling Jesus to break his fast, or does the impulse come from some other source? For Jesus, the source of every impulse must be God. It’s not just bread that gives a person life, but the word that God speaks that gives a person genuine life.
There’s a parishioner here who has spoken to me often of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, suggesting that we need to care for people’s physical needs, get them on a secure social footing, and thus put them in a position to be able to think about spiritual things and be receptive to the gospel. Maslow’s theories seem essentially sound and defensible as a theory of human motivation. laying out what needs must be met before other, higher-order needs can move to the forefront of a human being’s consciousness. The temptation story, however, gives me pause about it. What are our most fundamental needs not merely as organisms, but as creatures – created organisms, spiritual organisms? Is Maslow’s pyramid really just a manifestation of the demonic logic and prioritization of values that our society as a whole has internalized and now accepts as a given? I don’t know, and I’m not really qualified to say. I’ve never known hunger, homelessness, lack of a social network, never really lacked anything on Maslow’s pyramid. But we follow one who said:
Don’t be anxious, saying “What are we to eat?” or “What are we to drink?” or “How will we clothe ourselves?” These are the sorts of things the Gentiles seek after. Don’t be anxious, for your Father in heaven realizes that you need all these things. So, first and foremost, pursue his kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be thrown in for you as well. (Matt 6:32-33, DST)
How does Satan come to us, to impede our obedience to Jesus’ setting of our priorities? Put the needs of your body first. Put the wants of your eyes and body first. Put the excessive cravings of your eyes and your pride and your body first. Make sure you satisfy your cravings, wants, and needs. And, sure, attend to God and to God’s agenda for your life and your world once you’ve gotten those other things well in hand.
A devotional that is so popular around here is entitled Our Daily Bread. It’s a phrase from the Lord’s Prayer, of course – “Give us this day our daily bread” – but it’s also a reinterpretation of that phrase, suggesting that our most fundamental nourishment, even more fundamental than food, comes from meditation on God’s word. (Not that I actually think Our Daily Bread provides the best such nourishment, but it’s title does point to the best nourishment.) This is, incidentally, why fasting has always remained so central and valued a spiritual discipline, first in Jewish circles, then in Christian circles. It trains us to re-think our hierarchy of needs and what needs are truly fundamental, truly to be put first.
Now Satan didn’t really have to physically convey Jesus to the highest corner of the Temple Mount enclosure to plant the next suggestion – and we ourselves don’t have to be tempted to some crazy, suicidal act in order to be led to put God to the test. Similar suggestions plague us and our loved ones with merciless frequency. “If you love me, God, you’ll heal this cancer”; “If you’re there, God, you’ll find me a job”; “If this promise of yours is true, you’ll come through for me right now.” And when the cancer grows or the job does not materialize or God does not perform, the person walks away from God, having posed a test and having come to believe that God failed to pass the test – as if the dynamics of our relationship with God permitted us to pose such tests in the first place. No, Jesus had come to understand, God’s promises in Scripture like the one that Satan brought to his mind from the Psalms (“God’s angels will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone,” Psalm 91:11-12) are not there to be fulfilled at our initiative and upon our demand, but at God’s initiative and upon his command. When God tells me to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple, I can trust that his angels will bear me aloft. If it’s just me wanting to see if God’s promises are trustworthy, well, the “thud” will be loud and the splatter pattern wide.
The third exchange is probably a familiar temptation to many of us, though Satan generally approaches us more subtly – and far less generously. “Make sure you get your little piece of the kingdoms of the world and their glory. All it requires is your time, focus, and energy, and it will be yours. And, of course, if you’ve got any time or energy or inclination leftover, by all means worship God, cultivate the inner life, and serve him. But make sure you get these things first.” To what extent, if we were to be truly honest with ourselves, have we set aside the commandment to “worship the Lord your God and serve him only” for the sake of getting what we want out of this world – and traded in our first allegiance to God for a whole lot less than “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor”?
I paired Hebrews 4:12-16 with the temptation story as a good commentary both on the power of the Word of God and the availability of help in the face of temptation. It begins thus:
God’s Word is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating unto the splitting of soul from spirit, of joint from marrow, evaluating the thoughts and intentions of the heart – and there is not creature who can hide from his gaze, but all are naked with their throats laid bare before the eyes of him with whom is our reckoning. (Heb 4:12-13, DST)
It is a fearsome series of images – standing with our throats exposed before the judge who wields the power of a sword that is able to carve us up cleanly. But if we diligently engage the word of God now as surgeon, we will avoid encountering the word of God later as executioner.
It is interesting to me that one of the most fear-inspiring images in Hebrews is juxtaposed with one of the most confidence-inspiring:
Since, then, we have a great high priest, one who has crossed through the heavens – Jesus, the Son of God – let us hold onto our confession. For we don’t have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way like ourselves – only without sinning. Let us keep drawing closer, then, to the throne of favor in order that we might receive mercy and find favor for timely help. (Heb 4:14-16, DST)
The temptation story assures us that, indeed, “Jesus knows our every weakness”; he is able to feel sympathy for our weakness, because he himself experienced our weakness, our vulnerability to temptation, our experience of being tested by life’s changes and chances. Just as importantly, however, he is able to stand before God on our behalf, procuring God’s mercy and favor for timely help, because he did not succumb to that weakness. When we are tempted – not just to do something grossly and overtly un-Christian, but to give up on or fall short of doing what is quintessentially Christian – we can approach God’s throne, the throne of favor, with boldness, confident that God will indeed show us mercy and supply us with all that is needful to persevere in the way of faithfulness and grateful service. Jesus will secure for us the help that we need to keep walking in line with God’s word, to continue to work out, in the routines of our own lives, the intentions of the divine source code.
Now, of course, whether or not this sermon has been of any value at all will not be determined by the level of inspiration you might feel today. It will be determined by whether or not you open up the Word – and open yourself up before and to the Word – tomorrow. I pray that we all, each one of us, will continue to seek out and to receive the Word that God would implant more and more fully within us, unto the salvation of our souls – and unto the consistent defeat of the Enemy of our souls.