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 Lent 1, Yr A, 13.03,2011
Gen 2.15-17; 3.1-7: eating of tree of knowledge (make clothes for nakedness)
Ps 32: Happy are the forgiven
Romans 5.12-19: Adam/Christ: what gained in Christ greater than what lost in Adam
Matt 4.1-11: Temptations – well-being., wisdom, power - // Israel as God’s son in desert (Deut) (1604)

Heavenly Father, your Son battled with the powers of darkness, and grew closer to you in the desert: help us to use these days to grow in wisdom and prayer that we may witness to your saving love in Jesus Christ our Lord.                                                                    

(Biblically speaking, Jesus as human and as Son of God are the same thing.)

          My sermon today is basically very simple. The central message of the New Testament is that Jesus is human as all of us are called to be human, and because he is truly human he shows us that God is love, and he opens the way for us to also become human.  He is truly human because he has lived in total dependence upon his Father and his will.  This is stated baldly in John’s Gospel by Pontius Pilate when he says in Greek, idou ho anthropos, ‘Behold, the man’, or more correctly, ‘Behold, the human being’, since this is what anthropos really means.

          Today we have Matthew’s version of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, and this narrative tests Jesus’ humanity with the outcome that it stresses his dependence upon God alone.

          As we look at this story, I would to pose four questions and then share with you what I have found to be the answers.  1) Why do we have a temptation narrative?  2) Is there a pattern to it and where does it come from?  3) Does the way it is told relate it to anything else that would give it significance to the first Christians?  And 4) What does it mean for us?  Or, to put it more succinctly, so what?

          Our first question: Why do we have a story about Jesus being tested?  The answer, actually, is quite simple because in Jewish expectation one would not be reckoned to be wise unless one had first been tested, and Jesus is certainly being presented as the one who embodies the true wisdom, namely, love.  It is no accident that each of Jesus’ replies in the story quotes from the Torah, namely Deuteronomy, for in Jewish thought the Torah is the best defence against temptation.  And each one of these quotations from Deuteronomy is connected to Israel ’s time in the wilderness, which itself is significant, as we shall see.

          Now for our second question.  Is there a pattern to the narrative and if so, where does it come from? Four weeks ago when the gospel was part of the Sermon on the Mount, I told you how Matthew presents Jesus as the true Adam with the titles of son of Abraham, son of David, and the Christ, with Abraham viewed as the man of faith, David as the wise and merciful righteous one, and the Christ as connected with justice and power.  Today we have Matthew’s version of the temptation narrative which he presents in the same fashion.

          There is one additional note which is this: Abraham is connected with well-being.  We have already mentioned that David is associated with the wisdom that is mercy, and the Christ with power.  In Matthew Jesus says that the deep things of the law are justice, mercy and faith (23.23; Micah 6.8), with justice concerned with power, mercy with wisdom and faith with well-being.

          This pattern of being wellborn, wise, and powerful is used by Paul, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the basis for setting forth their witness to Jesus as the true human being.  So where did they get it from?  Some forty years ago my students and I first found this pattern being used in 1 Corinthians, starting from the passage in which Paul says of the Corinthian Christians, ‘not many of you were wise, powerful or well-born’ (1.26).  We then found it in many passages in the OT, starting with Isaiah in the 8th century BC.  But it is undoubtedly much older than that. It can be found in Egypt in 1600 BC.  In the northern capital, Memphis , three gods grouped together were Ptah, the creator god of wisdom, imagination and craft, his consort, Sakhmet, the fierce protectress, and their child, Nefertem, the god of fertility and new life.  It lies behind the even older Hindu caste system, in which the Brahmins are the wise ones, the Khshatriyas are the warrior caste, with the Vaishyas and the Shudras, that is the  peasants and the serfs,  providing all the goods needed to maintain life.

          To top it all, a Frenchman named George Dumézil, who worked with Indo-European languages for over forty years, found this three-part division in society behind every single language he looked at.  So, when our NT writers use this very wide-spread pattern, it is highly likely that it would speak to Christians of the first century.

          Now for our third question.  Does the way this story as told in Matthew relate to anything else that would give it significance to the first Christians? The simple answer, as we shall see, is that Matthew’s version matches the testing of Israel in the wilderness. Israel ’s calling in the covenant as we find it in the Book of Exodus was to be God’s son, and the job of the son was to learn from the father to be like him.  This was so ingrained in the life of the Hebrews that the meaning of the Semitic phrase ‘son of’ something’ is ‘to show forth the quality of that something’, so that ‘son of God’ means to show forth the very character and nature of God.  In Matthew when Jesus returns from Egypt Matthew applies to him the quotation from Hosea, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son’ (Mt 2.15; Hos 11.1).   In short, Jesus’ calling as Son of God is to fulfil Israel ’s calling, showing forth the very character and nature of God the Father.

          Now let’s look at the story itself. 

          Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness for the purpose of being tempted by the devil.  So it is no accident but rather it is God’s intention that he be tested.  And the site of the testing is the same wilderness in which the whole of Israel was tested.  The devil says. ‘If you are the son of God command these stones to become loaves of bread.’  This test concerns Jesus’ well-being, he being famished.  Notice that ‘these stones’ indicate that this takes place at ground level – hold that in mind.  The devil’s challenge Jesus answers with part of Deut 8.3.  The first half of verse refers to Israel’s hunger in the wilderness: God  ‘humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna ... in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord’.

          For the second temptation we move to a higher height, as the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem . The Devil tries to get Jesus to test God by casting himself down, quoting verses from Psalm 91, but Jesus answers more wisely and rightly from the greater authority, the Torah, with what we know as Deut 6.16.  The whole verse is: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.’  Like the first temptation the devil has opened up with ‘If you are the Son of God...’

          In the third temptation on a very high mountain the devil does not say ‘If you are the son of God’, but simply offers him the whole world, what amounts to false power, in exchange for worship.  Jesus dismisses him with the words of Deut 6.13, which in Deuteronomy are in the context of God’s gift of the riches of the promised land after he brings them out of Egypt.

          Now back to the question of the heights.  Heights were significant in Israel ’s early history.  Thus the story of the giving of the Torah is said to take place on Mount Sinai .   Many high places had temples to various gods.  But heights disappear from the scene during the period of the writing prophets as part of their attack on gods that might rival Yahweh.  By the time of Jesus heights had re-emerged again as significant in Jewish writings, and Matthew uses them.

          The first temptation concerning God’s word takes place at ground level.  Jesus then gives the word in the Sermon on the Mount, a higher level, and then he is said to come down. 

          The second temptation concerning wisdom takes place on the height of the pinnacle of the temple. At the Transfiguration Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain, again, a greater height, and the voice says he is the one to be heeded, that is, he is the wise one.  Then Moses and Elijah disappear because Jesus has displaced them.  At the end Jesus and the disciples are said to be coming down as he heads toward the passion.

          The height of the third temptation concerning power is a very high mountain.  At the end of Jesus’ passion and entombment we find the coming down from the only possible higher height: heaven itself, when the angel of the Lord comes down (28.2).  The true power has been shown in the cross, and that which the devil had offered to give to Jesus in exchange for worship is spelled out in Jesus’ words to the disciples on the mountain in Galilee: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’ (28.18).

          ‘Truly, this human was Son of God’, is the centurion’s acclamation at the cross.  So to say that Jesus is human and to say that he is the Son of God are, biblically speaking, one and the same thing and what he shows us by his dependence and obedience is, in the words of 1 John, that God is love. 

          Thus it is that you and I in Christ are enabled to be the loving beloved.