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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 - //
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
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?
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
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
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.
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
For the second
temptation we move to a higher height, as the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle
of the temple in
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
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.
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).
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.