Less Than God – Ash Wednesday

Today marks a holy day in the Christian tradition, Ash Wednesday. It’s historically a day for Christian reflection and penitence. It’s a day where we sit with the weight of our mortality and our sin, and let it sink in.

Ash Wednesday Worship

Matthew 4:1-11

Today marks a holy day in the Christian tradition, Ash Wednesday. It’s historically a day for Christian reflection and penitence. It’s a day where we sit with the weight of our mortality and our sin, and let it sink in.

Now this tradition- one of solemn reflection on our brokenness and the temptation to pursue more brokeness – isn’t unique to Christianity. Arguably all religions deal with it in some way. Jews and Muslims ceremonially wash to recognize human depravity in the face of God. Buddhists ultimately deny a personal God and seek to detach from desires that harm and hurt. To varying degrees Hindus promote practices and behaviors toward good karma. What remains radically different about Christianity are two key things. First, in his humanity Jesus is genuinely tempted to treat God as less than God and secondly, in his divinity Jesus takes on the consequences of our giving in to such temptation.

40 days from now our Lenten journey will lead us to reflect on the latter of these, on the cost of our sin. Today, however, on Ash Wednesday, we focus on the former — on Christ’s real and difficult encounter with temptation.

Now we can quickly blow off a text like this because it’s weird. I mean, who among us has held conversations with a visible Devil, being whisked off from place to place? (well, if you have I’m here to tell you that’s creepy). Right? Indeed, we need not take this story literally. Certainly first-century Jews likely didn’t. They would have been familiar with Israel’s 40-yr. wandering in the wilderness, and would have connected this story to that narrative. Whereas Israel wandered as punishment for its mistrust, Jesus fasts and is tempted in order to prove his trust in God. And whereas Israel emerged from their wilderness wanderings chastened, purified, and ready to inherit God’s blessings and promises, Jesus emerges from his trials confirmed in his identity as the blessing and promise, ready to inaugurate a new era in the ongoing history of God and God’s people.

The story of Christ’s temptation, while absolutely a story about Christ, is also about something more. It’s about you. It’s about me. And it’s not about us in the sense that we have to mimic Christ and perfectly refrain from all temptation as He did, because that’s impossible. No, this story is about us because we, like Christ’s Temptor, treat God as less than God. Perhaps more than we are tempted, it is we who do the tempting.

Let’s look at this conniving Temptor for a moment, and pay attention to his tactics. What’s his first play? “If you’re the Son of God command these stones to become loaves of bread.” The word “if” here isn’t actually a condition; it could easily be translated “Since you’re the Son of God.” It isn’t that the Temptor actually questions Christ’s divinity here. The actual question of Christ’s power doesn’t seem to be at stake. What’s at stake is Christ’s dependence upon the One who sent Him. Will He take matters into his own hands and merely make sure he gets what he needs, or will He trust? And the temptation is real, of course, as we’re told that Jesus hasn’t eaten in nearly six weeks. Incidentally I looked this up, because I was curious about what actually happens to a body that hasn’t eaten in that amount of time. Doctors call it inanition. One’s bodily metabolic systems literally begin shutting down at around 3 weeks without food. For those who’ve gone without for so long, very simple foods are needed for reintroduction. Suffice it to say, food was exactly what Jesus wanted and bread, specifically, the very food his body could tolerate.

This first temptation is often said to speak to the “lust of the flesh.” Lust can be a wrongful sexual orientation toward another, yes. And that’s what most of us think of when we hear that phrase, “lust of the flesh,” but it’s also more than that. It’s any and all desire to experience physical pleasure in a way that compromises our trust in God. And it’s familiar to us. We know this temptation. It’s a mindset too heavily occupied with food, be that the compulsion to have more than we need or all-consuming attempts to control our intake. It’s our quests to transform our own bodies in some way, with alcohol or drugs, or even with something that in moderation is good- like exercise. Our lust of the flesh can be as mundane as the over-indulgent collection of clothes.

And Jesus’ response to the real temptation of bread is significant. He replies, “One doesn’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus is directly quoting Deuteronomy 8 here, where YAHWEH reminds the Israelites of the reason why they experienced hunger in the wilderness – so that they would grow to trust God. For without that trust, having every physical need met still equates to death. The passage Jesus cites here goes on to say, “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing…” (Deut. 8:7-9).

But we so easily stick to scarcity, don’t we? We so readily choose fear and give in to the temptation to treat God as less than God. And in those moments we ourselves become the Temptor. “God, if you’re real provide me with this job.” “God, I’ll believe in you if you’ll just heal my spouse, my child, my friend.” God, I’ll show up for you, if…” You fill in the blank.

And this naturally gives way to the second temptation in this passage, a proclivity toward pride. Taking Jesus to the highest place within the Temple in Jerusalem, Satan encourage Jesus to make his greatness known. For if Jesus did throw himself down into the valley right outside the Temple courts surely many would see. There probably wasn’t a more public place in all of Israel. And if many saw Jesus save himself many would worship him, for the Jews were awaiting a Messiah after all! What’s particularly interesting here is how the Temptor attempts to use God’s Word as power over Jesus, but is unable to because he distorts it. Satan cites Psalm 91 as evidence that God will protect Jesus in this fall, but conveniently leaves out a line. It’s a simple line which says God’s angels will guard over God’s own in all ways, including over us in our urge to choose the exoneration of self rather than the glorification of God.

Here too I urge us to pay attention to the Temptor. I wonder, how do we use God’s own words to puff up ourselves? Do you, as Pastor Megan referenced a few weeks ago, go to the Bible looking for verses and stories that support your own views rather than approach the texts willing to be changed? Or perhaps you, like me, have refused and continue to refuse sitting with challenging passages that address our pride head-on, such as “Whoever does not love the neighbor does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:8) or “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24), or “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble…Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you” (James 4:6 & 10). God’s Word is powerful, but let us not deceive ourselves — God’s Word can be used in powerfully evil and dangerous ways. Whenever we’re using the Bible to justify our sin or to bring glory to ourselves we play the part of Temptor.

Jesus’ trial ends with a startlingly familiar temptation, the lust of the eyes. You can just sense the Temptor’s frustration at this point in the passage. “And again the Devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world.” Up until this point Jesus isn’t breaking, so the Temptor has to turn up the heat. Try to lure Jesus with his physical desires. Check. Urge him toward self-importance and pride. Check. So, as if to throw everything he has at him, the Temptor offers the kingdoms of the world. Stuff. Influence. Power. All of it. The glorious stuff one can see, buy, own, and leverage. And the punchline, the trade off, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” There’s the REAL condition in this whole story. The question never was IF Jesus is the Son of God, but rather IF Jesus would worship one who is less than God. And to this end the Devil’s not so cunning. His motives are clear. What’s he after? Worship. And it’s with this that he gets an angry response out of Jesus, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”

We don’t need to reflect long to see and acknowledge the ways we’re tempted by stuff, influence and power. If we pause to think about it, I’m sure we could come up with an example from earlier today even. And in addition to thinking about this it’s important to consider how we put conditions on our own worship of God. How have you attempted to “strike a deal with God?” “God, it would be a lot easier to have faith and worship you if I just had …” You get the idea.

In his own trial Jesus shared with us the temptation to treat God as less than God. We know and trust that as our high priest Christ is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, for he himself has in every respect been tempted as we are. And yet, He remains without sin (Hebrews 4:15). And it’s because of this that we gather today, and throughout the season of Lent, to not only seize opportunities for reflection on how to resist the lust of the flesh, the eyes and the pride of life, but also to repent for the ways we ourselves have actively tempted God. May we remember who we are – dust to dust—and may we readily recall whose we are, children of the most high God. Amen.