Sunday, March 9th, 2014 – First Sunday in Lent
Scripture: Matthew 4:1-11
Hymns: “O Worship the King”, “Amazing Grace”, “It Is Well with My Soul”, “Seek Ye First”
“The Right Thing in the Wrong Hands”
“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
These were the words spoken by Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the lead scientists on the Manhattan Project, following the test detonation of the prototype atomic bomb that would just a few months later level the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His recognition of the power of the atomic bomb would lead him in the 1950s to use his political power as advisor to the United States Atomic Energy Commission to lobby for worldwide nuclear non-proliferation. He asserted – and rightfully so – that such a weapon as the atomic bomb, in the wrong hands, would be absolutely devastating.
As it turned out, Dr. Oppenheimer’s fears were well warranted, as the successful development of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union would lead to some forty years of simmering tension between the world’s two greatest super-powers, with the whole world knowing that with the push of one button, the entire world would be devastated. With the fall of the USSR in 1991, that tension abated somewhat, but since 9/11, one of the greatest fears of the Department of Homeland Security has been the idea that a terrorist group could get their hands on enough nuclear material to assemble a primitive nuclear bomb that, while not very powerful, could still kill or maim tens of thousands.
It is remarkable to consider that when the Manhattan Project began under the football stadium at the University of Chicago, its end goal was the development of a working nuclear reactor that would provide inexpensive, clean power in nearly immeasurable quantities. What started off as a good thing soon became a weapon of mass destruction, and that weapon still provokes fear today when thought of as being in “the wrong hands.”
If you think about it, though, so many things can be destructive in the wrong hands. A car. A gun. A cell phone or a computer.
Oh yes, Scripture. Misused for hundreds of years to empower some and to belittle others. From organizations today such as the Westboro Baptist Church, to the Catholic Church of the 1500s, to the Orthodox Church of the late first millennium, all the way back to the Council of Jerusalem in the book of Acts, when the Apostles Peter and Paul disagreed over whether or not Gentiles had to abide by the ritual of circumcision, prescribed to Abraham in the book of Genesis, in order to become Christians.
But perhaps the most blatant misuse of Scripture that we see in the Gospels was at the hands of Satan himself, tempting the very hungry, and at that moment, very human Jesus Christ.
At this point in the Gospel stories, Jesus had not yet begun His earthly ministry. In fact, he was just a few weeks removed from His baptism by His cousin, John the Baptist. We all know that story – as Jesus was being baptized, the Spirit of God descended upon Him in the shape of a dove, and a voice spoke from the heavens, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” much like that same voice spoke from heaven in last week’s Scripture when Jesus was transfigured on the Mount of Olives.
And so we have here Jesus, coming off the spiritual high of being baptized and being anointed by God, being led by the Spirit into the desert to fast for forty days and forty nights. Why the desert? Why forty days and forty nights? Well, the best answer there is to draw a parallel between Jesus and the Hebrews who fled slavery in Egypt prior to wandering for forty years in the desert. In Jesus’ case, those forty days represented a transitional period – an exodus from His life simply as a carpenter in Nazareth, preparing Him to enter the “Promised Land” of His ministry to the people of Israel.
Now, as far as the fasting goes, that’s always been considered a spiritual discipline – denying one’s self food and water is practiced by Christians in order to discipline themselves in their faith, by Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan, by persons of many different religions. However, going entirely without nourishment for forty days is, shall we say, inadvisable, and it is likely that the fact that Jesus was able to carry out this fast can be attributed to His divine nature – His being as the earthly incarnation of God.
But regardless of whatever divine sustenance Jesus may have received during His time of fasting, he nonetheless was still completely human, and thus was subject to the needs and desires of the human body. In short, it didn’t matter if God was keeping Him alive – his stomach was probably rumbling in four part harmony by the time the forty days ended.
And of course, Satan was well aware of Christ’s human hunger.
So the first thing he did when he showed up in the desert that day was appeal to Jesus’ stomach. “Ah, my friend, you must be hungry!” he said to Jesus. “But surely, these stones here, you have the power to turn them into bread, do you not?”
Of course, bread was something that would play a significant role in the ministry of Jesus Christ. Over the course of His ministry, He would TWICE feed thousands of people with just a small amount of bread – and for those of you thinking, “What are you talking about, I thought it was just the feeding of the 5,000”, He ALSO fed the 4,000, a miracle which appears in both Matthew and Mark not long after the feeding of the 5,000. On top of that, Jesus used a loaf of bread to represent His own body – a tradition to which we still hold today, every week when we observe communion.
Beyond the importance of bread in Jesus’ own life, bread and bread-like food had been related to miraculous events numerous times in the Hebrew Scriptures. The manna feeding the Jewish people in the desert, the ravens bringing bread to Elijah in the wilderness, both Elijah and Elisha performing miracles that turned minute amounts of flour and oil into virtually bottomless jars – miracles involving bread were a staple of Hebrew Scripture, and you better believe that Satan knew that. And he knew that Jesus would’ve grown up hearing these Scriptures, and so how better to tempt Jesus than to turn the Scriptures against Him?
“Turn these stones into bread, and make your hunger stop!”
What Satan fails to realize, though, is that he’s messin’ with the wrong guy. Jesus might have been fully flesh and blood, a living, breathing human being, but so too was He fully divine. One would think Satan would have known better than to try to turn Scripture against the earthly incarnation of none other than God, but apparently not. No, instead, Jesus looks right back at Satan and says, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on the Word of God.”
Now, you might think that Jesus coming back at Satan with a passage from Deuteronomy at the drop of a hat would be enough to make the deceiver realize that this was a bad idea, but you would think wrong. No, Satan, for being the clever prince of the power of the air and the ruler of the earthly realm, fails to recognize that maybe he should cut his losses and go. Instead, he doubles down and hits Jesus with Scripture again.
From the 91st Psalm: “He will command his angels concerning you – on their hands, they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”
For being such a bad idea, Satan certainly did throw what under other circumstances would’ve been one heck of a punch. Not content to use just any old Scripture, he instead uses here a Psalm attributed to Jesus’ very own earthly ancestor, King David, in his attempt to get Jesus to leap from the spire of the temple in Jerusalem. And the temptation for Jesus to jump to prove the power of God’s legions is only the explicit temptation – the implicit temptation being that every faithful Jew gathered at the temple will witness this man jump from a pinnacle some one hundred or more feet high and land, safe and sound, on the ground below. From that point forward, it would’ve been but the task of a few days or even HOURS to convince the whole of Israel that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah.
But, as we mentioned, Satan doesn’t seem to realize the wherewithal of his opponent here. Instead of yielding to the temptation to prove both the power of eternal God and to prove His own mettle to the Jewish people, Jesus counterpunches with another Scripture from Deuteronomy – “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
You can imagine that Satan is probably getting pretty vexed at this point. Up until now, humanity has always bent to his whims. Adam and Eve eating the fruit in the garden. Moses striking the rock. Samson defying God’s orders. Saul, the first anointed king of Israel, succumbing to the corruption of power. King David, the man after God’s own heart, yielding to the temptation of the flesh. Even Job, the most faithful man in the Old Testament, eventually buckled and questioned God’s authority.
But not this Jesus. Oh no, Jesus has now withstood Scripturally-based temptations appealing to both His earthly being and His divine being. And so Satan, recognizing that he’s going to have to throw one heck of a knock-out punch, reaches WAY down deep into his bag of dirty tricks and comes up not with Scripture…
But with God’s own creation.
Yes, Satan takes Jesus up to the peak of a mountain and shows Him everything – “all the kingdoms of the world”, it says in Matthew 4:8. Just bow down and worship me, Satan says, and it’s all yours. All of it. Take it, claim it, keep it.
Yes, Satan takes God’s creation and attempts to use it for evil. And this temptation in Matthew 4 certainly isn’t the last time THAT would be done. Think about it – digging into the earth, mining a naturally occurring metal, turning it into a weapon that can wipe out an entire city in a single blinding flash?
The right thing in the wrong hands, indeed.
But Jesus doesn’t fall for it. Do you know why?
Because creation wasn’t Satan’s to give and take away. Creation is of God and it IS God’s. I can just imagine the look on Jesus’ face – “Now look here. You say you’ll give this to me? It’s already mine, pal! Now away with you – “ and here’s his final blow from Deuteronomy 6 – “for you shall worship the Lord your God alone!”
And with that, Jesus’ trial of temptation ends, the devil fleeing Him, the anointing of God at His baptism confirmed.
This story is meant to show us that Jesus has experienced what we do – the temptations of both the word of God and the world of God, used in evil ways, Satan hoping that he can make us sin. Jesus faced those trials, and Jesus stared them down – not by any supernatural means, but through Scripture and faith.
Now, I’m not expecting anybody here to react to every temptation by quoting Scripture and saying, “Begone with you” to the devil. It’s just not possible. As human beings, we will sin. We’ll take in false nourishment to feed our emotional hunger. We’ll test God. We’ll succumb to the powers of the world.
But as we journey through the season of Lent, we recognize that the road we travel – beset though it may be by sin – will always end with the resurrection of Christ, the unconditional forgiveness of our sins, and our rebirth to new life.
And THAT is the right thing that can never fall into the wrong hands.