Using our gifts and powers: a sermon on Matthew 4:1-11

by the Rev. Anna Doherty

Today marks the first Sunday in Lent, the season of the church year when we repent for our sins, as a way of drawing closer to God.

Which is why we begin the season of Lent with the story of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness.

It helps us to understand that even Christ our Savior experiences human temptation to sin.

What is remarkable about today’s gospel reading is how primal and personal Jesus’ temptations are.

The temptation are, each of them, temptations that we ourselves have experienced at different times of our lives.

First, the temptation to trust in scarcity, rather than to trust in God’s abundance and ability to provide for our physical needs.

The devil takes advantage of Jesus’ hunger to suggest to Jesus that he might turn stones into bread,

and amass more food than he needs for himself…

…to grasp after domestic security for its own sake, rather than for the sake of others.

We often struggle with this same temptation in our tendency to seek for ourselves more than we need,

and whenever we find it difficult to give of our own abundance for the benefit of others.

Or, there’s the temptation to claim our powerful association with God for our own gain, rather than for the service of others…

Which the devil suggests to Jesus in asking Jesus to prove that God’s angels will keep Jesus from injury.

This is a temptation we succumb to whenever we are self righteous in our faith,

and when we use our belief in God to judge and exclude others.

Or the temptation to secure the glory of political leadership, to rule the kingdoms of the world.

To focus more on worldly measures of success and power for ourselves, rather than using our leadership to build up the lives of others.

These are the same temptations that we face everyday, as Jesus faces them in the wilderness.

The temptation is not that food, power and leadership are inherently wrong,

but rather that they can be used for the wrong ends, or at the wrong time.

We tend to romanticize Jesus’ time in the desert, as the moment when Jesus once and for all time resists the temptations we ourselves experience.

When Jesus passes the test, he wins, and whew, he’s done, he’s never tempted again…

Somehow it is easier to believe in a savior who is super-human perfect, rather than in a savior who ends up crucified on the cross…

And so we sometimes place Jesus’ work as the Son of God more fully in the wilderness, rather than in his life and work in the world.

But, I don’t believe that Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is a one-time occurrence.

Part of being human, it seems, is to come up daily against the challenge of trusting more fully in what God does for us and the world.

Today’s first reading from Genesis, has often been misused as a way of justifying misogyny… that somehow it is the woman Eve who first introduces sin into the world.

The truth is sin is already in the world and the serpent, it seems, knows it, that there is an ability to discern good from evil.

Part of being human, of having the ability to discern between good and evil is that we struggle sometimes to make the correct choices.

It is not our ability to discern, to be tempted, that is the problem.

It is how we choose to respond with the knowledge that we have.

And Jesus is human too, for all that he is also divine.

The fact that Jesus is tempted just as we are, makes Jesus a Messiah for the world, it makes him truly human.

The difference, it seems, between Christ and us, is that Jesus chooses to act differently in response to the temptations he experiences.

Jesus’ wilderness tests of the temptation are not a one-time ordeal to get through;

they are tests of preparation for the choices Jesus makes in his earthly ministry.

And Jesus’ time in the wilderness, gets played out again and again, in Jesus’ ministry in the world.

Jesus in the wilderness, for example, refuses to turn stones into bread to ease his own hunger…

…but in just a few chapters in Matthew’s gospel, he will feed thousands of people from just a few loaves and fish.

Jesus will teach others how to pray to God to “give us this day our daily bread.”

Jesus in the wilderness refuses to take advantage of his relationship with God by hurling himself from the pinnacle of the temple.

But by the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will endure the taunts of others on the cross, all the while trusting deeply and personally…

…that, through the cross, God will put sin and death to an end forever.

Jesus in the wilderness turns down the devil’s offer to rule the kingdoms of the world.

Instead, Jesus offers the kingdom of heaven to all who believe in him.

Jesus uses his  gifts and his power; he simply uses them for the service of others and for the glory of God.

That, my friends, is the difference, it seems, between temptation becoming a sin or becoming part of the glory of God.

The life of faith is not simply a matter of believing in the right things, but it is also how we prioritize and live our lives.

It’s about how we use our gifts and our power.

How we spend our money, what we do with our time, how we live out our relationships with others.

All of that is the life of faith too.

Do we use our gifts and power for ourselves or for others and the glory of God?

What is interesting about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is that when Jesus is tempted by the devil to act on his own

—by himself, for his own benefit—such action is a sin.

But when Jesus uses his power within the context of community and for the benefit of others and the glory of God in the world then suddenly…

Jesus’ acts become acts of grace and ministry.

In other words, the life of faith is meant to be lived in community, in relationship with others.

That’s why worshipping in community is so important.

That’s why also, service on behalf of others is so important.

In the service for Ash Wednesday, there is a special invitation to enter into the observance of a holy Lent.

There is a reason why the season of Lent calls us, specifically, to acts of self-examination and repentance…

by prayer, fasting, and self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s word.

It’s because, by these actions, we practice using God’s gifts and our power, for the benefit of God and others, rather than just ourselves.

It is not enough, for example, for us to fast, unless by doing so others may be fed.

It is not enough for us simply to pray,

unless by doing so we give thanks and dwell in the presence of God or we pray for other people.

It is not enough for us to simply read scripture, unless we also read it with an eye towards how God is telling us to act and to be in the world.

We have been blessed with gifts and skills by God.

It is not inherently wrong to seek to use these gifts.

But who, and in whose name, do we use them?

For ourselves, or for others and the glory of God?