Coming to Our Senses in the Wilderness – Sermon on Matthew 4:1-11 for Lent 1A

We often think of ‘coming to our senses’ as returning to sensible thinking or behavior after a time of behaving or thinking unreasonably. “I’m so glad she came to her senses and decided not to marry that person,” or “it’s a good thing he came to his senses before he drove his business into bankruptcy.”

But sometimes, coming to your senses involves learning something you didn’t realize before, in a way that helps you understand the world more clearly. It’s not that you return to reason, so much as you suddenly become aware of something you didn’t already know.

And sometimes, that new realization comes to you through an experience that involves one or more of your five senses. That’s what senses are for, after all. Our sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch are all ways for us to know the world around us.

During this season of Lent, we will be exploring how God uses our five senses to make us more aware of God’s presence in our lives. I hope you will join us each week, as we “come to our senses” through God’s Word and some sensory experiences. This week, we will be exploring the sense of taste, and in today’s gospel reading, Jesus shows this sense carried to its negative extreme – hunger.

Let’s remember where we are in the story. Jesus has just come up from the Jordan River, where John baptized him and where he heard a voice from heaven say, “This is my beloved, my Son in whom I am well pleased.”

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ 
But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 
Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’ 
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. (Matthew 4:1-11)

We need to pay attention to the location of today’s story. The wilderness is significant. In the wilderness, there is nothing to see but desert, nothing to smell but sand, nothing to hear but the wind, nothing to touch but hard rock, and nothing to taste – period. The wilderness is where we are most vulnerable. There are no resources to sustain life. In fact, you might say that Jesus is in a place of sensory deprivation.

And yet, the wilderness is where Moses met God, and it was in the wilderness that the Israelites wandered, and learned to depend completely on God for food and water. Elijah spent time in the wilderness. Even as far back as Genesis 4, we find Cain making his home in the wilderness after killing his brother. He ends up in the land of Nod, which translates as ‘wandering.’

It’s lonely in the wilderness. And loneliness is one of the devil’s favorite tools for working his way into our lives. When we are lonely, we are more likely to feel sorry for ourselves, to look for pleasure and human connection in places we shouldn’t go, to feel that God has abandoned us. When we feel isolated and unloved, Satan steps in at just that moment, to take advantage of our vulnerability, to prey on our hungers.

Notice that Satan waited until Jesus was hungry, at the end of his 40-day fast, before he made a move. But Satan apparently didn’t realize that the very thing he’d counted on to make Jesus weak, had actually made Jesus strong. Jesus had spent forty days and nights figuring out what it meant to be the beloved Son of God, and he was ready – hungry, but ready. Satan thought he could use hunger as a weapon against Jesus, but it turned out to be the very shield Jesus needed to defend himself. Through his forty days of fasting out there in the wilderness, Jesus had come to his senses.

The first temptation seems to make sense: “C’mon, Jesus. You know you are hungry, but you have the power to provide food for yourself if you are the Son of God. Satan challenges Jesus on more than one level here – on one level, it’s basic sustenance. But on another level, Satan questions Christ’s identity as God’s Son.

Jesus answers both challenges by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3: basic sustenance isn’t enough; we live ‘by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ Jesus is that word, The Word made flesh. Jesus knows his identity. Hunger for bread won’t distract him.

How often do we forget our identity as God’s children, and let ourselves be distracted by our hunger for not only food, but all sorts of material things? How often do we let Satan exploit our basic needs by tempting us to want more? And when we stand firm, how often does Satan try to tempt us in a different way?

This is exactly what happens next. If appealing to basic needs won’t work, Satan goes for the next big hunger: the need for recognition, for acceptance, for belonging. Again, “if you are the Son of God” attacks Jesus’ identity, this time as it pertains to praise and adoration from others. But recognition and acceptance are poor substitutes for the kind of belonging we find in Christ, as children of God.

Satan sought to undermine Christ’s identity by tempting Jesus with power and glory for himself, but Jesus relied on God’s power and glory. “Don’t test God,” Jesus said, and we are reminded of the way the Israelites had tested God in the wilderness when they had begged for water, after receiving manna and quail. Don’t test God. It doesn’t end well.

So Satan throws off all pretense of offering Jesus something that might seem good, like nourishment or a good reputation that will further his ministry. Satan even gives up on challenging Jesus’ identity. Satan thinks he is saving his best temptation for last, because it’s the very thing Satan craves: power. “Worship me and I will give you power over everything,” the devil says.

In his appeal for power, by promising power he can’t even deliver, Satan must have forgotten Psalm 50: “For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.” (Psalm 50:10-12)

How does Jesus overcome the temptation to grab power? By submitting to the only power that matters. In the letter from James to the early church, we read, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:7-8a)

This is exactly what happened out there in the wilderness. Jesus submitted himself to God, recognizing that his own identity was dependent on his relationship with the Father. He resisted the devil, and the devil fled. The test was over.

In today’s Old Testament reading (Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7), we hear how Adam and Eve failed the test. Every one of us fails the test. But Jesus didn’t. Only the Son of God could effectively pass the test of being the Son of God, able to resist every temptation.

Temptation always looks like something good in the beginning. It always looks like a sensible way to satisfy our hunger: hunger for physical sustenance, for power, or for belonging (finding our identity). But we are never satisfied.

Temptation takes normal need and pushes it to excess. Simple hunger becomes burning desire. We aren’t satisfied with bread – we want a feast! We aren’t satisfied with accepting responsibility for ourselves – we want power over others! We aren’t satisfied with our identity as children of a loving God – we want to be God.

How can we possible overcome temptation? Jesus shows us the way, and as is so often the case with following Christ, it involves paradox.

  • The very vulnerability that Jesus experienced through fasting strengthened him to resist the temptation to make bread from stones.
  • Through his time alone in the wilderness, he found that he was not at all alone. His isolation gave him strength to claim his identity as God’s own beloved Son.
  • By submitting in humility to his Father’s will for those forty days and nights, Jesus received power that made Satan’s offer of power laughable.

In Luke’s version of the story, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:13) Satan may have given up for the time being, but we know there will be more temptations to face, as Satan looks for ‘an opportune time’ to challenge us.

How do we meet these challenges? Again, it’s a paradox: we can resist the devil so he will flee from us by making ourselves vulnerable through spiritual practices that strengthen our faith. Every temptation is an opportunity to depend more fully on God, to submit to God’s will for us and find our identity in Christ.

When we come to our senses in the wilderness of our cravings, we realize that we have always had exactly what we needed. God has always been present, providing for us, loving us, naming us as his own. When we come to our senses, God is there waiting for us, welcoming us, with all who come from east and west and north and south, to take our places at the feast in the kingdom of God. (Luke 13:29)

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