Ok – I don’t usually do this. Sometimes two sermons do get written, or more likely, one discarded, or one halfway done before the Spirit blows in with the better idea for the week. But this week, two sermons – not on purpose, but that had to get written. Both drive at the same points. Both are on the gospel text for today, Matthew 4:1-11.
I was torn about which to preach. It turned out that I shared sermon A at our early service, and I let the later service choose – and they chose B. Thanks to Sophie who was willing to volunteer and read the part of the therapist, cold. B would’ve been better with more polishing, or if we had microphones to be able to sit across from each other and have it be truly more like a dialogue.
Sermon A below is a fairly straightforward, typical sermon, and touches on this theme that as there are no other witnesses in the desert – Jesus must have told someone – and perhaps models telling someone about our hard times, too. I imagined that what if Jesus told his therapist, and what if the therapist later was a ghostwriter/source for the gospels? Sermon B is that imagined dialogue between the therapist and client, Jesus, as he reflects on the temptation. Both are below.
Have you ever thought – how’d we get this story? After all, there are no witnesses, other than Jesus, the tempter, and angels. Yes, the cynic could say pausing here makes you think it’s likely, simply made up.
But if not, then it must be that Jesus told someone, who likely told someone else, who told Luke or whoever wrote this down. Which means Jesus admitted it to someone else – wasn’t afraid to share that he’d been tempted. Perhaps that’s intentional to model it for us.
Stepping back, the narrative shape, and this concept of the Son of God, divine, who would be tempted – and – admit it – is thoroughly unlikely. Our human tendency is that history is written by the victor, and that the most likely stories to be shared and retold are the ones of power and triumph – not temptation or shame. It’s remarkable that this story made it past the editors’ desks. Because they could have – just cut it. Imagine if Luke had a teenager at home – or an unfaithful partner – who said – “but Jesus was tempted too, you can’t expect me to be perfect like him.” That could have been temptation enough for Luke to cut this from the manuscript, not retell this story that has a limp, this God who has vulnerabilities.
It’s these unlikely inclusions in God’s story that make it more believable to me. The fact that an imperfect set of scriptures, conflicting and at times contradictory, at times unflattering or unresolved, makes it down to us – feels more real than easy stories with a nice little bow.
I have at times wrestled with this story. The figure of the devil or tempter bothers me, because (partly because of my middle-class, Lutheran, white upbringing) I haven’t ever had a big place for or need for a fully embodied devil. For those of us that feel that way, we must realize that this is at least partially our cultural conditioning – that we are skeptical and less imaginative of what evil looks like – partly because we have less often been forced to face it. What that tempter looks like, and how we conceive of it and where we shelve it in our beliefs, is partly due to our own culture, conditioning, and heritage. But whatever you think about the whole devil thing, let the temptations and story be real.
Because if a temptation is dangled that isn’t actually enticing, it bounces off like teflon. There are things I’m not tempted at all by. I’ve never wanted to smoke. But other vices are more tempting. Things you’re apathetic about and not tempted by aren’t usually the ones you’ll offer a deep, quoting scripture kind of response to. But Jesus did, here. Things that don’t really tempt you aren’t things you’ll tell someone about later, or need to be waited on by angels afterward, as Jesus was. Temptations that don’t really get under your skin don’t even justify a response – just ignore – keep walking. Jesus was truly tempted.
Consider with me the second temptation, to throw himself down from high, and dare the angels to come catch him. Jesus’ response is about tempting God, and we generally think of it that way. But on the face of it the temptation itself is either to think yourself invincible and impossible to be hurt, or, frankly, the temptation to just end it all. Which means Jesus models the strength to admit to someone else (because someone wrote this down) that he was tempted by – and hence, had thought about, risking his body with invincibility or suicidal thoughts. Here Jesus shows us it’s ok to be tempted with thoughts – and it’s ok to tell someone, it’s important to get help. It’s another scripture that makes me think Jesus encourages us to go to therapy, to process our temptations, challenges, and situations. In fact, I had some fun imagining that the gospel writers got some ghostwriting help from Jesus’ therapist – or whoever acted as that for him. And maybe Jesus’ therapist or friend/confidant taught him the tool of holding onto key phrases, scriptures, and truths about God and himself that would be like anchors to cling to when he got into conflict or internal temptation. Jesus steadied himself with key phrases – things from the Hebrew Bible and his Jewish faith. When we are in moments of conflict or temptation, how can we anchor ourselves and steady ourselves, remind ourselves of our identity? Maybe there are words – or scriptures – or a physical reminder – or a song – or people – that God gave you to be your anchor.
Even if it originates from outside, temptation is ultimately a conversation within oneself. You could even push this story to wonder if there even was a physical or apparition of an external devil at all – or whether it was an internal “tempter” that appeared and tormented Jesus. I’m not sure it matters. Whether you’re sure that a physical devil appeared, or completely doubting that, it doesn’t change the fact that these temptations presented Jesus with an internal struggle. If they weren’t temptations they wouldn’t make his stomach flutter and demand such eloquent, sharp responses of rejection.
Like the first two of the tempters, most temptation goes for our Achilles’ heel with making us worry with this “if you are…” question, challenging your identity. Padraig O’Tuama said “This wasn’t a question of whether Jesus was or wasn’t of God, this was a question of Jesus encountering himself and wondering what kind of a self was he becoming. Temptation ultimately challenges our sense of ourselves – can we be who we claim to be, or others think us to be? What are things that get under the skin, and you think, I’m not sure who I’ve become, I’m not sure I like who I’ve become, not sure I can control who I’ve become? Jesus met himself in the desert and wondered what self will I be, who am I talking to, and what will I say back?”
The gospels weren’t written teach us about the devil, or evil. We know enough about that from the real world. The story of scripture, and the gospels, are written to teach us who God is. Here we learn God has experienced temptation, and hence is in solidarity with us when we do. Jesus models for us some ways to respond: be honest about it – and tell someone – get help. Hold onto the truths that anchor you.
Called to love by Jesus’ example, perhaps also the challenge this story offers us is to be more tenderly compassionate to those who struggle with temptation. To the one who relapses. To the one who has their own tempters. To have the strength and patience to listen, as Jesus’ friends did, and then to point people toward help. To realize that if even the Son of God was tempted, then we can’t expect our neighbors to be perfect, and realize that same grace will be offered to you as well. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Sermon B (The imagined therapist’s voice is in bold – the regular text is Jesus, reflecting with his therapist on this experience and on sharing it with others.)
“Hmmm… can you tell me more about that?” [The therapist leans back in her chair and waits.]
When you were in the wilderness – can you recall the feeling in the moment?
No – it was all a blur – I can recall the words so clearly. But my body – already exhausted by 40 days out there. I’m not sure I was paying attention to how I was feeling and body sensation – it was just really intense.
Yes – that makes sense as a trauma response. There are things that are really clear, and others that are missing or hard to trace back the feelings. But you said you’ve been having nightmares about this, or flashbacks?
Yes. Sometimes I wake up and I’m glad I resisted, proud of myself, though still stressed out from the thought, is the temptation going to pop up again? But other times, in the dream I’m there in that moment that feels like forever before I gave my answers – who knows if it was actually a moment or an hour – and I’m wrestling with making the other choice.
Why do you think that is?
I know it’s a cheap party trick, but maybe I could have fed more people if I did the stone to bread thing. If I’d taken power and ruled like a traditional king – we wouldn’t have these ones that hurt people. We wouldn’t have to take to the streets or fight so hard for justice – could I have prevented these wars that seem endless. Could we have changed how the big picture works – economically – socially? In that part of the dream I’m looking out over the kingdoms, the different cultures, nations. And I see how beautiful they are – that’s what I think of when the tempter says “their splendor” though I think the tempter was pointing at their like gold, palaces, and armies and stuff.
It sounds like what bothers you about those two temptations is whether there would’ve been a better outcome. This part still sounds like an intellectual argument, though. A matter of winning and losing. Is there something else there?
I mean… The hardest one is that second temptation – or was it the third – can hardly remember these days. But the one where the tempter took me off high – and said – just jump…
Yeah – I mean, I feel ashamed even to admit it.
I’m proud of you that you are. It’s not easy to admit that this was tempting for you.
Well, the tempter made it like a dare – to dare God or the angels to come catch me. So it feels like the temptation – the gross feeling in the pit of my stomach at this part of the dream is that there is like a little voice that says – ‘you’re invincible – untouchable – irreplaceable – you’ll certainly be caught.’ And that feels gross and totally not what I’m about. But also somehow, true?
Hmm… Is there another little voice in this temptation?
Yeah. The other one is the even heavier feeling in my stomach. This temptation makes me imagine – the tempter saying – or whatever little voice, whatever you call it – I mean, are people going to think I’m crazy talking about this? A tempter? I’m not sure if it’s better if I say it’s “a voice I heard.”
Sure – and as we’ve discussed, true mental disorders of hearing things or splitting from reality are a separate matter. Have you ever thought that maybe other people wrestle with these things too? Maybe they’ll appreciate it if you share it – they won’t feel so alone in their own temptations?
Huh. Hadn’t thought of that.
Well, hold onto it, because I think it’s very brave. It might be a part of this whole human thing that you – we all – struggle with. But you’re safe here to share – what’s the other voice say in this moment of temptation?
Well – it’s kind of the opposite of the invincibility voice – it’s saying – it might be ok if you jumped and didn’t get caught. That the world could be better without me. Which is weird, because I don’t feel depressed or suicidal in my normal, waking hours. But there’s a part of this that must’ve been, in some corner of myself, actually tempting, to just be done. Maybe it’s just the exhaustion of it all, or what my body had been through in those 40 days alone in the wilderness. But it troubles me.
That’s a brave thing to share. So what do you do in the moment – what did you do – to face these temptations, or when they come back to you in dreams or worries?
Well – kind of what we’ve talked about in previous sessions. At least in remembering them, or other times I’ve been challenged, I try to kind of ground myself, and then I reach for the things that feel like solid anchors. Those phrases I can trust – or at least I know to be true even if I don’t feel very strong in the moment.
Yes – so what kind of things do you reach for?
Well – in the desert that day I mainly quoted scripture back at the tempter. Not like whole passages or anything. Not trying to win an argument. But simple phrases and truths. One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Huh – see, some of them I even remember as songs. The other one – Do not put the Lord to the test. Those gave me the confidence to eventually to just tell the tempter to get lost. Then my friends showed up to help me, and that was a lifesaver.
The angels, you mean?
Yeah, whatever you want to call them.
Hmm. How do you feel right now?
Better than when I started telling the story. Weird – it’s like really troubling, and heavy stuff but like you always say –
It’s better if you talk about it.
Yeah, I guess even for me, son of God.
Well – what does that make you think? I know you’ve been thinking a lot about how much of your internal process you should share with your friends. How about this story, these temptations?
I don’t know – will they judge me?
What do you think?
I mean – I know them – I know they’re tempted too. Maybe I should share it. It might scare them a bit. It’s a messy story – not easy – not that any of my story is. Maybe if I share it they’ll feel a little less alone. I’ll tell you, I think this happening at the start of my ministry made me a lot more compassionate and gracious to how annoying – and easily tempted people are. Maybe if I share this they’ll be more compassionate with others – when they mess up, or give into temptation.
Yeah. That’s good – sounds like you think it’s worthy of including this in your own story you share. But it isn’t just the bad parts, right?
What do you mean?
Well, the tools are here too. The fact that you had the foundation of your faith, words to say back to the tempter, something to fall back on. So don’t forget God’s role in this too. That even if you were alone, God was there, right?
Yeah. And God was there in giving me an identity that had nothing to do about whether I got this right or not. I mean, the tempter says “if you are the son of God” – just trying create – that – what’s that syndrome thing people call it?
Yeah. But I knew my identity can’t be taken away. Maybe that’s why right before this, at my baptism, God’s voice said I was God’s kid, the beloved, with whom God is well pleased. And I hadn’t even done anything to prove myself yet.
What if it isn’t about proving oneself?
I guess this is a good reminder that it never was. That’s comforting to think when this comes back to me as a stress dream – I couldn’t make a wrong choice in those temptations that would change my belovedness with God.
That’s good news to hold onto. Well, that’s our time.
Thanks be to God. Amen.