Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted 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

Pastor Marc's sermon on First Sunday in Lent (March 1, 2020) on Matthew 4:1-11. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


One of the quirks of today’s story from the gospel according to Matthew is that we never hear why the devil chose this moment to tempt Jesus. There’s no flashback scene showing us the many ways the devil and Jesus didn’t get along. And there aren't even a few words giving us insight into the devil’s planning for this moment. All we know is that after Jesus was baptized, God’s Spirit led him into the wilderness. Now, if we were writing this story, we might want to make the characters’ motivation more explicit. We could, for example, start our version of the story before the world was even made - and include some great battle between good and evil. Jesus and the devil would, at some point, stare at each other and then fight, sharing a few one-liners that would make any Marvel Superhero Movie proud. After the initial fight, we would then see the devil always lurking in the background. But we would also try to make it clear why the devil went after Jesus as an adult instead of, say, when Jesus was 9 or 10. We would make each temptation connected to the back Jesus and the devil both shared and each one would feel more personal and deadly than the last. I’m pretty sure that if we were the ones telling this story, we would use way more words than Matthew did. Because telling stories and making them come alive for others is actually hard. Storytelling is something that we can all do but it’s a skill that takes time for us to develop. And one of the core elements in storytelling - focusing on what’s central - isn’t always an easy thing to suss out. 

So that makes me wonder, what do you think is central in this temptation of Jesus story? Now, I plan to share what I think is central but before that, I want you to answer that question for yourself. If you had to make this story real for someone else - where would your focus be? 

Now, if you didn’t come up with an answer, that’s okay. Because, like I said, storytelling is hard.  And there’s a lot of things in this story about Jesus that we could make the center. It would be helpful if we had a model for storytelling that we could easily use to re-tell this Jesus story. Lucky for us, we see storytelling at work everyday. And some of these storytellers, we pay lots of money to watch their movies, buy their t-shirts, and own their toys. One of those kinds of storytellers that’s popular in my house is the animation studio Pixar. Since 1995, they’ve made some of the most popular movies in the world including Cars, Finding Nemo, Toy Story, and Coco. Their use of computer animation is pretty unique and defines their signature styles. But they also have a pattern they follow when it comes to telling their stories. And this method of storytelling that is what makes their movies about what toys do when we’re not looking or what jobs the monsters in our closets have - actually work. From what I’ve been told, their format follows a basic six part outline. It begins with: “Once upon a time there was…” They then expand their  initial environment by adding “And every day…” But then something happens and they move into “Until one day…” The story then cycles through its ups and downs by repeating the phrase “And because of that…” over and over again. Eventually, the story then moves towards a resolution with “Until finally…” The story ends not with “and happily ever after,” but it sets up for a sequel with: “And ever since then…” This six part outline of telling a story is something we’ll spend time doing during Lent. And since today is the First Sunday in Lent, let’s focus on that first part: “Once upon a time there was…” 

Because that opening, I think, is what sets the tone for what’s central in the story. It helps reveal the characters, the setting, and gives hints at what’s possible. Today’s reading from Matthew isn’t at the start of the book but the devil, I think, knows what’s central to the entire story. And the tempter revealed why he reached out to Jesus now by repeating the same phrase at the start of the first two temptations. Although it’s possible to act as if the tempter was asking a real question when they said “if you are the Son of God,” I find the tempter’s words in that moment to be way more sarcastic. The tempter knew who Jesus was because, right before this moment, Jesus was publicly identified by God as God’s Son during baptism. That declaration wasn’t hidden and it wasn’t meant only for the crowd gathered around Jesus that day.  It was a word that made Jesus the center of the world’s story - and so, in response, the forces that wanted to be at the center instead, had to respond. The temptations, I don’t think, were not the central element of this story. Rather, it was Jesus himself. The tempter wanted to challenge Jesus’ own self-understanding. By poking at his very identity, the tempter was hoping Jesus would stumble. Instead of keeping himself at the center of the story, the tempter tried to make personal desires, a sense of self-importance, and the lust of power and control, be that focus instead. The devil knew Jesus’ story would end if there was anything else that stood at its center. But Jesus, instead, refused to let anything else stand in the place where he belonged. 

Yet I’m pretty sure we’re all familiar with what it’s like to live lives where isn’t always at the center. We can get so wrapped up in the busyness of our lives that we end up giving permission to something else to define the heart of who we are. This shifting away from Jesus is something we can choose to do - but this shift also happens without our being aware it has. It sort of sneaks up on us and we find ourselves living lives where self-interest, personal desires, and power over others defines the choices we make as individuals and as a community. Instead of living in love, we live in fear. Instead of taking a risk and showing mercy, we ignore those in need. Instead of staying open to the diversity within the body of Christ and in our world, we close ranks around those who already think, believe, and act like we do. We think Jesus is at the center of our story - but we end up putting our trust, focus, and identity into everything else. 

Today’s story, I think, is less about avoiding temptation and more about keeping Jesus at the center of our story. It’s the belief that the story of who we are cannot be fully told unless the Jesus who claimed us in baptism and in faith is part of the story we tell. And we need to learn - and relearn - how to tell it. Our faith story is exactly that - our own. It doesn’t have to be as big and wild as a Pixar movie to be meaningful and true. Instead, it just needs to be ours - honest, authentic, and that names the moments when Jesus felt present and when he didn’t. Our faith story, as we grow, will change and evolve. But by telling the story, we give witness to the truth that Jesus refuses to give up on us, no no matter how many other things we make central. So, this Lent, let’s learn how to re-tell your faith story. Think about your faith and that moment when Jesus became real to you. It could start with a parent, a grandparent, or yourself. It could involve a specific place, a specific time of your life, or a specific experience you had. Start thinking about who Jesus is to you - and let’s have the Pixar model of storytelling help you tell your Jesus story. And we can start by using that space in the back of the bulletin by my reflection to finish that sentence: “Once upon a time there was…”