Tempted to Believe (2)


“I’m tempted to believe.” I think I use that phrase a lot. It usually means I’m leaning toward believing something. In our text I’m confronted with 3 things that I’m tempted to believe…

That I can, indeed I do, live by bread alone. We aren’t Christian Scientist let alone Scientologists, Mennonites or Jehovah Witnesses. We use food, medicines, exercise. But I’m tempted to believe these are what keep me “alive”. O you say ‘healthy’ rather ‘alive’; I say semantics. You can distinguish between trying to live whatever time the Lord would have you as healthy as possible from pursing food, medicine, and exercise to live longer. You can do that theoretically. I can’t do it in practice.

Jesus’ temptation proves that what I’m tempted to believe is a lie. Jesus fasted 40 days and 40 nights and that word means to go without food and water. That’s impossible you know. So, to get their heads around it, ‘scholars’ make it like Islam’s Ramadan. You fast till sundown. If that’s true Jesus was outdone by Moses. In Deut. 9:9 Moses says that the first time he went up to get the commandments: “I stayed on the mountain 40 days and 40 nights; I ate no bread and drank no water.” Ex. 34:28 records the second time: “Moses was there with the Lord 40 days and 40 nights without eating bread or drinking water.” Those of you who trip over a 6-day Creation, infant Baptism. This Bread being Body and this Wine being Blood, why not here? It’s impossible to go 7 days without water and how many folks can go even 30 days without food? Besides we all know people who have food, drink, and exercise and yet drop dead. Look up Jim Fix. Look up Bob Harper. After hosting a weight loss show for 17 seasons and threatening overweight people with early heart attacks, he had one at 51.

The movie Titan is about preparing mankind to homestead Titan, a moon of Saturn. They have to change from oxygen to methane breathing. Special effects show them doing what you know is humanly impossible. Sitting for long periods on the bottom of a pool. Jesus does in our text what is humanly impossible. A Man not living by bread at all, but on the absolute contrary upon every spoken word going out of the mouth of God. Jesus doesn’t command this be done but states it as a fact. When God wills that little 7 pound muscle of yours to stop, you die. It doesn’t matter how healthy you are; how much you exercise, how many masks you wear, how many vaccines you do or don’t have. God doesn’t determine who lives and who dies by their risks, their genes, their age, their health, their heartbeat.

Go home and read the rest of Ps. 91 that our Introit comes from. We chanted verses  9 & 10: “If you make the Most High your dwelling--  even the Lord, who is my refuge--then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent.” Really ‘no harm’? Go back and read verse 7 it makes verses 9 and 10 seem like understatements: “A 1,000 may fall at your side,  10,000 at your right hand, but it will not come near you.” See, I’m tempted to believe God must prove His power to me. I’ve said before the only proof I have that God doesn’t exist, is that He doesn’t do what I think He should, when I think He should, or how I think He should. We’re told that man lives by every word proceeding out of the mouth of God and that God can heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons by just as Word. Yet, we see people, children, suffering: If there really is such a God, He should heal, protect, help now, on our demand. And that’s what the Devil himself says: “If you are the Son of God” or perhaps, “Since you are the Son” cast yourself down because Ps. 91 promises God will catch you.

This is a dramatic temptation. Particularly if the Devil is conceding the point that Jesus is the Son of God. And though the NIV doesn’t, the Holy Spirit switches to present tense because the intensity is building: “He says to Jesus” and then quotes Scripture just as Jesus did, as authoritative, “It says this and always will.” Jesus responds formally – different word for ‘said’, - with a strong Scripture quote: “Not, will you tempt out the Lord Thy God.” This isn’t the ordinary word for tempt, but an intensified one: It suggests the Devil is daring Jesus (Buls, Sermon Studies, A, 128). A temptation in the form of a dare, especially something you can do, is very tempting.

Demanding God prove Himself is sinful, blasphemous, and ought never be done. Go read about Gideon. God condescends, humiliates Himself, to assuage Gideon’s fears about following God’s clear Word, and Gideon’s tests go on and on. God ‘passes’ each one, but Gideon doesn’t seem any more faithful. See OT Israel in the wilderness: they cry about being oppressed, their freed. They cry about water, they’re given it. They say if God really cared, He’d give them bread. He does manna from heaven. Well, if God really, really and this time I mean really cared, He’d provide meat. He provides quail in massive numbers: About 1900 birds per person; about 475 pounds a piece (http://blog.retlaw.net/blog/2015/1/18/how-much-is-a-homer#:~:text= They%20had%20some%20other%20birds, birds%2C%20weighing%20about%20475%20pounds.) Read the outcome of this at the end of Numbers 11. They named the place where they buried the ones the Lord struck down for their impudence: Graves of Gluttony/Craving. The person who needs God to prove Himself by something other than Word or Sacrament is like the person who insists his spouse doesn’t say, “I love you enough.” No amount of her saying it will assure him. 

This empty, aching need for the invisible God to prove Himself; for the God who appears only in Water, Words, Bread and Wine to show Himself powerful, goes on and on. And so theologians of the cross are tempted to become theologians of glory. I’m tempted to believe there is a path to glory that doesn’t involve the cross. There is no such thing as a Luciferian truth or a Luciferian goodness, but there is such a thing as Luciferian beauty (In the Name of Jesus, 256). In the end this is what got Eve. Gen 3:6: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.” This isn’t the “Devil in Blue Jeans” or “Devil with a Blue Dress On”. This is the siren song that Odysseus was afraid of. This is my favorite scene from "Raiders of the Lost Ark”. How beautiful, how captivating, how alluring the angel that comes out of the Ark is. That’s how the Devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. Luke says he does this in a moment of time, but Matthew adds the Devil not only shows them but “their glory”, “their splendor, magnificence, preeminence, and excellence” (AMPC). Their beauty.

The Devil can ‘promise’ to give them to Jesus because he has control over them. Humanity broke God’s Law and in our fallen state we can’t keep it. As long as the requirements of God’s Laws remain unkept and the punishments not carried out, the Devil has free access to heaven as Job 1 and 2 show and he reigns in the world as Paul notes. He can only be thrown out of heaven when God’s Law, both obligations and debts are fulfilled. It’s true: “All that live godly in this life will suffer” (2 Tim. 3:12). And sickly, young, Pastor Timothy is told by Paul, “Suffer hardship as a good soldier of Christ” (2 Tim. 2:1). No NCO or officer ever apologized to me for the heat, cold, lack of food, or sleep. And Paul tells us all, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of heaven” (Acts 14:22). But all our suffering manfully, bravely even, without complaint is as so many filthy rags before God says Isaiah.

This brings us to Lent. There is more of an emphasis on keeping the Law during penitential seasons, but the laws we keep and the crosses we bear don’t win for us heaven later or earthly kingdoms now. These can only be gifted by God’s grace. Jesus’ perfect life and guilty death alone won grace for mankind. His sufferings appeased God’s wrath; they were propitiatory. They actually paid off the debt of fallen mankind rather than racking up more. That’s because although like us in all ways: a flesh and blood body, a human soul, living in this fallen world, He did not sin. Did not break one law of God in deed, word, or thought. We can’t imagine, how that could really be. Why it's going 40 days and 40 nights without food or drink! It’s like by some “magic” ordinary looking water could give a person everlasting life. It’s as if by some miracle, you could come to me with the worst sin imaginable and I could pry it off your back and send it away from you forever in Jesus’ name. It’s as if our God would come among us not in terrors as the king of kings but kind and gentle with healing in His wing. He would come so tenderly, so peacefully that we could safely take Divinity, His Body and Blood. in our in our hands and mouths. 

A 17th century Lutheran put it this way: The Devil says, "Look man, you have sinned so much and so severely that you have painted yourself as a detestable portrait before God's eyes." We should answer him, "See, there in Pilate's judgment hall stands another Person. He took my place. He took upon Himself the punishment of my sin. He was disfigured by the scourging and streaming of blood for my sake, so that He would be seen as a squashed, bloody worm and no longer be recognized as a Man" (History of the Suffering, Gerhard, 201). Jesus could rightfully claim all the kingdoms of the world for His own without the cross, but in order to win it for sinners like us, the cross of humiliation, suffering, damning, and dying was the only way. There’s no path to glory for sinners apart from the bloody, broken, holy body of Jesus smeared with our sins hanging dead on a cross. And we have crosses in our life because of that cross saving us. Hebrews 12 says one sign of being received as God’s sons is suffering.

I’m tempted to believe that regardless of diet, exercise, health, I’m going to live as long as my God and Lord will me to. I’m tempted to believe that God has more power than I can imagine and that for Jesus’ name and sake, He uses it for the benefit of His holy people. I’m tempted to believe that the cross I fear, shun, avoid, and put down, is the only path that leads to God’s glorious world without end. I’m tempted to believe that Jesus keeps me on that path day by day. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

First Sunday in Lent (20230226); Matthew 4:1-11