This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 2/26/23, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
As Quakers we inhabit a tradition that is full of references to the power of the Spirit, to the immanence of God. To be a Quaker is to expect to meet God face to face: In our hearts. In our daily lives. In our community life and meeting for worship.
Quakers believe that experiencing the guidance of the Holy Spirit should not be exceptional; it should be the norm. Our tradition says that simply reading the Bible and going to church and “being a good person” is not enough. We have to be filled by the Spirit. Our lives have to be transformed by Christ. We have to be directed by the Spirit, just as Jesus was directed.
This has been part of our tradition since the 1650s in England, and we still believe this to be true. But as a matter of practice, most of the time we’re operating under our own steam. We’re making our decisions based on our own best judgment. We’re living our lives based on what makes economic and social sense. We’re doing our best to be faithful to what we read in the Bible. We try to be “good people” in a world that often seems inescapably broken.
But in our reading this morning, we are reminded that this is not the fullness of the Gospel that Christ proclaimed. Matthew describes how the community of John the Baptist, where Jesus received his baptism, was a community of preparation. It was a place where people were doing the best that they knew how to do in a world without the social transformation of the kingdom of God. John’s community was one of repentance and personal reorientation. It was a place where people did the best they could with what they had.
But when Jesus came to John the Baptist something else happened. Human repentance was answered by divine presence and transformation. A voice from heaven spoke: “This is my beloved Son; Listen to him.” Jesus was covered, immersed into the life and power of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew tells us that after Jesus left John’s community he made his way out into the wilderness. He didn’t choose to go there on his own; he was directed there, into the wilderness beyond the Jordan, by the Spirit that had called and baptized him.
Because this is the motion of the Spirit. When God shows us his glory, when God pours himself out into our hearts, when God lifts us up into the highest heaven, the next motion is to lower us. God humbles us. He brings us back in touch with the hummus that makes us human – the dirt from which we were made. Because as the psalmist says, God made us just a little lower than the angels – but we are not angels! We are creatures of both spirit and flesh. We are one with the earth and part of the created order.
So when God breathes us full of his Spirit and his life, the next step is to ground us in material reality. In history. In the everyday. After the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan, I’ve got to imagine that Jesus was riding high. He must have been feeling amazing. He must have felt inspired and ready to go. But it was precisely at this moment that the Spirit said to him: “Wait Jesus. It’s not time to start shouting from the rooftops yet. Come away with me. Come spend some time with me in the desert. I have some things to teach you. I have some things to show you. I have some preparation work that I need to do with you so that you will be able to faithfully deliver the message.”
It says that Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness: To be prepared. To fast from food for 40 days and 40 nights. To be made completely clear, completely present in his body and mind. To know what it means to be human as well as divine. And it says that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
The scripture writers tell us very little about these 40 days in the wilderness, but they do tell us what happened at the very end of the fast. They tell us that the Tempter, the Tester, Satan came to Jesus and began asking some provocative questions.
We know about three questions the devil posed to Jesus. The first is very material. The devil reminded Jesus about how hungry he was. He hadn’t eaten in 40 days, and the devil said: “If you’re the Son of God you can command these stones to become loaves of bread. So why don’t you?” Jesus responds to his question with the words of scripture: “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Jesus has learned that he doesn’t need to try to make things happen in a material sense. He’s been out in the wilderness without food for 40 days, and he knows that God can sustain him just like God sustained Elijah, and more. Jesus, being a man, is part of the physical world, but he is not captured by the world. He is not fully defined by the material order. His full definition comes from his relationship with God who feeds him with manna that no one else knows about. The devil attempts to divert Jesus from his mission by misdirecting him into a quest for physical comfort but Jesus tells the devil that he knows where his security lies.
So then the devil takes Jesus to Jerusalem and sets him on the Pinnacle of the Temple, the most holy place in the whole world. The devil quotes the psalms to Jesus and says, “If you are the Son of God throw yourself down from this building. God won’t let you come to any harm.” And Jesus responds to this temptation with more scripture: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
When written down on a piece of paper, this exchange seems really simple. Almost too easy. But we have to remember that Jesus was actually tempted. This was not an easy exercise for him. There was something here in this moment that deeply challenged Jesus. There was something inside Jesus that wanted to jump from the temple, that wanted to prove that God would take care of him. Jesus was tempted to test God and make sure, “God, Father, are you really there? Am I really going to be okay?”
But just like with the bread, Jesus breathed through it. Jesus knew deep within his bones that his security lay in God, beyond the vicissitudes of human celebrity and recognition. He did not need to prove anything to anyone. He could fully rely on God to be faithful without needing to be spectacular.
Then it says that the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Jesus, “I will give you all of these if you will fall down and worship me.” And as we know, Jesus rejects this temptation as well, banishing Satan and quoting scripture again: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” And with this the devil was dismissed, and Jesus was attended by the angels.
Why did the writers of scripture choose to tell us about these three temptations that Jesus experienced – which, as far as we know, may have been only a few of many temptations that Jesus experienced in the desert, and certainly were only a few of innumerable lessons that Jesus learned from the Spirit while he was on his 40 day fast? Why are these temptations important for us to hear read aloud in our congregation today?
I believe it all comes back to this experience that we talk about in our tradition as Quakers: This experience of the living and active and sometimes overwhelming presence of God’s Spirit in our lives. When we experience this raw power – when we find ourselves drawn outside of ourselves and into God’s life, when we find ourselves defined by God’s life rather than our own ego – it’s at this time that we are especially vulnerable to temptation. We are especially vulnerable to being drawn away from the truth of what we are experiencing in Christ and into other things that are secondary. And while these secondary concerns loom large, they are far less important, far less essential than what God offers us. These concerns can become idols that block our relationship with Christ and are obedience to God our Father.
I believe the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert is specifically important for us as Quakers, because if we are to have the encounter with God that our tradition promises us – if we are to be baptized by the Holy Spirit and fire – we are going to face the desert experience, just like Jesus did.
We’re going to be reminded that we’re hungry – for food, for security, for justice, for a more beautiful world, for things to be the way we think they should be. Anything we want. We’re hungry. And into this hunger, the devil is going to speak a temptation: “You can turn stones into bread. You can change the world. You can make things the way they ought to be. All you have to do is apply yourself and use your ingenuity and the spiritual power that is yours to command.“
When we are confronted with this temptation we must remember the words of Jesus: We don’t live by bread alone. We live by every word that comes from the mouth of God. We have to rely on him rather than our own power. Just because we have experienced the power and presence of God does not make us God. Jesus fully relied on the direction of the Spirit, and so must we.
We’re going to be tempted. When we have this experience of God, when we’re living in God’s life and power, we’re going to be tempted. We’ll be tempted to try to use this experience as a proof of God that we can brandish as protection from the anxieties of life. We’re going to be tempted to say: “God won’t let me be hurt. God won’t let things happen that I don’t like. God won’t let me feel small and alone. God won’t allow me to be a failure in the eyes of the world. God won’t let me be ordinary.”
When we encounter the spirit of God in our lives, the correct response to his presence is to be humbled. But there is a temptation for us to exalt ourselves and imagine that our experience has given us special status. So when we feel tempted to puff ourselves up, we must remember the words of Jesus that he spoke to the devil: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” We are children of God, but that does not give us a “get-out-of-life-free” card. Quite the opposite.
When we experience the living reality of God’s power in our lives we are going to be tempted to imagine that this means we are being given power in the way the world understands power. We’re going to experience Jesus’s temptation of being offered the kingdoms of this world. And since we’re not Jesus, the devil probably won’t actually offer us anything as grand as all the kingdoms of the world. He might just offer us a safe retirement. Or a sense of being better than other people. Whatever it is that makes you feel strong and in control.
Whatever form it takes, if we are living in an encounter with the Holy Spirit, the devil’s going to offer us fake power – anything he can do to draw us off the scent of the real thing. When we are tempted to exalt ourselves and to exercise power over others in the name of God we have to remember the words of Jesus: That God alone is worthy of worship. That we are not in charge.
This morning I’m praying for us that we would receive the power of God – the presence of the Holy Spirit – knowing full well that by receiving this we will receive the temptations. We will receive the desert experience. We will receive the teaching, and we will receive the challenge. Because we’ve got to go through it.
The life of the Spirit is about our entire being – body, mind, and spirit – being transformed and forged in the crucible of transforming fire that God gives. That means testing. That means tempting. That means tempering. As William Penn once wrote: “No cross, no crown.” Or as a more contemporary poet has put it: “No pain, no gain.” We have to go through the fire. We have to pass through the desert. We have to face the temptations.
God’s promise to us is that he is present with us through the entire journey. He will not let us go. God’s promise to Berkeley Friends Church is that if we choose to embrace this – if we choose to receive God’s spirit in our midst – if we choose to be transformed and broken open and made alive again – God is ready to do this.
But it’s going to require going to the desert. It’s going to require fasting. It’s going to require challenge and having our lives disrupted. My prayer for us this morning is that we would invite this disruption and trust in God to make us something new.