Hang On to What Is Possible: Matthew 4.1–11

Delivered at Ames UCC on January 20, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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This story seems to set up an impossible standard for us as disciples, for us as human beings.2019.1.20 apart

As I described last week, Matthew, or that Matthean community, went to great pains in the first chapter of this gospel to demonstrate Jesus’s humanity. His ancestors, though they may be hallowed, are also fallible and frequently function outside systems that are social and acceptable.

The context of Jesus’s own life is no less human: His family is part of the nameless mass of humanity with no control over who governs them or how, suffering the effects of bad temper and bad policy, as they flee to Egypt and then migrate to Nazareth. They are refugees, they are without a state.

Yes, there are superhuman, supernatural elements to the story of Jesus up to this point: the angels who visit Joseph, the star that guides the astronomers, the theophany at Jesus’s baptism, the voice as from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

But still. The character on offer to us is a man, not an angel, not gifted, in any way we have been shown, with supernatural powers or abilities.

Or is he?

Immediately after his baptism in the wilderness and the river Jordan, chapter four shows Jesus following the call of the Holy Spirit even deeper into the wilderness and unknown, further away from city and civilization. While there, he is tempted by the devil.

Now, not The Devil, not pointed tail and pitch fork.

Based on the Greek word used in manuscripts, and the Jewish audience for which Matthew’s gospel was intended, this is a character like the Accuser in Job, a diabolical force that is part of creation rather than a discrete being in opposition to it. I like to use the term forces of nonbeing when I encounter this voice in scripture, just to keep my imagination from getting lazy.

So the forces of nonbeing offer to turn desert stone into bread. Jesus declines. The forces of nonbeing take Jesus way up high to give Jesus a chance to see if God would really save him from falling. Jesus declines.

On a mountaintop the forces of nonbeing offer Jesus all of the power and glory of earthly realms. Jesus declines.

Those are not temptations a human could resist.

By the time Jesus and the forces of nonbeing collide, he has been fasting for forty days and nights and the scripture says he is famished. A famished, a starving, person takes food; base animal instinct demands as much.

Furthermore, a person with any smidgen of doubt about God—which is all people—grabs opportunities to be reassured.

And all of the power and glory of the earthly realms is compelling to both the egomaniacal tyrant and to one who would use that power to establish peace; and most likely everyone in between.

Jesus, then, is not like us. He is stronger than any one of us. He has more than the average share of God’s ruach, God’s breath, in him. Whatever the ancestry and setting Matthew so insists upon, in this instance we know that Jesus is of a different kind.

So I guess we can write this story off as all about Jesus, and not at all about us.


Except for this business of praying and fasting for forty days and nights.

The number forty will ring bells because the Bible often uses it to indicate an important event: Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights before writing down the Decalogue, also known as the Ten Teachings or Ten Commandments. Forty is the number of year Moses and the freed slaves spent in the wilderness. Forty is the number of days Noah spent on the ark, waiting for the world to dry out.

Matthew is signaling to us that Jesus is part of that tradition. Jesus is going through a familiar cycle in the human encounter with God. It is a humanity reinforced by the act of prayer and fasting themselves. Gods and demi-Gods don’t need to pray and fast. They are ready to go.

Whatever power Jesus has to refuse the forces of nonbeing, even when his own hungry body is at stake, comes not from a divine apartness, but from his practice of taking time apart with the divine. This human being gains a seemingly inhuman strength because of his willingness to heed the guidance of the Holy Spirit and discipline himself to the point that he can let holy writ be his voice.

I, and maybe you, could use some of that seemingly inhuman strength these days.

I have been trying to come up with a new adjective to describe the negativity and disruption of the last couple of years of our shared national life. I feel like I squandered some of the more extreme ones early on, not realizing how many times we would yet experience something unprecedented in tone or in action. Now here we are in partial shutdown of our federal government of an unprecedented length. How can I describe it and how it has eroded and made lives unsafe? Bad? Cruel? Useless? Unfair?

We certainly have a great deal more control than Jesus and his family over who governs us and how but in the years between elections we too can suffer the effects of bad temper and bad policy.

So when we are beset by forces of nonbeing, and I feel comfortable saying that not funding food benefits, not paying working employees, not fulfilling commitments to farmers, not having any food inspectors, are all forces of nonbeing because they could all lead to us not being, as in death, how shall we respond?

Shall we give in to the temptation to respond to name-calling with name-calling, nasty vindictiveness with nasty vindictiveness, dehumanizing with dehumanizing? Will we give in to the very forces Jesus resisted by disavowing our values in favor of what is filling, making exclusionary claims about and on God, and grabbing power under the assumption that we and only we are right?

I am so tempted, let me tell you.

I am tempted because I am so angry. So angry that I want to muster every bit of righteous indignation this collar affords me in order to judge those whom I disagree with, those who disagree with me.

I’m tempted because I am so worried about the future that I sometimes think I need to learn survivalist skills in case our infrastructure really collapses.

I am tempted because I am so tired that I find myself wanting to invest all of my hope for change in only one or two people, forgetting that it took millions of people to get us to this place.

So I’m hanging on tight to those forty days of prayer and fasting.

Jesus was brought deeper into wilderness in order to be tempted, the story says, in order to be tempered as good steel or iron. His was a walkabout, a vision quest that intentionally refined him for the work ahead.

When I feel powerless against the media and against the millions, I remind myself that not even Jesus could feed the hungry, tend the sick, and love the alien among us without this first and fundamental grounding in God. The deep allegiance he gained through intentional focus on these stories of covenant living allowed him to maintain God’s perspective when tempted and cast that redemptive vision when back among the people.

Jesus’s example is not impossible but is what makes everything possible.

Our time together today is a fraction of what Jesus spent, so while we are here, pray without ceasing, sing without fear, and feast with all who come. Tempered and refined by even this one hour together, we will be able to resist the forces of nonbeing in our nation’s morass of despair. We will remember that we are still and always in God’s universal kin-dom, where we are strong enough to follow Jesus and do the work of God: feed the hungry, tend the sick, and love the alien among us.


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