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.
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.