If…… Year A, Lent 1, Matthew 3:13-4:11 and Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Did you catch that?

Matthew 3:17 – “And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And then just two verses later in Matthew 4:3 “The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the son of God…..”

Yes of course there are 40 days and 40 nights of fasting in the wilderness in between but the text itself holds these two, on one level, completely contradictory statements virtually right next to each other.

            God says to Jesus, this is who you are. You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased. And then almost immediately the devil, Satan, the tempter comes and says, “If….If you are the son of God.”

            It’s kind of crazy. I mean what is the devil thinking? God just told Jesus he was his beloved son and that he was well pleased with him

            How can the devil possibly think that he can question that, challenge Jesus identity when he’s had such a clear unequivocal endorsement, make Jesus doubt that he really is God’s beloved son and God is pleased with him regardless of whether he feeds the multitudes  or performs miracles or saves the world?

            Of course maybe part of why the devil thinks it will work is because it worked the first time, that is to say the very first time, in the beginning, with Adam and Eve in the story we heard for our first reading.

            God says to them, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in that day that you eat of it you shall die.”

            And then, without any 40 days and 40 nights of anything,  right away the serpent – “more crafty,” the scripture tells us, “than any other wild animal that God had made,” comes and says, “Did God say…..?  God didn’t really mean that.”

            With God’s “do not” just about literally still ringing in their ears, they do exactly what God told them not to, and the rest as they say, is history. That is to say that history is the mess that has happened ever since because of that fundamental failure to trust God, to trust and believe that God loves us and because God loves us God wants the best and most wonderful and full and joyful life for us that we can possibly have and so if God says that we should do this or not do that, or that we are this or we aren’t that, we should trust that God knows best and wants what is best and so do and  believe what God says……and yet do we? Do we trust God’s word of love…that we are God’s beloved?

            To me in these two stories and in these two paradoxical verses in each story that are in both cases virtually right next to each other we see and hear the essence of sin and the fundamental struggle of our faith. It’s not about doing bad things – it’s about trusting or not trusting God.

            Like Jesus we too have been baptized. Like Jesus we too have heard God announce to us and all the world at our baptism, “You are my beloved son, you are my beloved daughter, with you I am well pleased.”

            Fortunately, for most of us, unlike Jesus , we were baptized as infants, so there is no question that we did or didn’t do anything to earn that well pleased love of God for us, that it doesn’t depend on our doing, our performance, what we do or don’t do, have done or not done.

 In Jesus case as well it’s before he has preached and taught healed and done miracles; on a cross that God pronounces him beloved. It’s before any of that that the voice from heaven declares how God is with him.

            But no sooner, has God finished speaking than – not some crafty talking snake or supernatural  tempter-  but life itself causes us to wonder, to question, to doubt. Did God really say that? About me. Did God really mean that? About me. Am I really God’s beloved son? Is God truly pleased with me?

(David Lohse) “The good news we hear on Sunday morning is that we are God’s children, that God is with us, that God values and loves us and promises to use us for good and great things….but depending on the way your week is going this can be pretty hard to still believe  by the next Sunday and, quite frankly, sometimes it seems pretty questionable by lunch on Monday.”

For most of us this challenge to our faith, this temptation to sin comes not from a crafty talking snake or a supernatural being. It’s the pain and loneliness of our lives that causes us to doubt God’s love for us. It’s the cancer diagnosis and the tragedies that overtake us and take our loved ones from us that make us wonder if God is good or God is on our side or God even is. It’s the children dying of hunger, the deepening divisions in our world and our nation, the virulent violence and terror that cause us to doubt the voice that proclaimed us and our world beloved and pleasing to God.

Meaningfully, it’s not that the devil is tempting Jesus to do bad things in this morning’s gospel reading. Transform stones into loaves of bread – not just one stone notice into one loaf for Jesus himself; but as Jesus looks around himself at the wilderness that is littered with stones; turn stones plural into bread for the world. There’s certainly nothing bad about that – and while he won’t use stones it’s something Jesus will actually do later on in the story when he uses five loaves and bread and a few fish to feed the 5000.

Perform miracles to encourage the faith of his followers. What’s bad about that? Seeing is believing right? Don’t we kind of wish Jesus would do that for us; to help us believe. And indeed while he won’t throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, before the gospel ends he will have walked on water, and healed lepers and even rise from the dead. Miracles far more amazing than the little parlor trick the devil is tempting him with.

And what would be wrong with Jesus ruling all the kingdoms of this world? We indeed pray for it every week when we pray the Lord’s prayer and say, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. We call Jesus the king of kings and lord of lords before whom every knee will bow in heaven and on earth. We believe Jesus one day will rule and reign all the kingdoms of the world….and in fact not unlike the devil we wish he would do it sooner rather than later.

No there’s nothing wrong with the things the crafty serpent tempts Jesus – if not us as well – with. We aren’t wrong to think that hunger, suffering and death are not God’s will; are inconsistent with a God of grace and mercy; don’t seem to fit with a world ruled and loved by the God we know in Jesus.

What is wrong is to doubt God’s love for us and to think we have to earn or prove our worth in God’s sight. In the end we believe it’s not just wrong it’s where all the other wrong things in our world actually come. This is the original sin and root of all evil which God in Jesus came to forgive and deliver us from, by showing and telling, living and dying so that we might indeed see and believe that in spite of all the evidence to the contrary there is nothing than can separate us from God’s love.

Again as David Lohse writes, Jesus overcomes his temptations by quoting scriptures that remind him of God’s trustworthiness, of the need to depend on God for all things, of God’s promise to care for him and for all God’s children.

Jesus finds his way forward in today’s gospel reading by falling back on his relationship with God, reminding himself whose he is and so remembering who he is, the beloved child of God, the God who has promised to do anything and everything to care for him.

Away with you Satan, Jesus says to the devilish temptation to not trust God’s love for him so that he can get that doubt behind him and begin his work of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, raising the dead and bringing God’s rule and reign into our world and our lives by dying a cross for us.

All of which God in Jesus does for us so that come hell or high water, crafty snakes or supernatural being, tragedy and trouble, sickness, suffering and even death, we too might be empowered to follow Jesus, to trust and believe the words God spoke at our baptism, You are my son, my daughter, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.  Amen.