Matthew 4:1-11 – Facing Temptation

Jesus Tempted by Russian painter Ilya Repin (1844-1930)

Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    and they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a remarkably high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him. (NIV)

In our most vulnerable moments, the devil attempts to swoop in and offer his demonic delights for us to consider. We call it “temptation.” Indeed, it can be quite alluring to entertain ways of getting what we need and want through avenues other than God.

In the desert, the place of preparation for ministry, Jesus fasted and prayed forty days. If ever there was a time when Jesus would be vulnerable to alternative religion, the devil mused, wringing his demonic hands together with wicked delight, it would be out in the desert by himself. So, Satan tempted Jesus with three whoppers he thought would get to Jesus, for sure. Having tempted Jesus with food and a way to fame, and having failed both times, Satan gave his final temptation.

To us this temptation to bow down and worship Satan seems like a no-brainer. Well, of course, no one would do such a thing as this, especially Jesus. And he did not. But it was still tempting. It really was. Jesus knew very well what was ahead of him. He had just spent forty days in an intense orientation for an upcoming three years of hard ministry with an end of tortuous death to look forward to. 

Satan presented to Jesus an alternative way, a different path to achieve his purpose for being on this earth. Jesus could have it all without the three years, without the hard slugging to communicate the kingdom of God has come. Most of all, Jesus could circumvent the cross and establish his rule over all the earth – all pain free! The temptation, yes, was very tempting. Become King Jesus now with no suffering.

This has always been one of our great temptations, as well: Take the easy path. Get what you want, what you deserve, now, with no hardship. 

The values of God’s kingdom include trust, patience, and perseverance. Temptation insists we need none of those hard things to be successful. Satan is the original slickster, marketing his quick and easy wares for people to buy into the notion that life can lived without pain and hardship, and with wild success, right now. The scary thing about it is that Satan can deliver… but it will cost us our very lives. Slavery to sin is the price we pay for hitching our hopes to the quick and easy.

The Christian season of Lent is a time for the slow, patient, deliberate development of the soul in attachment with the Lord Jesus. Engaging in spiritual disciplines is hard. It is difficult to fast and pray. Growing in Christ is slow and takes a great deal of learned perseverance. Far too many of us are tempted to circumvent the hard work of discipleship and simply have a spiritual professional distill everything we need into one hour on Sunday morning. Or we fabricate our own religious practice and beliefs, picking and choosing what fits our lifestyle, as if convenience and comfort are the summum bonum of life, instead of worship.

Christ was able to face down temptation because the desert strengthened him. Yes, he was vulnerable. But he was not weak. If we want to handle temptation, it will take Lent to help us. It will take the desert to spiritually form us and prepare us for godly ministry that puts the devil in his place.

Lord Jesus, you are the king of all creation. Just as you chose the hard path of God’s kingdom, so help me to persevere with faith and patience. May my life reflect your words and ways, in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Matthew 9:2-13 – Why Jesus Came

Healing by Russian painter Ivan Filichev

Some men brought to Jesus a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When he saw their faith, Jesus said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”

At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!”

Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So, he said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” Then the man got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to man.

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (NIV)

The late Abigail Van Buren, better known as the newspaper columnist, “Dear Abby,” was the person who made famous the phrase: “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints.” That quote is an accurate reflection of what Jesus was doing and saying. We occasionally need words like Dear Abby’s to remind and reorient us toward why the church exists.  

The church of the Lord Jesus does not remain on this earth solely for our benefit, any more than a hospital exists for the benefit of the doctors or insurance companies! Rather, the church lives to extend the mission of Jesus through proclamation of good news with the restorative touch of grace. The church’s calling is not to find others who can help them with their tithing and keep warm seats in the pew. Instead, the church is the community of the redeemed, gathered and sent to be the continuing presence of Jesus on this earth.

Some who are reading this are not healthy. Some are sick with sin; others are heart-sick; yet others are plain sick-and-tired of being sick-and-tired. Jesus came neither to condemn nor heap a pile of unrealistic expectations on us. Christ points us to the source of healing and change and invites us to admit our need and come to him. 

Conversely, many others today are healthy, spiritually alive, and well. It is our job to roll up our sleeves and serve, participating fully in the mission of Jesus to the world. The question I want us to grapple with is this: Why did Jesus come to this earth? The answer to that question is to also answer the question of our own purpose and existence as followers of Christ.

Jesus came to forgive sin and transform sinners.In today’s Gospel healing, it was a case where the person’s sin was connected to his paralysis – and the paralytic found in Jesus not only physical healing, but new spiritual life.

The religious insiders observed the healing. Yet there was no rejoicing by them about the transformation. Instead, they became hung up on Jesus claiming to be God. Granted, this was a hard truth for them to get a hold of. But Jesus labeled such thinking as evil – the inability to see and perceive the situation as a divine intervention, and that Jesus really is the Lord who graciously did it. Because they wrongly discerned who Jesus is, they wrongly interpreted the situation. 

Therefore, it is important to see Jesus as the Human One who extends compassion and forgiveness. If we fail to see this about Christ, we will get caught up in all kinds of silly matters of personal preference and ridiculous power plays, based in how we think things should go, rather than the gospel.

Jesus came to forgive sin. Healing the body is good but not enough. Just focusing on the physical well-being of individuals was not why Christ came. At the heart of the human condition is spiritual brokenness, and Jesus is all about taking away guilt and shame, creating a new person and a new community. It is a radical vision which seeks to encompass all persons – which means Jesus touched many people overlooked by others.

Jesus came to call the despised people of society, the “sinners.” He called Matthew, a tax collector. Tax collectors were hated. They were corrupt characters who extorted money from innocent people. Jesus not only called the despised Matthew but had dinner with him and all his unsavory buddies. This kind of behavior by Jesus was deeply offensive to upstanding citizens.

However, Jesus did not back down. He responded by saying that it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. And he backed up his social actions with Scripture by encouraging offended folks to meditate on what this biblical phrase means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6)

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.

hosea 6:6, niv

It is possible to engage in outward rituals of worship, do all the right things, fulfill our duty, yet still miss the heart of God wants for humanity. Mercy is what God wants. Jesus knew this. So, Christ entangled himself with sinners to bring spiritual healing and restoration.

When Corrie Ten Boom sought to bring deliverance of the Jews from the Nazis during World War II, she had to entangle herself with Jewish refugees. When Christian missionaries seek to be the light of Jesus to people, they must entangle themselves with the people’s culture. If we want to see God deliver people from their situations, we must entangle ourselves with them, into complicated lives that are not pretty, with persons who have been tainted by sin. 

Lots of people are in awful predicaments. Christians, like their Lord, will need to get their hands dirty and their feet wet to extend Christ’s ministry of mercy and forgiveness. The gospel was never intended to be proclaimed from afar, but up close and personal through entanglement in people’s lives. If the merciful mission of Jesus is to occur, it requires the following three activities:

  1. Intimacy with Jesus. Engaging in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, giving, fasting, reading, and meditating on Scripture are the activities which help us to know Christ better and know and how to respond with mercy.
  2. Intimacy with fellow believers. We are hard-wired by God for community. Superficial relationships can only provide superficial community. Christians need to help one another with spiritual growth. They must hold one another accountable for the mission of Christ.
  3. Intimacy with “sinners.” This world is filled with sick, needy, hurting, lonely, unhealthy people who are locked in unhealthy patterns of living. They need a merciful change of life that comes from the merciful Jesus acting through merciful Christians. 

Mercy, not judgment, is at the heart of all change. If we desire others to be different, we will need to be acquainted with the mercy of God.

Most merciful God, we confess we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, and by neglect. We have not held fast to your commandments and have strayed from your teachings. We turn from our self-centered actions and pride. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us so that we are released from anything that seeks to keep us from delighting in your presence. Empower us with your wisdom, revelation, and discernment so that we might be your merciful hands, feet, and words to one another and those who do not yet know you. Amen.

Matthew 8:28-9:1 – A Force to Be Reckoned With

Christ healing the demoniac, ivory engraving, c.968 C.E.

When Jesus arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. “What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?”

Some distance from them a large herd of pigs was feeding. The demons begged Jesus, “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.”

He said to them, “Go!” So, they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water. Those tending the pigs ran off, went into the town, and reported all this, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave their region.

Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. (NIV)

At some point, everyone must deal with Jesus, simply because he is a force to be reckoned with. 

Eventually, we know that a storm will come. It may be sunny today, and the forecast might predict more sun or partly sunny for a while. Yet we know the weather will change. In the American Midwest state of Wisconsin where I live, we have not had as much snow this winter as we typically do. Oh, but all of us Wisconsinites know it is coming. It is not a question of “if” but “when.” It will not be here today or tomorrow, but it will come.

Jesus will come.  A person might not have to contend with him today, maybe not tomorrow. However, eventually, there will be a whopper of a storm and we will have to deal with it. In today’s Gospel lesson, two men described as being severely influenced by demons approached Jesus. Inside of them was such a terrible inner storm that they shouted at Jesus.

“Healing comes when our story is raw, bone-deep, and full of hunger for what only Jesus can offer.”

dan allender

Jesus, unfazed by the men’s inner violence and outer screams, uttered a command from a place of confidence. As fierce as the men were (the demons were so many that they were exorcised into a herd of pigs), Jesus had the authority to deal with the situation. As a result, the storm within the men subsided.

Yet, the storm was not over – it picked up momentum with the townsfolk. It seems they had been living their merry lives with no thought to Jesus. But he showed up. So, they had to contend with the authority right there in front of them. Unfortunately, they chose poorly. 

The Evangelist, Matthew, intends for us to see a connection in the story between the demons who begged Jesus, and the people of the town who begged Jesus. They did not humbly beg to follow him; they begged him to get away and leave them alone.

Jesus is an authoritative force to be reckoned with… and he is coming to your town.  Maybe not today, perhaps not tomorrow.  But things will not always be the way they are right now.  People will have to face Jesus.

Jesus Christ, Son of God, you are Lord over the wind, the waves, and the weather. You also command the unseen, and they obey. You are God with us. Oh, that all people would beg to follow you and not beg you to leave!  I am grateful for your power and authority over all things.  Amen.

Matthew 2:1-12 – Epiphany of the Lord

Star of Bethlehem by German painter Waldemar Flaig (1892-1932)

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”

King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:

‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
    are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
    who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back, and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”

After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod. (NLT)

The Three Kings, Ethiopian Orthodox Church

Each year on January 6 in the Church Calendar, after the twelve days of Christmas, is the celebration of Epiphany. Christ’s coming to this earth as a child and becoming like us is much more than a baby in a manger.  Epiphany helps to bring a vision and understanding of God’s glory to all kinds of people in the world.

Epiphany means “manifestation” or “appearance.” The event which is associated with this season is the visit of the Magi to Jesus. Included in this time of the year between the seasons of Christmas and Lent is a special emphasis on the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus. The great celebration and focus of these weeks is that salvation is not limited to Israel but extends to the Gentiles, as well.

Every season in the Christian Year has its unique angle of grace. With Epiphany, we see that one of the most scandalous truths of Christianity is that God graces common ordinary people who seem far from God with the gift of Jesus. God grants repentance that leads to life for all kinds of people no matter their race, ethnicity, class, or background. It is a wondrous and astounding spiritual truth that God’s gracious concern is not limited to a certain type of person or a particular group of people.

Grace is and ought to be the guiding factor in how we interact with people. Losing sight of grace leads to being critical and defensive. Like King Herod of old, a graceless person becomes enamored with earthly power and control. But embracing grace leads to the humility of seeing the image of God in people quite different from ourselves. Like the Apostle Peter, who learned in a vision to bring the gospel to non-Jews, old legalisms begin to be worn away so that people from all walks of life can have access to Jesus and his gracious saving and healing ministry. (Acts 10-11:18)

Grace brings down barriers and does away with unnecessary distinctions between others. The appropriate response to mercy is to glorify God for such marvelous light and amazing work.

It is a merciful reality that the Magi, or Wise Men, pagan astrologers, were directed to the Messiah. A light was provided to lead them to Jesus. Apart from God’s care and intervention they would have remained in darkness.  And it is no less true for people today. This old broken world is wrapped in darkness. All kinds of people have no light at the end of the tunnel of their lives for hope and new life. The gospel of Jesus Christ brings that light to those walking around with no ability to see. Jesus, in his teaching ministry, exhorted his followers not to hide their light but to let it shine for all to see. (Matthew 5:14-16)

Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, the best way to bring resolution to our own troubles and problems is through helping others make sense of their lives through the gracious light of Christ so that they can see an appearance, an epiphany, of what their lives can be in the gracious rule of the kingdom of God. 

As we celebrate Epiphany and journey with Jesus through his earthly upbringing and into his gracious ministry to people, let us keep vigilance to not let our light grow dim. Instead, let us hunger and thirst after Christ’s righteousness so that our joy is full, and our light is bright.

God of mercy, Lord of all, you have gifted the Church through the goodness of your grace to be your hands and do your work, to be your voice and share your words, to bring healing to broken lives. You have graciously gifted your people with the blessings of your Spirit, the power to transform lives and make all things new. Now may our hearts receive, our mouths proclaim, our hands prepare for service so that the love that we have may overflow into the hearts of others, and receive your grace, your renewing Spirit, and your love, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.