Matthew introduces the account of Jesus and His encounter with Satan with these words: "Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil" (chap. 4:1, R.S.V.). Many people overlook that little phrase "by the Spirit." Apparently God had some purpose in mind in this confrontation. I daresay that few of us when we come into our own wildernesses, when we face the darkness of temptation's season, would suppose it was God's Spirit that had led us there. But then again, who of us knows the ways of God? They are indeed beyond finding out.
At any rate, Jesus had just come from His ordination service, so to speak. Just prior to the temptation event, Matthew tells us, Jesus had gone to John to be baptized, and as He was coming out of the water the heavens opened. Jesus saw the Spirit descending like a dove and heard a voice from heaven, saying, " 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased'" (chap. 3:16, 17, R.S.V.).
Granted, none of us ordained to ministry has experienced anything quite as wonderful as that. But it is certainly true that our highs are often enough followed by lows. The thrill of seminary graduation gives way to the unnerving experience of placement; the miracle of a newborn child gives way to the brainnumbing task of early-morning feedings; the inspiration of Sabbath or Sunday worship gives way to Monday morning blues. Jesus hears a voice from heaven. The next voice He hears is that of the tempter.
Although I have read what the scholars say about the temptations and although I have myself wrestled with this Biblical account, all I can say is I don't know what the temptations meant to Jesus. Obviously He was alone during this experience, and it tells us something about Him that He let His disciples in on what had happened.
But rather than speculate about our Lord's motives and His understanding of His temptations, I want to reflect instead on the temptations that are especially seductive to ministers today. The three temptations Jesus faced may give us some insights into our own struggles.
First, then, was the temptation of bread to satisfy physical hunger. " 'If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.'"
When one is preaching on this text, it is easy to wheel out that old standby "Beware of the evils of materialism." Not that this message is out of date; if anything, it's more relevant now than ever before.
But a while back I made a discovery. My brother and sister and I had the job of helping our mother move from her three-room apartment to a much smaller space in a retirement village. While I was sorting through some of the things she could not keep, it occurred to me that material possessions are. important. Sometimes those of us called to ministry are all too eager to declaim what a terrible thing materialism is. How much of our indignation stems from simple envy of some of our parishioners who are a bit better off financially? In any case, we often overlook the fact that what we own does help define who we are.
It was hard for my mother to part with many of her things. Not because they had high market value, but because they had high personal value. Mother would see an object and say, "Oh, there's that bowl Dad and I got for a wedding present." I happened to hold up one of her old toys, a little bank for coins. Mother insisted on stopping and telling me the story of how she had gotten that bank as a child, and the memory it evoked in her. As tired as I was from packing, I stopped and listened to her story. And I realized how much our personal identities are invested in material objects.
Of course, what has happened is that most people have too many things. Our identity gets diffused, lost, among all the things we possess until what we own doesn't reveal much of anything about who we are. Things have only a functional value to us, seldom a symbolic value. My mother loved a bank in the shape of a rooster. Can you imagine children of today loving one of their electronic games sixty years from now? We hope our things will make us somebody; in fact, the more things we have, the more we become nobody in particular.
Those of us in ministry suffer this temptation to turn stones into bread as much as anyone. But, in our case, the temptation takes a subtle twist. The particular bread we crave may be that of ego gratification. We feed on the kind words people send our way. It is some times hard, when people tell you how helpful and sensitive and caring and inspirational you have been, to remember that you are still, after all, only a sinner saved by grace. That you tread the same earth everyone else does.
Stones into whatever bread we think we need? A real temptation. But Jesus' answer serves us well. We do not live by bread alone, but ultimately by God's sufficient grace.
What of the second temptation—for Jesus to throw Himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple? Many commentators regard this as the temptation for Jesus to use the spectacular miracle to further His cause. For me it calls to mind the way ministers can feel pulled in the direction of dependency. It isn't angels we hope will catch us before we fall; more likely it's our friends or family members. We put ourselves down in front of others with the unspoken hope that they will reassure us. For example, "I'm just no good at saying what I mean." "Sure you are. You communicate very well." Or "I'm really starting to show my age." "Nonsense, you're still a kid!" Or finally, "I'm a failure as a husband [wife]." "No you aren't, dear." And so on. In extreme cases we are tempted to play the martyr role in order to elicit sympathy.
For clergy, this temptation is especially powerful when things aren't going well. We offer to teach a class, and only a handful of people show up. We suggest an idea, and people just shuffle their feet and look at the ceiling. It's then that we say to ourselves, "Nobody appreciates me. 1 knock myself out, and what thanks do I get?" We sink into the righteous indignation of self-pity. Or should we call it self-righteous indignation? Because our work is so closely connected with people and their response, we ministers are especially vulnerable to this temptation. We sometimes assert, "I didn't think I came across very clearly in my sermon today." "Oh, yes, you did, pastor. It was really inspiring."
Maybe, as Jesus suggests, we had better not tempt either the Lord or others with this kind of statement. Because one day someone is bound to agree with us. "I'm such a scatterbrain. I just can't get organized." "You're right. I've never met anyone as confused about things as you are."
For ministers, one of the greatest temptations comes from wanting to be liked. It's human nature to want to be well thought of, admired, loved. So we learn how to play the game of keeping people happy. Along the way our integrity suffers. Rather than risk a personal confrontation, rather than ruffle feathers, we back away, we word the sermon so as not to offend. .It isn't hard to rationalize our actions. But after a while we may discover that we have bowed down to something other than the true and living God.
Looking at the temptations Jesus faced in this more personal way can be devastating. We see that we have not been as strong as our Lord in resisting the tempter. Repentance is in order: God, be merciful to me, a sinner. The good news, of course, is that there is mercy with God—even for ministers! It's what enables us to carry on with the ministry to which God in His grace has called us.
To me the words of Jeremiah have been tremendously helpful. His listeners laughed at him, disparaged his work. Yet Jeremiah could not help speaking. "If I say, 'I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,' there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot" (Jer. 20:9, R.S.V.).
I know a Jeremiah. He is a fellow minister and friend. When his wife often years died of cancer, he preached the funeral sermon. He began by saying, "Some people have suggested to me that it is a bit strange and maybe even inappropriate that I should preach this sermon. First, then, I must tell you that my wife requested that I do so. And second, on this day of all days, there is no place I'd rather be than right here." I suspect that my friend would object strenuously to being called a Jeremiah. Yet I believe that in his Yes to the word inside him, a word demanding to be given form and voice, he stands in the tradition of the prophet who did not quench the Spirit within him.
For maybe this is the greatest temptation we ministers face—to deny the truth we know, to hold back the word of comfort or forgiveness or promise when it shouts to be spoken, to hold our arms rigid when someone aches to be embraced, to choke on our own pride when salvation is only a handclasp away.
God be merciful to us, sinners all.