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Allow Me to Introduce…
March 9, 2014
Relationships typically begin with an introduction. You may remember when you were first introduced to the person you later married. Perhaps a friend did the introduction: “I’d like you to meet so and so.” Guest speakers are usually given an introduction to acquaint the audience with the person they are about to hear. At one time or another, most of us had to write a personal bio in order to introduce ourselves to a potential employer, or college admissions counselor. Well, Matthew’s story of Jesus in the wilderness serves a single purpose: to introduce his readers to the person of Jesus.
Now to be honest, I wasn’t sure that an introduction of Jesus was enough. After all, Lent is a time for adopting and practicing the disciplines that will deepen our relationship with God. Here at UPC we’ve provided a number of resources for just this purpose. So naturally, my homiletical instinct was to discover in today’s scripture some moral exhortation or some spiritual encouragement that we could apply to our own Lenten journey. Yet my search was in vain. This story simply isn’t about us, and thus it resists our attempts to find practical application. Pure and simple, what we have on this first Sunday in Lent is Matthew’s introduction of the person of Jesus. In a few short verses, he tells us who Jesus is and what is the content of his character.
And maybe a sermon introducing Jesus will suffice for this first Sunday in Lent. There’s certainly every indication, both in the church and in the wider society, that the figure of Jesus continues to illicit great interest. A few years ago, Marcus Borg’s book Meeting Jesus for the First Time, became a national bestseller. Our UPC Sunday Evening Book group recently read and discussed a new book called Zealot by Reza Aslan. Zealot has become something of an international sensation. Aslan begins his book with an Author’s Note: “When I was fifteen I found Jesus.” The rest of the book introduces the Jesus Aslan believes he has found. Last Wednesday, our Men’s Fellowship Breakfast considered a new book called Beautiful Outlaw, which again attempts to introduce Jesus to a modern audience. In his preface, the author writes: “Jesus, I ask you for you. For the real you.” So the popularity of these books suggests that the question “Who is Jesus?” is compelling in and of itself.
Actually, in the opening chapters of his Gospel, Matthew introduces Jesus with a plethora of titles: “the Messiah,” “the son of David,” “the son of Abraham.” Then in account of Jesus’ baptism, which immediately precedes today’s reading, a voice from heaven declares that Jesus is “the Son of God.” Now for us today the title “son of God” may be rendered in Trinitarian terms or as a reference to Jesus’ divinity. But for Matthew’s first hearers, the term “son of God” might be understood in any number of ways.
For example the Davidic kings of Israel were called “sons of God.” In the book of I Chronicles, God says to David concerning Solomon, “I have chosen him to be a son to me, and I will be a father to him.” (I Chron. 28:6). And in Psalm 2 the Lord addresses the king, “You are my son; today I have begotten you…” Is Jesus to be a “son of God” in the likeness of a Davidic King?
Or again, in Genesis and in some of the Psalms “sons of God” or “children of the most high” designate angelic beings, members of the divine council. Is Matthew introducing Jesus as a kind of other-worldly spirit-being?
Then, too, in the Greco-Roman world of Jesus’ time “Son of God” was used as an honorary title for the Roman Caesars. Thus, is calling Jesus the “son of God” implying that Jesus will seek to rule the world as a commanding emperor?
Obviously clarification is needed. What kind of a “son of God” will Jesus be? How will he interpret his role and reveal his character? Mathew intends the story of the temptation in the wilderness to offer just such a clarification. “Allow me,” Matthew says in effect, “to introduce you to the real Jesus.”
And the first thing Matthew does by way of introduction is to associate the character of Jesus with that of Moses. In telling the story of Jesus in the wilderness, Matthew, Mark and Luke all mention that he was in the wilderness for forty days, but Matthew adds the phrase, “and for forty nights,” a detail that connects Jesus to Moses, who was on Mt. Sinai for “forty days and forty nights.” If we want to know who Jesus is, Matthew implies, we need to remember who Moses was.
To first-century Jews, Moses stood out for them as an antidote to poisonous history of power-grabbing, self-serving kings. While the kings of the Davidic dynasty were conniving and insecure, Moses had learned the humbling lesson of manna in the wilderness, and trusted that God would provide. While the Davidic kings tested God’s patience for years, Moses trusted in God and lived by God’s commandments. And while the kings of Israel and Judah had no end of imperial hopes and schemes, “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” held no allure for Moses. In the wilderness, Moses learned and lived by trustful obedience to God alone.
So the Jesus Matthew introduces, is the Son of God who will embrace the character of Moses and live out his sonship with Moses-like obedience and trust in God. Not surprisingly, then, Jesus answers the three temptations of the devil with sayings attributed to Moses in the book of Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone” (8:3); “Do not put the Lord you God to the test” (6:16); and “the Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve.” Jesus, this introduction makes clear, will make no compromise with evil. He will resist all temptation to worldly acclaim and he will resist the temptation to power just as Moses did.
The theologian Douglas John Hall made the salient observation that “there are not really three temptations, but three variations on the same basic theme. The devil,” Hall notes, “has a one-track mind. As from the beginning, he tempts his victims to go for power. Evidently he knows there is no surer path to internal contradiction and self-destruction.”
Yet Jesus, like Moses, will serve God and God alone. Jesus is God’s own Son who will fulfill God’s will to reconcile all things in heaven and on earth.. Because he will be the Son God wants him to be, he will not necessarily be who we want him to be. He will not turn our stones into bread; he will not prove God to us; he will not turn from God to embrace the kinds of success we would recognize and applaud. Rather he will be himself. Or more accurately, he will remain steadfastly God’s obedient servant, even unto death on a cross.
Friends, in the account of Jesus in the wilderness, Matthew has given us an introduction to the person of Jesus. Of course an introduction is only an introduction. To know Jesus requires an ongoing relationship with him. So having been introduced, let us continue to learn of him and from him as make our Lenten pilgrimage to the cross and beyond.