Last Sunday, I gave a sermon on the Temptation of Jesus for a Beyond the Walls service by the Toronto Congregation of Community of Christ. The whole service was great, and I was happy to make my small contribution to it. It’s been recorded and archived here:
As I did the last time that I gave a sermon, though, I wanted to share the text I preached from:
This week, as we follow Jesus into the wilderness, we might wonder what the purpose of this journey is. Jesus has already been baptized—why is he pausing for these 40 days before beginning his public ministry? The obvious answer is to look forward: Ministry requires preparation, and perhaps it would not be wise to rush into proclaiming the good news and calling disciples.
However, I believe there is also value in looking backward. Something remarkable happened last week as we stood on the banks of the Jordan watching John baptize Jesus:
“just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from the heavens said, ‘This is my Son’” (Matthew 3:16-17).
Matthew suggests that this may have been a personal experience for Jesus—that we and the other spectators may not have heard these words. Even if we did hear them, it is unlikely that we would have understood their significance.
For a 21st century Christian, it is obvious to describe Jesus as “son of God.” It is a key part of what we believe about Jesus, and the words of the divine voice at his baptism wouldn’t have surprised us much.
For a first century Galilean, though, the phrase “son of God” means something altogether different—something that is now sending Jesus into the wilderness for some careful reflection.
Here in the first century, legendary heroes are sons of God. Kings of nations are sons of God. The Roman emperor (perhaps the most powerful human on the planet) is a son of God. We’ve heard the rumors back in Nazareth that this man we are following into the wilderness is not even really the carpenter’s son—would we believe that he is God’s son? Perhaps more importantly, would Jesus himself believe it?
This consideration of new identity may be baptism at its best. The Basic Beliefs document of Community of Christ teaches us that the sacraments—including baptism—are meant “to convey… grace” and “touch with… compassion.” I like to think that this was also true of Jesus; that his baptism was a moment where he felt God’s grace and compassion telling him that he was more important and more beloved than he had ever dared believe before.
I also hope that—at our own baptisms or in other moments of our lives—we have felt a deep assurance that, in the words of the apostle Paul, “we are children of God, and if children, then heirs: heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16-17). That is, I hope we also have moments where we feel more important and more beloved than we had ever dared believe before. I have kept personal journals since I was a teenager, and thanks to these journals, I have a record of one of these moments from sixteen years ago, in January of 2008. Someone said something to me that made me feel important to them. I did not write down who it was or what they said, but I can still remember the feeling that I wrote down—that I was beloved in a way that I had never realized. It was the kind of feeling that might send me into the wilderness for some deep reflection.
Of course, there is a danger with this kind of journey into the wilderness. If we are not careful, then after reflecting on how important and beloved we are, we will leave the wilderness thinking that we are more important and more beloved than other people. Indeed, my memory from early 2008 stands out to me because during this part of my life, I was regularly telling people that to feel all of God’s love and fully understand their own importance, they had to attend the church that I attended and they had to believe what I believed. I was slow to understand that every person I talked to in this way was also a child of God, already more beloved and important than I would have dared believe.
This same danger is surely present for Jesus, too. Again, he is living during a time where to describe oneself as a child of God is not simply an act of self-affirmation but to put oneself on par with heroes, kings, and emperors. It is remarkable that from the moment he enters the wilderness, Jesus’s response to that voice at his baptism is not to claim wealth, fame, or power. Rather, he responds to being the son of God by fasting for 40 days: voluntarily foregoing the feasts and delicacies that a son of God would have had right to. As we stay with Jesus during these 40 days, we should be surprised by—and grateful for—this humility.
In fact, even the tempter seems a bit taken aback by Jesus’s behavior: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Matthew 4:3). There is no reason, we hear the devil say, for someone as important and beloved as Jesus to be as hungry as Jesus is right now. If Jesus isn’t going to conjure up a feast, he should at least demonstrate that he can have a loaf of bread whenever he wants one, even in the middle of the wilderness. Either Jesus must accept and embrace wealth, fame, and power or he must not really be the son of God, says the devil, who believes that it is only those who enjoy wealth, fame, and power who can be sure that they are important and beloved.
We are here in the wilderness with Jesus so that we can learn to respond to temptation in the way that he does now, and there is much that we can learn from his rejection of the tempter. “It is written,” Jesus says, “‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4).
Jesus’s response quotes the book of Deuteronomy, where Moses reminds the Israelites of their own time in the wilderness. In response to the Israelites’ complaints that they were hungry and needed food, God made appear miraculous manna for them to eat. God wants our needs to be met. However, as Moses teaches in Deuteronomy, and as Jesus is reminding us now, we must not let those needs alone become the focus of our lives, or else our need for food, affirmation, and connection could turn into a lust for wealth, fame, and power—a lust that is condemned by every word from God’s mouth. Jesus does not deny that he also lives by bread, but he rejects the wealth of summoning whatever food he wants whenever he wants it.
I am grateful for both parts of this example. In my discipleship, I often want things to be all or nothing. I sometimes feel that to truly follow Christ, I must forego anything and everything that does not actively advance God’s purposes on earth. This made things stressful over the Christmas holidays. I had already started preparing this sermon when I arrived at my parents’ home, which was full of family and full of desserts. Every time I sat down to enjoy myself, it seemed as though a voice was whispering in my ear: “One does not live by cookies alone.” I wondered if I were somehow failing as a disciple for enjoying some time with family instead of doing the work to make the world a better place.
I took some comfort from remembering that during his own ministry, Jesus was criticized as a “glutton and a drunkard” (Matthew 11:19) because he sometimes spent time enjoying a tasty meal or a gathering of friends instead of spending all his time fasting in the wilderness. We are God’s children. God understands that we have needs, and Jesus validates that through his own hunger and thirst. God wants us to enjoy our lives, and Jesus will validate that through his “eating and drinking” (Matthew 11:19) once he leaves the wilderness.
And yet, I ate a lot of cookies at Christmas, and as I watch Jesus reject the tempter, I think about how easy it is for me, someone with a steady job living in a large American city in the 21st century, to quickly purchase or make whatever food I want whenever I want it—it is almost as easy as turning stones into bread. I have trouble thinking of myself as a wealthy person, but if we set aside Jesus’s ability to work miracles, I surely have easier and wider access to food than he does in first century Palestine—not to mention easier and wider access to food than far too many people in the large American city where I live.
This makes me think of another moment in Jesus’s ministry where he will use his miraculous power to produce food from nothing. Some time from now, Jesus will again retreat into the wilderness to reflect on an experience related to John the Baptist. Although we are today metaphorically following Jesus into the wilderness, this future moment will see thousands of people actually follow Jesus when he is trying to have a moment for himself. And yet, despite wanting that time for reflection and despite only having “five loaves and two fish,” Jesus will do the work to ensure that “all [eat] and [are] filled” (Matthew 14:17,20). Today, Jesus foregoes wealth when he stands to benefit, but we know that later in his ministry, he will be generous in sharing wealth with others. Today, Jesus is wondering what it means for him to be called a son of God, but we can already see that his response to this honor later in his ministry will be to ensure that each person he meets also feels the deep assurance that they, too, are children of God.
Perhaps there are also ways for me to forego the relative ease that characterizes my life so that other children of God can live easier lives. Shortly after accepting the invitation to give this sermon, I happened to read a news article that shared some calculations on food waste that had recently been published by researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands. These researchers estimated that one of the costs of making food so easily available for many of us is that in the year 2019, “close to 18 billion animals” from food-producing farms around the world “were raised and killed without serving a purpose for human nutrition” (Klaura, Breeman, & Scherer, 2023).
Food waste of any kind has important consequences for our planet. According to the website Our World in Data, other researchers have estimated that 6% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from producing food that is never eaten—this is about three times the amount of emissions produced by all of the airplanes traveling all over the world. While this 6% figure represents all the wasted food in the world, we should keep in mind that wasted meat is generally responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the same quantity of wasted plant-based foods.
This makes sense: Raising animals for meat requires growing plants to feed the animals. If we were growing those plants to feed humans, the climate cost would stop there, and we would actually have more plant-based food to go around for everyone to eat. However, when we use those plants to feed animals so that we can have meat, our meals require more resources to produce and have a larger impact on the planet. In other words, it’s not just the 18 billion animals who are killed for meat but never eaten that contribute to climate change—it’s also the billions more that actually make it to our plates.
Now, I’m not much of a vegetarian. I struggle to turn down a hamburger the same way I struggle to turn down a fourth or fifth cookie at Christmastime. Yet, as I watch Jesus forego his easy access to food here in the wilderness, and as I think about his future concern for the five thousand, I am wondering if fewer people would go hungry now—or suffer from the effects of climate change in the future—if I started eating a lot less meat.
Of course, food and wealth are only one of the temptations that we see Jesus face today—and that all of us will face once we leave the wilderness. It is the temptation that speaks most to me today, but there are also other ways that we can—that we must—follow Jesus’s example. I imagine that as this time with Jesus continues, he will teach us that we all deserve to be affirmed but that we must not strive for fame—that we all deserve connection to others but that we must not strive for power over them.
I hope that we spend this time in the wilderness with Jesus today thinking about what it means to be children of God. I think the tempter is right in one way: that there is no reason that someone as important and beloved as a child of God should ever lack for food, affirmation, or connection. We should all take the time to make sure these needs are met—and even to make sure that we enjoy our lives. Yet, I also hope we make the same commitments in the wilderness that Jesus is now making: to forego some of our privileges as children of God so all of God’s children can enjoy them, too.
This was an interesting sermon to produce. As I hint in there, I knew from pretty early on that I wanted to talk about the role of meat in our diet (which I feel strongly about, but not yet strongly enough to go full vegetarian, so I have work to do there). However, I originally wanted to touch on the other two temptations and connect them to examples of foregoing fame/influence (perhaps talking about tenure—something that’s been on my mind recently) and foregoing power (which I was going to connect to digital labor and generative AI—something else I’ve thought about a lot). I may have to come back to those ideas in future sermons—or at least blog posts.