Sermon: The Temptation of Proof

Last week, we began our slow walk through the three temptations of Jesus in Matthew 4. The first temptation Jesus faced hit him where he was weakest. Jesus was hungry after forty days and forty nights of fasting and the devil wanted him to turn stones to bread. It was at a weak point, with his stomach growling, that the temptation came. After resisting that temptation, the devil didn’t go for the next weakest point, but for the strongest – his trust in the Word of God. We hear it in Matthew 4, verses 5 through 7. But before we hear God’s word this morning, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words 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.’”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. (You may be seated)

In our passage this morning, Jesus demonstrates a pattern for us. Satan takes scripture, takes the very Word of God that Jesus says we need in order to live, and twists it. Jesus responds with more scripture. Jesus interprets one passage of the Bible by bringing in another to help clarify what it means. Scripture interprets Scripture. As we listen to Jesus this morning, we are going to seek to follow him in this way as well. We are going to set this story of Jesus’ second temptation alongside three other passages of the Bible which, together, reveal what lies at the heart of this temptation and what lies at the heart of God.

Three passages, when placed alongside of this temptation, reveal what lies at the heart of this temptation and what lies at the heart of God. Exodus 17, Genesis 3, and Matthew 27.

After Jesus successfully rebuffs the temptation of turning stones into bread, of sacrificing what is best to satisfy his immediate needs, the devil took him to Jerusalem – the holy city – and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. The devil invites Jesus to throw himself from the top of the temple. God has promised in Psalm 91 that he would send angels to protect him so that he won’t even get a scrape on his foot.

Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:16, Do not put the Lord your God to the test. The temptation, Jesus tells us, is to test God. Jesus only quotes half of the verse in Deuteronomy. The full verse says this: Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah.

‘as you did at Massah’ What happened at Massah? That brings us to Exodus 17. Listen to this:

The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was not water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”

Moses replied, “why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?”

But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”

Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Stick the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of all the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

“Is the Lord among us or not?” “Is the Lord among us or not?” The grumbling and testing at Massah and Meribah is the same temptation Jesus faced standing on the pinnacle of the temple. “Is God among us or not?” The temptation was to test God – to make God prove himself. Jesus had just been publicly proclaimed as the Son of God at his baptism, but would God really be with him? Would God really provide for him? Would God really keep his promises? Make him prove it! The devil is telling Jesus to put the Father in a situation where, if he is going to keep his promises, he will have to come through in a spectacular way.

Jesus, do you really trust your heavenly Father? Prove it! And make him prove he is trustworthy too! Throw yourself down and see if God will really keep his promises.

“Is the Lord among us or not?” The people of Israel had recently been rescued from Egypt. They had watched God send ten mighty plagues to break the power of Egypt and its Pharaoh. They had seen God declare that the gods of Egypt were fakes and that he would deliver his people from their bondage. God led them through the Red Sea on dry land and drowned the Egyptian army that chased them. And yet, “Is the Lord among us or not?” they asked. They grumbled and asked God to prove it. Would he really take care of them? Would he really stick with them? They claimed he had rescued them in order to let them die in the desert. Give us water, they demanded. Don’t you care about us? Prove it!

“Is the Lord among us or not?”

It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Testing is not the same as trusting. The devil tempts Jesus by saying, ‘If you really trust God, prove it. If you really trust God, put him to the test and see if he will come through for you.’ But Jesus tells us that testing someone is not the same as trusting someone.

We know this instinctively. If you lived through the Cold War, you might remember the adage, “Trust but verify.” But if we are honest, ‘trust but verify’ means we don’t actually trust at all. I have a best friend who lives in Michigan. We have known each other 11 years now. Imagine for a second that every time I saw him, I said, “I know you are my best friend, prove it to me. I need to borrow your car.” “I know you are my best friend, prove it to me. I need a hundred dollars.” “I know you are my best friend, prove it to me. Tell me how much you care about me.” “I know you are my best friend, prove it to me…”

There would be something unhealthy in this relationship. I would be saying one thing and doing another. I say “I know you are my best friend,” but every time I ask him to prove it, I am saying that I do not really trust him to be there for me. By asking again and again for proof, I am actually saying I don’t trust him. The same things holds in a romantic relationship. Saying ‘prove to me that you love me’ is a sign of insecurity in the relationship. By saying ‘prove it’ I would be showing a lack of trust, but I am also using someone else to get what I want. Saying ‘prove it to me’ trades on our existing relationship in order to get what I want accomplished. It’s manipulative.

Testing is not the same as trusting. What is true in my relationship with my best friend is also true in my relationship with God. Testing – saying ‘prove yourself to me’ is not a sign of trust, but mistrust. If Jesus threw himself down from the top of that temple, it might look like he has a lot of trust in God, but actually, by trying to force God’s hand into showing up in a miraculous way, it would reveal that he didn’t truly trust his Father. Instead of jumping, Jesus answered him, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Israel tested God in the wilderness because, at the heart, they did not trust God to do what is best for them. “Is the Lord among us or not?” Behind the temptation to test God, behind the temptation to make God prove himself, is the temptation to mistrust whether God has our best at heart, that he will truly care for us. Underneath Satan’s quotation of scripture and placing Jesus at the top of the temple and asking him to throw himself down, is a question that has been gripping our hearts since the garden of Eden, “does God have our best at heart?”

This brings us to our second passage that we want to place alongside of Jesus’ temptation: Genesis 3. Listen to this:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

When the woman say that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked, so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

 

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.’”

The similarities are striking. Both times the devil takes the words of God and twists them. In the garden, he misquotes God and misrepresents him. Before Jesus, the quote is better, but the twisting remains. The question is the same: do we trust God? Is God trustworthy? Both times, in different ways, the devil is saying that God cannot be trusted. In the garden, he is holding out on us. He does not have our best interests at heart in keeping us from the fruit of the tree. No, he is keeping what is best from you. He knows how great you will be if you eat it and he is holding out on you. He cannot be trusted. The woman hears the lies, her husband goes along with her, and that question, that doubt has been resounding in our hearts ever since. Can God be trusted to do what is best for us?

I do not know a single person who has not, as some point or another, struggled with these doubts. We may go to church and sing the hymns and say the creed, but there are times where we wonder. Will God truly care for me? Will he protect me when I fall or will he let go? When he says ‘no’ to me, is he really doing what is best?

When we begin to believe this, one of two things happen. Either we hide or we manipulate. Sometimes, like Adam and Eve in the garden, not trusting God’s goodness, we will try to hide from him. We run away. We avoid time with God or close our hearts while we go through the motions. But in our hearts, we are not sure we trust God.

The other option is what Satan suggested to Jesus. We begin to test God. We double down on God’s promises as a way to make sure God is going to do what he said he would. So we get super-churchy in order to make God happy so he would be sure to love us and take care of us. But still in our hearts, we are not sure we can trust God.

The temptation Jesus faced on the pinnacle of the temple is very real for us when we have not been convinced of the love and goodness of God. Placing these two stories alongside that temptation reveals the heart of this temptation: “Is god among us or not?” Will God truly be good to us? Is his will and way really what is best for us?

But there is a third passage that I want to place alongside this temptation this morning. A passage, I believe, that reveals the very heart of God.

Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God.” In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders mocked him. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescues him now if he wants him, for he said, “I am the Son of God.” In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

 

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.’”

The same temptation Jesus faced at the beginning of his ministry, he faced at its pinnacle. As he hung on the cross, bleeding and dying in agony, he heard, “If you are the Son of God, come down.” “He trusts God, let God rescue him.”

Israel faced temptation in the wilderness, “Is God among us or not?” With doubting hearts, they put God to the test to make him prove he truly loved and cared for them.

Adam and Eve faced temptation in the garden, “Is God holding out on us?” With doubting hearts, they ate the fruit, covered themselves and hid.

Where Israel failed, Jesus succeeded. Where Israel was not sure God was with them, was not sure that God would continue to love and care for them, Jesus demonstrated the love, mercy, and compassion of God on the cross. He refused to throw himself down from the temple and refused to come down from the cross. He could have commanded angels to lift him up and not even get a scrape on his foot, but instead he was surrounded by mockers, people jeering as hung there hands and feet bruised and pierced.

Where Adam and Eve failed, Jesus succeeded. If we ever wonder if God is holding out on us, if God is willing do what is best for us, know that God himself endured the cross. He went to the shameful end out of love.

We can trust the heart of God because we see it on display in Jesus Christ. We need not doubt God’s goodness and love because he loved us enough to die in our place, to endure rejection in our place, to refuse to take up divine protection for our sake. We need not doubt the provision of God because he provided cleansing and atonement for our sins with his own body.

We can trust the heart of God because Jesus didn’t throw himself down from the temple or take himself down from the cross, but endured death and punishment for us.

Knowing this in our hearts, the devils temptations to test God, to see if he truly loves us, no longer have their appeal. I don’t need to test and see if God loves me. I have seen in the cross of Christ. I don’t need to wonder and make God prove his goodness and mercy to me, I have seen it on the cross of Christ. I no longer need to wonder “Is God among us or not?” For God has come among us, lived, died, and rose again, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father, even interceding for me. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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