Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11
1Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I’ve titled today’s message the testing of Jesus. Before I get to that, though, I’d like to address a testing we are undergoing as people in the world today. I will not call it a temptation, although temptations are involved. Let me start by sharing a bit about what the last two weeks were like in my life. Many of you know that we went to the emergency room the Wednesday before last Sunday when Bear’s symptoms worsened after starting treatment for what we’d been told was likely pneumonia. The ER diagnosis of blood clots in the lungs had him hospitalized just after midnight. I was presiding over a relative’s wedding on Saturday, and left Bear in the hospital as I went down for rehearsal the following Thursday, returning on Friday to bring him home from the hospital. Back for the wedding on Saturday, which went quite well overall, but I did catch myself touching the corners of my eyes a couple times, during which I told myself, “you shouldn’t be touching your eyes.” I didn’t listen to myself. I touched them anyway. Sunday evening my throat began hurting a bit, and by this past Wednesday, as those who gathered for worship can attest, I was not exactly well. I had a virtual appointment with a doctor to see if I needed antibiotics—the answer to that was no, but I needed to cancel my worship service at the nursing home Thursday afternoon. Instead, I was ordered to rest, which I did.
My illness was viral, likely contracted as I touched my eyes without first washing my hands, and exacerbated by a lack of rest.
I’m generally very happy with my immune system, but it can’t work to its full potential if I ignore safe practices, like washing my hands regularly, and getting enough rest, and keeping my unwashed hands away from my eyes, my nose, and my mouth.
Today’s world is being tested with a new virus that seems to spread not only among people, but also other animals. It seems to be concentrated in China, but has also appeared in other countries, including our own. Some have called the practices to which China is subscribing draconian, with stadium-sized isolation wards, cities locked-down, and other practices reminiscent of the plague.
Our country’s response is interesting, as some seem more interested in the volatility of the stock market than the possible illness that faces us.
We here at Concordia have received a poster through our association with the Parish Nurses (thank you, Jean) that describes safe practices, which have actually not changed. The poster also reminds us not to be afraid. It’s displayed on the parish nurse stand in the back, on the wall by her bulletin board, and on the main board in the hall to the library.
Safe practices include that when sick, we are to stay at home, cover our coughs and sneezes with tissues which are then properly disposed, and to wash our hands with soap and water, using hand sanitizer only if soap and water are not available. If we see a doctor, we should let them know of our symptoms upon arriving, so that masks can help to keep us from infecting others.
As I said, this is no different than it has always been, other than if you believe you have been exposed to Coronavirus and develop symptoms, you should call ahead before visiting the doctor. Coronavirus seems to spread like viruses have always done, so cover your coughs and sneezes, clean your hands often, and wear a facemask if sick in order to protect others.
Simply, this is a test of our willingness to follow the safe practices we know. We really ought to wash our hands before we touch our faces, or we will be more likely to suffer from the viruses in our community, especially the new ones that arrive, because we’ve not yet built up any immunity to them.
Yet it is also a test of our faith, of our trust. Do we really believe God’s word as provided on the posters and referenced in Joshua 1:19 “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go”?
It is not bad to stock up on a few non-perishable items, just in case we get to a point where all of us are encouraged to shelter in place. However, we do not need to panic, buying 12 containers of sanitizer in an attempt to give ourselves advantage over others. God is with us throughout, and we shall overcome, and celebrate the feast of God’s grace now and forever, here and beyond. We shall rise with Christ.
Now, to my title. I’ve called this message the testing of Jesus, when we are most likely to recognize this story as the tempting of Jesus. What’s the difference?
In Greek and in Hebrew there is no linguistic difference at all. Any difference must be determined by context. In English, the difference can be immense. If you are tempting someone, you’re wanting them to fail. If you’re testing, you’re likely desiring success. You want your children to learn to read, so you test them, first on letters, then on simple words, and on until extended reading becomes possible, if not absolutely enjoyable (and we all differ on that!).
So, we could look at this story as a part of the battle between good and evil, with Jesus (the good) overcoming the temptations of the devil (the evil). If we limit the story in that way, though, we neglect what got Jesus out into the wilderness in the first place. Our story tells us that Jesus was led by the spirit into the wilderness in order to be tempted by the devil.
Can you imagine that the spirit intended for Jesus to fail? Of course not! Rather, I believe Jesus is given situations that will give him strength and training in order to face the ordeals he will encounter throughout his ministry. Turning the stones to bread merely to satisfy his own hunger would simply short-circuit what it means for regular people like us, or impoverished people with so much less, to be hungry. Jesus realized that it wasn’t as simple as just waving a magic wand to make it all go away.
Likewise, laughing in the face of health crises by throwing yourself down from the tower of Concordia would be as stupid as licking the swabs used to test for suspected cases of the Coronavirus. God’s love for us doesn’t guarantee we will not die. Instead, it promises resurrection!
The final test according to this account was for Jesus to worship the devil, in order to avoid all the hard work ahead, all of the arguments with the Pharisees and Scribes, the mockery, the flogging, the excruciating death among the lowest of criminals…
Of course Jesus said it doesn’t work that way. How can people be taught to worship the one God if Jesus himself fails to do so?
Jesus passed every test. This made him better prepared to follow his calling, to do what needed doing.
I believe the Coronavirus is part of the way we are tested, part of the way that we can learn how better to be prepared for what the future will bring us in this world.
Carl Goldman is in his late 60s, and in quite good health, except for the fact that he is one who caught the Coronavirus on the Diamond Princess in Yokohama. He’s found it much less debilitating than the bronchitis he suffered several years ago. He says that it’s surreal how so many people are panicking about something that he has, which is causing him so little difficulty (besides being quarantined). He assures us that it won’t help anybody if we all panic.
I agree. Let us be faithful, and follow smart health practices, so that any test we face will help us to be better prepared for life in this world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.