February 26, 2023
“Bread Alone” — Rev. Brent Gundlah

I watch a lot of TV. I’m not proud to say it, but it’s true. I’ll pretty much give anything a chance (except for The Bachelor, because even I have limits), but there are also periods in which I focus much of my attention on a specific kind of show.

For example, I was fascinated with home improvement shows for a while and then it was classic car shows. More recently, it’s been reruns of “Murder She Wrote.” During one stretch, though, those survival shows really drew me in — you know, the ones where they drop people in the wilderness so we can see how they’ll fare on their own (except for Naked and Afraid, because, like I said, even I have limits).

My interest in these shows was kind of weird because I’m the last person on earth who would ever do such a thing. Don’t get me wrong — I enjoy the great outdoors, I just don’t enjoy it that much. I can’t see myself heading into the wild on my own like that, and maybe that’s why shows about people who did were so interesting to me. Besides, I figured I might learn something useful — like how to start a campfire using a flashlight battery and a shoelace. You never know when you might need to do that.

But I soon grew weary of these shows; I think it was because I realized they were completely contrived. In retrospect, I’m embarrassed by how easily I fell for the illusion. In most cases, there was a whole production crew accompanying these adventurers on their “solo” treks; I mean, someone had to be on the other side of the camera. And if people are recording your voyage for posterity’s sake, then they’re probably not going to let anything too bad happen to you. 

Eventually, I couldn’t watch these shows without thinking that lying somewhere close by but just beyond the camera’s eye was a five-star, all-inclusive resort to which everyone would retreat after a long day of filming. And it was at this point that they pretty much lost me.

These didn’t seem to me like true wilderness experiences, because being in the wilderness involves a certain loss of control. When you’re really out there all alone, you can’t count on anyone to save you. At some point, you need to trust that all of your accumulated knowledge and experience will be enough to get you through. But a true test always carries with it the possibility of failure; and this is why they’re so terrifying.

And this is why the story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness has always seemed strange to me. What kind of test is this, really? He’s Jesus! Is he actually going to fall for any of what the devil is serving up here? Could he ever fail this exam? 

And yet here we find ourselves in this first week of Lent, on another outdoor expedition with Jesus. Last week it was a climb up Transfiguration Mountain with Peter, James, and John; this week it is a trip into the wilderness with devil. This time, however, there are no witnesses, no band of disciples to share in the experience or to corroborate the story. Indeed, the only person who could speak about the details of this particular journey would be Jesus (or, perhaps, the devil but I don’t think the devil gives interviews). 

But maybe the absence of other people in this story is a clue about its purpose. For the Transfiguration, Jesus brought some disciples up the mountain in order to let them in on the secret of his true identity. It’s an intimate scene — there are no crowds there; Jesus and the three disciples are the only ones present (though, I guess, technically, Elijah, Moses and God are there too but I don’t think they give interviews either).

But remember, in both cases, we’re also there. Matthew brought us into this small circle of those in-the-know in order to tell us important things about Jesus because we’re meant to see that he isn’t just another faith-healing wise man; because we need understand who Jesus is; because we’re called to listen to him too. 

Matthew invites us into the story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness — just like he did with the story of the Transfiguration we heard last week — but this one’s different. There’s no disciples to be found here, there’s no long-deceased prophets, and there’s no voice of God); this time it’s just Jesus, the devil… and us. Matthew brings us into this far less-crowded space so that we might learn something about Jesus, and learn something about ourselves.

Because even though this story about temptation and testing about Jesus, it’s about us too. But how could that be? Jesus moves among the desert, the temple and the mountaintop almost magically; we could never do any of that on our own.

And Jesus is tempted by things that we will likely never encounter; not many of us, I imagine, have been offered the ability to turn stone to bread, or been presented with the opportunity to rule the world. Jesus argues face-to-face with the devil himself; I won’t speak for you, but I’ve never done that. 

As difficult as forty days of heat and hunger must have been for Jesus, and despite the fact that the devil comes at him with some pretty incredible stuff, Jesus doesn’t fail this test (and maybe this shouldn’t surprise us; he is Jesus, after all). Jesus doesn’t assert himself and his own will over God and God’s will.

I know that I’ve been successfully tempted to do exactly that — and by things far less enticing than what Jesus encounters here. We’ve all asserted ourselves and our will over God and God’s will — that’s the whole point. We are the ones who are being tested here — and we generally fail the test. That’s why this story is so powerful.

Part of what Matthew means for us to take away from this story (and from the Gospel in general) is that Jesus remains faithful to God no matter what; he continues to trust in God despite encountering unimaginable adversity and what had to be an overwhelming temptation to avoid it.

The Jesus we see throughout Matthew’s Gospel is an example for us to follow when we find ourselves in the midst of our own wildernesses, whatever and wherever they may be. 

Jesus doesn’t rise to Satan’s bait to change stones into bread in order to demonstrate his own authority, but later in the gospel story he does make food for five thousand people out of five loaves and two fish. The key difference in that case is that the feeding miracle Jesus actually chooses to perform is not for his own benefit but rather for the good of others. This is the take away for us; this is the right answer to the test: don’t listen to the devil’s call to assert yourself, listen to God’s call to love your neighbor. 

Jesus doesn’t ever summon the angels to save him — either here or when he’s later faced with the terror of the cross — though he certainly could do that. The angels show up in both cases (in the latter, after Jesus has already died) — not because Jesus commands them to, but because God says it’s time. But given the power to change the outcome by ourselves, how many of us would actually choose to wait on God? 

Faced with the possibility of tragedy or sickness or death, either for ourselves or those whom we love, how many of us wouldn’t call upon those angels if we could? We say it here in church every single week as we recite the Lord’s Prayer, but would we really be willing to endure what the phrase “your will be done” might mean for us if we had the power not to?

At some level, at least, this story of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness is a test for us, and all of the questions on this test seem to be variants of a same basic one that we hear all the time these days: “What would Jesus do?” In this story and throughout the rest of his Gospel, Matthew provides us with the answer to that question at various times in Jesus’s life so that we might think about applying to the circumstances of our own lives.

So why do we dependably fail this test — as individuals and as groups — time after time? Why don’t we worship God with all our hearts, souls and minds? Why don’t we love our neighbors as ourselves? Why do we constantly put ourselves — and our own needs and desires — ahead of God and neighbor?

Maybe it’s because, even though we’re given all the answers, taking the test still isn’t easy. It’s not about simply writing down or speaking the correct answer — it is about living the answer. And living the answer generally involves real sacrifice on our part, which is difficult for us when we tend to trust in ourselves and the forces of this world more than we trust in God.

This story of Christ’s temptation reminds us that there still is a whole lot of distance between what Jesus would do and what we would do or, said slightly differently, between what we should do and what we would do. The wilderness in which we find ourselves provides endless obstacles that make it difficult for us to even see a path forward, let alone bridge that wide divide between would and should.

Are we ever going to understand that we are part of something bigger than ourselves? Are we ever going to figure out that placing our trust in God — you know, like Jesus did — is what will enable us to see where we need to go and empower us to get there.

For our own good, and for the good of all God’s people everywhere, may it be so.