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Feb 12, 2017

True North | Bible Study

True North | Bible Study

Passage: Matthew 4:1-11

Speaker: Jerry Deck

Series: True North

Category: Weekend Message

The last few weeks we’ve been talking about the ways in which we respond to the love and grace of Jesus. Another way to put it is that if we are Christians, followers of Jesus, children of God, then how does a Christian, a follower of Jesus, a child of God act? What do we look like in our day-to-day lives? We’ve talked about how we are a people who worship, a people who focus their time on being shaped by Jesus (even just starting at 5 minutes a day) and last week Jon said that we are a people who try and totally surrender ourselves to God. And this week we want to talk about how we are a people who read scripture. Now this may sound really obvious or it may not seem obvious at all or you may wonder why it is important to read scripture if we have the basic gist of the gospel down and if we come to worship a couple of times a month. So, what is the point of reading scripture?

Now, there are lots of different passages that we could use to look at when it comes to the importance of knowing scripture, but I thought that this passage in Matthew was an interesting way to begin looking at this topic. Jesus is out in the wilderness where he has been fasting for 40 days and, not surprisingly, the guy is hungry. I’m usually hungry after about 40 minutes of not eating so you can’t really blame him. At this point Satan shows up, not in the form of a Twinkie like I might expect, but in the form of a being. It’s interesting that in the Greek the root of the word for devil is diabalos, from whence we get our word diabolical. But that word diabolos is also the root word for the Greek word diabellein, which means to split. In other words, the role of the tempter is “to split.” To split apart our relationship with God and our relationship with others. We are continually tempted to do things that will betray our call to be in loving relationship with God and one another, just as Jesus is tempted in our story today.

Satan, the “splitter” if you will, says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Satan realizes that Jesus is hungry and so, of course, thinks this is a good way to seduce Jesus. What’s critical to highlight in this request of Satan is the very first word, “If.” What is Satan doing when he says, “If you are the Son of God?” He is trying to cast doubt on whether or not Jesus really is the Son of God, he is trying to cast doubt on Jesus’ identity as the child of God. Remember, these temptations come right after Jesus was baptized and claimed as God’s own. And this is something we’ve talked about with some regularity which is that we are always tempted to forget our identity, to forget that at our core we are children of God. What Jesus understands is that Satan, the splitter, is tempting him to try and do something that proves his identity, that proves he is God’s son, just as we are oftentimes tempted to prove our identity to prove that we are children of God.

Growing up in the Pentecostal world, I often felt the pressure to do something to prove that I had really been claimed by God. For us it was speaking in tongues. If you speak in tongues then you know for sure that you are God’s child. People would surround me at worship services and watch and wait and beseech you to start talking in tongues so that it could be proven who you really were (that’ll leave some emotional scars!). It was a sense of, do this miracle, and then you and everyone will know for sure. Of course, we struggle with this temptation in many other ways as well. If we go to worship every Sunday or give this much money or join this church committee or read the Bible, then we may have the peace of knowing that we are God’s children.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that we shouldn’t go to worship or give money or read the Bible. Jesus did do amazing miracles with food, like feeding 5,000 with two loaves of bread and some fish or turn water into wine, but he didn’t do those things in order to be assured of who he was just like we cannot go to worship or give or read the Bible in order to be assured of our identity. If we begin to try and become assured of God’s love and grace by doing things for God then we will become more and split away from God because we will begin to see God as a taskmaster rather than a loving God. Jesus gives us a remarkable gift in this first temptation by refusing to be swayed by the notion that we must do anything else to receive God’s love and to be claimed as his own. Because if he had said yes then we would be spending all of our lives trying to prove that we are God’s which is as hopeless, quite frankly, as trying to turn stones into bread.

In the 2nd temptation Jesus is taken up to the pinnacle of the temple and told to throw himself off the temple because as Satan says with a certain slyness, the scripture says that the angels will catch you and not let harm come to you. One of the things this temptation helps us to see is that just because you use scripture doesn’t mean that you’re right. In other words, it is always wise to make sure that we understand the context of scripture and to read it within the whole scope of the Bible and to allow, as John Calvin would suggest, scripture to help interpret other scripture. One of the things I see with great frequency, from the right and left (if I can be so blunt) is people coming in with their own agenda and then taking scripture and bashing it on their opponents usually with little regard for understanding the whole of scripture. As they’re bashing their opponents you can’t help but wonder whether or not the passages that speak of loving your neighbors and your enemies and honoring others over yourself (as we saw in Romans 12 last week) haven’t been conveniently cut out and left inside their bedside table. 

The other thing that this 2nd temptation reveals, as Tom Long points out, is similar to the first temptation in that in so jumping Jesus would be trying to prove that he can trust that he is who his baptism says he is. We, of course, are tempted to give into these temptations with great frequency. If things go well in my life, if I am spared from this or that pain then I will know that God loves me. The problem with giving into this temptation is that it ultimately puts us in the place of God. We assume that God wants to act in this particular way toward us and so we test to make sure and if the test doesn’t work out then we question God. But, as Jesus says to Satan, we are not called to test God, but to trust him, 

Satan then moves on to a high mountain and shows Jesus the kingdoms of the world and tells Jhim that all of these things could be his if he will merely fall down and worship him. It’s been pointed out that the seduction of this temptation is that if Jesus says yes then he gets to avoid the difficult journey that lay ahead of him. He gets to avoid the betrayal, the struggle, the sacrifice, the cross. Just bow down and you can get what you want without the cost. But, Jesus knows that, because of the messiness and sin of this world, the only way to bring peace is to be willing to sacrifice, to suffer even.

This is, of course, a temptation that we all face is it not? Something what oftentimes fascinates me is that when we see how things should be versus how they are, our first inclination is to figure out how to get more power, oftentimes political, so that then we can make changes. But, Dale Bruner makes this great observation that in these temptations, Satan takes Jesus higher and higher, from the wilderness to the temple roof to the mountaintop, getting further and further away from the people, from their suffering, whereas the Spirit of God takes Jesus down into the wilderness. “The Holy Spirit’s way is not so much up in to the fascinatingly great as it is down into the ordinarily mundane and into the way of the cross and of suffering.” In other words, we might be wise to make sure before we try and gain more power that we have spent enough time in the midst of the ordinariness and messiness of our world, suffering on the behalf of those who are in need. Otherwise we very well may end up bowing not to God and God’s kingdom, but to tempter who tells us that change can be done easily and without personal cost. The way of Jesus is the way of the cross.

Now what’s clear in these stories is that temptation is always around us. Temptation to misunderstand our identity, to trust ourselves rather than God, to take the easy road rather than the way of the cross. It’s a bit like we talked about last fall when we discussed the early chapters of Genesis and how there are two different worlds or two different stories. On this side is the way we were created. It tells us that we are children of God, that our identity is found in Christ, that we are loved by God. It also articulates that we can’t take the easy route, but instead the way of the cross. Then on this side is the story of the serpent as we see in Genesis or Satan as we see in Matthew. It whispers to you that you are not loved by God, that your identity is found in what you do or how good you are at something. It seduces you to take the easy way rather than the way of the cross. Two different worlds. Two different stories.

What we see in the temptations of Jesus is that Satan says this is the real world, Jesus, take this way. This is the way to see everything around you. And each time Jesus says, “No, Satan, that is not the way. This is the way. This is the way to understand the world around us.” And how was Jesus able to do that? You’ll notice that he doesn’t just say, “Well, I’m Jesus.” No, each time he counters the claim of the tempter, the seduction of this world by saying, “It’s written in scripture.” It’s written. It’s written. Jesus is able to counter the claims of Satan, the questions about his identity because he has been steeped in scripture. Just like Jon Graybeal talked about last week, he would have been steeped in scripture from a young age and that scripture has given him a structure in which to see the world around him. This is what the Bible does, you see. It’s the bones, if you will, of the story of God’s kingdom and how we are to understand who we are, our story as God’s people.

That’s what makes scripture so alive, I believe. I’ve shared before that I’ve never been a big fan of the statement that the Bible is a like a manual for life. I get why you might say that, but manuals, quite frankly, aren’t really all that interesting. You read them when you’re first starting and then when you need to troubleshoot something, but by and large they stay on your shelf getting dusty or propped up to keep a door open if need be. But when you think about the Bible as a lens, as a way of shaping a whole new way to see the world then it becomes the breath of God that 2nd Timothy says it is. If we just use scripture from time to time then rather than having a robust, fully-developed story that gives us a picture of the kingdom of God, we have a kind of wilty, fuzzy idea of how things are supposed to look and when difficult times come we easily then become consumed by this world over here.

But, how exactly do we allow scripture to develop a more robust sense of this story? Jesus’ answer to Satan’s 1st temptation begins to give us a clue. He says that one doesn’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. For Jesus, he saw the scripture as not just something to stay in the head, but something that nourished him, that he chewed on, that he ate. Eugene Peterson wrote this great book called, Eat This Book, that has been really helpful in my way at looking at scripture. He talks about how the word in the Old Testament that we usually translate as meditate is literally the word “growl.” It’s like a dog with a bone, that is chewing on a bone with such delight that he is making growling noises. It’s easy, of course, to just read scripture like you would read what’s on the bone, but it’s a different picture altogether to think about reading scripture like a dog chewing on a bone.

In scripture there are several occasions where this kind of eating imagery is used when it comes to scripture. Jeremiah says, “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight…” [Jeremiah 15:16] Ezekiel is told to eat the scroll that he was given, to have it fill his stomach. [Ezekiel 3:3] Then in Revelation we see John not just reading, but eating the book. As Peterson puts it, it gets into John’s nerve endings, his reflexes, his imagination. The words are tasted, chewed, savored, swallowed and digested. In this way the Bible does not merely inform us, but it transforms us. Again, Peterson says, when this happens we not only know more, but we become more. It is in the chewing and the eating and the digesting that scripture begins to shape this kingdom world around us so that we are not standing in this world over here and dabbling in God’s kingdom, but we are living in the kingdom of God in the face of the temptations to go back to that world. 

So, how do we chew and ingest scripture? One of the images that came to my mind is that it’s a bit like learning the game of basketball. There are lots of good ways to really learn the game of basketball. One way is to sit down with a coach, perhaps an old, grizzled coach who has the experience to tell you lots of things you wouldn’t otherwise know or see. So, you can take scripture and chew it slowly by just reading a few verses and using a coach, like a good Bible commentary and allowing that coach to reveal things to you about the scripture that you might not otherwise see. Now, there are good commentators and bad commentators, just like there are good coaches and bad coaches. You may not want a commentator who is going to yell at you or throw a chair when you make a mistake (!). I have a few that I like and after service you will be given a card that has some of those listed. You may like them or you may not, but perhaps it’ll be a start for you to growl and nibble on scripture a bit more deeply.

Another way to learn about the game of basketball is to sit down with a bunch of buddies and watch and talk about a game. Each person will see something different and bring their own experience lens to what they’re seeing. Likewise, another way to chew on scripture and allow it seep more deeply into your tendons is to sit down with friends and others and discuss and wrestle with scripture. Again, each person will see something different and brings their own experiences and lens to the scripture. We do this in Sunday School Classes and in home groups. One of the things we’ve decided to do during Lent, which begins in 2.5 weeks is to read through all 4 of the gospels (which is reading a couple or so chapters a day). As we do this together we will have opportunities online and otherwise to discuss what stood out to us, what we learned, what we struggled with. But reading in community is always a helpful way to ingest the words of scripture more deeply. 

Of course, one of the best ways to learn the game of basketball is to actually play it. There is no substitute for getting out there and practicing. And, as we talked about a few weeks ago, one of the most critical ways that scripture becomes more than just a book to read, but becomes a part of who we are, is by practicing it. There is this great quote by Julian Green that I think gets straight to the point. “The story of the manna gathered and set aside by the Hebrews is deeply significant. It so happened that the manna rotted when it was kept. And perhaps this means that all spiritual reading which is not consumed-by prayer and by works-ends by causing a sort of rotting inside us. You die with a head full of fine sayings and a perfectly empty heart.” When we are practicing what we read in scripture, then we are chewing on it. Our muscles and tendons and joints are working out the words into our daily lives which means that we grow in Christ in ever deeper ways.

The Bible gives us a language, it provides the bones, the structure, of a new way to see, it paints us a picture of the Kingdom of God. But that picture, that story, will not just leap into us. No, we have to chew on it, to growl it, to ingest it. In just a moment we are going to call up our third graders for their Bible dedication and the one of the things that the parents are going to say to their child is that they hope the Bible will “penetrate their soul.” That’s great language. My hope and prayer is that the Bible will continue to penetrate all of our souls, so that we will not give into the temptation to go back to this world where Satan so desires us to go. Eat, growl, chew on scripture, that we might be nourished in the beautifully tasting Kingdom of God. May it be so. Amen.