Epiphany 2 (NL1) John B. Valentine
Matthew 4:1-18 January 15, 2023
“JUST SAY ‘NO’”
Could someone please explain to me the logic of this:
What is the first word that children ... little kids ... learn to say?
Maybe “mama” ... maybe “dada” ... maybe “bottle” or “dog” ... right?
There are a whole lot of words that kids first learn to say ... aren’t there?
But what is the first word that toddlers really learn to utilize?
What word is it that kids really first discover the power of?
That’s easy ... isn’t it? IT’S THE WORD ‘NO!’
∙ Do you want to go to bed? NO!
∙ Would you like to try these vegetables? NO!
∙ Could you help clean up? NO!
By the time they’ve reached two ... most every child out there has mastered the art of saying “no” ..... with their hands ... with their voices ... even with their bodies!
But now here’s what puzzles me:
If saying “no!” is the first verbal communication skill that most of us master ... if by the “terrible twos” every one of us has the art of saying “no!”down pat ...
Why do we have such a difficult time saying “no!” when we become ‘grown-ups’?
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Now granted ... there was a time ... back in the day ... when First Lady Nancy Reagan insisted that it was easy for kids and adults to say “no!” ... but is it really?
∙ Is it easy to say “no!” to that last lonely cookie in the cookie-jar?
∙ Is it easy to say “no!” to pulling out the credit card to get that one little purchase that we absolutely positively ‘need’?
∙ Is it easy for us to say “no!” to whatever it is ... be it electronic or material or relational or chemical ... that ... for the next few moments ... may make us “happy”?
You see .... it seems as though ... while we may be well able to say “no!” to all sorts of things that are good for us ... like exercise and diet-control and financial restraint and sun screen and prayer-time and all that ...
We have an incredibly HARD time saying “no!” to most of those very things that aren’t so good for us.
Which is where this story we read as this morning’s gospel lesson comes into play.
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I mean ... let’s take a look at what happens here in Matthew 4.
Jesus is at the beginning point of his ministry.
• Matthew ... chapter one ... was about Jesus’ genealogy and birth ...
• Matthew ... chapter two ... was about events that took place when Jesus was just a child ...
• Matthew ... chapter three ... is all about Jesus’ baptism ...
And so here ... in chapter four ... Jesus is thus ready to get to what it is that God has sent him into the world to do ...
And how does our text begin?
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil.”
This is going to be all about testings and temptations.
But pay close attention to HOW that testing occurs .....
Does Satan attack Jesus ... or assault him ... or abuse him?
No .... he offer him gifts ... GOOD gifts.
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What ... pray tell ... is the first gift that Satan offers to Jesus?
Not an insignificant temptation to someone who has been on a forty-day-long hunger strike!
What gift is more basic ... more needful ... than bread?
Right at the very bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs ... along with breathing and water and sleep and the like ... is food ... bread ... the stuff of life ... the stuff you can’t live without.
And how is it that Jesus responds to this offer of something to eat?
Jesus turns it down.
“It is written,‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
So then what happens? What’s behind Door Number Two?
It’s ‘self-esteem’ ... isn’t it?
Pushing up toward the higher levels of Maslow’s pyramid.
Self-esteem ... confidence ... achievement ... prestige and the like.
“Confirm this growing sense of awareness that you really ARE special ... Jesus.
I mean ... John said that there was one who was coming after him who was way much greater than he is ...
And when you were baptized in the river you heard those words .... ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’ ...
Don’t you really want to KNOW just how special you are???”
But again ... Jesus turns him down ... saying
“Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
And finally ... behind Door Number Three ... there’s “Power”!
“Look, Jesus. You’re a good fellow, right?
• I KNOW that you want to make a positive difference in your community ...
• I KNOW that you want to right everything that is wrong and root out injustice and inequity and corruption in our society ...
• I KNOW that your heart is in the right place ...
• And I know that what you really need to do that is POWER!”
Let’s be honest here ... folks. We live in a society that values power above everything else.
I mean ... just look at what has happened in our nation’s capital over the course of the past ten days ...
• Last week we had that agonizing week-long drama in the House of Representatives that witnessed Kevin McCarthy being ever-so-close to grabbing the reins of power in the Congress ... and the House Freedom Caucus saying ‘not-so-fast’ and asserting their power over him ...
• And this week we have that George Santos fellow ... possibly the most egregious fraud to EVER be elected to Congress ... NOT being thrown out by the Ethics Committee precisely because Kevin McCarthy needs George Santos’ vote to retain his own grip on power.
It’s been an ugly testament to just how acutely power corrupts even the best intended of people.
And don’t go telling me that the Democrats wouldn’t have down exactly the same thing if they were the ones holding that razor-thin majority ... because that is what power does.
But how does Jesus respond to this offer of power??
“Away with you, Satan! for it is written,‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
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But pay attention to what is REALLY going on in this story
Here we’ve got the first story of Jesus beginning his adult ministry ... the opening scene of the story ...
and what is noteworthy is not what he accomplishes but what it is that he refuses to do.
The first words we hear this adult empowered Jesus say are “NO!” ... “NO! ... and “NO!”
Now to be sure ... when we want to find out about a person ...
We usually want to know what they believe in ... not what they don’t believe in.
We want to know what a person will do ... not what they won’t do.
We want to know what they say “yes” to ... not what they say “no” to.
But here ... at the beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry in Matthew’s gospel ... Jesus is seen not for what he accepts and affirms ... but what it is that he rejects.
Before Jesus preaches to anybody ... before Jesus heals anybody ... before Jesus lectures anybody ... he utters that simple little word “NO!”
And what he says “No!” to are some of the most cherished possessions of our culture ... money and self-esteem and power.
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Think about it this way.
I haven’t spent a whole lot of time reading since the Pandemic first hit ... but when I do get around to it ... one of my favorite things to read is presidential biographies.
You know ... Washington ... Jefferson ... Lincoln ... and the like.
Anyhow ... in reading a biography of our first president ... I was struck by one particular event in his life that really seemed to give testimony to the kind of man that George Washington was.
At the end of the revolution ... after the war had ended ... Washington laid down his sword ... retired as commander in chief of the army ... and returned to Mount Vernon.
But the amazing thing about that transition that Washington made from soldier back to citizen was that there were a lot of people in the country ... even the majority of people in the country ... who wanted to make Washington king.
But Washington said “No!”
It would have been easy to say “yes” ... it would have been popular to say “yes” ... it would have been profitable to say “yes” ... but Washington said “No!” to being the king
Washington said “No!” ... and dramatically altered the life and the history of the nation that he had fought to found for the better.
On the other hand ... consider Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant man ... a thoughtful man ... a philosopher of a man. And Jefferson knew in heart and mind the evils of slavery in the society in which he lived.
• Jefferson spoke against slavery ...
• Jefferson wrote against slavery ...
• Jefferson lobbied against slavery.
Yet up until the time of his death ... Jefferson could never bring himself to free his own slaves.
He knew it was wrong .... in the depth of his guts he seemed to know that it was wrong ... but he could never bring himself ... for whatever reasons ... to say “No!” to the practice of slavery itself in his own life.
Because sometime saying “No!” seems just too hard.
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Let’s be honest here ... folks. Saying “No!” IS hard.
It’s not so easy to “just say no” to some of the stuff that comes our way.
In this “have it all and have it all now” society in which we live ... saying “no!” is not only unpopular ... it is downright counter-cultural behavior.
But as we begin our own journey with Jesus as we walk through Matthew’s Gospel ... perhaps we need to remember that ... in the face of life’s temptations ... Jesus is willing to say “no” ... “No” for the sake of the world ... “No” for you and for me ...
Jesus says “no” to the things of the world in order to say “yes” to the things of God ...
And he invites those who would follow him to do the same.