More Than These

Sermon on Matthew 4:1-11.

Today marks the first Sunday in our church’s journey through the 40 days of Lent. Christians have traditionally thought about this season as a time for “repentance” in preparation for the Feast of Easter. For many people, the word “repent” conjures up the mental image of a televangelist shouting through the TV screen in Elizabethan English: “REPENT of thy sins, for the end of days draweth nigh!”

If we were somehow able to ask that preacher, through the TV, what he thinks the word “repent” means, he would probably say it means to fall on our knees and grovel before the Almighty, wallowing in guilt for our many transgressions. For many people, both inside and outside the church, that’s what the word “repent” means. There’s only one problem with this definition: That’s not what the word “repent” means.

In the New Testament, which was written in Greek, the word that gets translated as “repent” is metanoia. If we break this word down into its constituent parts, we get meta, which literally means, “change,” and noia, which means, “mind.” So, the word “repent,” in its original meaning, actually means, “to change your mind” or “to think differently.” “Thinking differently,” rather than “wallowing in guilt,” is the definition of “repentance” I’d like us to keep in mind as we begin our journey through Lent, toward Easter.

In today’s gospel, Jesus invites us to think differently about who we are, as human beings. This story, ostensibly about Jesus’ temptation by the devil in the wilderness, is also a story about all of us. The temptations that the devil puts before Jesus are not mainly about moral evil, per se, but the instinctive draw to identify with one part of our nature instead of the whole people we were created to be.

In the first temptation, the devil says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Now, I think we can all agree there’s nothing morally wrong with making bread. After all, if Jesus had the power to do so, wouldn’t he use it to end world hunger? The deeper meaning of this temptation becomes clear when we see it as a symbol of the human instinct for survival.

According to evolutionary brain science, the basic survival instinct is located in the brain stem and cerebellum. This part of our brains, called “the reptilian brain,” evolved earlier than any other part. The reptilian brain is concerned with the three S’s: Safety, Sustenance, and Sex.

Safety is the fight or flight response. If you’re alone at night and hear a loud noise behind you, your stomach will probably jump. In that moment, adrenaline will start coursing through your body, preparing you to run fast or fight hard, depending on what the situation requires. You’ll be scanning the area for the cause of the noise because this is the instinct God gave you in order to keep yourself safe from danger.

Sustenance is the craving you have for sugars, fats, and salts. These items were rare in the time before McDonald’s existed, so our evolutionary ancestors developed a craving to consume as much of them as possible. This instinct kept them alive through the lean times, so they generously passed them down to us.

Sex, of course, is the way in which we pass our genetic material to the next generation. Without reproduction, a species is in danger of immediate extinction, so God gifted us with this natural desire in order to continue to the story of humanity for another generation.

Safety, sustenance, and sex are all very normal and natural parts of our humanity. But they, by themselves, cannot create the kind of abundant life that God intends for us. If we live only by the power of these basic instincts, we will quickly tear ourselves apart and damage our capacity for human flourishing, so God gave us additional instincts to hold our animal urges in check. This is why Jesus quotes the Torah, in response to the devil, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ “ He was saying that there is more to life than the gratification of our natural impulses.

In the second temptation, the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. He says to Jesus, “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.’ “ This symbolizes the drive that humans have for affection and esteem.

The pinnacle of the Temple was the most public place in Judaism at that time. If Jesus performed a death-defying miracle in that place, the crowd would surely see it and give him their undivided attention, not to mention their admiration. In scientific terms, this is the social instinct, corresponding to the brain’s limbic system, which evolved tens of millions of years ago in the first mammals. This part of the brain holds our more basic instincts in check. For example, if I eat all the food without sharing, mate with whoever I want, or kill anyone who makes me angry, I run the risk of being kicked out of my family group. The social instinct balances out my selfishness and makes it possible for us to live in groups and families.

The problem is that this instinct, by itself, causes problems like jealousy, people-pleasing, and codependency. If we live our whole lives according to our need to be liked, we end up compromising on things that really matter and divide ourselves into tribes that battle for supremacy. There is more to life than being admired. This is why Jesus quotes the Torah a second time, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ “

In the final temptation, the devil takes Jesus to the top of a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. He said to Jesus, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” This is the temptation to power, which corresponds with the most recently evolved part of the human brain: the neocortex.

The neocortex is the computer part of the brain. This is where we do all the things we think of as “thinking.” We make calculations and predictions, envision hypothetical scenarios, and develop plans for action. Humans have an amazing ability, more than any other animal, to recognize patterns of cause and effect. We can formulate universal moral values that transcend our basic instincts and tribal loyalties. Through the power of reason, human beings have cured diseases, explored the solar system, and developed systems of political and economic organization that govern the whole planet.

But, here too, there is a dark side. Those same rational abilities have also given us the power to deceive ourselves, manipulate others, create weapons of mass destruction, and develop social systems that privilege the greed of the few over the needs of the many.

Jesus says “No” to all of that;
Jesus says “No” to racism and sexism;
Jesus says “No” to homophobia and transphobia;
Jesus says “No” to socialist oppression and capitalist exploitation;
Jesus says “No” to mass extinction;
Jesus says “No” to men who use their positions of power in order to take sexual advantage of the women who work for them;
Jesus says “No” to unarmed black men being gunned down by police officers;
Jesus says “No” to churches who tell their teenagers they are going to hell for being gay or trans;
Jesus says “No” to immigration systems that put children in cages;
Jesus says “No” to countries who build nuclear bombs when their schools can’t afford textbooks;
Jesus says “No” to a world where children die of malaria, for lack of a 25 cent vaccination.
Jesus says “No” to all of that.
Jesus says, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ “

All of these temptations lead us back to one question: “Who are you?” When the devil approaches Jesus with these temptations, he begins with a challenge, “If you are the Son of God…”

Bear in mind that, in the passage immediately before the one we read today, Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan. When “he came up from the water,” the Scriptures say, “suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ “

Jesus was able to resist the devil’s temptations to identify with his survival instincts, his need for social status, and his desire for power because he knew who he really was, as God’s beloved Son. The very same thing is true of you, today.

You, whoever you are, are the beloved child of God.
You are more than a bundle of cravings for rage, lust, and gluttony;
you are the beloved child of God.
You are more than your need for social esteem and affection;
you are the beloved child of God.
You are more than your desire for power and control;
you are the beloved child of God.

All of these are parts of you that deserve to be welcomed with compassion, but none of them gets to dominate the whole,
because you are more than these things;
you are the beloved child of God.

Any inner voice that tempts you to believe otherwise is the original liar from the pit of hell. Don’t listen to that voice. Listen instead to Jesus, who says, “You are the beloved child of God. Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

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