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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

Three Voices in the Desert

Oasis, week 1 of 6 in a Lenten sermon series on the way God always provides more than enough, preached Feb 26, 2023 at the 9:30am Worship service


For Lent, our sermon series is called, “Oasis.” For each week of Lent, we are going to highlight one biblical character, and see how God provided for them in the desert, the wilderness of life.

Our first character is Jesus. Just before our reading today, Jesus was baptized. Jesus then came out of the water and a voice spoke out loud to all those gathered, saying “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” What will be the first thing Jesus does now?

Let’s hear the word of the Lord from…

Scripture Matthew 4:1-11

4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by tou diabolou, the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was famished. 3 Ha peirazon, the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But Jesus answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

5 Then ho diabolos, the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying 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.’ ”

7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

8 Again, ho diabolos, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, 9 and said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

10 Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.’ ”

11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God)


The same Spirit that just a moment ago settled on Jesus like a dove “leads” him into the desert, the wilderness. Brace yourselves. We are going to be doing some Greek today, and the Greek here for what the Spirit does to Jesus is “anago” which means to lead, or to bring. But the word also means to launch, like a ship, as if the baptism of Jesus has speeches and applause, then Holy Spirit smashes a bottle over Jesus and launches him into the stormy seas of life.

Have you ever thought of baptism as a launching? We tend to see the dove-settling-sweetly part of baptism. We Oooo and Ahhh at the baptism of infants, and catch our breath at the baptism of adults. But how often do we see baptism as launching into the stormy seas of life? I get the feeling we’d rather see baptism as attaching our ropes to the strong, secure docks of God’s heavenly shores. But “anago” suggests just the opposite, suggests baptism is a cutting loose of all our ropes, a pulling up of all our anchors, and a launching of us into this wild world where God’s breath, Spirit blows us wherever it may.

Now, why does Holy Spirit land gently on and affirm Jesus in one scene, and then in the very next launch him into the dangerous wilderness? The Greek word there is peirazo, translated here, "to be tested". Peirazo literally means to try, to at-tempt, to test, as in to find out whether or not a thing can be done... Back in engineering, I might make a sketch, make a prototype, set up an attempt or test to see if my design could solve a problem. That would be peirazo. Now, to test, attempt, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. A doctor runs tests so she can find out how to help us get better. A teacher tests to find out what we know, so he can teach us what we’re missing. A parent will let go of a toddler's hands, to test whether or not the child will attempt to stand, or even walk. In fact, the parent HAS to let go of the child's hands in order for that child to ever learn how to walk. In those cases, testing, attempting can be expressions of trust and growth.

Tempting, on the other hand, is a bit more malicious, like enticing someone at their weak point, like lighting up in front of someone who’s just quit smoking, enjoying the inhale, blowing it right into their face, and then saying, “O, that’s right, you just quit. You sure you don’t want one?”

I've heard people talk about God "testing" them, and I flinch. To live, we will all be tested. I don’t believe God tortures us with tests. Tests of life happen because we were given by God the gift of life itself, and life can be a testing, trying journey sometimes.

But in those testing times, we are sometimes tempted to abandon or threaten God. In testing times, we may hear voices that dare us to doubt, that demand to know why. We may feel tempted to blame God, give up on God, give in to anger, become cynical or pessimistic. God is not maliciously testing or tempting us. The tests come from life itself. The temptations come from someone, something else, not God.

This one word, peirazo, has enough ambiguity in it to be used for both tests, attempts to live life and temptations to resist life… And in our text, this one word IS used for both, both what God in Holy Spirit does to Jesus by launching him into the wilderness, AND what the first voice in the wilderness does to Jesus with the stone. Holy Spirit sends Jesus into the wilderness to peirazo Jesus. Then the peirazon dares Jesus to turn stone into bread.

The first temptation of Jesus in the desert reflects this difference between attempt or test, and tempt, if we translate it better. Jesus is the Son of God. There is no doubt about that at this point. It was announced out loud for all to hear at his baptism. The peirazon, the tempter doesn’t TEST to see IF this is the Son of God, but does TEMPT the Son of God to misuse his power. There’s a small Greek work ei, we heard translated as “if”. “Ei”… “If you are the Son of God…” But the word ei can also mean, “Since.” I think, to better reflect how these are temptations, these verses should be translated, “Since you are the Son of God…” Hear that difference? “Since you are the Son of God you can do some amazing things. Why don’t you use that power for your own benefit?” The tempter wasn’t testing to see IF Jesus was the son of God, but was tempting THE Son of God to misuse his power. Peirazon, the tempter, is the first word for this voice that seeks to tempt us away from doing God's will in the dry places of life.

There are two other terms used to describe this voice in the wilderness. The second term for the voice Jesus hears in the desert is the Greek word diabolos, and we heard it translated as the devil. What modern English word do you hear in diabolos? Diabolical? Diabolos is an adjective, not a noun, which means "prone to slander, or lie, or falsely accuse," someone who bends truth, twists things to put blame somewhere it doesn't belong, spins. It wasn’t a name or a proper noun, just an adjective and could be given to anyone who exhibited those qualities. We've since enhanced the word diabolical to include some kind of evil genius quality, masterminding some disgustingly clever way to do evil without the m people even realizing it. But you get the point... diabolos isn't a special genius being. Its anyone who twists things, and tries to put blame where it doesn't belong.

This happens in relationships when our minds forget the positive things someone has said or done, and we focus only on one negative. It happens in media, when pundits stroke their audience and report only language or stats their audience already agrees with, to grow media market share, instead of speaking hard truth. We know what it’s like to hear distorted versions as truth, for diabolos to whisper and for someone to become more upset or polarized or confrontational, instead of calm and open-minded. That’s the kind of voice that comes to Jesus in the second situation. Ho diabolos takes a sound bite from scripture and twists it, spins it to try and trick Jesus into using his power for himself instead of for God and God’s kingdom.

That’s two. The Peirazon tempted Jesus to use his gifts for his own benefit. The Diabolos twisted truth, daring Jesus to make God bend to him, instead of bending himself toward God. Then, a third voice, that Jesus calls Satan.

The word Satan is not really an original Greek word at all, but a borrowing of a Hebrew word. The consonants sin tet nun in Hebrew, STN to us, meant adversary, opposer, opponent, enemy, anyone who obstructs and resists. Again, its not really a noun, or a proper name, but an adjective. Remember, Jesus uses that word for Peter when Peter opposes Jesus' journey toward Jerusalem. So we can hear this term, satan, as an adjective Jesus would use on any voice that opposes the will of God.

Three terms describe the voices Jesus faced in the desert… tempter, slanderer, and opposer. These three expressions represent our human struggle. We are tempted to misuse our skills and resources just for me, just for us, and sometimes against others. We believe spin and half-truths. We choose channels that lie and spin if they tell us what we want to believe, instead of reporting to us hard truths. We make choices to give ourselves more control and freedom over our lives, instead of giving our lives in worship, community, study, and service to grow God’s beloved community.

In the desert, Jesus was tempted to misuse his power. Jesus heard words of scripture twisted daring him to challenge and mistrust God. Jesus imagined the success and power he could have for himself. Those voices came even to Jesus when he was in the desert, just like they come to us as we wander the dry places of life. Matthew calls them tempter, slanderer, opposer.

Which voices in our lives suggest we take shortcuts for ourselves instead of going the long way for others? Which voices distort truth and keep us angry or numb, so we work against others or quit working at all, instead of working with one another for peace, justice, and love? Which voices oppose us and resist us when we dare try to build God’s kingdom, and tell us we could be more successful if we’d do our own thing?

Some blame “the devil”. The devil keeps me from forgiving. The devil makes me lean on drug or drink for my happiness. The devil makes me yell or lose my temper. The devil makes me worry until I can't sleep. It's the devil’s fault that I’m a workaholic, or that I don't have a job.

My friends, that is a total copout. When we do not give, love, serve, follow God, that is not someone else’s fault, but our own. When we give in to easier paths instead of God’s path, that isn’t some tempter’s fault, but our own. When we believe the lie instead of submit to truth, that isn’t diabolos’ fault, but our own. We when give up serving others and gather resources just for ourselves, that isn’t some adversary’s fault, but our own.

If we try to put blame for our sin on anybody or anything else, some tempter peirazon, liar diabolos, or opposer satan, we reveal ourselves as our own enemy. The blame for sin is not on some mythological, fictional red-skinned, horned creature. Even Jesus heard the voices. There in the desert, Jesus felt the temptations like we do, but did not submit. Jesus heard the lies, but did not believe them. Jesus imagined individual freedom, but chose communal connection. There in the desert, Jesus was human, yet stayed faithful to God when those voices whispered, and God provided angels, friends, family, strangers to love him and support beyond the desert toward Promised Land. God does that for us too.

If you are in a desert place, if you hear those voices, bark them back, and gather others around you who will come beside you in the desert, stay with you until you are ready, and walk you out of the desert back to fullness of life.

Amen? Amen.



Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow, be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.

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