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Sermons

Temptation

3/5/2017 First Sunday in Lent The text is Matthew 4:1-11.

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Following Jesus’ baptism by John, Jesus goes into the wilderness.  He goes there, not for the reasons you might expect.  He doesn’t go there to spend some time alone, praying and contemplating his ministry.  NO!  Jesus is led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  Jesus is led by the same Spirit of God that had descended upon Him after God spoke from heaven, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Now, sending Jesus into the wilderness, alone, without food and companionship, doesn’t sound much like love to me.  Temptation is a bad thing.  It’s a stumbling block you would not purposely place in the path of someone you love.  And yet, it might make a little more sense if we look at temptation a little differently.  For, the word “temptation” in the New Testament also means a trial or a struggle.   And sometimes, it’s important to go through tests before stepping into the unknown.

When the Union Pacific Railroad was being constructed, an elaborate trestle bridge was built across a large canyon in the West.  Wanting to test the bridge, the builder loaded a train with enough extra cars and equipment to double its normal payload. The train was then driven to the middle of the bridge, where it stayed an entire day. One worker asked, “Are you trying to break this bridge?” “No,” the builder replied, “I’m trying to prove that the bridge won’t break.” In the same way, the temptations Jesus faced weren’t designed to see if He would sin, but to prove that He wouldn’t.  (Adapted from Today in the Word, March 14, 1991).

It was important that Jesus experience a time of trial, a time of testing, before he began his public ministry.  He would need to have his faith hardened in order to accept the will of the Father rather than doing things the easy way…and the wilderness was the place to do it.

One day, a group of mountain hikers found out the importance of the wilderness when they came across an old woodsman with an axe on his shoulder. “Where are you going?” they asked him.  “I’m headed up the mountain to get some wood to repair my cabin,” replied the woodsman. “But why are you going up the mountain?” they asked incredulously. “There are plenty of trees all around us here.”  “I know,” he said, “but I need strong timber and it grows only on the highest elevations, where the trees are tested and toughened by the weather around them. The higher up you go, the stronger the timber grows.”  (Adapted from Lee Griess, Return to The Lord, Your God, CSS Publishing Company, Inc.)

In order to prepare Jesus for his ministry, Jesus’ faith and resolve was best hardened by a wilderness experience.  So, the Spirit of God led Jesus into the wilderness, where for 40 days and nights Jesus wandered without food.  At the end of the 40 days, Jesus was famished and in a weakened state.  And when he was weak, the devil took the opportunity to challenge him.

The devil waited until the right time to test Jesus, as the right time for temptation always seems to be when we are weak.  As a life-time dieter, I can tell you that I’m more likely to cheat when I’m feeling discouraged and the strength of my will is weak.  When I begin a diet, I do it with enthusiasm and expectation.  After a while, when I don’t get the results I’m looking for, the enthusiasm dies and the things I know I shouldn’t eat begin calling out my name.  Temptation often begins in such an innocent and subtle way that it is easy for us to dismiss it as no big deal.  Yet, it can be a big deal as temptation involves an invitation to forget who we are and what we are doing.

The first two temptations that Jesus faced in the wilderness came with an invitation for him to forget the words spoken at his baptism as they began with the words, “If you are the Son of God …”   With these words, the devil was not so much tempting Jesus to question whether he is the Son of God as he was tempting Jesus to use his powers in a way that goes against his better judgment.  The devil is tempting Jesus to take a different path, an easier way, a way contrary to God’s will.  He is putting Jesus to the test by trying to get him to believe that his power is more reliable than God’s and that Jesus can do things his way and not God’s way. The devil isn’t trying to get Jesus to do what’s completely wrong, but to get Jesus to do some things for the wrong reason.

That’s why it’s so hard for us not to give into temptations that we know are not what Jesus would have us do.  We can always find a good reason to do what we know is wrong and not do what we know is right.  And that reason often involves putting the blame, not on our poor choices, but on someone or something else.  A husband commits adultery and he blames it on his wife.  A student peeks at another student’s answers on a test paper and blames her cheating on the teacher.  We develop ready answers or excuses as to why we do what we know is wrong, just in case we get caught.  Maybe that’s why Mark Twain wrote, “There are several good protections against temptation, but the surest is cowardice.”

The final temptation that Jesus faced in the wilderness is based on the human desire to have power and riches beyond measure.  We live in a culture that worships materialism.  The more we have, the more we want, and many don’t care how they get it.  That’s why a peaceful protest against the Trump presidency resulted in some people burning cars and looting buildings.  It became the “excuse” to act badly in order to increase possessions.

But Jesus knows better.  The wilderness experience hardens him and makes him reliant upon God.  Jesus knows better.  Jesus knows that life itself is dependent upon God, and that all good things come from God and God alone should be worshipped.  We’re so concerned about “having it all.” The wise person trusts that God will provide all that he or she needs.

Through his wilderness experience, Jesus knows what it feels like to be weak, hungry and lonely, and because Jesus knows, Jesus can help us when we feel those things too. His time in the desert teaches us that we can go to God when we need strength and help. Jesus was completely weak, but God was still strong. God gave his strength to Jesus and helped him get through his time of trial.  Jesus overcame the temptations in the wilderness by putting his complete trust in God.

And that is what God wants for us – that through the winds of trial and the storms of temptation we would grow strong – strong to resist the devil’s urging, strong to serve God, and strong to serve to one another.  We do this by taking time to rest, by following the example of Jesus, and by putting all in our trust in God. For, as a survey in Discipleship Journal confirms, temptations are more potent when people neglect their time with God (81 percent) and when they are physically tired (57 percent).  (Discipleship Journal, November / December, 1992)

So take care of yourselves, my friends.  Think and pray before you jump give into those things that tempt you to put aside God’s will.  And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

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