Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, July 22, 2018
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Standing Up To Temptations

Luke 4:1-13

 The comedian Flip Wilson made the line famous:  “The Devil made me do it.”  

 It is a convenient excuse.  He’s certainly not the only one to turn to it.  But at the end of the day, that’s all it is, an excuse.  The Devil doesn’t make us do anything.  He may tempt us, but he can’t make us do it.  We make our own choices, and often we make the wrong ones.  Recently, I saw a quote that I liked:  “They say everything happens for a reason.  Well, sometimes the reason is you make terrible decisions.”  

 There is only one who has ever stood up completely to temptation.  Now this was certainly not the only time Jesus was tempted.  If he was truly human, then he was tempted every day, just as we are.  But this story represents the most famous temptation of Jesus.

 This is just after his baptism.  Jesus’ baptism marks the inauguration, the starting point of his ministry.  But before he goes out and begins to preach and teach and heal, God sends him out to the wilderness for a time of preparation.  That’s what wilderness often represents in the Scriptures, a place of preparation.  Israel was prepared to live as a free people after years of slavery in the wilderness of Sinai.  David was prepared to be king in the wilderness.  The Apostle Paul was prepared for his ministry in the wilderness of Arabia.  Jesus’ preparation was 40 days of fasting in the wilderness of Jeshimmon.

 Jeshimmon, the Judean Wilderness, was the hot, dry, deserted wasteland in between the Judean Highlands to the west and the Dead Sea to the east.  It was a land of steep ravines and lonely mountains.  It was about 25 miles north to south, and 12 miles east to west.  Other than shepherds and outlaws, pretty much no one went there.  It was the same area where David spent his years on the run from King Saul.  

 Since Jesus was alone, this story could only be preserved for us if he shared it with the disciples.  So I think we should see it as a significant event in Jesus’ life.

 The number 40 is also significant.  Moses fasted 40 days before meeting with God on Mt. Sinai, and Israel spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness.  One of the ways Jesus is pictured in the Gospels is as the New Moses, the giver of a new covenant with God.  He is also pictured as an ideal son of Israel, one who remains faithful where others have failed.

 Jesus was led to the wilderness by the Spirit.  In Philippians 2, Paul reminds us that when Jesus took on human flesh, he “emptied himself.”  He laid aside the full use of his divine nature.  In some mysterious way, in the incarnation, Jesus became limited.  Though he was still truly God, he did not exercise the fullness of deity.  He was no longer omnipotent, all powerful, or omniscient, all knowing, or omnipresent, in every place at the same time.  When Jesus became human, he became dependent on God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.  To be truly human is to be dependent on God.  So Jesus was led out there by the Spirit, as he was led by the Spirit throughout his ministry.

 Jesus fasted and was hungry. He was also tempted.  This tells us that Jesus was a real person.  There was an early heresy in the Church called Docetism, which stated that Jesus was not a real, flesh-and-blood person, because all flesh is corrupted.  Instead Jesus only appeared to be human.  But this is not so.  Jesus was a real person.

 Having been weakened by fasting, Jesus was even more susceptible to Satan’s attacks.  Satan especially comes after us when we are weak.  Low points of weakness often follow after the high points of life.  For Jesus, his baptism and God’s endorsement of his ministry were high points.  The temptation in the wilderness was the low point.  For the prophet Elijah, the high point was the contest with the pagan prophets on Mt. Carmel.  After that came the low point when he ran away from Queen Jezebel.  For me, the low point is typically Monday mornings.  After the energy invested in Sunday worship and preaching, I feel low on Mondays.  And I know from experience, that temptations are stronger then.  Other pastors I’ve talked to share the same experience.

 I was once given wise advice:  Never act when you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.  Those are the times when we are most susceptible to temptation.  

 The temptations come to Jesus through the person of Satan.  Now some people see Satan only as a metaphorical figure, not a real person, just a symbol of temptation.  I don’t find that in Scripture.  What I find in Scripture is that Satan is a real figure.  He is not equal to God.  He was created, just as you and I are.  But he is in rebellion against God and he seeks to entice others to join his rebellion.

 There are three temptations in the story.  The first is to turn stones into bread.  Was this just a temptation because he was hungry?  No, I think there is more to it.  

 Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with food.  It’s necessary for life.  But in this case, it’s the wrong time.  Jesus was not sent out into the wilderness to eat.  Jesus was

sent out to fast and pray and be prepared by God’s Spirit for the work ahead.  The temptation here is to grasp after things in the wrong time or the wrong way.  

 I recently read a book by Philip Yancey, and he said, basically, “All sin is idolatry.”  He goes on to explain that anything can be an idol, even food.  When we make something into an idol, we worship it.  We treat it as an ultimate thing.  Only God is truly ultimate.  But we make things into idols, we treat things as ultimate.  We can make food into an idol.  We can make sex into an idol.  I would argue our entertainment industry already has.  We can make money into an idol.  We can make success into an idol.  We can make power into an idol.  None of those things are inherently wrong or evil.  But none of them are ultimate.  When we misuse things like food, sex, alcohol, success, money, power; then we become slaves to them.  And if we are a slave to anything, then our lives are less than God intended.  God tells us to stay away from idols because he loves us and wants the best for us, not because he is a cosmic killjoy.

 I think there’s also a temptation here to reduce life to the physical.  We are essentially spiritual beings.  We were made by God and for relationship with God.  We become less when we reduce our lives to the physical.  Jesus’ response to this temptation shows that God is the ultimate, the only truly necessary “thing.”  We need God more than we need bread.  

 Some Bible scholars point out that there is also a connection here to the story of Jesus feeding the 5000 in John’s Gospel.  In John 6, we read that the crowd followed Jesus after that miracle because they had been fed and wanted more.  Jesus is out to win the world back to God.  He could have bribed people, but that would have been wrong.  Methods matter.

 In all three temptations, Jesus responds with the Word of God.  When Paul talked about the armor of God in Ephesians 6, the only offensive weapon he mentioned for believers was God’s Word.  All three of the texts Jesus quotes come from Deuteronomy, which was a message to Israel in the wilderness.  

 The second temptation is to worship Satan in exchange for the kingdoms of the world.  Satan claims ownership over them, which of course, we know is not true.  Satan is only a usurper, who has taken what rightly belongs to God.  

 Jesus came into the world to restore God’s Kingdom on earth.  Satan is offering a shortcut, an easier way.  “Don’t bother with the cross.  I’ll give you what you’re after.  Just worship me; no suffering necessary, just a little compromise.”  

 Compromise is often touted as a good thing all around.  Politicians talk of their ability to compromise and blast their opponents for being unwilling.  But compromise with evil is itself evil.  

 And finally, the third temptation is to leap from the Temple and call on God’s angels for protection.  This time Satan uses Scripture, Psalm 91:11-12.  Satan may use God’s word against us.  But Satan is taking Scripture out of context.  The context of Psalm 91 is that if you trust in God, God will provide.  But God’s provision is not an invitation to test him.  The temptation here is to doubt God’s love and care.  

 Jesus responds with the words of Deuteronomy 6:16, which referred to the incident at Massah in the wilderness.  At Massah, the people refused to believe God was with them or that he would care for them.  In spite of all God had done in leading them out of Egypt and through the Red Sea, they said, “God brought us out here to die.”  

 Three times Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, and three times he stood up under testing.  “He faced the same temptations we do, yet he did not sin,” as the author of Hebrews reminds us.  This was not the end of Jesus’ temptations.  Satan did not leave Jesus alone; he only left until an opportune time.  Temptation never ends in this life.  

 And it always comes to us where we are.  Jesus’ temptations were not the same as ours.  Unless God gave you or me the power to turn stones into bread, that would be pretty meaningless temptation for us.  The temptations of the President of the USA are going to be much different than the temptations of a homeless man on the streets.  

 And often the real struggle of temptation is that the choices aren’t so clear.  Seldom do we get the chance to choose between right and wrong.  Most often we’re forced to choose between good and better, or sometimes between the lesser of two evils. This is, after all, an election year.  

 How do we resist temptation in those cases?  Well, there are two things we need:  First, we must know the Word of God so that we can recognize the difference between good and better.  And second, we must, like Jesus, rely on the Spirit.  Scripture can’t always answer our questions, but through prayer, God’s Spirit always can.  

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