Today we will do something that I can say with near certainty has not been done from this pulpit before. Today, we start a sermon series which will continue over the next several weeks, with a break or two. It will focus on the events of Jesus’ life, from birth through resurrection, a subject we are encouraged to think about especially in the weeks between Christmas and Easter. Now I know you’ve heard sermon series before.
Laurie and I have done short sermon series’ here. You may even have heard one before on the events of Jesus’ life.
But did you ever have a sermon series here before that began with Part 4? Not Part 1; not even Part 2. Today, the day we announce our new sermon series, we will begin with Part 4 of that series, Jesus’ temptation.
Now today is the first day we’re thinking of it as a series, but as you will see, we have covered the first three events. You haven’t missed anything, if you’ve been able to be here. Part 1 of the “events of Jesus’ life” is Jesus’ birth, logically enough; that’s where most biographies start. And we heard about that event through the lessons and carols of our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services.
Part 2 was our Epiphany Sunday story January 8: the visit of wise men from the East. The wise men demonstrated that this newborn child was in fact very special, as promised, with their supernatural invitation through a star and their long journey to worship. They also demonstrated, being Gentiles, that Jesus had come for all people, not just the people of Israel, a stunning reversal of the current thinking then about how God works.
Part 3 happened last week, as we looked at the baptism of Jesus—a suddenly adult Jesus—in Matthew’s account. Jesus set an example for us by beginning his work with a community of faith with his baptism; and God testified to the special nature of that work with the appearance of the Spirit “like a dove,” and a voice from heaven: “This is my son.” Today we proceed with the event which immediately follows that testimony.
The purpose of the series, as a whole, will be for us, by looking at the events of his life, to discover what we can of Jesus Christ—of the person who revealed God to us. He showed us God more clearly that any person or any writing had ever done before—in his teaching, in his actions, in his correction of our mistaken ideas. He is the founder of our faith, the one who began the community we are part of today. He continues to be Head of the Church, the one we follow, the one whose will we try to carry out through our activity. He is our savior, the one who allows us to draw close to God in spite of our sinfulness, the one who makes possible our eternal life with God. It is worth finding out, or considering again, what happened in this man’s life.
We will look in this series primarily at the events of his life, the things that happened to him and the things he did; other sermons or series may concentrate, another time, on what he said, or taught, or believed. And we will find, I think, that he experiences in his life some of the same things we do in ours—things like baptism; relationships—good and bad; the search for God’s will for one’s life; questions about death. We will see how he responded to these things, and how his response can inform ours: how can we deal with the events of our lives, with him as our model. We will be looking at the Gospel of Matthew’s account of these events; and I encourage you, over the course of the next couple months, to read through that gospel—it doesn’t take very long—about 40 pages. And today we will consider, as our gospel lesson has related, an event in Jesus’ life we’ve all experienced . . . temptation.
We all have our own personal brands of temptation. Some of us possibly consider one of our personal temptations to be laziness—sitting around too much, sleeping or watching TV or whatever, couch potatoing, when we could be accomplishing more. For others of us, a personal temptation may be just the opposite: workaholism, trying to do too much, never relaxing or spending time with our families, not getting enough rest, not taking care of ourselves. Some people find their personal temptations are too much food, or too much alcohol, or too much nicotine. Others find it hard to limit their gossip, or their judging, or their emotional outbursts, or their putting down of themselves. We all have our own brands of temptation.
Today we start with Jesus’ brands of temptation, how he was tempted. And we discover that they aren’t all that different from the ones we face. Oh, they’re a little more dramatic—the wilderness, the face-to-face encounter with a tempter, the possibility of instant miracles—but the motivations and the pleasures offered and the appeal are ones we face too. After all, this is a human being, as we are, being tempted. How does Jesus respond?
The first temptation had to do with hunger. Jesus had gone out into the wilderness, immediately after his baptism, possibly in a quest to discover exactly what it was God wanted him to do now, to find some answers. Jesus had been fasting, going without food, so he was hungry, and the tempter said, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” Notice first of all how the tempter begins: “IF you are the Son of god.” Jesus has just come from his baptism, where a voice from heaven said “this is the son of God,” and from the start the tempter tries to sow seeds of doubt: “if you are the Son of God.” Are you sure that voice was really there? Was what it said true? There may be a temptation to doubt here, something else not unknown to us. And then the tempter says: Why not have some food?
The importance of that question lies in why Jesus was not having food. Fasting, in Jewish religious practice, was a way of communing with God, of discerning God’s will. It was a part of intense prayer and of personal purification; it was a part of being spiritual. To stop the fast, to eat, would be to cut short that spiritual quest, that conversation with God, that searching for God’s will. The tempter was saying, in effect, why not leave off this praying stuff, this talking to God, your spiritual life, and make yourself comfortable instead?
This choice between staying with one’s attempt to discern and to God’s will, on the one hand, and immediate physical comfort, on the other, is not one that Jesus alone faced. We see it too, even if we don’t happen to be fasting: Why not skip your prayer time and go down to have a snack instead? Why not skip worship and stay in bed where it’s cozy and warm and comfortable? Why not forget this notion of volunteering at the food pantry; those people might make you feel uncomfortable. Why not take this money you were going to put in the offering and buy something for yourself instead? Why not forget these silly religious rules about stealing, and just take what you want? The tempter was offering the choice of one’s immediate physical comfort instead of the sometimes-uncomfortable pursuit of finding out and doing God’s will—a choice we often face in one form or another.
So how did Jesus respond, to this very common temptation? He turned to Scripture, and he found a reminder: One does not live by “bread,” by physical comfort, alone—but by God’s word, what God is saying to us, by spiritual things. There’s more to life than physical comfort. Sometimes it’s worth being uncomfortable . . . to pursue more important things, like what is God saying to me, and what does God want. Jesus’ answer, and our key to resisting the temptation of “whatever’s most comfortable,” is the reminder that in the long run there are some things more important than today’s physical comfort—that sometimes spiritual growth comes because we gave up those snacks to pray, those naps to attend worship, those prejudices to help someone, those things-we-could-steal to obey God. Giving up physical comfort can be an investment in more important gains.
The second temptation featured the tempter asking Jesus why he didn’t throw himself down from the highest point on the top of the Temple. After all, he said, God will send angels to bear you up, so that you will not dash even your foot against a stone. There may be a couple things about this suggestion that could tempt Jesus. First of all, the Temple was a very public place. He could get his ministry off to a very visible, very dramatic start with such a display. What better way to reveal one’s special status of Messiah, and impress everyone from the start? What better way to attract followers? What quicker way to be very popular, to have lots of dedicated disciples with him wherever he went, attending to every need? Second, this would be valuable proof of God’s words that Jesus was the Messiah—proof not only to the people, but to Jesus himself. Now he would have proof that God is saving him for a very special purpose.
We can probably understand these temptations, too. We’ve all heard stories of people who would use God, or use religion, for their own personal gain, like impressing many people and getting their every need attended to by followers. We’ve heard about evangelists, from Jesus’ time through ours, collecting money and using it for their own purposes instead of ministry. We’ve heard of church members using the church as a way to get some control over some things, when they can’t do it elsewhere; or expressing anger at things in church when they aren’t allowed to be angry at work or at home. Maybe we’ve been tempted to do that ourselves. We know of times people—maybe us?—started talking about church prayer concerns, and ended up shifting over into gossip. Using religion to meet one’s personal needs is not an unknown concept to us.
We’ve also thought, at least occasionally I’m sure, of how nice proof would be when it comes to God. Why can’t we just have proof of God’s existence and God’s intentions and not have any more questions? Mightn’t we be tempted to take that proof?
Jesus’ answer—and our answer— once again is from Scripture: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Not for personal gain. Not to get that proof. We are meant to have faith, the Bible, and the history of God’s interaction with humanity, shows. We are meant to trust, to believe—not to manipulate God into providing goodies for us through our religion, or providing proof. As tempting as it may be to get something concrete out of our religious belief, whether it’s money, praise, control, affirmation, gossip, or proof, we are to proceed on faith. That’s the way God, in God’s infinite wisdom, has set things up. Trust that.
The third temptation was not subtle in the least. “Fall down and worship me,” says the tempter, “and you can rule over all the kingdoms of the world.” The problem with this temptation isn’t what is offered—after all, the Messiah is foretold in Scripture to be the ruler of the world—but about how he gets there, the means to that end. “Worship me,” says the tempter, “and have these kingdoms now. Take a shortcut. Why wait? You’re going to end up being Lord anyway; why not do it now, by bowing down to me?” The temptation to shortcuts is one we can understand too: well, I’ll eventually be financially secure through hard work anyway; why not get there a little sooner by cheating a little bit—cheating a customer, cheating on taxes, taking instead of buying. I’d end up the same place, just a little quicker.
Or: I’d eventually get the promotion anyway. Why not speed things up by spreading a few damaging rumors about my competitor? I’ll end up the same place, just a little quicker. Or: this group will eventually come around to doing things my way, once they think about it. Why not just force it on them and save time? It’ll still get done, only faster. The tempter was offering a shortcut to Jesus.
But Jesus won’t accept that shortcut: “Worship the Lord your God; serve only God,” he answers. And that means all along the way, in everything you do. No shortcuts, if shortcuts mean doing what’s wrong. Serve only God’s ways.
The tempter gave up. And went away.
Temptation, then, is not something that just we regular folks experience; Jesus—the Messiah!—experienced it too. And even the type of temptation, it turns out, that he faced isn’t all that different from what we face:
- The choice between the spiritual quest of finding out and doing God’s will; or stopping when that becomes uncomfortable
- The choice between using religion, for one’s own personal profit, or to demand proof; or being truly faithful, trusting God
- The choice between taking shortcuts across the boundaries of right and wrong to get where we’re headed; or sticking with what’s right, being patient, serving only God.
Jesus experienced these temptations too. He understands them, as a “temptable” human being. And he helps show us how to resist them: compare what’s being offered to what Scripture says; is it consistent with Biblical teachings or not? Remember that there are more important things than physical comfort, or than accumulating “things”; invest a little in what’s truly valuable. Trust in God’s ways, and God’s time; God knows what’s best, even if it doesn’t get us the proof or the wealth or the applause we crave at the moment. Avoid those shortcuts that lead away from God’s ways, that aren’t part of following God, but part of following something else. God only shall we serve.
Nowhere in Matthew 4 does it say that it was easy for Jesus to resist these temptations. And it isn’t always easy for us. But resist them he did, and following his lead, may we be successful in resisting them too. Let us pray:
God, we too are sometimes tempted to choose physical comfort over pursuing your will; or using you to meet personal wants and needs instead of proceeding on faith; or taking shortcuts instead of sticking with what you’ve told us is right. Help us turn away from temptation, as Jesus did—and serve only you. Amen.