When Temptation Leads

When Temptation Leads

God of grace and glory, we thank you for your presence here in this community and in our daily lives.  May we be opened up and renewed in faith as we listen for your Spirit’s call and continue to learn to walk in the way of Jesus.  Amen.

Today we come to the final petition of our Lord’s Prayer sermon series, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  That is the King James Version of Matthew 6:13 and the phrase we are accustomed to praying together here in our church.  There are other versions, of course.  The New Revised Standard Version translates the same verse, “do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.”

The Greek word, peirasmos, can be translated as temptation, test, or trial.  This might be helpful to keep in mind as we move forward.  Sometimes the use of the word temptation in our modern culture is a little glib.  I may be tempted by that second piece of chocolate, but that hardly compares to the difficult tests of faith Jesus faced in the wilderness and the difficult tests of faith we all face in this life.  (You notice I said second piece of chocolate – the first one is non-negotiable; it’s happening.)

You may be pretty familiar with today’s scripture.  This story is the basis of the forty days of Lent and we often hear it at the beginning of that season.  And it’s a great and dramatic transitional scene in Matthew’s gospel before Jesus begins his public ministry.

After his baptism in the Jordan River, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit out into the wilderness; that same Spirit that descended upon him in his baptism accompanied by a voice from heaven saying, “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

In the context of the gospel, this is his first big test as God’s Son, God’s chosen one.

And there in the wilderness, he fasts for forty days and nights.  As we’ve mentioned before, the number forty signified completeness.  So, his fast was a complete one.  And at the end, he’s famished.  And it is then, in that moment of desperate hunger that the testing, the trial, the temptation begins.

“Hey Jesus, you look hungry.  You’re the Son of God, right?  Why not turn these stones into bread?”

Nope, he’s not going to do it.  So, he responds by quoting part of Deuteronomy 8:3 which says, “He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

There are intentional parallels between this story and the story of the Exodus.  God met the hunger of the Israelites in the wilderness with manna, so too will God satisfy Jesus’ hunger.  Jesus trusts God and refuses to misuse his divine power to satisfy his own immediate desire (even though it is a legitimate need – he does need to eat).  But Jesus won’t abandon his faith and trust in God.

One test down, two to go.

And so, next the devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple in Jerusalem.  “Why not jump, Jesus?  The angels will catch you.  That’s what Psalm 91 says anyway.  (Now Satan is quoting scripture, did you notice?)  Why not publically demonstrate God’s great power right here, right now?  Wouldn’t that be something for all to see?”

The first test was personal.  This one is public.  Why not prove for all gathered in the temple square that he is the Son of God, the Messiah?  Why not win the people over with a dramatic display of God’s power?

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Jesus replies (another quote from Deuteronomy).  He won’t test God’s power or God’s faithfulness.  And, furthermore, this is not the path he is called to.  And so he also demonstrates his trust of God’s call.  He’s not here to make a spectacle of himself, to show off.  He’s here to do the hard and humble work of love and inspire others to follow in that work.

And so, finally, the tempter takes Jesus up to a high mountain.  “Look at all these kingdoms of the world, all their wealth, all their power.  Don’t you want all of this?  It can all be yours; just bow down and worship me.”

But, of course, Jesus refuses. “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

And did you notice that even though Jesus vehemently refuses to worship the devil, he doesn’t refute the implicit claim that Satan has control over the kingdoms of this world?  That’s something to ponder, isn’t it?  He’s not talking about creation (that is God’s), but human-led kingdoms.  This is yet another example of the ongoing contrast and conflict between flawed, violent, unjust human kingdoms and the peaceful, just kingdom of God that is a recurring theme in the gospels.

And, by the way, the name Satan means adversary in Hebrew.  So, whether you understand the devil as a spiritual being or force, or as an image for systemic evil and hatred, Satan is rather simply defined as always being in opposition to God’s will and work.

And so now, having passed all three tests, Jesus finally gets some relief.  The tempter takes off and the angels come to tend to Jesus’ needs.

This was quite a showdown with temptation that Jesus endured.  And clearly he thought his followers needed some divine help in this struggle.  And so he taught them and us to pray to God that we not be led into temptation, trial, or testing; that we be delivered from evil, rescued from the evil one.

But the reality is that even as we pray in this way, we still face real tests of faith in this life.  Whether or not we feel led there by God may be a matter of personal interpretation of our experiences.  But many of our times of testing are often brought on not in some dramatic showdown, but by the normal challenges of the human condition.

So, the big question we face is: Jesus overcame his tests of faith, can we?

Jesus had to contend with the temptation to abuse his power to satisfy his immediate desires, the temptation to stray from his path, the temptation to put God to the test, and the temptation to sell his soul for the unjustly and violently amassed wealth and power of the kingdoms of this world.

These are not so far-fetched and foreign to us.  We face them too.  In fact, these are persistent temptations of the human condition.  And they do put faith to the test.

And so, faith invites us into some self-reflection and prayer.  At times, we have to ask for ourselves what it is that tempts us, tests us, preoccupies us, distracts us, or becomes an obstacle to our relationships with God and our neighbors.  And what can we do about it?  And do we need help to overcome it?

We might ask ourselves, when have I been tempted to put my own desires first at the expense of others?  There is a difference between good self-care and selfishness that harms others, of course.  And taking good care of ourselves may actually help us live less selfishly and more mindfully of the needs of others.

We might ask when have we been tempted to leave our chosen path, a calling, a job, a community, or a relationship?  Sometimes things do come to a necessary end.  But part of that discernment process might involve asking whether there is work that can be done to either improve a situation or to bring some needed closure in order for all to move forward.

When have we been tempted to test God?  It can be tempting to think if it all plays out the way I hope it will, then I’ll know God is real.  And in our more serious struggles it can be very tempting to ask for a sign, for some extraordinary experience, to show that God is with us.  There are certainly hardships we face that test our trust.

And, of course, the lure of the things of this world (wealth, power, what have you), have always been like carrots dangling before the human heart.  I think most people have good and generous intentions.  But we also tend to like our stuff.  And it can sometimes become difficult to discern what is needed and what is excess.  And perhaps another temptation is to point fingers at others without examining our own lives first.

But this is an important one, of course, not only on a personal level, but also on a systemic level.  Jesus called us to follow him in that humble work of loving God and loving our neighbor, of justice seeking and peacemaking; the work of God’s kingdom.

New Testament scholar, John Dominic Crossan, sees this struggle against the pull of human kingdoms as central to the Lord’s Prayer petition about temptation.  He thinks Jesus had in his mind the temptation to follow the conventions of his own world ruled by Rome during his lifetime and ruled by other ancient empires beforehand.

And this temptation has continued to be relevant throughout history.  The kingdoms of this world were then and are still characterized by power, territory, and resources that are retained by force and violence when deemed necessary.  It might be tempting to say this is just that way the world is; that’s just the way humanity is.  But the test Jesus faced begs the question, do we do damage to our collective souls if we don’t work for another way?

The path of Jesus offers us a very different way and very different priorities.  We know this.

It seems to me that part of sorting this all out is that when temptation tries to lead us or has too much of a grasp on us, we ought to intentionally choose to let trust lead us instead.

When we’re tempted to give up or feel hopeless, can we trust in God’s greater vision?

When we’re tempted to equate more stuff with greater happiness, can we trust that enough is enough and that true fulfillment can’t be bought anyway?

When we’re tempted to think: if only I can fix this human institution – school, church, company, government, whatever it is… then all will be alright (and if not, then we’re doomed), can we instead trust that when we use each day to do what we can to follow Jesus that we are, in fact, making a difference?  Can we trust that God will multiply our efforts and help us keep up the good work?  Can we trust that positive change is possible?

When we’re tempted to think: when I get the perfect job, find my soul mate, have perfect children, make the grade, get the promotion, retire, whatever future achievement it is we long for… then life will be good; can we instead trust that this is our good life, right here and now, imperfect though it may be, and its goodness is often found in everyday moments of gratitude, joy, love, community.  Instead of focusing too much on the future, can we instead embrace each moment and its fragile beauty, because one day it will be over?

And, when we’re tempted to think God has abandoned us in our time of greatest need, that we will never learn how to live with grief, that we just can’t endure any more suffering, that we’re just too sick, too tired, too frustrated… can we trust that God is with us in the struggle, closer than we imagine?

There may be much that tempts us.  And each of us may have our proverbial Achilles’ heal of temptation that we struggle with.  You know your own greatest temptations.  For me, it’s not actually chocolate.  One of mine is the temptation to give up hope for the future when faced with the inhumane, hateful behavior of humans to one another.

But when it comes down to it, to let that or any other temptation lead instead of trust in God, would be to stray from the path of faith, the path of Jesus that we’ve chosen, and the life God has called us to.

To be sure, it is a daily journey, on a rocky path, through an unknown wilderness.  And each day is new, bringing both joy and struggle.  But it’s a journey Jesus took long ago in a wilderness of his own and it’s a journey he keeps walking with us.