Through Lent...Through Life:
Surmounting the Roadblock of Desire
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, February 29, 2004)
In the wilds of Alaska, native peoples kill a wolf by coating several layers of frozen blood on a sharp knife which they pound, point down, into the tundra. The wolf smells the scent of the blood and after circling the knife, begins to lick it. He licks the frozen blood faster and faster until he’s crazy with bloodlust and desire. His craving becomes so frenzied that he never notices the blade cut his tongue or that the blood he so ravenously consumes is his own. By the morning, the wolf lies dead in the snow.
For us, temptations are like that knife driven into the tundra is for the wolf: alluring, exciting. But temptations can also leave us dead—spiritually, psychologically, physically, eternally...separated from God when we let them lead us to rebellion against God.
Our Bible lesson for this morning recounts a famous incident in Jesus’ life on this earth. Fresh from being baptized in the Jordan River by the John the Baptizer, Jesus—full of the Holy Spirit and driven by the Holy Spirit—goes into the wilderness. There, we’re told, Jesus is tempted by the devil. From this incident, I want to hold up several important lessons for your life and mine.
One lesson is that temptation often begins in the wilderness. In the movie, Moonstruck, there’s a scene set in an Italian restaurant involving a middle-aged woman dining alone and a middle-aged male, married college professor obviously on the prowl for young female companionship. The woman strikes up a conversation with the man and asks him why he turns from his wife and looks for younger women. The professor explains that a person gets to a certain point in his life where he’s established in his profession and begins to bore himself. You think, he tells her, nothing of your mastery of your profession until one day, you look up and see some impressionable co-ed dazzled by your knowledge and maturity.
What that character was saying is that sometimes life becomes a wilderness—barren, un-fulfilling, boring. It usually happens after you’ve conquered a mountain, established a beach head of security or recognition in your life. Then, boom, you’re in a wilderness. And that’s true of more than just middle-agers. Studies of Olympic gold medalists and of athletes who win championships in their sports show that within weeks of attaining their lofty goals, most go into a tailspin of deep depression. In the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah achieves a great victory for God’s cause over his adversaries. But instead of celebrating, Elijah goes into the wilderness and asks God to kill him. Elijah felt he had nothing left to live for. And King David, also in the Old Testament, had consolidated his kingdom after decades of struggle only to decide that in the spring when kings would be expected to lead their armies against foreign nations, to take it easy in his castle. Having reached the pinnacle with no new mountains to conquer in sight, David was bored in the wilderness. It was then that he saw another man’s wife and had an affair with her that led to tragic consequences for himself and for his rule.
Jesus was tempted in the wilderness immediately after He had been baptized in the Jordan River and the Holy Spirit had miraculously affirmed that He was God in the flesh. Pretty heady stuff! I’m convinced that the Holy Spirit led Jesus to the wilderness at precisely that moment so that He would know how vulnerable to temptation we become on the heels of life’s high points. God created us to keep striving, to keep struggling to stretch and grow and achieve. If our lives consist mostly of going to work and then plopping down in front of the TV set or the computer, we may be in the wilderness and temptation may be close at hand.
Another lesson we learn from Jesus’ time in the wilderness is that the things that tempt us usually seem harmless. In fact, they can actually be good things in themselves. Think for a second about the temptations with which the devil presents Jesus. He says to Jesus, “You’re hungry; make bread from these stones.” And, “These kingdoms really belong to you. How about skipping the cross and taking them from me by worshiping me?” Then finally, “God the Father promises to take care of you. Why not take a nose dive from the top of the temple?” These temptations really, seem so harmless, so reasonable, so non-threatening, don’t they?
Brian Stoffregen, a Lutheran pastor in California, writes about what happens when a child is told, “Don’t eat those cookies right now.” There’s nothing wrong with eating cookies per se. But if a mom says that doing so at that time will spoil her child’s appetite or that she’s donating the cookies to the local scout troop’s bake sale, then it becomes wrong for the child to eat a perfectly good cookie. When Jesus refused the devil’s first temptation, He reminded the devil that life—real life comes only from God and His Word in our lives. There are times when it seems perfectly reasonable to do things our own way, or our friends’ way, or our boss’ way. But our call is to live on the basis of every word that comes from the mouth of God. Period. I thank God for the forgiveness He has granted to me when I’ve forgotten this!
A related lesson is that temptation stems from legitimate desires. Jesus had a legitimate desire for food while in the wilderness. He also wanted to take control of the kingdoms of the world from the devil. He wanted to live in absolute dependence on God. All of those desires were legitimate and appropriate for Him. But the devil tried to lure him into fulfilling these desires in illegitimate, ungodly ways.
Gerald Mann, a Baptist pastor in Texas, tells about receiving a telephone call from an attractive female member of his church. “I know that your wife is going to be away this weekend. Would you like to come over to my house?” “Yes, I would,” he told her, “but I’m not going to do it.” God creates us all with desires—for love, success, fulfillment, physical health, friendship, sexual intimacy. Those are all legitimate desires. Temptation comes when the devil, the world, or our own sinful selves try to convince us to fulfill those desires on the cheap, apart from God’s will for our lives. When that happens, we need to be prepared to say “No!” so that we can say “Yes!” to God!
A fourth lesson from Jesus’ time in the wilderness is that temptation lures us away from God’s kingdom toward the kingdom of selfishness. We all want to be comfortable, popular, successful. But if we strive for these things apart from God, we can lose our eternal lives if we’re not careful. Jesus refused to do any of the things the devil tempted Him with because had He done so, He would have been acting selfishly. He would have been putting Himself ahead of God the Father’s plan for Him. He would have skipped His cross and you and I would have been dead in our sins, destined for hell forever.
In the kingdom of God, we make serving God and our neighbor our highest priorities. We only have the strength to do that when we surrender each day to Christ and let the power of His Spirit live within us.
A fifth lesson in Jesus’ temptations is this: We need to be prepared to face temptation. Temptation is a part of everyday life. Each tiny temptation that we cave into can lead us further and further from God until we think nothing of ignoring God and the free gifts of life, forgiveness, and joy that He offers when we put our lives under His control. You and I need to face off against the small temptations in order to forestall the big ones from ever hitting us. When the devil tempted Jesus, he quoted Scripture, making his temptations sound so reasonable. But Jesus was able to resist the devil because while the devil knew the written word of God, Jesus knew the God behind the written Word. Jesus lived in intimate fellowship with God the Father. His death and resurrection make it possible for us to have that kind of relationship with God, the kind of relationship that helps us to live each day God’s way and because of that to experience all the fulfillment of the legitimate, godly desires God has planted in each of us.
On Ash Wednesday, I asked the people who were here to use the Lenten season through which we’re now going to grow closer to God. To help with that, over the next several Wednesday evenings, starting at 7:00, we’re going to have a time of prayer. But I also asked folks to take little half-sheets of paper, like the ones you received this morning as you arrived, and jot down a few things in your life that you think are keeping you from having a close relationship with God. Chances are that these “God-blockers” are the very places where you’re being tempted the most—a sour relationship with a child or a parent, a tendency to work too many hours, a valuation of money and possessions even though you know neither can last forever, a need to control others, whatever. Jot those God-blockers down on your half sheet, fold it, put it in your wallet or purse, and then, at least once a day, take a look at it and ask God to help you to do His will and resist temptation even in this challenging part of your life. Like the wolf on the frozen tundra, those who let their own desires take control of their lives, end up dead in the wilderness of selfishness and self-will. But when we let God control our desires, Jesus comes to us, full of goodness and power and life. Today and each day, let’s invite Jesus into the center of our desires and wills. We were made for intimacy with God. Let’s not allow any temptation to prevent us from experiencing that!
[The story of the wolf is taken from a sermon by Pastor Mike Foss; his source was Larry Davies, Turning Points: A Bloody Knife and Growing Hair.
[Brian Stoffregen's discussion of the mom, kid, and freshly-baked cookies appears in his emailed exegetical commentaries, which are excellent!
[Gerald Mann's true story of the attractive woman who called him up occurs on an audiotape of one of his messages. You can secure audio copies of this fantastic preacher's messages from Gerald Mann Ministries, which has a presence on the web.]