Sunday, March 13, 2011

Temptation and the Only Way to Handle It

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Matthew 4:1-11
We know the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness almost by heart. It comes up every year on the First Sunday in Lent.

Fresh from the amazing moment of His baptism in the Jordan River, when a voice from heaven had said, “This is My Son, the Beloved, with Whom I am well pleased,” Jesus, goes into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

There’s comfort to be found in this incident. It reverberates with a truth to which the preacher in the New Testament book of Hebrews points when he says of Jesus: “…we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

As we go through the season of Lent, it’s good for us to remember that Jesus endured the wilderness and the Garden of Gethsemane and Good Friday and the cross—times of temptation, testing, and terror—not because He had to, but because He wanted to. He chose to endure these things for the same reason that He underwent John the Baptist’s baptism of repentance even though Jesus had nothing for which to repent. Jesus did all these things “to fulfill all righteousness,” to connect with us at the deepest and most intimate level, to go through all that we go through, so that having endured even death itself, He could be raised to life again and share His resurrection with all who turn from sin and trust in Him to give us new lives!

All of that is implied in the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. And it’s incredible!

But today, I want to ask you to try to look at this incident with fresh eyes. As you do, I’d like to ask you to keep two questions in mind:
  • What is temptation? 
  • And, How can temptation be handled? 
Jesus confronted three temptations from the devil: to turn stones to loaves of bread; to throw Himself down from the top of the Temple, betting that God and His angels would prevent Him from being hurt; and to take control of all the nations of the world simply for bowing down and worshiping the devil.

There’s nothing inherently wrong or evil in what the devil tries to entice Jesus into doing in these temptations. Jesus would, in fact, at different times later in His ministry, do things very similar to what the devil prompts Jesus to do in the wilderness. Jesus would later turn some fish and bread into a feast for a crowd of 5000. He would walk on water, something at least as amazing as levitating in the air after throwing oneself from the top of a temple. He would also be the one to bring the kingdom of God into the world.

So, what’s the difference between temptation and a harmless suggestion? Two things: Motivation and timing.
  • When Jesus later fed the 5000, He didn’t do it for Himself; He did it for a crowd that He could see was hungry and Who needed to know Who the real bread from heaven is. 
  • When Jesus walked on the water, He did it to foster and encourage the flagging faith of apostles to whom He would soon entrust the mission of sharing the gospel with the world. 
  • When Jesus brought the kingdom of God to the world, He did so unencumbered by any debt to the evil from which He came to save a sinful, needy world. 
Jesus’ motivation was never to serve Himself, but us. Temptation is the enticement to do otherwise good things for the wrong reasons or at the wrong times or in the wrong ways and for ourselves.

But how do we handle temptation when it comes to us, as it does every single day? There are, I think, three ways we can choose to deal with temptation, only one of which works.

One of the wrong ways is logic. (We sometimes call this “common sense.”) If Jesus had used logic or common sense to resist temptation, He might have told Himself, “My mission is to live and die without sin. Only a sinless sacrifice of Myself on behalf of the human race will fulfill that mission. Therefore, I must withstand temptation.”

How do you think that would have worked? When you’ve been without food for forty days, logic doesn’t cut it. You want to eat! Jesus might well have become so desperate with hunger that He could have built an equally logical argument for caving in to the devil’s temptations. “After all,” Jesus could have thought logically, “My ultimate aim is to take control of the world’s kingdoms. What difference does the method make?”

Of course, had Jesus followed logic, the jig would have been up for us all. Sin and death would have kept their power over us and God, mired in sin Himself, would have been made powerless to help us. If we rely on common sense or logic to get us through our temptations, we will not stay true to God.

Another method people use to try to deal with temptation is to follow their hearts. We hear this advice all the time. “Follow your heart,” we’re told. Jesus could have tried this, but he didn't. Listen: Following your heart when it comes to life’s tests and temptations may be the quickest road to hell you can find.

Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?”

Ecclesiastes 9:3 says, “the hearts of all are full of evil; madness is in their hearts…”

Our emotions are afflicted by sin. Had Jesus relied on His emotions when the devil tempted Him, He would have caved into the temptations in a heartbeat! Hunger and other desperate experiences affect our emotions and when we rely on our “heart” to guide us, we make really bad choices.

How might Ohio State’s football coach Jim Tressel have reacted to the emails sent to him by attorney Christopher Cicero if he had chosen not to let emotions (or logic) get in the way? I’m not picking on Coach Tressel. We’ve all tried dealing with life’s tests and temptations by following our hearts or our logic. The difference is that the media isn’t around to report when our bad decisions blow up in our faces.

There’s a third way to handle temptation and Jesus exhibits it in our lesson today. Please go to our Gospel lesson on the Celebrate insert and look at verse 4. To the devil’s suggestion that He turn stones to bread, we're told:
But he answered, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" 
If you have a pen or pencil handy, you might want to underline those words and take the insert home with you to consider during the week.

First spoken by Moses to the Israelites just before they entered the promised land, those words tell us how Jesus handled temptation and how we can handle temptation. Jesus knew that only the word of God gives us life! God’s Word that spoke creation into being also fills the pages of His book, the Bible. And so, to deal with temptations to diverge from God’s clear commands for human beings, commands that we can see clearly in the Ten Commandments, we steep ourselves in God’s Word. We spend time each day reading it, praying about it, discussing it with Christian friends. We consider it in its entirety and not just individual verses or aspects of it that please us or that we can use to justify doing the wrong we want to do. Emotions will lead you astray. Common sense will too. But the Word of God will never let you down!

A prominent southern California preacher told about a conversation he had with a young man about a night that changed the young man’s life.* Bored, he went to a bar and started drinking and flirting with a good looking woman. He was unmarried. She was divorced. “Let’s go to Las Vegas,” the woman suggested.

The young man immediately put his glass down, paid the bartender, took the woman’s arm, and headed for her car. She told him to drive and snuggled closely to him as they roared through the night.

But then, maybe remembering what he had been taught as a child, the thought crossed the young man’s mind that this was a pretty cheap thing for him to do. He caught sight of himself in the rearview mirror and remembered that he was, as the Bible puts it, “fearfully and wonderfully made,” a child of God with incredible potential for good. He began to feel disgust and self-loathing for what he was about to do, something he had done with other women many times before. He couldn’t do this.

He pulled the car off to the side of the road. "What are you doing?" she asked. “I’m getting out,” he told the woman. “It’s your car. Go on to Vegas if you want to…I’ll thumb a ride back.” He shut the car door and watched the woman speed away angrily. “Suddenly,” the young man told the preacher, “I felt ten feet tall! I never felt so good in my life!”

Folks: God wants to help you have moments of triumph like that, moments when you opt for the dignity that goes with being a citizen of God’s kingdom instead of just another hopeless sinner looking out for number one on the highway to hell.

Jesus Christ went to a cross for you. He rose from the dead for you. He did this so that you can share in His victory over sin and death. He gives those who believe in Him the same power to resist temptation that He had in the wilderness, the power of the Word of God.

He also promises to those of us who, unlike Him, aren’t perfect, the opportunity for second chances for godly living like that young man took when climbed out of that car and walked away from sin. (I've been taking Jesus up on second chances for over thirty years now!)

But Jesus offers even more to those who, through the power of God’s Word, face down temptations and evil. Please pull out a pew Bible and turn to page 557. Look at a single verse there, Matthew 10:22. Jesus says:
And you will be hated by all for My Name’s sake. But [the one] who endures to the end will be saved.
Persevere in trusting in Jesus. 

Read His Word and be ready to face all that life throws at you. 

Read His Word and walk more intimately with the God Who wants to save you from all that would destroy you, Who wants to give you life as God designed it to be lived. 

Hold onto Christ and His Word and you’ll hold onto life. Amen

*Retold here.

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