Sunday, February 25, 2007

Passing the Tests

[This message was shared during worship celebrations at Friendship Lutheran Church of Amelia, Ohio on February 24 and 25, 2007. If you're in or just visiting the Cincinnati area, feel free to worship with us for our Saturday services, which happen at 5:30PM, or our Sunday gatherings, held at 10:00AM. Friendship's worship happens in our building facilities, 1300 White Oak Road, Amelia, Ohio 45102.]

Luke 4:1-13
A local sheriff was in need of a new deputy and the only applicant was a guy who might be charitably described as not the brightest bulb in the pack. But, in fairness, the sheriff decided to interview the guy. He began by asking, “What’s 1 plus 1?” The applicant said, “Eleven.” It wasn’t the answer the sheriff was looking for, of course, but was right in its way.

So, he asked another question: “What are the two days of the week that begin with the letter T?” Without hesitation, the applicant said, “Today and tomorrow.” Again, not what the sheriff was looking for, but accurate.

The sheriff then asked, “Who killed Abraham Lincoln.” The applicant was stumped. The sheriff told him, “Why don’t you go home and see if you can find the answer?” The fellow left the sheriff’s office and was met by some friends. “How did the interview go?” they wondered. “Great!” the applicant replied. “It’s my first day on the job and I’m already working on a homicide.”

In today’s Bible lesson, Jesus has just come from being baptized, where God the Father triumphantly declared Him to be the Son--the very presence of God--and the Messiah, when the Holy Spirit drives Him into the wilderness--the desert--to be tempted by the devil. It's Jesus’ first day on the job and already, He’s in a contest to decide whether He’ll be faithful to the Father’s will for go another way.

Each day of our lives, we confront the same choices Jesus faced in the wilderness: whether we’ll follow God’s will for our lives or we’ll walk away from God.

Interestingly, the words used in the Greek of the New Testament--peirazo or ekpeirazo--can be equally well translated as test or temptation. Every temptation that comes from the devil, the world, or our sinful selves is also a test from God.

One of the most famous stories of the Old Testament begins with God bragging of the faithfulness of a man named Job. But the devil challenges God. “Of course, Job is faithful,” he says. “He has a beautiful wife, wonderful children, lots of land, and all sorts of cattle and livestock. What would happen if these things were taken from Job? Would he be so faithful?” God tells the devil to do his worst.

The devil’s subsequent temptations were simultaneously God’s tests of Job’s faith. The same thing happened to Jesus in the wilderness. The devil, our common adversary, tempted Jesus. But in the midst of the tempting, the Father tested Jesus.

With each passed test, Jesus was strengthened and prepared to keep focused on the Father’s will for His life. The same can be true for us.

There were three major temptations and tests that came to Jesus during His forty days in the wilderness. Each echo the experiences of ancient Israel when they wandered in the wilderness between Egypt and the promised land God was giving them. And, more importantly, each one reflects the major temptations that you and I face as we wander through the wilderness of this life heading for our promised eternal home with God.

First: Knowing that Jesus was hungry from His fasting, the devil said, “Turn a stone into bread.” Out in the Old Testament wilderness, the Hebrew people had doubted that God would provide for them when they were hungry. Jesus has no such doubts. Quoting from the Old Testament, he tells the devil, “One does not live by bread alone.”

It’s been my observation that every human being has what I call a “sin of specialization.” The sins that hold no interest for one person can be the overwhelming, gnawing hunger of another. The devil and the evil that resides within us and around us, will seek out these hungers in us to try to pull us away from God.

I read about a man who was consumed with becoming wealthy, so much so that he created an elaborate investment scheme in which he convinced his friends and acquaintances to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars. The friends grew suspicious when the quarterly performance reports stopped. They learned that the man had for several years been using their money t live it up with his friends' money in Vegas and Palm Springs. That man fell prey to his hungers.

The things for which we really hunger are God and the infinite blessings only He can give. But temptation can lead us to try to feed those hungers with other things. That’s why Jesus told the devil, “One does not live by bread alone.” We must instead rely on God's Word for life!

In the second temptation, the devil challenged Jesus to worship him. If Jesus would worship him, the devil lied, Jesus could have all the kingdoms of the world.

During the wilderness wanderings of God’s people in the Old Testament, they came to want a god that they could see and touch and control. So, they melted down the gold in all the jewelry given to them by their Egyptian slave masters and fashioned it all into a golden calf. They bowed down and worshiped it.

We may laugh at the stupidity of worshiping a hunk of metal. But the same impulse to put our focus on things and people we can see, touch, and control, rather than on God, exists within us.

We may get sidetracked into sin by the attractive person in the hotel lounge open to a one-night stand; the promise of a good grade to be had simply by copying from the A+-student in the next seat; the commission to be gotten by hacking into a co-worker’s sales reports and changing a few small facts; or other temptations.

Truth be told, we all want to reign over our own little kingdoms. Jesus, in fact, had come into the world to take the very kingdoms that the devil offered Him in the wilderness. But He came to take them through a cross and an empty tomb for God, not through bowing down to evil and so separating you and me from God and life forever. Jesus hung tough, telling the devil, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

The third temptation from the devil took place on the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, where he told Jesus to jump.

He twisted words from the Psalms to try to prove to Jesus that it was okay: If--or since--you’re God’s Son, the devil said, throw yourself to the ground. After all, God promises that his angels will spare you from splatting on the pavement below. But Jesus quoted Old Testament words in which God warns us not to put God to the test. It’s one thing to be pushed from great heights; it’s another to throw ourselves from them and then expect God to rescind the law of gravity to protect us from the consequences of our own stupidity.

A pastor friend of mine once lamented the size of his mortgage. With a sigh he said, “My life would be so much easier if I just remembered what Saint Paul says in the Bible, ‘Owe no one anything.” In the world of 2007, of course, it’s tough to own a home and not have a mortgage. But I know people who pile up massive mountains of debt and then say cheerily that they’re sure God will take care of their finances.

People make the same mistake with all sorts of sins. They like to sow their wild oats and then count on God to bring a crop failure. Jesus knew that to depend on God and His grace is not the same as expecting Him to wink at our sin.

So, what does Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the wilderness teach us? Three main things, I think.

The first is captured in a real incident that happened a few years ago at an Oregon middle school. Some girls there thought it was fun to put on lipstick in the rest rooms and then press their lips against the mirrors, leaving little kisses all over them.

This went on for several weeks when the principal called together groups of girls in one of the rest rooms. There, she explained that the lip prints caused the custodian major problems. She then asked the custodian, who was with them, to show the girls what she meant. So, he dipped a long-handled brush into a toilet and scrubbed the lip prints away.

Temptation makes sin look attractive. But if we could just understand that when we cave into sin, we're kissing filth, we might not surrender to it so easily. Jesus knew that caving into sin would lead to an ugly alienation from God. We need to know that too.

The second thing that Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness tell us is that being tempted isn’t the same thing as sinning. Even Jesus was tempted and because He walked away from sin, going through cross and grave, the New Testament book of Hebrews tells us that we have an advocate, “who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

When you young people are tempted to go against the directions of your parents, when you older folks are tempted to fudge a little when working on your TurboTax, when any of us are tempted to berate someone, remember these temptations to violate God’s law of love for Him and love for neighbor aren’t sins until we wimp out and cave into the temptations.

And thank God, when we do sin, because of Jesus Christ, the truly repentant can receive forgiveness and the power to resist temptation in the future.

The third and most important lesson we can learn from Jesus’ being tempted in the wilderness is this: At every turn, Jesus was able to resist the devil by knowing what God says in His Word, the Bible. Jesus knew not just what the words of the Bible said. He also knew what the words of the Bible were about. That was because He spent time in God’s Word every day. It was His bread and water!

As Martin Luther wrote in A Mighty Fortress is Our God, the Christian has the confidence that as the devil tempts us, “one little word”--one word from God--”subdues him.”

Fiery coach Greg Schiano has taken the Rutgers University football program from nowhere to its first bowl game in more than two decades. He’s tough, competitive, and one of the best. He’s also a deeply committed Christian. He says in a recent Sports Spectrum article, “When I’m doing well [as a Christian and a person], it’s getting in the Word in the morning and constant prayer. When I’m not doing well, it’s ‘I’m too busy to get in the Word’ in the morning, and I go to bed at night and I haven’t talked to God all day.”

This isn’t rocket science, folks. If we’re intent on having an authentic, meaningful life with God and be prepared to resist the temptation to walk away from God, we need to read His Word every day. When we’re focused on Jesus Christ, we’re empowered to live life as it’s meant to be lived!

Dig into God’s Word and you’ll build up a tower of faith in Christ and an ability to really live life that no one and nothing can tear down!

[The painting above is by an artist named Chris Cook. If you click on the image, you'll be led to his site. I hope that I'm not violating copyright by including the painting here. But I note from the site that the painting and others are all available for sale.]

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