Sermons That Work

Temptation Is a Word, Lent 1 (A) – 2011

March 13, 2011


“Temptation” is a word that has absented itself from this culture’s vocabulary and thinking. It’s so much easier to just give into it. “Save us from the time of trial,” the modern version of the Lord’s Prayer has substituted in place of “Lead us not into temptation.” But everything in the current culture points to permission to enter into temptation immediately, without any hesitation, at times with admiration; there is a tendency, especially among the young, to make bitter fun of those who resist temptation. This is the environment that surrounds the Christian who is urged not to yield to temptation.

What does it mean to be tempted? It is to be pulled away from our Creator by substituting the temporal for the eternal. We are pulled away from the purpose for which we were created: to live in God, to be one with God, to delight in God, to know the mind of God. Temptation also means to disregard the words and commandments we have been considering during this liturgical season: to ignore the fact that the Beatitudes of Jesus are indeed addressed to us, to forget to walk humbly with our God, to forget to love mercy and to do justice, as the prophet Micah urged us. All temptation centers at keeping us from the observance of these injunctions. And even though we don’t face temptation alone, we still find it easier to simply give in, forgetting the promise in Hebrews 3:18: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Today’s gospel report of the temptations of Jesus, testified to by Mathew – and by Mark and Luke in their gospels – is of vital importance to each one of us because it is so much a part of our own experiences.

The first temptation deals with the immediate physical needs of the body – an inescapable reality for all of us. In all ancient cultures the word “bread” stands for all that feeds us physically. It still remains so in the languages of these old cultures as evidence that, in the past, if the harvest of wheat failed, the people died.

It is significant that this particular temptation comes when Jesus is famished and physically at his weakest. The tempter doesn’t say, “All right, I’ll give you bread, but you will have to work for me today.” That would have been a rational request. What makes it temptation is the shortcut to the miraculous: “Use your powers as the Son of God to change these stones into bread.” What is implied is that if it doesn’t work, then he will doubt his relationship to God and also doubt the Godhead.

How many times do we, too, look for shortcuts? “O, God, if this bad government were not in place, then so many people would not suffer from malnutrition or starvation. Why are you not deposing this dictator in such and such a land? Are you really God?”

Have you not heard people say again and again, “I can’t believe in a God who allows suffering to take place.” All of us fall into that temptation especially in times of disaster. Jesus puts us to shame. Even when his own physical survival is at stake, he clings to the assurance given to his faith ancestors – that we do not live by bread alone; that the word of God, the truth of God, if only we could see it, if only we would acknowledge it, leads us to life! Of course Jesus did know the necessity for human nourishment; otherwise he would not have felt compassion for the poor and hungry. He commands us to feed the hungry. It is the emphasis we put on this temporal body that he warns us against; and how right he is. These days, with gyms and personal trainers everywhere, with the emphasis on a toned body, with surgical interventions to make it perfect, the body has become an idol for millions of people the world over. We have been warned against this kind of idolatry. Not living by bread alone means that we must not give into the temptation of allowing the needs of our bodies to overwhelm our need for the word of God.

The second temptation – the use of scripture in order to put God to the test – is painfully familiar to us, if we only stop to examine our expectations with honesty. The human tendency to bargain with God is quite prominent. We complain, “But Jesus said, ‘Ask and it shall be given, knock and the door will be opened,’ so why doesn’t God give me my heart’s desire? Why doesn’t God answer my prayers? Why doesn’t God punish the evildoers and reward the righteous?”

These are legitimate questions, but they almost always end up in the form of bargaining or testing. “Answer this prayer, God, and I’ll be good forever and ever.” Or “Do what I think is right, God, and I will believe in you.”

Unfortunately, we do not take into account the interconnectedness of creation when we put God to the test. We don’t know the mind of God. We cannot enter into the mind of the Creator who sees and understands the consequences of our requests. What if God answered the prayers of those who want this country destroyed? What if God answered the prayers of so many in our own country who claim the name of Christ and who ask for the destruction of enemies? What would happen to the world? The answer that Jesus gives, He who could have thrown himself from the pinnacle and survived, is that even when we ask for things using the words of scripture, putting God to the test is yielding to the temptation of the easy fix without considering the consequences.

The third temptation is the one that has brought us to the brink of disaster again and again – the terrible, seductive call of power. How easy it would have been for Jesus, weakened from hunger, all alone in the unforgiving desert, to forget to whom he truly belonged. How many human beings can you name who have turned their backs to the terrible seduction of power? Look at the inequality of wealth in our country and the world. Look at people starving while their leaders hold on to power, storing billions in the banks of Switzerland. Oh, the temptation of power that comes with wealth. How well Jesus knew the fatal results of giving in to the worship of other gods – the gods of greed, of luxury, of controlling others. All you have to do, Satan tells him, is forget that you belong to God.

As George McDonald wrote in his sermon “Kingship,” “The one principle of hell is –‘I am my own.’”

Jesus rejects this temptation outright. Only God is worthy of our worship, he tells us; only God deserves our service. It is after this firm answer that the devil departs and leaves us alone. “I know that my Redeemer lives,” Job cries. “I know in whom I have believed,” Paul declares even from prison. Do we know who it is who made us, who loves us, who asks us not to forget that God loves us and will not abandon us in the desert of temptation?

The great secret of the story of temptation in the Garden of Eden is that God did not abandon Adam and Eve. The promise echoing through the centuries since Paul preached it is that even if we fall into the temptation of forgetting God, Grace will not forget us. But oh, the sweetness of knowing how to say no to temptation and yes to God!

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Christopher Sikkema

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