A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on February 27, 2011.
On this day, our Father, we confess how very much we need you. We have told others this before. We confessed our need of you as a part of our witness, but in this day, in this hour, our need of you is powerful enough to overwhelm us. There are those of us whose patience has worn down from too much use. We come near the edge of all that we have of patience and fear that our impatience and even our anger might show. We are afraid that it might damage relationships with those we love the most. We are afraid it might put a barrier up where it should not be. O God, we need you to give us renewed patience today. We who have long carried the care for others find that our endurance is near an end. Those of us who have endured the unjust actions or attitudes of others towards us or who have long carried a sense of extra responsibility confess that we have come close to the end of our perseverance. We need you to infuse our hearts with renewed dedication to the tasks and commitments to which we want to remain true. Help us today. We who wish to reflect Christ in all that we do confess that sometimes we are smitten by weariness in doing well. We are challenged to speak harshly, to set the record straight, to return injury for injury in order to be done with others who try our patience. We need you. We need you to remind us of your promises, to renew our spirits, and to help us rededicate ourselves to following the path in your way which we know is the only way. O God, without your care, without your presence, without your infusing faith into our hearts we dare not live or breathe, but with you, we believe that all things are possible. With you, we can overcome all the challenges that are before us. We can overcome all of the things that would tempt our faith. With you and with you alone, we know that we can be faithful in all things. O God, we need you today. We need the sense that you are near us and that you have not left us alone. Empower us now through your spirit. In Christ’s name. Amen.
The devil was suggesting that Christ be realistic enough to admit the fact and that he and Christ join forces. In return for worship, the devil would deliver the world to Christ. Use the kingdom of evil to set up the kingdom of good; use Satan in the service of God; accept the services of the world until righteousness could take over.
–J. Winston Pearce in Seven First Words of Jesus
Western culture is filled with stories of individuals who decide to take on the devil. Sometimes it is a pact where someone agrees to sell their soul to get something in return, such as the German legend of Faust, the great scholar, who sold his soul to the devil in order to receive unlimited knowledge.
Sometimes it a contest. Several years ago, there was a song by Charlie Daniels, “The devil went down to Georgia, looking for a soul to steal.” The devil gets into a fiddling contest with Johnny. If Satan wins, he gets Johnny’s soul. If Johnny wins, he gets the fiddle of gold.
Sometimes it varies. There are so many different movies we can think of, old Twilight Zone episodes. Sometimes it is a deal where the person says, “I’ll give my soul if you will give me this.” Sometimes it is a contest where a person thinks they can take on the devil in some competition, and if they win, they get the prize they have always longed for.
There is one thing that is in common with all of these stories. In each story, the individual who gets into this contest or enters into this relationship with the devil always believes they will be the one that can either sell their soul and it not really hurt them or that it would be worth it or that they can enter into the contest and win. There would not be a story if there was not that conviction. The conviction is that I could enter into a pact with the devil, sell my soul, get what I want, and I would be the one who could make it work and it would be worth it or I could get into that fiddling contest and win the fiddle of gold. We all believe that we are the one.
The origin of this is the temptation of Jesus. We are looking at the final temptation. This is where Satan takes Jesus upon the mountain top and shows him the kingdoms of the world. He says, “All this I will give to you. All you have to do is bow down and worship me.”
In order to fully appreciate this particular passage of scripture, we need to make a quick run by Hebrews 4. The writer says this: “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For 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, who has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
The writer of Hebrews says we can always approach Jesus because Jesus has been tempted in every way that we have except without sin. You may not know it, but this passage has given Christians a lot of heartburn over the years. The idea that Jesus was really tempted, tempted as you and I are tempted, tempted as every human being who has ever lived has been tempted, is a little frightening. The scripture does not say that Jesus could not sin. The scripture says he did not sin. That is a big difference. What that means for us is that when Satan takes Jesus up to the mountain top and says, “Here are the kingdoms of the world. I will give them all to you. All you have to do is bow down and worship me.” For that to be a temptation, that means it had to really be attractive to Jesus. It had to be something that at least for a moment he considered. It had to be appealing.
We know people who will certainly be tempted if you sit a drink down in front of them or if you leave a container of prescription pain pills unattended. We know people who know where to go on the streets to buy meth. We know other people for whom that would not be a temptation at all. Their temptations and our temptations are in other dark corners of our lives, but those particular temptations have absolutely no appeal. If we were to see that, we would not even say we were tempted. We would just say it happened. So that tells us that for this to really be a temptation for Jesus, it had to be something that passed through his mind that he considered. That is a little frightening that it might actually be something Jesus considered. We begin to realize just how high the stakes are. This is a matter of life and death. It is life and death for Jesus.
We will leave it to the theologians to be able to express for us in appropriate words what it would mean. If we stop and think about Jesus’ death on the cross as the sacrifice of the perfect son, and he is no longer the perfect son, then where is the resurrection? See, this is a matter of life and death for Jesus, and not just for Jesus. This is a matter of life and death for us because the promise of scripture is that where Jesus is, we will be also. Because Jesus is raised, we will be raised. What happens if Jesus is not the perfect sacrifice? What happens if there is no resurrection? We are dead in our sins. This is life and death for Jesus.
The big question is how on earth could Satan offer Jesus something that really appealed to him, something that at least for a moment he considered as a possibility. I think we have to realize how naïve we are about temptation. We talk about how we live in the information age and the age of the image, pictures, etc. We also live in an age of warning labels. I think sometimes that may be one of the great characteristics of our society.
The hair dryer says, “In order to reduce the possibility of electrocution.” When you go to the gas station, there is a warning that says, “Extinguish all cigarettes. Flammable. Extremely combustible.” When you get out to fill up and see somebody there with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, you think, I only need $5.00 worth. I will be on my way. There are warning labels everywhere. Everything has to be clearly marked.
If you go to the post office to mail a package, the clerk will ask you, “Anything fragile, liquid or perishable?” If you bring up another package, the clerk will ask you, “Anything fragile, liquid or perishable?” If you say fragile, they start stamping it, and they stamp it to clearly mark that it is fragile. I believe we think that temptation comes with a warning label or it is clearly marked for us. It is like the temptation from Satan has evil stamped all over it so that when we see it, we can say, Oops! Wait! I don’t want that. Don’t give that to me. That’s temptation. But Satan is the master of the sleight of hand.
I have always admired people who were magicians and people who could hide the quarter and all of a sudden it came out of their pocket. But the one thing we all know about that is they get your attention with one hand, while in the other hand they are putting the quarter in their pocket. Satan is a master at that. In the hand that he wants Jesus to see and that he wants us to see, there is the outcome, the goal, the promise, or the desire that we may want. In this hand, he says, “I will make all the world bow down to you. Look at this, Jesus.” If you know anything about Philippians 2, it says, “That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” That is part of Jesus’ mission, purpose, and what Jesus is working for. That is what the devil is showing him in one hand, but in the other hand, is the little whisper that says, “All you need to do is worship me.” It is very easy to be distracted. This is the way temptation comes to all of us. Sometimes there are good and noble things. The object of temptation is not necessarily bad and evil. Sometimes the things that we want are actually good things.
I think God wired us to enjoy pleasure, but there are bad ways to get it. I am thankful that people are generous and give. Everything we have as a church, we have because people who have been blessed with money have been generous and gave. But there are wrong ways to get it. You can ignore your family. You can cut corners. You can be shrewd. You can renege on a promise. You can do all kinds of things to get it that are not the right way. There are all kinds of things that we see in life that are actually good. Those are the things that the devil is showing us, but the things that we do not notice are over here in the sleight of hand pocket and all you have to do to get it is, “Do it my way.”
The temptation is often to do the good things, even God’s things, in ways that the devil wants us to do it. We never notice the danger. We never notice the evil. We never notice what the real temptation is. It would have been very easy for Jesus to have sidetracked into thinking about how important it is that every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, and not pay attention closely enough to what Satan is doing over in the other pocket and the deception that is going on.
Who among us has not been tempted about something in our lives that we really wanted to go about it the wrong way? Who among us has not been tempted to think that God’s way to get to where we think we should go is maybe too slow or not realistic enough and that it needs a little push somewhere. We have to help God along here. We have to get it done. If this is going to happen, it is not going to be by grace, truth, love, and forgiveness. No, we are going to have to lie a little, tell a fib, manipulate, renege on a promise, or go back on a commitment.
Have you ever known people in a custody hearing for children in a divorce? I will say that I have known families who have handled that quite well. I have also known some families who, in an effort to do what they thought was right for the children, have done some things that did not appear very Christlike to me. Sometimes we think to get the right outcome we have to do some things that need to be helped along.
Have you ever participated in a group of people—PTA, non-profit board, or church? Sometimes we have visions of what the right thing is for the mission of the organization to move forward and it is not moving forward fast enough. We feel it needs a little push. We deny our commitments and we go back on our word. We forget about righteousness and we sling a little mud. We do something because we think the way of God is not moving fast enough. We can guarantee the outcome so much more securely and get there so much quicker if we would just do God’s work Satan’s way.
This is the temptation and it is all so sleight of hand. We look at the outcome or the goal and we never notice that Satan has his hand in his pocket over here and he is getting ready to pull out the clincher. We never realize what it is going to do to our hearts, to our relationship with God, how it is going to drive us apart. We just didn’t trust God enough.
The thing that all of these three temptations has in common is, that every time, Jesus comes back to God’s way. Every time, Jesus comes back to, No, we are going to do it God’s way. We are not going to do it impatiently. We are not going to do it by avoiding the hard work. We are not going to do it by trying to avoid love. We are not going to do it by being harsh, critical, and hurtful to each other. We are going to do it God’s way.
One of my favorite expressions was told to me by a seminary professor. He asked, “Do you know the difference between doing wrong and doing right the wrong way? There is none.” We may not be tempted to great evil. We may not be tempted to be mass murderers. We may not be tempted to become addicted to certain substances, but every day we all are tempted to do something that is good and right, something that could be a blessing in our lives or in lives of others, Satan’s way. We all think that we will be the one to do it that way and it not hurt our hearts. We all think that we will be the one who can make a pact with the devil and it will be OK in the end. We all think we can take the devil on in his own game and we can win the fiddle of gold just like Johnny in the song. The only person who never thought that was Jesus Christ. The only person who never thought that was the very Son of God who of all people could have thought, I can take that on and I can win that. But instead, Jesus’ words were, “Away from me, Satan, for we are going to do things God’s way.” He yielded not to temptation.
Is it any wonder when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, one of the things that he taught them to pray was, “and lead us not into temptation,” because Jesus, the great High Priest, as the writer of Hebrews says, understands exactly what we go through because he has been through it all. Jesus understands how difficult it is for us to face these temptations every day. Jesus will give us strength to resist and forgiveness when we don’t.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.