A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., February 20, 2011.
Our Father, we confess that we are often afraid when we ought not to be. We confess that small challenges and insignificant concerns cause us too much anxiety. Remind us that the same power that you used to create the universe is available for our daily trials. Remind us that your love, your goodness and mercy, follow us all the days of our lives and on this we can depend. We also confess, Father, that we have not feared some of the things that we should. Give us eyes to see the real dangers around us. Help us to see the hidden temptations that quietly lure us away from you. Help us to see the cumulative effective of bad decisions on our souls. Deliver us from the temptation to solve moments of discomfort with a small lie lest we find lying too easy and too much a part of all we do. Deliver us today from the temptation to a small bitterness lest we find that anger and malice take root within our hearts and become the way we react toward others. Deliver us from the temptations of busyness that cause us to put you second today lest we wake one day and find ourselves so far from you and find that our love for you has grown cold. Help us to see the real dangers that surround us. Help us to see temptations, both big and small, which would chip away at our souls and erode the goodness of your blessing in our lives. You and you alone are God. You and you alone are all powerful and all loving. We ask you and you alone to lead us away from the dangers of temptation today and deliver us from evil. For Christ’s sake. Amen.
What was the hidden evil (in this temptation)? It was an effort to put God on the spot. See how it went. Jesus was God’s Son; God was his Father. He was doing God’s will for God’s glory. For the Son to fail would be the same as failure for the Father. Had Jesus yielded to this temptation, one of three things would have been clear in the minds of the people. First, God could save his Son and would; second, God would save his Son if he could, but he could not; third, God could save his Son if he would, but he would not. The sharp mind and clear moral judgment of Jesus saw the temptation for what it was. It was not an effort to have Jesus trust God; it was an effort to have Jesus test God. It would not be an expression of faith, but the expression of a threat.
— J. Winston Pearce in Seven First Words of Jesus
There was a time when people took temptation seriously. There was a time maybe earlier in our own lives, maybe before our time, when people really took seriously the idea that there is a wrestling that often takes place, a wrestling to try to stick to the right and to try to avoid the wrong. There was a time when right was right and wrong was wrong. To choose the right helped us feel closer to God, and to choose the wrong, left us knowing that we had been a part of creating that gap between us and heaven. There was a time when we really took temptation seriously, but not so much anymore.
We all know that we live in a world of instant gratification. The sense is, Why deny ourselves anything? Nobody else is. Everybody else is getting everything they want. They are not fussing about things that might be moral or immoral. They are just reaching out and grabbing whatever it is in their lives that they want. I have actually had someone say to me, Why should I worry? Everybody else is getting theirs. We really don’t pay much attention to temptation.
We are aware that sometimes people lay should, ought, and don’t on us to the point where we find ourselves conflicted about guilt, but in an effort to avoid those inappropriate guilty feelings, we have eliminated all things about should, ought, or don’t and we have left ourselves feeling that nothing is off limits. If we really want it, then why not go for it. If there is something that is wrong, it is no big deal. This is the 21st Century, isn’t it? What’s really wrong? If nothing is really wrong, then certainly the temptation that might lead us to do that wrong is not a big deal either.
There was a time when we took temptation very seriously and we wrestled with it about what is right, what is wrong, what do we do, and what do we avoid, but not so much anymore, even when we look at the scripture about Jesus’ temptation.
Fred Craddock points out very accurately that we tend to look at this almost as a cartoon. If we imagine it in our minds, we see Jesus in his First Century robe with long hair and a beard. Then we have a character drawn into the scene with horns, a pitchfork, and a tail.
Does anybody remember Hot Stuff, a comic book character? He was such a cute little devil. This is kind of like Hot Stuff grown up. We have Jesus and Hot Stuff grown up and we imagine it as a cartoon-type setting and we don’t even take the temptations of Jesus very seriously. Just as an inner test to prove my point, think about when was the last time you earnestly prayed, Deliver me from this temptation. When was the last time that something in your life seemed to be taking you in a direction that was wrong and away from God? When was the last time that it was clear to you that you prayed, Deliver me from this temptation? When was the last time that any of us were conscious that our souls were wrestling with something that had serious consequences for our relationship with God? We really don’t take temptation very seriously any more.
Once upon a time, I started a sermon series entitled, “Now That I Believe.” I appreciate the folks who have preached in the interim for me, but part of what I had intended to do at the beginning of the year was to start “Now That I Believe, I Listen to Jesus.” If you will notice, the meditation text today is a quotation from a book entitled, The Seven First Words of Christ. Around Holy Week and Easter, we always think about the seven last words, but as we began the year, I wanted us to think about the seven first words of Christ, the seven first things that he said as he appeared as a speaking, ministering adult in the Gospels. Three of these are found in the temptations. Kathy Richardson preached on the first one for us back in January. Today, after the break, I come back to pick up on the second one. If you don’t remember as we have read through the scripture this morning, in the first one, Satan takes Jesus somewhere there in the valley where he can look out over all the stones in the wilderness. Jesus was hungry and he said, “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.” Jesus responds with scripture and tells Satan, “No.”
But Satan is so subtle. He takes the very thing that Jesus used to resist the first temptation and uses it against him on the second. “OK, Jesus, if you can quote scripture, I can quote scripture, too. ‘It is written . . .’” then he quotes a Psalm about how God will not allow your foot to strike the ground, will not allow your heel to be bruised. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off of this temple and make God prove it. Make God show that God’s promise is true.”
If our only purpose today was to distill some truths from the passage, there are a number of things that we could see here. One, temptations very rarely just come one at a time. It seems to me that the greatest temptations I have faced are always faced by another, and here that is true for Jesus. It is also true that sometimes the greatest temptations come at the points of our greatest strength. Jesus has quoted scripture, and then scripture is used against him about his faith. We all know that there are times where our greatest temptations come at our points of greatest strength. People who are impeccably honest and would never dream of walking into a store or breaking into their neighbor’s garage and stealing a lawnmower would be tempted to pad an expense account and would not even stop to notice they had been tempted to do it. Temptations come often at the places where we are the strongest. A person who has the reputation for being kind, gentle, and sweet gets with a sibling at a family gathering and reverts to the old family relationship and digs in there and is just as cruel as ever. Temptations often strike when we are strongest.
Our purpose is not to take lessons on temptation today but to recognize that the temptation that Jesus faced is the temptation that we face as well. The temptation was to take the promise of God and turn it on its head and to turn it into a contract. God you promised, and because you promised, I am going to test you on this. Now something meant to inspire faith has been turned into a promise, a contract, and a test. You promised to protect me so I am going to throw myself off this temple and let’s just see how good your protection is.
We may think that is just for Jesus, but if Jesus had yielded to that, he would have been saying, Let’s defy the laws of gravity and see if God can handle that. There are times in our own lives where we defy the laws of relationships and of reaping what we sow. We want to say, God, see if you can fix this. See if you can pull me out of the fire on this one. You promised not to let me get hurt so I am going to live any way I want to, then when I do get hurt, I would really expect you to fix this.
I am amazed how seriously many couples take marriage and how much they invest in trying to follow Christian principles and try to do what is right. On the other hand, I am amazed at how many people pay no attention to a relationship. They give themselves over to everything else in the world—spending time on frivolous things—spending time on things that are not frivolous such as work and other things, ignoring time with a spouse, perhaps obsessed with Facebook, Twitter, texting or whatever else it may be it. Then when things somehow mysteriously go awry, they say, God, will you fix this? I can’t believe God has let this happen to my relationship. That is not much different than Jesus expecting to defy the law of gravity and thinking that God would pull him out. When we think about temptation today, so often we think in terms of silly, simple things. I was on a diet and I was driving by the Dairy Queen and that butter finger Blizzard just called my name. The next thing I knew, I had turned in there. I didn’t mean to turn in there.
You show up for a 6:00 workout with some friends, and you say, Boy, when that alarm clock went off today, I was really tempted to hit the snooze button. When we think about temptations, we think about things like key lime pie and hot fudge sundae when we had promised to do better?
We may think about sneaking a cigarette when we promised our family that we would quit. We may think about sleeping late instead of getting up and exercising. We don’t realize that we, too, are subject to some of the temptations that Jesus is subject to that really would move us away from God. We expect to put God to the test and, if God fails, then we say, That’s it. I’m not believing in that God. How many times because of tragedy or a turn of events in their lives, have we heard someone say, If you can’t trust God for that, then I am out of here. I am not going to believe in God any more. Satan wants Jesus to claim a promise and then make God prove that the promise will always be true, no matter what Jesus does.
I wish I could get in your mind and heart could know all the illustrations that might point out to each of us here today how we do this. So many times, we want God, not for the sake of a good and loving God who sent his son to die on a cross, but for what we think God will do for us. If God doesn’t provide, if God doesn’t answer our prayers this week even though we might change our prayers next week, we think God has failed us and we are tempted to turn away. Do we love God for what God has already done for us in Jesus Christ or do we love God for what we think God owes us and demand that God pull our lives out of the fire when we have lived anyway we wanted to? It is just like jumping off the building and we think God is going to intervene with gravity.
There was a time when people took temptation seriously. There was a time when temptation was more than whether or not I am going to eat a blizzard, sleep late, or sneak a cigarette. There was a time when people realized every day that the power of evil in the world would lead us astray and pull us from God. It would have us think things about God that are so far from what God really is and what God really does and sometimes even use scripture to try to convince us of these very things.
There was a time when people wrestled with these things. We knew that if we gave in, we would end up being further from God than we were right then. If we gave in, and then gave in again and again, we would always run the risk of waking up and finding that we have moved so far away from God that we have no sense of God’s grace, no sense of God’s presence, no sense of being able to pray to God so that God might indeed work in our lives. There was a time when we resisted temptation. We were thankful to God that his very spirit had dwelled in our lives and had given us the power to overcome and that we knew we were closer to God than we were the moment before.
There was a time, and there could be a time again, when we will have eyes of the spirit to look around us and to recognize what the real dangers of life would be, and to recognize that by the power of God, in Jesus Christ, we can indeed pray and the prayer would be answered. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. May the time be again for each of us.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.