A sermon by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston Salem, N.C.
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Luke 4:1-13
A woman brought home a very expensive dress. Her husband asked, “Why did you buy that dress, dear? You know we can’t afford it.” She responded, “Well honey, the devil made me do it. I was trying it on in the store and he said to me, “I’ve never seen you look more gorgeous than you do in that dress.”
“Well, why didn’t you say, ‘Get behind me Satan?’” asked her husband. “I did,” she answered. And the devil said, “It looks great from behind, too.”
It’s healthy to laugh at the hard realities of life that trip us up…as long as we take those realities as seriously as our scripture and our Lord.
Since I was a young Christian I’ve tried to take temptation seriously, and Lord knows I’ve caved into temptation often enough. But as I’ve grown in my walk with God, and slowly had my mind renewed over time, I’ve come to see a number of things, including temptation, in a different light.
There was a time when I thought the very process of being tempted was sinful, and the reason I was tempted was because I was such a weak Christian. Today, I see the wilderness experiences of my life as something God sometimes provides or at least allows not to trip me up but to test me and make me stronger in his Spirit. I may be tested by the Evil One not because I am weak but precisely because I am strong in Christ, because my life in Jesus is actually going somewhere.
This is what Evelyn Underhill means when she writes, “No Christian escapes a taste of the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land.” As it happens, that statement applies even to Jesus.
Jesus has just been baptized in the River Jordan and affirmed by a voice from heaven declaring that He is God’s Beloved Son in whom God is well-pleased. That would seem to be a natural, mountain-top moment for Jesus to launch his ministry.
But that’s not what God has in mind. Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. Notice that the devil didn’t arrange Jesus’ time of temptation in the wilderness—the Spirit of God did. Jesus wasn’t being tempted because he was a sinner. Nor did the experience of temptation make Jesus a sinner in fact He was still without sin when He left the wilderness 40 days later.
The devil himself will tell you that to be tempted is sinful and you are a failure as a Christ-follower if you even feel tempted. That’s a lie! To be tempted is to be human. And while temptation can set you up for a fall…as it did with Adam and Eve… it can also be an opportunity for spiritual growth.
Indeed, in the ancient Mediterranean world it wasn’t unusual for holy men to remove their bodies and minds from all worldly distractions and sojourn into the desert. Like spiritual athletes in training they would remove themselves from all creature comforts to confront their inner demons and immerse themselves in God’s Spirit so they might be ready to serve God at full strength.
This is how I now understand Jesus’ time in the wilderness. It was a 40-day spiritual retreat, not just designed to give the devil a chance to work Jesus over but to give God time and opportunity to deepen and strengthen Jesus for all that lay ahead. It was not in a bar or brothel that Jesus met the devil head on. It was while he was in the desert practicing the disciplines of silence, solitude, and fasting that the devil made his move.
By the way, this is not the first time God used a time-frame involving the number 40 to test and prepare somebody to do his bidding. Moses spent 40 days fasting on top of a mountain waiting for God’s Law. Elijah spent 40 days journeying to the top of a mountain. And the Israelites needed 40 years in the wilderness before they were ready to be God’s people.
As it happens, the Greek word for “tempt” can also be translated, “test”. When Jesus enters the wilderness, God is testing Him to build Him up into the One who can save the world. As for the devil…his goal is to bring Jesus down to his level, and thereby sabotage God’s plan.
Notice how the devil operates with Jesus. He cleverly plants doubts when he says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God…” He appeals to Jesus’ legitimate physical needs when he encourages a famished Jesus to turn stones into bread. Who hasn’t heard the devil say, “Of course you need food; of course you need drink; of course you need sex; you need it, so what’s stopping you?” The devil does his best to make you think your life is only about you and your needs.
If that doesn’t work, the Father of Lies will tell a whopper to bring you down. Like when he promises to give Jesus all the kingdoms of this world if Jesus will simply worship him. The problem, of course, is that the devil doesn’t own anything. The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof (Psalm 24:1). Look closely and you’ll realize what the devil typically offers fool’s gold, and the price is always far too high…your very soul.
When these tactics don’t work, the devil gets downright diabolical, using scripture to convince Jesus to put God to the test. In fact, he recites verses from Psalm 91 to make his case. But Jesus knows that even scripture can be twisted to prove just about anything, and he doesn’t fall for that either.
Over and over the devil tries to convince Jesus he simply cannot trust God to provide what he needs. And over and over the devil fails.
How does Jesus overcome the devil? By recognizing the devil for who he is, even when his propositions are so subtly evil they sound perfectly sensible, even spiritual! By not fighting the devil on his terms. Or by attempting to outrun the devil or even resisting the devil on his own power.
Interestingly enough, the smartest man to ever live is far too humble to try to match wits with the devil. He never once utters an original word. Rather, every answer he gives is concise, and every word he says comes directly from the Word of God.
Jesus is ready to deal with the devil because he has been feasting on the truth of God as he meditates on the Word of God, and because he has drawn deeply from the Spirit of the Living God in long seasons of silence, solitude and prayer. Consequently, unlike his ancestors Adam and Eve, Jesus emerges from His test with flying colors, not weaker but stronger for the task ahead.
Meanwhile, the devil is not done with Jesus. He leaves knowing he will return another day. He persists in trying to untrack Jesus right up to the end, even trying to convince Jesus that dying on a cross is unnecessary, but the devil fails.
Nowadays, of course, the devil looks for opportune moments to trip up those who follow Jesus.
Many of you know that during my sabbatical leave last fall I did something I had never done before. I took my own version of an extended retreat in the wilderness, spending not 40 but 7 days in a Franciscan retreat center in southern Indiana, remaining in solitude and silence except when I talked to a spiritual director.
On the way to Indiana I spent the night with my dad in Kentucky. We were talking about my upcoming retreat and he said, “Now let me get this straight. For seven days you are going off by yourself and only talking to yourself and God. Is that right?” And when I said yes, he replied, “Well good luck with that!”
He couldn’t get his mind around what I was about to do, and in all honesty I couldn’t either. But that 7-day test turned out to be the highlight of my sabbatical.
Here’s what I want you to know. During those 7 days I not only met God; I met the devil, too. If you don’t believe in the devil, then I urge you to travel hundreds of miles from home to somewhere nobody knows you with hours and hours of time on your hands, and I promise you will meet the Prince of Darkness.
Over the course of that week I met God on the mountaintop. But I also met the devil in the desert as I journeyed into some dark, normally buried parts of my life that I rarely want to even admit, much less discuss with God or anybody else. I dealt with all manner of issues, some reaching all the way back into my childhood. I confronted all kinds of internal demons that laughed in my face and taunted my spirit. And all the while the Evil One asked me why I had left a church that needed me to come out in the middle of nowhere for such a total waste of time.
But in my wilderness time I learned what Jesus learned, namely, that God is a very present help in times of testing, that I was never alone in my combat with my own inner demons and the devil himself, not even for a moment. And at the end of that week I emerged stronger and more deeply rooted in the Spirit than ever before.
Have I been tempted and tested again? You better believe it! You see the deeper you go with God, the more (not less) you will be tested. But the good news is, the deeper you go with God, the more capacity you have to defeat the devil at his own game and stay on mission for God.
I don’t know when your next time of testing will come. What I know is it will be an opportunity to either fall flat on your face… or go further with God than you’ve ever gone before.