A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
March 9, 2014
First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11
What did Jesus say about temptation? Well, not much really, not according to this story anyway. In what we call The Lord’s Prayer he is quoted as saying, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” But even that isn’t very much to go on, is it?
Except… Jesus definitely knew what temptation was, even if he didn’t talk about it much. So, we’ll let his actions speak louder than his words, if that’s all right with you.
You see, we don’t need even Jesus to provide us with a dissertation about temptation and how to deal with it. We know all too well what it looks like, what it smells like, and how it entices us every single day. The truth of the matter is that we don’t need Jesus or anybody else to tell us what temptation is like. We know already. It’s in our DNA.
Paul would tell you – well, no, he wouldn’t tell you, he does tell you – that it all started with Adam. That means temptation has been around from the get-go. It’s as natural to us as the air we breathe, and no one knew that better than Jesus.
For him, the first temptation came in the form of bread. We may not have spent forty days in the wilderness without food or water, but we know what hunger is… hunger for something we don’t have, something we don’t need, and shouldn’t give much thought to. But we do know hunger, do we not? Hunger, you see, is just another word for temptation.
That was the first enticement offered to Jesus in the wilderness.
The second had to do with testing God’s watchcare, God’s integrity, if you will. Up to this point, Jesus had believed in faith that his heavenly Father would watch over him. Now, the temptation is for Jesus to get his Father to prove it. All Jesus had to do was jump off the pinnacle of the temple to see if God would protect him. That’s all. “He will command his angels concerning you,’ the devil said to him. In the words of the old gospel song, “God will take care of you.” And he was right. But his reason for saying it was very wrong.
The third temptation was about power, an issue Jesus struggled with constantly. So do we. Every day we push the envelope when it comes to the place in our lives that we’re willing to give to God. So if you think you don’t participate in idolatry, perhaps you better think again. Anything we use to replace God is our idol, whether it’s money or power or prestige or the desire for more than we already have.
The way the story is framed in the scriptures, Jesus’ temptations were obvious, not unlike what Adam and Eve experienced in the garden. Ours may not be quite so conspicuous. They may come across as subtle, even, but they’re just as real and just as deadly.
Fred Craddock provides a few examples.1 He doesn’t put it exactly this way, but this is how I take it: Temptation often starts on a very benign, level… with something as simple, let’s say, as chocolate fudge. But temptation is never willing to leave it at just that. If temptation is successful in having its way with us, it always goes to another level.
A school girl’s friend invites her to go to Disney World with her family. They’ll leave Thursday night and not come back until Monday. That means she’ll need to miss a couple days of school. So she says to her teacher, “My grandmother is having surgery, and we have to go.”
Tuesday morning, she’s in the cafeteria telling her friends about her fun weekend when the teacher comes by. “How’s your grandmother?”
“Your grandmother. How’s your grandmother?”
“Oh, my grandmother. Oh, uh… she’s going to be all right.”
The others are sitting there holding their breath. They know the truth. The teacher passes on by and the girl says to them, “Whew… I got away with it.” But when she goes to her next class she isn’t feeling so good. “If I say this now, will the situation get easier, or will the lie get bigger and bigger?”
Temptation may begin on a simple level, you see, but give in to it and it leads to something else, something deeper, with bigger consequences. And every time we give in to it, it starts affecting more people.
A man gets his paycheck on Friday afternoon, and on the way home from work he stops to get it cashed. He knows he needs to save his money so his wife can buy groceries, but then he passes the casino. “I could take more money home than I have right now if I go in there and get lucky.”
You see how it works? Temptation, once it has gotten hold of you, always moves to a higher level. And the higher the level, the more people who are affected and often hurt by it.
Another man is in the den, shaking. A counselor from Alcoholics Anonymous has been there with him for two days, day and night, helping him fight the urge to take a drink. His wife is in the kitchen trying to do dishes, and is praying, crying into the sink while the frightened children are off in the back of the house. The man is saying, “I’ll never drink anymore. It’s ruining me. I lost my job. I don’t want to lose my family.” But he knows there’s a half-pint hidden in his toolbox out in the garage, and he knows that eventually it will start calling his name.
You see how it works?
It was the same with Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. It started with something as simple as a piece of bread. Bread would have tasted wonderful after forty days of no food or water. Anything, even brussels sprouts, would have tasted good after that. But the temptation moves to another level, the temptation to fulfill the dramatic, to make a bold statement, to begin his public ministry by testing God’s watchcare over him. Finally, the biggest temptation of them all… to have the world in the palm of his hand. All he had to do was get down on his knees before the tempter. When the tempter first came by, the chances are Jesus was already on his knees… in prayer. All he had to do was turn toward the voice that was whispering in his ear and say yes.
With every temptation comes a higher level of desire, to give in to bigger and greater things, and the easier it becomes to let temptation have its way.
So how do you deal with your temptations? Perhaps a better question is not how do you face temptation; it is, how does temptation start in the first place? Because more often than not, it has to be invited in.
A minister is visiting with a couple in their home. She brings him a glass of iced tea, and there is a bowl of peanuts on the coffee table in front of him. As he drinks his tea, he takes a peanut… and then another and another. He doesn’t even realize what he is doing. He’s there for… oh… maybe an hour or so, has a really nice visit. When he gets up to leave, he looks down and the bowl is empty. Completely empty. He’s eaten every peanut. “If you’d told me I was going to eat the whole bowl of peanuts, I would have said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous; I’m not going to do that.’ But I did, one peanut at a time. Just one at a time.”
That’s what temptation does… gradually, bit by bit, it draws you in on the attractiveness of it. It appears to be harmless, but it isn’t. Jesus knew that too, which is why he dealt with it as he did when he was in the wilderness. He never let it take its first step with him because he knew how it works. One step leads to another… and another and another. Jesus didn’t give in to that.
How does it work… with us, you and me? When we are most vulnerable, that’s how. When are we most vulnerable? Walter Brueggemann says it is when we are at our best, trying to do what is right, making every effort to give God a prominent place in our faith journey.2 Why does he say this? Because that’s when temptation came to Jesus, and the writer of Hebrews said that Jesus was tempted as we are.
“The voices come when we are hungry,” Brueggemann says, “when we are trusting, when we are responsible. When we want to do best and make it right and succeed and finish ahead. The voices come and endanger us.”3
And when life is hard. That’s when the worst temptation comes along. Economic pressures, relationships that aren’t working out well, we’re anxious or sick. The voices slip in and try to lure us away from the One to whom we have devoted our faith. Life doesn’t get any harder than the wilderness, especially after forty days. That’s how and when evil works.
The writer of Hebrews does indeed say that Jesus was tempted as we are, but he doesn’t stop there. He adds to that by saying, “yet he did not sin.” We tend to focus on that last part… that Jesus did not sin. But the most important portion of that theological statement just may be the first. He was tempted as we are. “In every respect,” the writer says, “he was tempted as we are.” In every respect. Just like you and me, and maybe even in greater ways than you and me.
So how did he do it? How did he resist the crafty wiles of the evil one? When the voices came, what did Jesus say? The first thing he said was,
“One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes
from the mouth of God.”
Then, in response to the next enticement, he said,
“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
And on the tempter’s third attempt, he replied,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.”
You know what Jesus is doing, don’t you? He’s quoting scripture. In the movies, you may recall, there are scenes when a cross is held up in the face of evil as a way of fending it off. When Jesus was confronted by evil, he had nothing in his hands so he quoted scripture. Is using scripture magical, a sure-fire way of resisting temptation? Just memorize a few verses, and the next time you’re tempted quote one or two and everything will be fine?
Of course not. Even the devil quoted the scripture, after Jesus’ response to the second temptation. But quoting scripture reveals that Jesus was ready. He knew temptation would come his way, and he was prepared to resist it because he had already given himself to the word, and to the One whose story the word tells. His mind and his heart were made up before temptation ever arrived.
And that is why he was able to advise his disciples,“Pray, that you may not enter into temptation” (Luke 22:40).
But we’ve already entered into temptation, haven’t we? Why, we’ve invited it in, closed the door behind us, locked it, and thrown away the key. Temptation, you see, is inevitable. Again, it’s in our DNA. But so is the promise of the One who shows us how to overcome it. Trust in him, and regardless of what temptation comes your way, he will have the final word. And Jesus’ final word is always one of redemption and grace.
Lord, give us strength in the face of that which would claim us and take us from you. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1see The Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 14f.
2Inscribing the Text (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), p. 36.