The story of Jesus’ temptations is probably familiar to most of us. Before entering into ministry, and just after his own baptism, Jesus had a period of testing in the wilderness. Today’s story recalls to us a parallel to the Old Testament stories of the plight of the Israelites, who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years after being freed from slavery in Egypt. We remember how the Israelites grumbled and protested to Moses that God was not providing for them, that perhaps they were better off in slavery in Egypt because at least there they had food and drink. God gave them food and water in the desert. The Israelites doubted God’s guidance, even though God provided a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to guide them. The Israelites built a golden calf to worship, instead of God, while Moses was away from them, on the mountain getting the 10 Commandments. The Israelites were tempted by hunger, by testing God, by worshiping false idols. So was Jesus. And so are we.
The Bible reminds us, that since the very beginning of our species, there has been temptation to do things we should not do. Webster’s defines temptation as "a strong desire or urge to do something." A second definition clarifies that it can be the urge to do something that is bad, wrong, or unwise. The Greek word used in our passage means "being put to the test." Temptation usually involves a lack of self-control, whether it is something small like taking a second brownie because they taste so good, or something major like adultery. Temptation usually brings enjoyment in the short term, but may cause regret in the long term. To tempt in the religious sense is to coax or urge someone to do something sinful. Blessed, says the letter of James, is the one who endures temptation, who stands the test.
Jesus, in his own personal wilderness, showed us how to stand up to temptation. The tempter, or Satan, does not matter as much in this story as the one who resisted the temptation. Yet we like to envision this Satan, as a devil in red with horns and a tail, carrying a pitchfork and wreaking havoc, like the guy personifying Mayhem in the car insurance commercials. The tempter first appears in the Adam and Eve story, as a serpent that convinces the first couple that God’s prohibition on eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was more of a suggestion than an order. In the allegorical book of Job, Satan convinces God to let him test a righteous man, in order to prove that he would deny God. The Hebrew word from which Satan comes means to obstruct, or to oppose. Satan is the personification of temptation and of evil. It is much easier to say "The Devil made me do it" than to take the blame ourselves for failing in our moral lives. The truth is that God created us with the free will to choose, and that we have responsibility for choosing between good and evil, right and wrong.
The interesting thing about the temptations presented to Jesus before entering ministry is that they were not bad. The first temptation was to turn stones into bread. Jesus had, according to the text, been fasting for 40 days and nights. Forty is an important number in the Bible. The Israelites wandered for 40 years in the desert before making it to the Promised Land of Milk and Honey. In the story of Noah and the Ark, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. Biblically, 40 represents a time of testing or probation. Whether it was literally 40 days or not, surely Jesus was hungry. And besides, the ability to turn stones into bread would solve the problem of hunger in Jesus’ day, as well as in our own. Just think of how many people we could feed if we could just turn stones into bread! So it was not a bad temptation. But Jesus knew it was a self-centered one, and it short-sighted. Jesus answered, "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the word of God" (a quote of Deuteronomy 8:3). Jesus selflessly put others before himself, and recognized that the problems of the world were (and still are) bigger than just one word, or one solution. God can feed the hungers of the whole world. Bread for the World says there is already enough food in the world to feed everyone in the world. Yet God knows the hungers of the world are not just for food. Scholar and professor Thomas Long says this temptation is like going to the banquet table hungry and filling our plates liberally with everything we like. He says we approach the Word of God the same way, taking it literally, and reading only what we want to read. He reminds us that we have to take the whole Word, all the stories, wisdom, and we need to open the Gospel message to all people. Jesus knew the issue was bigger than just him eating bread. Even in the church, we can be self-serving. This church is a very generous church. Yet we too sometimes want quick and easy answers. But there is not just one need, or one word, or one solution that fixes all the problems. Jesus, by resisting this temptation, reminds us to dig deeper, and to work harder, to listen to and to trust the whole message of the Word (and words) of God, and to think beyond ourselves.
In the 2nd temptation, the evil one proved anyone can quote scripture to make their point. Satan quoted Psalm 91 to entice Jesus to get his ministry going quickly, to gain fame immediately with a spectacular feat, by jumping off of the roof of the Temple in the middle of the big, busy city of Jerusalem, and letting God’s angels catch him. But Jesus knew this was a test not just of himself, but of God’s purpose. Jesus chose to let God be in control, to remain faithful and trusting of God’s purpose and good will.
The final temptation would also be an easy fix, but would mean worshiping someone or something other than God. If Jesus would worship the devil, he said, all the kingdoms of the world would turn to Jesus. But Jesus knew that the way the world would come to know of him was not as much by his life as by his death on the cross, and the resurrection. Jesus could wait, even knowing the unspectacular end awaiting him in Jerusalem. Jesus trusted God and did not try to seize control. We too, as churches, want to seize control. One of the hardest things we do is to wait upon God as we try to discern God’s will for us. We want to get things done right away, and get them out of our way.
We have a Strategic Planning Committee of staff and church members, and two consultants, who have been wrestling for months with the future direction for this congregation. It is a slow and sometimes tedious process. But in the midst of it, we keep being surprised by revelations that point us back to our guiding words of Micah 6:8: "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" Taking the process more slowly, praying and discerning together, even though it can be frustrating at times, brings more faithful results than rushing in to take control ourselves. Discerning God’s will takes time and effort and prayer. Jesus showed us not to take the easy fix, but to be patient and faithful, even obedient. These are not easy qualities for us in today’s world. But Jesus shows us the way.
There are moments in every one’s life, and in the church’s life, when we could be tempted away from God’s good will. One very stark instance of the church resisting temptation and evil comes from the time before and during the 2nd World War. As Adolf Hitler continued to gain power in the 1930’s, he planned for Germany to become the greatest nation in the world. Hitler wanted to accomplish this by becoming the greatest military nation, by uniting state and church, by purifying the German race, and eliminating class distinctions and religious denominations. As issues arose, he would enact new restrictions. In forming a national German church, those he appointed decided that the German church would eliminate the Hebrew Old Testament as irrelevant, would purge the New Testament of all it superstitious passages, including what they called "Rabbi Paul’s letters" and his theology of weakness (like, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."), and they would not speak of the weak, crucified Jesus but would present a very heroic Jesus. Under threats and persecution, there were Christian pastors who spoke out, and who formed documents like the Barmen Declaration to protest these distortions of the Word of God for a national agenda. Pastors met together with prayer and spent days composing their answers. Many in Germany put aside their beliefs and bowed to the very oppressive Nazi government. Those who did not showed great courage, and many suffered consequences, some unto death. Yet they remained faithful and withstood the temptations to give in to the popular sway.
Resisting temptation is not easy, either as individuals or as the church. Even churches are tempted by popular movements as they seek to entice membership growth. But the example that Jesus gives us in meeting temptation is to slow down and think beyond ourselves, to search God’s Word and to seek God’s will before making rash judgments or changes. This Lenten season is a good time to slow down and consider God’s will for us. We are offering a number of opportunities in the next six weeks to help you in this endeavor (and Chris will talk more about those in a few minutes). A little bit later in the Gospel of Matthew, in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus advises us to "strive first for the kingdom of God, and [God’s] righteousness will be given to you as well." Or, as the song goes, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you, Allelu, Alleluia." Alleluia indeed! Following Jesus in resisting the temptations of the world takes determination, obedience, and just some hard work, at times. But, in the long run, it is well worth the effort and trust, for our sakes, and beyond us, for the sake of the whole world. Glory be to God. Amen.