March 19, 2017

Sermon for March 19, 2017

“Temptation”  Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 & Matthew 4:1-11


Lent is a time for us to draw nearer to God, to give up certain things which may bring pleasure to us, so that in abstaining from those things, we may remember the sufferings of Christ. This year, I have given up my time on social media-no Facebook. I have struggled at times with my Christian witness on Facebook, especially when someone is ranting and raving about political things which are far to the right, or someone posts something bashing the Christian faith for being too judgmental, hypocritical, etc. Sometimes I have made very critical remarks against others, or have been drawn into long arguments over political or theological subjects. So, I have stopped, cold turkey. I confess I don’t miss it all that much, except for being connected to my friends and knowing what they have been up to, what they have had for dinner, etc. I have been tempted a few times to click on my phone app, which lets me know I have 30 Facebook posts or more, every day. And Facebook is creative- now it is sending me text messages, since I haven’t been responding on posts, hoping I might click on them as leave a comment or thumbs up! So far I have resisted, and only have posted items on our First Presbyterian Church Ashland page before signing out.  


Temptation- it is all around us- in beguiling whispers, and blatant invitations. We are tempted in things big and small on a daily basis. To be able to resist temptation isn’t easy. Yet today’s passage gives us the example of Jesus, who was tempted as we are, yet was able to turn away from temptation- three times in this one particular story. Tempt in the English Dictionary means, “to entice someone to an unwise or immoral act”(American Heritage Dictionary, Dell Publishing, 1980) What is the meaning of  the word temptation in Greek?-“peiradzo”- means to put to trial, to put to the test, to find out what kind of person someone is.


Some questions should immediately surface for us in this story between Jesus and the Devil. “The Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness.” Does this mean the Spirit leads us into temptation?- The Spirit is free- free to lead us not only into good things, but also to confront those things which are bad.  We can be led by the Spirit into some tempting situation to see how we will respond.  4th century bishop St. Ambrose of Milan said, “The devil tempts that we might be ruined; the spirit tests that we might be crowned with glory.” Perhaps that blinking Facebook notification app on my phone screen which greets me every morning is a test the Spirit has placed before me to see how I will respond.


The second question that arises for us is: What about the Devil and about evil? This scripture, as well as all the other passages that talk about the Devil do not give a description of what it looks like, which tells us that we are not necessarily talking about a personified presence. We have no bodily description, yet Jesus hears the words, perhaps in his mind. We certainly have experienced personified evil in the history of the world, especially during WWII with Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. More recently, we have heard of the atrocities done to people by ISIS. But what about the Devil, or as scripture calls it, Satan? The New Testament speaks of a force that is in opposition to God- this force exists and works in history, especially against the purposes and the people of God, and is given both body and voice in our Genesis passage as a snake. The word most used in the scriptures, Diabolon,- means “to split.” That is the role of evil- to split apart relationships, nations, and to split human beings apart from their Creator.


In the film, “The Passion of The Christ” there was a scene that showed the role of the evil one quite well. This wasn’t a scene from scripture, but it was nonetheless quite powerful. Jesus was shown at the garden of Gethsemane, agonizing over his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion. A shadowy figure appeared and said to him- “No one was meant to save so many. No one can. It is too much. You cannot.” The presence whispered these words over and over, trying to split Jesus from his relationship with God. Finally, Jesus got up, stepped on the head of a snake the tempter dropped near him, and went off, about to be turned in by Judas. The evil one was unable to split Jesus from his destiny and calling.


Theologian Jeffrey Russell says, “For Christians, then the person of the Devil may be a metaphor, but it is a metaphor for something that is real, that really brings horror to the world every day and threatens to lay the entire earth to waste.”


And so as we look into today’s section of scripture, the tempter began “IF you are the Son of God”- Satan starts right away with trying to get Jesus to doubt himself. It had been 40 days since his baptism, since he was anointed by the Spirit, and heard God say “this is my son, in whom I am well pleased.” 40 days without food, in the wilderness. Was it all really true, or did he just imagine it? Doubt may have crept in at that moment.


Then the Devil went for the weakest part of Jesus in his state of fasting- “turn these stones into bread.” We can learn from this story that the tempter goes for our weakest points as well, the places where we break down and fall into temptation the easiest. This was a real temptation for Jesus, for he was hungry, and he wanted to eat bread. Theologian Fredrick Dale Brunner says, “Bread was the staple at every meal in the first century. We still must have bread to live. Jesus teaches us to pray for it, says God knows we must have it, and promises where God’s kingdom is sought first, bread too will be brought to us.”  The longest I have fasted is for 30 hours, back when I was running a youth ministry program at my last call. We raised funds for starving children through World Vision and their 30 Hour Famine. 30 hours is nowhere near 40 days, and our brief fast ended with a time of communion, which included bread. I can honestly say at about the 27th hour mark, while I was setting up communion, and noticed the crisp, brown lovely smelling sourdough loaf of bread, I longed to eat that bread. Here Jesus must’ve longed to use his powers to meet his immediate needs.


Jesus’ response, however, was that we human beings do not live by bread alone. In our world today, so many societies live to stuff themselves with bread, with material goods and possessions. We think if we just get the latest iPad, if we get the latest car, if we just stuff ourselves at our favorite restaurant, if we just get this new addition built onto our homes, if we just fill our need, satisfy those cravings, we will be happy. But life is more than food, more than filling our lives with material things. If all one does is focus on bread- on feeding one’s desires, he or she will find this life empty, rather than full.


There was a story a few years ago in the news that talked about a man who won $12 million dollars in a lottery. That is a lot of bread! He was a church going man, and donated almost $2 million to churches and groups who were helping the needy.  Yet his winning ticket ended up fracturing his life apart. He was arrested at a nude bar for indecent behavior and fighting. His daughter was given all the luxuries of life, which was too much to handle for a 16 year old. She became addicted to drugs, and hung around people who were bad influences on her life. In October of 2005, it was reported that a friend of hers was found dead in their home. An investigation began, and her father was brought in for questioning, and found to be the prime suspect in his daughter’s friend’s death. Then a month later, his daughter was found dead in her home, possibly from an overdose. How did this story end? This lucky lottery winner who had once gotten all the bread a person could ever need, who had all of his material needs met, was convicted of  murder and now lives in prison.  His daughter is dead, his family is split apart and he is a broken man.


We do not live by bread alone, says Jesus. We human beings have hidden hungers, deep cravings for more than the material world. What is this more? Jesus answered- “We can live by every word that pours out from the mouth of God.”(Matthew 4:4) There is a spiritual craving inside us all. We are fed when we come to this place. We are fed with God’s wisdom and light. We are fed and led as we learn and study God’s word. We are reminded of our purpose as people of faith to go out and help others, share the good news, and bring change to the world.  God’s word can feed us, and fill that craving for the holy deep within. The correlation here which I believe to be true is as follows- the more time you spend in the presence of God, the more able you will be to resist the tempter. And if you aren’t spending time in God’s presence, either praying, or attending worship, or studying scripture on a regular basis, I would encourage you to pay attention to what you are living on instead of God’s word.


Next, the tempter tried another tactic, quoting scripture. “Since the word of God is so important to you, here it is! If you believe in God’s word, then step out in faith- jump off this temple, and let the angels care for you!”(Psalm 91:11-12) Jesus responded by saying- “Do not put God to the test.”(Deuteronomy 6:16)Jesus responded in faith, and countered scripture with scripture. Jesus refused to do as Satan asked because he wanted to honor God, not to try to manipulate God. When we try to get God to do our bidding, we are not faithful.


Finally, the tempter attacked at Jesus’ very core- Jesus loved people, and loved God’s world. Satan offered it to him, without the need for any sacrifice. Surely Jesus must’ve been tempted to make his mission to the world a success, and to do so without having to face the agony of the cross must’ve been tantalizing. Yet in doing as Satan asked, he would’ve compromised his devotion, his faith to God. Jesus himself said later in Matthew, “but what does it profit a person if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul?”(Matthew 16:26)- perhaps recalling this earlier scene.  In this last temptation, Jesus teaches us to worship God and God alone.


Jesus dealt with temptation effectively, even in a weakened state and can be a helpful example for us. So how are we to deal with temptation effectively?  The best counsel- As Socrates used to say, “Know Thyself.” Recognize your pattern of temptation. Be aware of what people, situations, items and places can lead you to be tempted. Be prepared for your familiar temptation, and request God’s help. Philippians 4:13 says, “I can do all things Through Christ who strengthens me.” That is one verse which helps me turn away from temptation, when I choose to remember it... Martin Luther had good insight on temptation, “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.”


Temptations are all around us. Evil looks for our weakness, our strength, and our very heart, trying to find ways to split apart our relationships and our world. We must choose how to respond to temptation daily. Do we choose life and light, or sin and darkness?

 As we journey through this season of Lent, may we find the ability daily to turn from temptation, by finding strength in Jesus Christ, and guidance from the Spirit of God, for we can indeed do all things through Christ. Amen.

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