"The Wilderness of Temptation"

Matthew 4:1-11

The First Sunday of Lent, March 9, 2014

the Rev. Todd R. Goddard

East Rochester and West Walworth: Zion United Methodist Churches

 

Matthew 4

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

    ‘One does not live by bread alone,

      but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

    ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’

      and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,

    so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

    ‘Worship the Lord your God,

      and serve only him.’”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

 

Prayer.

 

Temptation is a very real part of everyone's life.

It spares no one.

Everyone has to face the temper's fire in one form or another.

Most of us face it every day.

It is easy to put on the mask of the “persecution complex,”

to believe the temptation we face is so much more difficult

than what others face.

But comparing temptation

is a dangerous game to play;

not one of us knows completely

the burden anyone else is carrying.

Not one of us is able to foretell the future;

the temptation that is imminent.

Not one of us is capable

of knowing the complete reality of another's world.

 

As we've heard in our Old Testament lesson for today,

temptation has been around for a long time.

Indeed, it introduced into the world

when God gives the first man the gift of free choice.

“And the LORD God commanded the man,

'You may freely eat of every tree of the garden;

but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil

you shall not eat,

for in the day that you eat of it

you shall die.'”

(Genesis 2:16-17)

With that gracious gift of free choice

comes the serpent

and the introduction of temptation into the world.

“But the serpent said to the woman,

'You will not die;

for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened,

and you will be like God,

knowing good and evil.'”

(Genesis 3:4-5)

The serpent refutes God's command,

he tells her that God's word shouldn't be followed

because God has an ulterior, evil motive.

It just isn't true!

The serpent is simply trying every trick in the book

to worm his way in between the woman

and the God who just created her

and gave her a beautiful gift.

That is what temptation and sin are all about;

separating ourselves from God.

 

Temptation.

We can't get rid of it.

We can't deny it.

It looks like we're meant to live with it.

So we'd better learn how.

 

A number of years ago,

I taught senior anxiety workshops

for the Monroe County Mental Health Association.

Temptation and anxiety share a few common similarities:

No one lives in the absence of anxiety. 

All of us have anxiety in the natural course of the day.

Most of us simply learn to manage it,

to live with it,

to adapt to it,

to keep it under control

so that it doesn't negatively affect our healthy, normal lifestyle.

The problem begins when it gets out of control,

and we can no longer keep it under  wraps,

when it escapes our ability to manage it,

and excessive anxiety begins to negatively affect our lifestyle.

We isolate ourselves,

relationships suffer,

channels of communication begin to break down,

and professional help is often needed.

 

It is the same way with temptation.

If we lose our ability to manage it

and keep it under disciplined control,

then it gets away from us,

and we find ourselves in big trouble.

Often times, professional help is needed.

 

We can't get rid of it.

We can't deny it.

It looks like we're meant to live with it.

So we'd better learn how.

In regards to our Gospel lesson for today,

of Jesus fasting for 40 days in the wilderness,

then having the devil come and tempt him 3 times,

a number of observations about temptation can be made:

 

Temptation comes in all sizes.

 

“Jesus, you're looking a little hungry.

Just turn those stones into bread,

and sit down and have yourself a bite to eat, would ya?”

The devil then super-sizes his temptation,

“Fall down and worship me and all the kingdoms of the world can be yours.”

From small to large,

from hunger to world power,

the devil uses temptation to try to work his evil

between Jesus and the Heavenly Father.

The big temptations in life are easy to spot.

A good looking person of the amorous gender

gives you the eye and brushes a little too close

– that funny feeling of uneasiness

is God's gift to you to say, “Stop!” “Wake up!”

and it comes with the confidence to back away,

if we choose not to yield.

 

Sometimes, it's the small temptations

that are often harder to manage,

because they can fly under our radar,

they remain quiet and hidden from the obvious.

Honesty comes to mind,

be it the little fibs that inflate our self-importance

or the fudge we stir filling out tax returns.

Be alert to temptations,

both large and small!

 

Temptation comes often when we are weakest.

 

Jesus had been fasting in the wilderness

for 40 days and 40 nights

– a long time,

our Biblical scribe wanted us to understand.

He would have been famished, hungry, tired, and worn.

This is the devil's strategy.

There is malice intent behind every temptation.

It is Evil’s desire for Jesus to fail.

So it comes to Jesus when he is weakest.

 

The Tempter lays in wait for us, too.

When we are strongest, most faithful;

when we're doing the Lord's work;

when we're in communion with other disciples,

Evil will delay,

the Tempter will be patient.

But when the dam breaks

and we become beset with weakness

due to the conventional events of the everyday world,

our defenses are down,

it is at precisely these moments

that sin and evil begin their movement,

their attempt to worm their way aboard

and establish a beach head in our lives.

 

It goes like this:

“I hadn't seen Celia since we dated in high school.

But when she showed up on Facebook,

it like the passion came right back.”

or

“I've been putting in so much overtime these past few months,

I didn't figure anyone would notice if I happened to come home with some company tools.”

 

When we are weak,

and tired,

and when our guard is low,

these are the times to remain vigilant,

to surround ourselves in a safe environment

and with the right people.

Then we'll know that temptation

will be easier to refuse.

 

Temptations are often packaged according to our greatest desires.

 

The Devil appealed

to Jesus' desire for food, authority, and power

because he was hungry, tired, and alone.

“Turn those stones into bread....

Throw yourself down and command the angels....

Bow down and worship me,

and all this can be yours.”

 

How does the Devil use temptation to appeal to you?

 

To answer this question,

we must search our soul deeply and thoroughly.

What is the greatest desire in your life?

Is it money?

Are you prepared to throw away family and faith

for that move to a higher paying job?

Expect the temptation to come in the form of large bills.

Is your greatest desire bigger and better things?

House, cars, boats, ATV, television sets, the latest electronic gadget?

Expect your temptation to come

as a free gift, rebate, or deal you just can't refuse.

Is it influence or power?

Expect it to come with an award,

recognition,

or honorary invitation

that appeals to the inner pride.

 

Caution: Temptations is known to play for the highest stakes.

 

Life and death can be on the line.

Jesus played for the highest stakes,

for your soul and for mine!

Do you think he would have won victory over the cross

and triumph over the grave

if he had given one inch to the Devil?

No!

Certainly not.

 

If evil personified was willing to stand toe to toe with Jesus,

don't you think the Tempter is sufficiently confident

to take you or me for a ride?

He looks at us like we are an easy win.

 

Left to our own devices,

we would be lost.

We are not capable of saving even ourselves,

let alone the women and children.

The power of Evil is too much,

it's too overpowering

it can drag you under

and hold you down until you drown.

Indeed, our only hope for life,

for everlasting joy and peace,

is with Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

Our response to temptation will determine the outcome of our soul.

 

We've been given free choice.

We don't have to take what the Tempter is offering.

We can choose to discipline ourselves,

to pattern our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ,

to live as he lived – righteous and holy lives.

 

We like to say, “God will be my judge, so don't judge me.”

This is true.

But overly often this is used as justification

to continue our sinful and shameful behavior.

We put the blame on God.

But clearly, God gives the responsibility to us

with the gift of free choice.

“Go ahead.

Live life in the gutter of human depravity.

You're just making the judgment of God that much easier to make.”

 

Jesus makes the right decisions in our Gospel lesson for today.

He falls back to his roots for strength

– he quotes scripture,

that which he probably learned as a youth,

scripture that keeps him real and relevant,

scripture that serves as his strength

even when his body didn't have any strength left in it.

“It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,

but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

“Again it is written,

‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

“Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

 

Indeed,

scripture gives Jesus the confidence and the strength

to win the day,

and it can do the same for you, too.

 

My final observation regarding this passage from Matthew

about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness is this:

 

Know this as true,

the outcome of God's kingdom

is never in doubt or threatened

just because the Devil may tempt us.

 

If we miserably fail in all the temptations that are sent our way,

if we choose to dive into the cesspool of human depravity

and never surface again,

God's kingdom is still going to come.

God's kingdom will still be established in God's own time,

and it has nothing to do with how we lead our individual lives.

We're on God's train,

and we run according to the Lord's schedule.

We certainly disappoint Him when we choose to go our own way,

but there is no way the Lord is going to stop to let anyone off His train.

 

In the end,

the angels suddenly came  “and waited on him.”

They tended to his hunger,

his fatigue,

his mortal decrease. J

ust as they waited on Jesus,

so too are they ready and waiting for when you do the right thing,

when you stand against temptation,

when you look the Tempter in the eye

and command Him to return back to where he came from.

 

Dearly, dearly beloved,

stand against all temptation this Lent!

Do not underestimate the Tempter’s will,

strength,

or intelligence.

Use the scriptures to defend yourself

from a position of strength.

Call upon the Lord and He will help you.

The heavenly host will come to those

who stand firm in conviction

and maintain a disciplined life.

And in the end,

beloved members and friends,

you can be assured that the victory will be yours.

 

The Word of the Lord, as it has come to me.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.