Temptations of the Christian Life


TEXT:  Matthew 4:1-11

            All this month we’ve been talking about leaving home.  We’ve looked a variety of reasons for leaving…Abraham left because of the call of God.  Jacob left to save his own skin.  Ruth left for the love of her mother-in-law, and her grandson David left at the command of his father.  We’ve also seen what happened to each of them as a result.  They found promise and blessing, they wrestled with God and did battle with giants.

            This week we move to the New Testament and find that leaving home is such a universal experience that even Jesus did it, and the Gospel lesson for this morning shows what happens to him the minute he sets foot out the door.  In chapter three, Jesus is baptized as a sign of the beginning of his ministry.  In chapter four the party is over and he finds himself in the wilderness being tempted by the devil.  When we leave home, we can expect to be tempted.

            Of course this is classic, as any college freshman can tell you.  Home is the place where there are both rules and enforcers.  Maybe you listen and maybe you don’t, but there is always the reminder that your homework is waiting upstairs, that sleeping for a certain number of hours has health benefits, and that picking up after yourself helps you keep sane in the long run.

            But when you leave for college, it is expected that at least the basics of those lessons have been learned and you can live out on your own.  It’s a good theory, even though it is mostly not true.  When I was matched with my freshman roommate, one of the questions they asked was about whether we were neat or messy.  They put like with like, and at that time in my life, that meant our room was not a pretty sight.  I will never forget the week we actually cleaned up our room for Parent’s Weekend.  One of the girls down the hall came in and said, quite honestly, “Oh, you have a chair in your room!  She had assumed that the pile of clothes that was always in that spot had risen all the way from the floor, rather than being piled on a chair.

            I had a boyfriend in college who participated in the fall fraternity rush.  He would go to parties and then stop back by my room about midnight or so.  One night he didn’t show and I was worried.  I called down to the frat house where I guessed he had been and one of the guys went looking for him.  “Don’t worry,” he reported back.  “I found him. I noticed that in one of the bathroom stalls someone’s feet were going the wrong way…”  He had drunk too much and had passed out in a bathroom stall.

            We leave home, and we are tempted to live in the ways our parents have warned us about.  We are tempted to experience things we are told we won’t really like much or that will harm us.  What I’ve mentioned are pretty benign examples.  As you know, it can get much worse.  But the point here is that temptation should be an expected part of the leaving home experience…whether we are leaving home physically, emotionally, or spiritually.  Like the Israelites leaving Egypt, like Jesus with the devil, we come out into an unknown wilderness and have to decide for ourselves how we will live and whom we will serve.

            It’s easy to look at the temptations of Jesus and think that because it is happening to Jesus, it is some special experience designed for the Son of God.  We look at the particular temptations he faces and think, “That has nothing to do with me.  I can’t turn stones into bread.  That’s only a temptation for Jesus or Harry Potter.”

            But the more I look at the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, the more I see that they are simply particular forms of the general temptations that face every Christian as we leave the site of our baptism and walk out into Christian life.

            Look at the first one.  Jesus has been fasting and is hungry.  Satan tries to get him to use supernatural power to turn the rocks around him into bread.  It doesn’t seem like all that bad a thing.  If you could do it, why not?  It’s not extravagant, he’s hungry, what’s the problem?  For the answer to that, we look to the answer that Jesus gives to Satan, which emphasizes that food for the body is not the only kind of food that there is.

            Jesus is engaged in a spiritual practice.  He is fasting.  Fasting is a way of saying, “I am more than my bodily urges.  I am body, yes, but I am also spirit; and there are times when I put my bodily needs aside to focus on spiritual food.  My body is not my master.”  Satan wants to pull him back and say, “No.  Obey and serve your body.  Forget the spiritual connection.  Stones and bread are real; spirit is not what you need.  Change your focus.  You don’t need spiritual practice, you need a good meal.”

            That is a huge temptation for every Christian.  You don’t need that prayer time, you need more sleep.  Don’t give that money away, not with gas prices the way they are.  Don’t spend that time in church, the laundry’s not done.  Why are you reading the Bible when you haven’t read the material for class tomorrow?

            The real stuff of life is always calling us away from the spiritual practices that will feed and rest and grow our relationship with God.  And it is the real stuff of life.  Jesus was really hungry.  It wasn’t a temptation for a death by chocolate Sundae after a large meal.  It was a temptation to turn stones into plain old bread after he hadn’t eaten for over a month.  He was very literally deprived and hungry.  But he had chosen that route as a spiritual discipline, and the first temptation asked him to scrap discipline and satisfy his bodily needs.  Jesus’ answer is a reminder that we have spiritual needs as well as bodily ones.  He keeps his discipline, and in doing so reminds us to do the same.

            So Satan moves to the next temptation:  Jesus is taken to the top of the temple and Satan invites him to test God’s faithfulness by jumping and seeing if God will catch him.  It’s right there in the Bible, we read it for a call to worship this morning…angels will be right there to be sure nothing bad happens to you.  See if it isn’t true.  Jump.

            Again, aside from those of us who might have a superhero complex, we aren’t generally tempted to jump off tall buildings.  Most of us tend to trust gravity more than God anyway and know we’re more than likely to come out much flatter for the experience.

It is difficult to see the real temptation in this.  What is Satan trying to thwart in Jesus’ ministry by getting him to jump off a building?  What would be lost if Jesus actually did this…providing that angels did, in fact, catch him?  I think this is a temptation to ruin a trusting relationship.  There is a difference between trusting and testing, as anyone in a close relationship can tell you.  Wife says she is going to the store.  There is a big difference between Husband sitting home thinking, “Wife is at the store, because she told me that’s where she’s going” and Husband calling the store to see if she is actually there.

            When we have to test, we are not fully trusting.  We test students in school because we don’t fully trust that they will study enough to learn the material otherwise.  We test out human relationships when we are not fully sure that the other person is trustworthy.  And that certainly has its place in the beginning of important relationships or when there has been a betrayal of trust. 

            But in the case of Jesus, Satan is trying to sabotage an already close and loving relationship.  Don’t just trust what God has to say, Satan is telling Jesus, test it out.  Here’s what God has said, try it out and see if it’s true.  Don’t just believe it, call the store.  This, also, is a temptation in every Christian life.  It’s not the first temptation we face, since testing, even of God, can be appropriate at the beginning of our walk.  Some places in Scripture even invite us to do that.

            But after awhile, the testing ends and we make a decision either to turn our lives over to this God or not.  We make a commitment…we get married…we say to God, “I’m yours.  Here I am, Lord.  Send me.”  If we go back to testing after that point, we are breaking trust and the relationship suffers.  The Christian life asks us to love the Lord our God with ALL our hearts, with ALL our minds, and with ALL our strength.  Testing holds back.

            Jesus will not test God’s promises.  Jesus will go where God leads, even when it very definitely seems like he’s jumping off the top of the temple and the angels are not doing their job.  Even when he is dying on a cross and feels completely forsaken.  He will go because he trusts…because he loves.  No testing is needed.  We are asked to do that as well…to leave behind the testing stage at some point and take the plunge into trust.

            And then there’s the final temptation.  “So, Jesus, you want to have influence?  You want to really help these folks?  I can help you.  Bow down to me, and I’ll help you get it done.  You can have it all if you do it my way.”

            This temptation is almost constant for the Christian.  The way that Jesus teaches is counter-cultural.  It is very specifically not the way the world usually does business.  The way of Jesus, the way of the Kingdom of God, is to live by dying, to receive through giving, to stop hatred with love and violence with radical peace.  Christianity is not an “ends justifies the means” religion.  The “means” in Christianity is the whole point.  It’s about how we live, not what we gain.

            This last temptation is inviting us to accomplish all our wonderful goals using the means of the world.  If people won’t accept the faith, torture them until they will.  Or bribe them.  Or frighten them with the fires of hell.  Manipulate their emotions.  Lots of ways are right there at our disposal…getting them in is the important thing, right?

            If the church needs money…go where the money is.  Open a casino.  Hit them with guilt.  Manipulate the stock market.  If you want to give a lot to the church, you need to make a lot…so it’s okay to run over all those folks on your way to the top.  Cut those useless jobs, increase profit margins, up the interest rates…think of what you can do for charity.

            The list could go on and on.  But God reminds us in Isaiah 55 that, “my ways are not your ways, neither are your thoughts my thoughts.”  The people wanted Jesus to be a military leader to oust the Roman occupation.  That made sense.  The great Jewish heroes, had done just that sort of thing.  But Jesus refused.  That was not his way.  It was not the way of the Kingdom, and he would not bow down to it…even though it seemed to promise all he had come to accomplish.  What does it profit us to gain the whole world but lose our souls? Jesus would later ask.  That is the meat of this last temptation.

            What Jesus experiences here at the start of his ministry shows us what we who seek to follow him can expect.  The temptations took very particular forms that were designed for him, and when they come to us they will also take very particular forms that are peculiar to our own personalities and circumstances.  But, at their core, the temptations are the same:  Forget about your spiritual life…it’s enough just to get through each day with your sanity.  Test God to be sure that the promises are true and that God hasn’t either forgotten about you or put you on the blacklist.  Focus on the end result and use any means you can to achieve it.

            To all of that, Jesus says, “No.”  The Kingdom of God has other priorities, other means, and complete trust in the God who loves us.  We will make time to feed ourselves spiritually, do our best to live as Jesus taught us, and trust that God is walking with us, even in the times we can’t really feel it or see any evidence of it.  It’s a tall order, but not a complicated one.  When temptation comes calling, how will you answer?  Amen.

(c) 2005, Anne Robertson

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