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First Sunday of Lent Cycle C (3)
I’d like to ask you a question this morning. Who is a good example to you of grace under pressure? I’m talking about someone who can rise to a challenge without panicking or taking shortcuts. How would you rate yourself at handling pressure? We’d all like to think we could pass a sudden test or challenge with ease, but then we read the news story about a woman in Illinois who gave birth in the middle of taking her bar exam and we wonder.
Brianna Hill was scheduled to take her bar exam at about the mid-point of her pregnancy. But then the law school postponed the exam for a few months due to COVID-19 restrictions. The new date fell squarely within a few weeks of Hill’s due date.
The online bar exam is administered in four 90-minute segments over two days. Hill’s water broke during the first 90-minute segment. She completed the segment, then called her husband, her mother and a midwife. The midwife assured her that she could finish the second 90-minute segment even while undergoing early labor pains. So Hill finished her second test segment and headed to the hospital to give birth to a precious baby boy.
The next day, she completed the other two segments of the bar exam from her hospital bed while suffering from anemia and lack of sleep. And yes, she passed the exam and got her dream job soon afterwards. (1)
Don’t you just hate people like that? Not only passing the bar exam, but giving birth at the same time. I’d rate myself pretty high at handling pressures and unexpected challenges until I hear a story like Brianna Hill’s. Passing the bar exam while in labor is a whole different kind of pressure.
In contrast to Brianna Hill’s story is a story I read about a woman who needed to hire a plumber for a few jobs around the house. She and her husband were a bit surprised when their plumber showed up in a suit and tie. And they were even more surprised when he asked to borrow their tools. He hadn’t brought a single tool with him, not even a few screws. Over the next few hours, it became apparent that this man was completely unprepared for the job. (2)
It’s sad to say, but I doubt this man gets much repeat business. It’s hard to put your confidence in a person who doesn’t take the time to prepare.
Our Scripture lesson for this morning is about Jesus confronting temptation in the wilderness. On a deeper level, it’s about how our wilderness times are the training ground for experiencing God’s power in our lives.
In Luke 3, Jesus is publicly baptized by John the Baptist. The Holy Spirit comes down on him in the form of a dove, and God speaks from heaven and confirms Jesus as His beloved Son. Pretty exciting stuff! Jesus must have been feeling pretty good.
And then we read in Luke 4, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”
Wait—the Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil? That sounds like a mistake. Except it isn’t. Look at the stories of every person in the Bible whom God has chosen to do mighty things. They all had to endure a wilderness time—a time of fears and questions and doubts and pain. A time when God seems silent. It’s not a punishment. It’s God’s way of preparing those whom He has called to be leaders. God reserves His greatest work for those who have been through the wilderness. So the first insight we get from today’s story is, if you are planning to do anything significant with your life, prepare yourself for the wilderness. Preparation is the pathway to power and peace.
Blaine Lee is a former instructor at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He discovered that many young recruits needed more than just intense physical and mental training. They needed to hear real-life stories of the life-and-death challenges they would face on the field of battle. They could never understand the dangers of warfare from simply reading a textbook.
So Lee brought in soldiers who had been through some of the toughest battles, who had been captured by the enemy, who had spent time in prison camps. He recalls the impression that one pilot made on his recruits. This pilot had managed to escape from a Viet Cong prison camp. The young recruits kept asking him questions about the weapons he carried or the training techniques he used to survive his ordeal. The soldier stopped them with one comment: “I survived all right, but it wasn’t because of what I had on me. It was what I had in me that made the difference.” (3)
“I survived . . . but it wasn’t because of what I had on me. It was what I had in me that made the difference.” What happens if you are unprepared for your wilderness experience?
Many of us will experience periods of questioning and doubting God. Many veteran here are in a spiritual wilderness. It’s a natural part of our faith journey. But it is when we are unprepared for the dark moments of questions and doubts that we are most likely to reject God’s will for our lives.
Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Temptation, writes, “Satan does not . . . fill us with hatred of God, but forgetfulness of God.” And that forgetfulness of God results in discouragement and regret and alienation from God. Jesus wanted to save us from that kind of pain. So he chose to go through the wilderness himself to show us how to persevere and remain faithful. And his lesson to us is: prepare yourself for the wilderness. It is no wonder the so many people who were religious come here as agnostics or atheists.
The second insight we get from this passage is to decide ahead of time to trust your pain to God’s purposes. There’s going to be pain in the wilderness. Expect it and turn it over to God. It’s not easy. It’s not a one-time decision. It’s a decision that you may have to make ten times a day every day until you come out on the other side of your pain with some new wisdom, some new growth, some new clarity.
It’s a huge step of faith when you are enduring a wilderness time to say, “Lord, I don’t understand why You’ve brought me here. But I’m placing my total trust in You. Please teach me what You want me to learn here. Please make me into the person You want me to be.” That’s a painful prayer. But it’s freeing too.
I learned something about the usefulness of pain from a woman named Amelia Boone. Boone is a corporate attorney for Apple and has won four world championships in obstacle endurance racing, an incredibly grueling sport. Her achievements have earned her the nickname “The Queen of Pain.”
In an interview, Boone said, “Pain is your friend. Pain gives you cues. Pain tells you what you need to focus on . . . And if I make friends with (pain), then it is just something there to guide me on and to teach me.” (4)
What is your pain level? So often I hear veterans joking around and then say their leve is 10. 10 is when you are hitting your head against the wall because you are in so much pain. 4 is where you can’t function. On a personal note. I like pain. When the doctors offer me opiods, I say no thanks. Pain prevents me from doing something stupid. I get by with tyllenol. Yet there are times you may see me sitting – because I can’t get up. When I get up most of the time I just stand there waiting for the pain to subside so I can walk. If it wasn’t for the pain I would probably start walking and maybe running – and if I did I would fall and break something.
There is something special that happens in the lives of those who trust their pain to God and refuse to become bitter. One day, when they look back over their lives, they will see that God used their pain to plant seeds of hope and strength in others’ lives. You will become a “wilderness guide” for others in need. Someone will thank God for the lessons you taught them with your life. And you will be able to look back at your wilderness time, not with bitterness, but with gratitude and joy.
In his book The Unnecessary Pastor, Eugene Peterson writes about his two sons and their skill at rock climbing. As rock climbers ascend a rock face, they hammer pitons, or small pegs, into the crevices around them. They attach their climbing ropes to these small pegs. If they lose their grip on the rocks, the pitons will keep them from falling down the rock face and suffering major injuries or death.
Peterson says that in our spiritual life, each time we remember God’s faithfulness to us, it serves as a piton to anchor us and protect us from falling into despair. He writes, “Every answered prayer, every victory, every storm that has been calmed by His presence is a piton which keeps us from falling, losing hope, or worse yet, losing our faith.” (5) Trusting God to use your pain for His purposes can serve as a piton to strengthen you to endure your time in the wilderness.
And a final insight we get from this passage is to focus on your eternal purpose more than on your immediate circumstances. Or focus on your long-term growth more than on your short-term relief. Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar says, “The number one reason people do not reach their goals is that they trade what they want most for what they want now.” That’s a temptation we all face, especially in our spiritual lives. How tragic it would be if we never fulfilled God’s will for our lives because we traded what we want most for what we want now.
It’s almost funny how ineffective Satan’s plan is in this story. He offers to Jesus everything that Jesus already gave up willingly in order to be fully human and walk in our shoes. Author Philip Yancey makes the point that the first temptation story in the Bible involved Satan tempting Adam and Eve with the question, “Can you be like God?” In Jesus’ encounter in the wilderness, Satan tempts him with a different question: “Can you be truly human?” (6)
Satan is trying to undo Jesus’ humanity, to undo Jesus’ choice to become Immanuel, God with us. He is challenging Jesus to take back the power and majesty and authority he left at the throne of God, to question his decision to sacrifice himself for humanity. Jesus knew that we would reject him. He knew that we would abandon him. And he knew that we would kill him. He endured it all in order to fulfill God’s eternal plan. And God used his obedience to offer eternal life to all of humanity. As I said at the beginning of this message, God reserves His greatest work for those who have been through the wilderness.
On April 16, 2020, San Francisco Giants outfielder Drew Robinson wrote a letter of apology to his family, then he put a loaded gun to the side of his head and pulled the trigger. He had been suffering from depression for a long time, but he never told anyone. He never asked for help. If you have suffered from depression, then you are familiar with that voice in your head that says, “It’s hopeless. Your life is worthless. You’ll never be happy. No one can help you.” Depression lets loose a stream of lies in your mind. And Drew just couldn’t fight it anymore. But thank God, that’s not the end of his story.
After being unconscious for nearly a day, at 3:30 p.m. on April 17, Drew Robinson called 911 and asked for an ambulance. He had lost a lot of blood and suffered damage to his brain and to one eye. But he was still alive. The paramedics kicked down his door and rushed him to the hospital.
The first thing Drew Robinson experienced after arriving at the hospital was an overwhelming desire to let the people in his life know that he loved them. And that desire to love others included a desire to help others who were fighting depression.
In an interview with ESPN, Drew reflected on his suicide attempt and what he has learned during his journey of recovery. He says, “I was supposed to go through that. I’m supposed to help people get through battles that don’t seem winnable. Drew talks about his depression. He asks for help and offers it to others. He tells the people around him that he loves them. He works with a therapist and takes medications for his depression.
I’m so glad there are so many of us depressed people here. I know I’m not alone and together we are here to get help and get better.
On September 10, 2020, World Suicide Prevention Day, Drew asked to speak to his former teammates and the staff of the San Francisco Giants. He told them his story and the lessons he had learned from almost losing his life. Many of the players and staff wept when they heard his story.
Drew keeps the bullet from his suicide attempt in a small box by his bed. As he says, “I look at this thing and think, I’m stronger than you. I’m stronger than what I thought I was.” (8)
I pray that someday you will look back on your wilderness experience as the greatest moment of strength in your life, the moment when God cleared away other distractions and foolishness and clutter and set you on a new path and formed you into the person you are today. No one reaches their full potential without first being tested. So prepare yourself for the wilderness. Decide ahead of time to trust your pain to God. Focus on your eternal purpose more than your immediate circumstances. And see how God can use your wilderness time to prepare you for a greater calling and purpose than you could ever imagine.
- “Woman goes into labor and gives birth in the middle of taking the bar exam,” By Lauren M. Johnson, CNN October 11, 2020 https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/10/us/mom-has-baby-while-taking-bar-exam-trnd/index.html.
- “The Parable of the Unprepared Plumber” by Susan Todd, http://www.1timothy4-13.com/files/proverbs/plumber.html.
- Lee, Blaine. The Power Principle(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), pp. 5-6.
- “I’m not the strongest. I’m not the fastest. But I’m really good at suffering.” by Polina Marinova Pompliano The Profile,April 6, 2021.
- Rodney Buchanan, https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/the-perfect-storm-rodney-buchanan-sermon-on-doubt-84026?page=2&wc=800.
- Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew(Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), p. 70.
- “San Francisco Giants outfielder Drew Robinson’s remarkable second act” by Jeff Passan, ESPN, February 2, 2021, https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/30800732/san-francisco-giants-outfielder-drew-robinson-remarkable-second-act.
First Sunday of Lent Cycle C (2)
Welcome on this Valentine’s Day. It is ironic that this is also the First Sunday in Lent. Lent is generally that season of the year when people have chosen a favorite treat or some vice to give up for these six weeks.
One man said his children traditionally gave up something like candy for Lent. Last year, however, he urged them to go beyond that to giving up some habit or sin that they knew was bad for them. About halfway through Lent he asked the children how they were doing with their Lenten promise. His youngest son had promised to give up fighting with his brothers and sisters during Lent.
When his father asked him how it was going, the boy replied, “I’m doing pretty good, Dad–but boy, I can’t wait until Easter!” (1)
Any of you who have tried to give up anything you really enjoy for any period of time know what he was talking about. It’s a long time until Easter.
Now imagine you’ve decided to give up candy for Lent, and then your significant other decides to surprise you with a delicious looking box of rich chocolates for Valentine’s. Who wins out–God or your sweetie? Boy, talk about a dilemma. Or should I have said–which wins out, your will power or the power of temptation?
We all know what it is to be tempted, don’t we? It’s like something witty author John Ortberg wrote in his book, The Me I Want to Be. He wrote about a time when he and his wife went fly-fishing. This was their first time at this particular sport. Their guides told them that in order to “to catch a fish you have to think like a fish.” The guides said that, to a fish, life is about the maximum gratification of appetite at the minimum expenditure of energy. To a fish, life is “see a fly, want a fly, eat a fly.”
As Ortberg humorously puts it, “A rainbow trout never really reflects on where his life is headed. A girl carp rarely says to a boy carp, I don’t feel you’re as committed to our relationship as I am. I wonder, do you love me for me or just for my body? The fish are just a collection of appetites. A fish is a stomach, a mouth, and a pair of eyes.”
He says, “While we were on the water, I was struck by how dumb fish are.” [He imagined a fisherman saying to the fish], “Hey, swallow this. It’s not the real thing; it’s just a lure. You’ll think it will feed you, but it won’t. It’ll trap you. If you were to look closely, fish, you would see the hook. You’d know once you were hooked that it’s just a matter of time before the enemy reels you in.” You’d think fish would wise up and notice the hook or see the line. You’d think fish would look around at all their fish friends who go for a lure and fly off into space and never return. But they don’t. It is ironic,” Ortberg continues, “We say fish swim together in a school, but they never learn. Aren’t you glad we’re smarter?” (2)
Well . . . I guess it depends how we deal with temptation whether we are smarter than a fish or not. It depends how often we see the lure without noticing the hook, just like fish. We could learn from our Master about temptation–for even he was tempted.
Our lesson from Luke’s Gospel tells the story. Interestingly enough, it occurs right after Jesus’ baptism. Sometimes it is when we feel closest to God that the tempter seems most determined to undermine us.
It’s interesting. The story begins like this: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” Notice that it doesn’t say he was led by the devil into the wilderness, but by the Spirit. Evidently, this was some kind of test.
Some have surmised that this was a test to prove that Christ was who he said he was–the sinless Lamb of God. The idea is that he was tested much in the same way car companies test their cars. When they crash those cars, they do not do so to prove that the car can indeed crash. Rather, the goal is to prove that, if the car does crash, it will do what the car company says it would (for example that the airbags will deploy upon impact, etc.) That is the purpose of a test.
The story is told about when the Union Pacific Railroad was being constructed. An elaborate trestle was built across a large canyon in the West. Wanting to test this important bridge, the builder loaded a train with enough extra cars and equipment to double its normal payload. The train was then driven to the middle of the bridge where it stayed an entire day. One worker asked, “Are you trying to break this bridge?”
“No,” the builder replied, “I’m trying to prove that the bridge won’t break.”
You may wonder why God would create a world where temptation is even possible. It may be that temptation is God’s quality control test for human beings. Bible scholar William Barclay once explained it this way: “What we call temptation is not meant to make us sin; it is meant to enable us to conquer sin. It is not meant to make us bad, it is meant to make us good. It is not meant to weaken us, it is meant to make us emerge stronger and finer and purer from the ordeal. Temptation is not the penalty of being a [human being], temptation is the glory of being [human]. It is the test which comes to a [person] whom God wishes to use . . .”
In other words, the temptations Jesus faced weren’t designed to see if Christ would sin, but to prove that he wouldn’t. In this test, the Holy Spirit may have been showing us that Jesus was both human and, at the same time, able to resist sin.
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where for forty days,” writes Luke, “he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.” The first temptation Jesus faced was to give in to his physical needs.
Now I don’t want you to get hung up on the fact that Jesus went forty days without eating. “How is that possible?” some of you will be asking. Remember, the phrase “forty days” is sometimes the Bible’s way of simply saying “a long time.” Jesus had not eaten for a long time. He was extremely hungry and in need of food. No wonder, then, that the devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus had physical needs, just as we do, that needed to be met.
Jesus’ response to the devil was to quote Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man shall not live on bread alone.” In other words, he is saying there is something more important in life than our physical needs.
He is quoting from that passage in which Moses reminded the people of Israel that God led them in the wilderness for forty years, to humble and test them. One of those tests was the manna that God provided for them. Though God provided the manna to sustain them in the wilderness, it was still a test of faith.
Remember God told the Israelites to gather the manna daily. If they did not trust God and out of fear tried to gather enough manna for tomorrow as well for today, the manna turned into maggots. They had to believe that God’s promise was trustworthy.
It’s the same test that we face from time to time. Life suddenly gets difficult. And we are faced with a dilemma: do we trust God to meet our needs or not? That will determine how we will live our lives. So the first temptation Christ faced was to give in to his physical needs.
The second temptation that Luke records is the temptation to seek after personal power and glory. The devil takes Christ to a high place and shows him the kingdoms of the world. “I will give you all their authority and splendor,” the tempter says, “it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’” In other words, you aren’t to worship Satan, but you are also not to worship your own selfish desires.
In his answer Jesus again makes reference to Deuteronomy, this time chapter 6, where Moses warned the people about their attitude when they get to the Promised Land and begin to prosper. The temptation would be for them to subdue the land and then to sit back with pride and to pat themselves on the back for all they had accomplished and forget God who had given them the land. “When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you–a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant–then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (10-12).
“You shall worship God only and him only shall you serve” is the call for us to realize that God must take preeminence in our lives. We live in a land with so many conflicting gods, just as the Hebrews did. Ours are not gods of clay and stone. Our gods are gods of money and power, pride and position.
Keith Emerson, an Episcopal priest in Hudson, Ohio tells about a friend of his, a priest, who invested some money in the stock market. Every day thereafter this priest would pore over the financial pages seeking better investment possibilities. Mind you, he had never shown an interest in any of this until he made this investment.
He said that his friend eventually took this to an extreme. One day out of the blue, he wanted a group of his fellow priests to go with him to a Wendy’s restaurant for lunch. And when they got there, he encouraged them to order as much as they wanted, but then scolded them for being too generous with things like ketchup and napkins.
It wasn’t until a week later they discovered that this priest had purchased some stock in Wendy’s. This was his way of encouraging everyone he knew to go there to eat so that his investment could grow. (3) He became obsessed with his investments.
Any obsession that captures the lion’s share of our time and attention can become an idol. A hobby or a sport can become idolatrous if it causes us to have less time for God. Even our own family can become an idol if we continually rationalize missing worship in the name of “quality family time.” Let’s not kid ourselves, we live in a time of easy rationalizations when our devotion to God has become watered down to a mere nod in God’s direction. The drive for money and power, pride and position or a host of other minor idols may pull us away from God.
Satan’s first temptation was for Christ to turn stone into bread in order to feed his physical hunger. His second temptation was the very human hunger for power and splendor. Jesus only need bow down to Satan rather than to direct his worship exclusively to God.
Satan’s third temptation was for Jesus to take an easier way to accomplish his mission and thus avoid the cross.
Satan took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
Certainly this test would have been good for Jesus’ rJsumJ. If he threw himself from the pinnacle of the Temple and a host of angels caught him in mid-air, then everyone would know without question he truly was the Son of God. Satan even quotes Psalm 91:11-12 that prophesies that the messiah will be kept safe from harm. Satan, by the way, is a master at quoting scripture, almost as good at it as Jesus. At least, that’s my experience. Some of the most devilish people I know like to have a Bible in their hand, usually so they can throw it at people of whom they disapprove.
Jesus did not yield to the temptation to take the easy path. He knew his purpose; that he had come as the suffering servant (Philippians 2:7-8). To receive the acceptance of the people without going to the cross was to undermine the plan of his Father. That was exactly the situation Moses wrote of in Deuteronomy 6:16 which Jesus quotes in response to Satan. Jesus answers, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Moses referred to a time when people wondered if God was with them, just as sometimes we wonder if God is with us. If you do not believe God is with you, you will not stand up to life’s greatest challenges.
Christ was not the first, nor the last, to be tempted to take a short cut, to take the easy way, the less demanding way to achieve their goals. We are all tempted to avoid the hard work of being the best we can be–the best of what God has called us to be.
“When the devil had finished all this tempting,” says St. Luke, “he left him until an opportune time.” That opportune time probably refers to the Garden of Gethsemane when Christ was facing the cross. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” . . . “And being in anguish,” Luke writes, “he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (22:42-44).
So this is where we begin our Lenten pilgrimage–with Christ being tempted, or tested, in the wilderness. Hebrews 2:18 explains why it was necessary for Christ to face this test: “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
All of us are continually being tested. It might be a temptation as benign as Valentine chocolates or it may be as life shattering as a temptation to an illicit sexual relationship. It may be a temptation to slovenliness regarding our use of time, or the more devastating temptation to outright fraud in the marketplace. The message of Christ’s test in the wilderness is that temptation can be resisted. At times it must be resisted. How? By making our primary allegiance to God and serving Him alone. It can be resisted by refusing to take the easy way, but seeking to pursue the honorable way.
Today is the beginning of a Lenten pilgrimage that we are calling Growing Stronger in the Season of Lent. Just as facing temptation was not intended to weaken us by giving in to temptation, but to make us stronger as we resist the tempter, so this season of the year can make us stronger in our faith. As we go through these six weeks we hope you will be praying that God will use these worship services by His grace to make us more into the Christ-like people He has called us to be. Unlike Christ, we will never in this world be without sin, but with his help we can resist temptations that are destructive to us and undermine our witness to the world. By his grace, we can grow stronger as we face the tests that come to us in our daily lives.
- Contributed. Source unknown.
- Zondervan, p. 137.
- James Hewett,How to Live Confidently in a Hostile World(Wheaton, IL: Word Publishing, 1989), p. 177. Cited by Mark Friesen, http://klcchurch.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/It-Was-There-All-the-Time-Sermon-7.20.14.pdf.
First Sunday of Lent Cycle C (1)
Good morning, boys and girls. The Bible keeps telling us to call on Jesus and I wonder if you know why you should be calling him? Why do you call Jesus? (Let them answer.) I have a telephone with me. I know that we can’t phone Jesus, but I thought maybe we could find out why we are calling him by trying to call some other people. I want to call the doctor. Why do I call the doctor? (Let them answer.) That’s right, I call the doctor when I am sick. Let’s make another call. I want to call the plumber. Do you know why you call a plumber? (Let them answer.) That’s right, because you have a problem with your sink or the bathroom, or a faucet that leaks, or something like this. Why do you call a friend? Now, let’s think about why we should call Jesus and what Jesus does that makes us want to call him. Can you think of any reason why we should call on Jesus? (Let them answer.) We should call on Jesus when we need help, when we are sick, and for a lot of the other reasons that you mentioned, but there is one big reason that is more important than any other, and I want to share it with you this morning.The most important reason that I know of for calling on Jesus is that the Bible says that Jesus will save you if you call on him. “Saving” means to make sure that you live again after you die. We are all going to die, every one of us, but if we believe in Jesus and call on him, he promises that we will live again with him and his Father in heaven forever. What do you think we call calling Jesus -Prayer. If we pray then we will have a relationship with Jesus. We need a relationship with Jesus to get into heaven.
Paul Grobman in his book Vital Statistics tells about incident that occurred on January 21, 1996. This incident–which might be every child’s fantasy and every parent’s nightmare–involved two brothers, Antony and Jerome who live in Quebec, Canada. It seems that the two boys wandered off from their backyard and went to a nearby Toys R Us, the now defunct toy store chain. While amusing themselves in the gigantic toy store Antony and Jerome slipped into a playhouse where they promptly fell asleep. When they woke up, the lights were out, and the store was closed.
Well, if you were two young boys locked in a toy store, what would you do? While about 150 adults searched for them nearby, the boys were happily playing inside the store. They were discovered by the store manager the following morning.
Asked why the store alarm system didn’t go off and alert the searching adults they were in the store, a Toys R Us spokesman said: “They never tried to open the doors to leave.” A trail of toys and empty chip bags were proof of that. (1)
No wonder they didn’t try to leave. They were in paradise. Two youngsters alone in a toy store–what greater temptation could there be than that?
We all know what it is to be tempted, don’t we? Even Jesus was tempted.
The first temptation was for the Lord to use his powers to take care of himself: You are hungry. Command this stone to be turned into bread. This is the temptation we all have to use God’s gifts in a selfish manner. We give in to this temptation when we put self-gratification before love. Consider this from God’s perspective. He has given us so much and merely asks us to use His gifts to draw closer to Him. Instead, we often hoard His gifts for ourselves, without any
consideration of the Divine Giver or His Presence in others. We have all suffered from others who have given in to this temptation. The worst hurt that any of us have received in our lives came from those who refused to return our love for them. Some of the most horrible actions of our lives have been motivated by our own decisions to take care of number one, to make bread for ourselves instead of love for others.
In the second temptation of the Lord, Jesus is brought to a mountain top and shown all the kingdoms of the world. They would all be His if He worshiped the devil. This is the Temptation of Power. In the sad history of the world, those in power often use their authority to hurt others. Sometimes they do this to protect themselves. Sometimes they use their power simply because they can. The world is full of bullies, and not just in the schools. Many men use their power over women only because most men are physically stronger. So often we hear about a sports figure brutalizing his wife, fiancé or girlfriend. Our society has an abuse crisis that is affecting a large portion of our women as well as our children. How can this happen? It happens because many people feel that might makes right, that the one who can hurt the other has a right to do so. The temptation to use power over others is sick. The temptation to do everything we can to acquire power over others is sad. Those who make power the goal of their lives end up worshiping the devil.
We all have to look within ourselves. All of us have a certain power over others, wives and husbands over each other, parents over children, siblings over their younger, weaker siblings, Teens and children over some of their classmates. None of us have the right to use this power to hurt. God gave us strength to pick others up, not to knock them down. The way of the world is the way of might makes right. Jesus showed a power greater than the power of the world. He showed us the Power of the Cross. He let himself be crucified to restore God’s love to the world. We show our greatest power when we act out of love, even if we have been unjustly attacked.
The final temptation of the devil was the one from the Parapet of the Temple. This parapet was the extension of the roof of the Temple over its wall. It must have been a scary place to stand, even if you are not afraid of heights. The Lord may have had the feeling most of us have when we are at the observation window of a skyscraper, or the edge of a steep cliff. He might have been afraid that he might fall. Scary. On the parapet, the devil told Jesus to throw himself down and see if His Father will save Him. The devil even quoted scripture saying that God would send His angels to save him. The devil tempted the Lord to force His Father to go into action. Doing this would show that he was more powerful than the Father.
None of us stand on parapets and tempt God to save us. Or do we? We often are tempted that if we do something terrible and fall, God will save us. Well, He very well might catch us. Or He might pick up our pieces after we are splattered on the ground. For example, a person may be living a very sinful life when he or she receives a grace to turn from sin and turn to the Lord. That is God catching us. Or the person might be living a sinful life and then bottom out, having destroyed himself and all the others around him. Many prisoners turn to the Lord with the faith that He will put them back together again. That is God picking up the pieces of the prisoner’s life.
This obviously frustrated the devil. Luke tells us, “When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.” Notice that Luke doesn’t say that the devil quit tempting Jesus. He says that the devil made a strategic retreat–to tempt him at a more opportune time–for example, in the Garden of Gethsemane when he was tempted to forsake his mission.
All of us know what it is to be tempted. Some of us probably know it better than others. Temptation is part and parcel of the human condition.
Somewhere I read about a young woman in Colorado a few years back who had herself sent to jail in order to avoid being tempted. Her situation was a little different than most, however. Her temptation was to get married. This young woman asked a juvenile judge to place her in jail in order to prevent her wedding from taking place–a wedding that was scheduled later in the month. She was only 17 at the time and was in love with an older man. She knew that it was not in her best interest to marry him, but she also knew she couldn’t resist him when she was in his presence. Jail seemed to be the only answer. We don’t know what happened to her after she was released from jail. We can only hope that she made a wise decision. We do know, though, what it is to be tempted.
Jesus knew what it was to be tempted. Jesus also knew how to deal with temptation. Jesus was aware of the powerful connection between thought and deed. In that beautiful prayer that he taught his disciples to pray, which we call The Lord’s Prayer, we find the words, “lead us not into temptation . . .” (Matthew 6:13a). Have you ever wondered what Jesus meant by that? Surely God would not lead us into temptation!
Here’s what I believe Jesus was saying. It is one thing to pray for forgiveness. It is quite another to be so earnest in our commitment to Christ that we pray passionately, “Please, Lord, keep me from even being tempted.”
That’s a hard prayer for some people to pray. Let’s face it. Some people really enjoy being tempted. Several years ago there was a popular country song by singer Lari White, the chorus of which went like this:
“Lead me not into temptation, I already know the road all too well;
Lead me not into temptation, I can find it all by myself.”
The woman in the song sings, “Lead me not into temptation,” but by the time you get to the end of the song it is clear that temptation is clearly what she is seeking.
Contrast that with the idea of being so earnest in our devotion to Christ that we pray passionately, “Please, Lord, keep me from even being tempted.”
In Matthew 6 we read those thought-provoking words from our Lord, “You have heard it was said, you shall not commit adultery. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
I believe that we miss the point if we try to make this into an example of unattainable perfectionism. Rather it is a recognition on Jesus’ part of a truth about human nature–the deed begins with the thought.
A young married woman sits in her pastor’s office. She describes to him a marriage gone stale, a husband with misplaced priorities, a situation in which she has excessive time on her hands and a longing for romance in her heart. “Yesterday I had lunch with a fellow I almost married,” she confesses. “I hadn’t seen him in years. Did I do wrong?” Of course there is nothing wrong with a simple lunch with an old friend–or is there? Certainly there is danger.
Someone once said that opportunity knocks only once but temptation bangs on your door for years. Jesus knew the power of temptation over the human soul. Listen as he instructs his disciples on the night that he is betrayed. Luke writes, “And he came out, and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not enter into temptation’” (Luke 22:39-40). Notice that linkage–prayer and temptation.
What follows is a description of Jesus’ own battle with the tempter. It is here he prays, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me . . .” (v. 42). The description of his struggle in Luke’s gospel indicates that this prayer was no mere formality. “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (v. 44). He knew what it was to battle temptation. His humanity was engaged in a great contest with his divinely appointed task.
It is interesting, though, when he returns to his disciples and finds them sleeping he wakes them and instructs them once more: “Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” Once more he links prayer and temptation (v. 46).
We can learn from that linkage. The best way to deal with temptation is to nip it in the bud. Pray that we shall not even be tempted.
Of course, to pray that we shall not be tempted is to imply that the fruit of temptation–that is, sin–is destructive to our lives.
Sometimes we are like a train locomotive that decided it was tired of running back and forth on the same boring track. The unhappy train thought of the adventure and excitement it was missing because it had to run on tracks. So one day he decided to jump the tracks. The result was a horrible crash.
My friends, terrible crashes do take place when people decide that they can ignore God’s laws.
In 1973 Dr. Karl Menninger published his important work, Whatever Became of Sin? In it he expressed his concern about the way sin is being ignored in our society today–or even made to be respectable. To be sure, he was glad that some so-called sins were better understood and dealt with than in earlier times. On the other hand, he said, “There IS immorality: there IS unethical behavior: there is wrongdoing. And I hope to show,” he continued, “that there is usefulness in retaining the concept, and indeed the word, SIN.” (2)
That was nearly 50 years ago. I wonder what Dr. Menninger would say about today’s world? Let’s face it. There are practices that once were frowned upon that are now readily accepted even by most church people.
Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, author of the best-selling book, The Road Less Traveled, exposed the true nature of sin when he noted that “evil” is “live” spelled backward. What a revealing insight that can be if you are mindful of all the implications. Evil is anti-life. Sin is that which is destructive to healthy relationships, destructive to healthy bodies, destructive to healthy souls. It means death to everything that is good, wholesome, lasting.
We snicker when the actress in the Broadway musical Oklahoma sings, “I’m just a girl who can’t say no . . .” We smirk with Mae West when she sighs seductively, “To err is human, but it feels divine.” However, in a day in which one out of two new marriages will end in divorce, when a record number of children will grow up in broken homes, when white collar crime is counted in the billions, when young lives are being drained and often destroyed by drugs and alcohol, when untold millions live in emptiness and despair, guilt and brokenness, it is time we deal with the power of the tempter in our lives. For you see, most of us can handle the big crises in life. It is the little foxes that eat the vines, as Solomon noted thousands of years ago (Song of Solomon 2:15).
There was once an Englishman who startled the world by going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Amazingly he escaped serious harm. However, he did suffer a serious injury several years later. He slipped on a banana peel. No damage from going over Niagara Falls, but a serious injury from a simple banana peel. That is the way the tempter works. It is the little things that so often trip us up. And left to our own resources, the tempter does have the power to destroy us.
However, we are not left to our own resources. There is One whose power is greater than that of the tempter. “Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world,” says I John 4:4. And that, of course, is true.
In Greek mythology there are many stories about the island where the sirens lived. The sirens were beautiful but dangerous creatures that lured the sailors with their beautiful voices to their doom. When ships sailed close to their island, the sirens sang so beautifully that the enchanted sailors would steer their ships upon the rocks to their destruction. The sirens then would collect their spoils from the wreckage.
However, one day a ship came past on which the sailors did not heed the song of the sirens and sailed on in safety. The reason the sailors were not interested was that Orpheus, the god of music, was on board and he sang a sweeter song than any known to the sirens.
That is an imperfect analogy of what happens when we entrust our lives to Christ. The best antidote for temptation is to be so filled with his song–his salvation–his service–that there is no room for temptation. However, that does not relieve us of the burden of praying daily for his divine care.
We have the notion that we are going to suddenly arrive at a spiritual plane where we are delivered from the wiles of the tempter. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am reminded of that place in Exodus where God says to the Israelites concerning their enemies in the Promised Land, “I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land” (Ex. 23:29-30).
That is the way God generally works in life–little by little. But He does work. Our prayers are answered. And if our prayers be for God to deliver us from temptation, then we shall prevail. Romans 10:13 tells us, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”
It may not be according to our time table or it may not be handled exactly according to the desires of our hearts, but God is faithful in answering our prayers.
St. Augustine, before he became a saint, had a real problem with temptation. But he had a mother named Monica who prayed for him daily.
On one occasion Monica prayed that God would block a trip her son planned to make to Italy. Monica was a devout Christian, and it broke her heart to see her son wasting his life in undesirable indulgences. She knew that there were many temptations in Italy for a young man. But while she was praying, Augustine sailed for Italy.
However, here is the ironic thing. It was in Italy that God worked a great miracle in Augustine’s life. He fell under the influence of a mighty preacher named Ambrose and became a Christian–in the very place that his mother was praying he would not go.
We have to be careful in giving God his orders for the day. There is that temptation to assume that we know more than God knows–that we care more than God cares–that we can see the future better than God can see the future. He does know, He does care, He does see, and He does answer prayer–though His answer may come in a form that we do not recognize at first.
Temptation is very real in our lives–as it was real in the life of Jesus. We need to heed Christ’s teachings. Thoughts are connected to deeds. It is in our best interest, and in the interest of those we love, to pray that we shall not even be tempted. We need to recognize the destructiveness of sin in our lives and confront our susceptibility. Finally, we need to learn to rely on God, whose power is greater than the power of the tempter and can give us victory over every evil. ———————————————–
- Montreal Gazette, 1/23/96. Cited by Paul Grobman in Vital Statistics: An Amazing Compendium of Factoids, Minutiae, and Random Bits of Wisdom (New York: Penguin Group, 2005), p. 265.
- Published by Hawthorn Books, Inc.