March 5, 2017

On Jesus’ Temptation

Passage: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11
Service Type:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. … Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings a Hobbit named Frodo Baggins is given the unenviable task of destroying a ring in the Cracks of Doom in the dark and evil land of Mordor. In the first book The Fellowship of the Ring a number of other brave individuals join Frodo—nine in all—to accompany Frodo on this journey fraught with mortal danger. They become The Fellowship of the Ring. The moment when they all agree to go is an emotionally moving scene; each sets aside lesser concerns and differences; an instant filled with high hopes and a great sense of common purpose. Indeed a high point in the unfolding story.

Not long after their resolve is put to the test. In a section omitted in the movie, (and I do recommend reading the books) a heated conflict breaks out among the crusaders. Axes are drawn. Bows are bent. Harsh words are spoken. Disaster nearly strikes the small band. When peace at last prevails, a wise counselor observes, "Indeed in nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him."

1. In the unfolding story of Matthew’s gospel Jesus has come from Galilee to John at the Jordon to be baptized by him. The baptism scene is, spiritually speaking, a high point in the story. The child born in Bethlehem, raised in the obscurity of a Nazareth carpentry shop now comes to be baptized. For Jesus this is the launch of his ministry. The word Messiah (Christ) means “the Anointed”. In the Older Testament, anointing was regarded as the visible sign that the person anointed was being invested with the gifts of office, with the Spirit of God. At the conclusion of the baptism scene the Spirit of God descends like a dove alighting on Jesus. He is being anointed for his Messianic mission.

Immediately following this high moment of mission and purpose we are told: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” It is one thing for the devil to seek out Jesus but why would the Spirit now lead him purposely into this wilderness where temptation is sure to occur? Recall that at John’s baptism for repentance of sin, the one who knew no sin comes to be baptized as part of his complete identification with us sinners. So too here in the wilderness it is part of that same identification as Jesus is subject to the perils besetting humankind. Jesus has to enter into the drama of human existence, he has to penetrate fallen humanity in order to rescue it.

I invite you to take note of a pattern that we see in our Lord’s coming among us as one of us. Please note that it often the case following a spiritual high point, a moment of spiritual clarity and resolve with God, that we experience a time of testing and even temptation to turn back. Today on the first Sunday of Lent young people are being confirmed in the faith they were baptized into as infants. Promises were made looking forward to this day when they would own Jesus Christ for themselves. We are rightly excited. It is a spiritual high point. I love the way the Apostle Paul puts it: “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:9) Clearly Tolkien was influenced by this text as he described the Fellowship of the Ring. Today we rejoice as some commit themselves with us to the fellowship of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. We set out on our mission to be followers of his in our world.

I don’t make this point about testing to frighten anyone from following Jesus; nor to bring a downer on a day of rejoicing. I do so to point out that the world we live in is hostile to this faith and there is an enemy that would like to deflect us from following, even give up on it. So, don’t let any testing surprise you; don’t let it diminish your joy in the Saviour; continue to pray—and lead us not into temptation.

There are some things we can learn from Jesus’ temptation that can help us anticipate the nature of the enemy’s attacks that would deflect us to give up on this way. In this wilderness temptation Jesus is confronted with the perils besetting humanity. To be sure, these temptations are his in that they are designed to deflect him from following his mission of obedience to God. Yet in these we also see the things that would deflect us. In the Genesis story of the fall of humanity we observed Adam and Eve deflected from fulfilling their mission of not eating of the tree. Here is the wilderness Jesus is being tempted and will not be deflected.

2. All of these temptations for Jesus have a similar theme—prove it that you are the Son of God. This demand for proof is a constantly recurring theme in the story of Jesus’ life. This same demand is made of God and of Jesus throughout history. “If you exist, God” we say, then you will just have to show yourself—doing this or solving that crisis. As we follow Christ in faith it is a demand make of his people. People hear of your faith loaded with the assumptions of their own ideologies that cannot by definition accept the claims of faith. Words are being exchanged in conversation about faith but no understanding occurs; we speak of good news but somehow others do not or cannot recognize it as good news at all.

The proof of divinity that the tempter proposes at the first temptation consists in changing the stones of the wilderness into bread. Is there anything more tragic, is there anything more opposed to belief in the existence of God and a Redeemer of humankind, than world hunger? Shouldn’t it be the first test of the Messiah, before the world’s gaze and on the world’s behalf, to give bread and to end all hunger? Marxism made this very point the core of its promise of salvation: it would see to it that no one went hungry anymore.

Please note Jesus’ response to the tempter’s challenge. But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’ (Matthew 4:4) As we know Jesus did not object to giving people bread; the multiplication of the loaves and fishes feeding five thousand witnesses as much. Here is the point I offer for your consideration. The tempter would have us regard God as a secondary matter; as if God can be set aside temporarily or permanently on account of more important things. The tempter’s lure is to treat important things (bread) and make them ultimate. A reading of news would make you think that politics and entertainment were ultimate. In point of fact to take such an approach is to see these important things come to nothing.

The issue Jesus raises is the primacy of God. The issue is acknowledging that God is the reality without which nothing else can be good. God is the reality that Adam and Eve became convinced they could do without or set to one side. We are ever confronted with ideologies deflecting attention from God; that ask us to make our faith a purely private matter. (i.e.liberalism, multiculturalism) Compartmentalize it over to one side. Jesus shows us the way. Bread in important but not ultimate. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

3. The second temptation is where we see Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple being asked to prove himself as Messiah by throwing himself down; the Tempter citing scripture as the source of his demand. Jesus refuses citing another scripture in response; “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” At the heart of this theological debate over the correct interpretation of scripture is this question: What picture of God are we working with?

The common practice today is to measure the Bible against the so-called modern worldview, whose fundamental dogma is that God cannot act in human history—that everything to do with God is to be relegated to the domain of subjectivity. As so the Bible is thought to no longer speak of God; no, now we alone speak and decide what God can do and what we will and should do. Jesus was quite certain that the scripture spoke of the living God and set out the way for what he should do.

The tempter would have us believe that God is subject to our testing—throw yourself down and let God show himself. We do the same when we expect to impose our laboratory conditions on God, making God an object. To do so is to deny God as God placing ourselves above God. To think like this is to make oneself God. And to do that is to abase not only God, but the world and oneself, too.

Faith, says the apostle John, is the conviction that Jesus Christ is the mirror-image of God the Father, the conviction that Jesus Christ is the living presence of God embodied in our flesh and blood. To know what picture of God we are working with is to look to Jesus Christ. Clinging to faith in him not only shows us how to read scripture but how to live in the world.

4. The third temptation concerns the question of what sort of action is expected of a Saviour of the world. The tempter offers him power and prestige. Jesus insisted that the concept of the Messiah has to be understood in terms of the entirety of the message of the Prophets—it means not worldly power, but the Cross. In his post-resurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus Jesus said to the two disciples, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared.” (Luke 24:25)

It is interesting to note that all the kingdoms of this world that were shown to Jesus by the Tempter have come and gone. Whatever their strengths were and the promise they held none of them brought what God intends for the world. None of them were solutions for peace, universal prosperity and a better world. We are ever confronted with political solutions, and ideologies, that promise much. When God comes among us he goes to the cross; it is here that the rectification of all things is achieved, according to the gospel. This is why each year the church embarks on this Lenten journey to the cross.

Much more can be understood in Jesus’ wilderness temptation. We have only scratched the surface. I have noted these things with you that we might ever cling to Jesus Christ in faith. Ideologies will come and go promising much but always deflecting from the true light in Jesus Christ.

5. Three quick hits as we conclude. First, when Jesus responded to the temptations of his adversary he does so from texts of scripture arising from Israel’s wilderness experience. In other words Jesus knows this word of scripture and it guides him. We would do well to know the stories of Jesus’ life that they might guide us.

Secondly Jesus goes into the wilderness guided by the Spirit. Our Lord will never abandon us in the wilderness, he comes there. Further the Spirit of God will be present with us.

Third, the angels the tempter mocked him about, show up at the end of the temptation unannounced and minister to Jesus. Such is our Lord’s care of his people. (You can see in seed form at least three more sermons.)

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. … Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.