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One Temptation is as Good as Another

A couple of days ago I arrived at the church in the morning on a beautiful sunny day. Allen Houghton arrived at almost the same time for a meeting we would both attend.
"Another meeting", I thought to myself.
As Allen walked across the parking lot, I found my key and was getting ready to unlock the door when I rather impulsively said to him, "Allen, I am having a moral dilemma."  I think that may have caught him somewhat off guard but if it did, he didn't show it.
"Really", he said in British understatement.
"Yes", I replied. "It's like this. It's a dilemma between living a life of purpose and meaning on the one hand and pre-occupied self absorbed hedonism on the other. What's your vote?"
As my key was poised in the lock, I said, "Once we cross the threshold, you know we are committed. If you want to make a break for it, now's the time." I think he smiled wryly, but I may have been mistaken.

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.
Matthew 4:1

A couple of days ago I arrived at the church in the morning on a beautiful sunny day. Allen Houghton arrived at almost the same time for a meeting we would both attend.
"Another meeting", I thought to myself.
As Allen walked across the parking lot, I found my key and was getting ready to unlock the door when I rather impulsively said to him, "Allen, I am having a moral dilemma."  I think that may have caught him somewhat off guard but if it did, he didn't show it.
"Really", he said in British understatement.
"Yes", I replied. "It's like this. It's a dilemma between living a life of purpose and meaning on the one hand and pre-occupied self absorbed hedonism on the other. What's your vote?"
As my key was poised in the lock, I said, "Once we cross the threshold, you know we are committed. If you want to make a break for it, now's the time." I think he smiled wryly, but I may have been mistaken.
I unlocked the door and we went in and began setting up for those who would follow.
By the way, it was a good meeting.

Temptation is part of the human condition. No, this hardly ranks as a temptation, particularly compared with the kind that Jesus faced, but facing testing, great or small is part of the human condition.

Temptation is not the penalty of being human. It the glory of being human. It is the test which comes to those God wishes to use1

In Matthew's gospel, we read that following his baptism, Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit. Furthermore we read that it was specifically to be tempted. The word tempted does not imply being led to commit evil. It means to be tested.
And how do we know this?
We know because Jesus told his friends. This is his version of what happened.

One temptation is as good as another
He goes into the wilderness to be alone and he is for forty days.
While there, thinking about what he has been baptized to accomplish, the tempter comes to him to divert him from his calling.
It is an inner struggle where the tempter believes Jesus will be vulnerable.
We all face testing where we are vulnerable. For us, like Jesus, the point of testing is totally personal.
We do not all have the same vulnerabilities, though we are tempted in ways common to all humanity.
And temptation does not have to be about being led into some grievous sin.
It's about being side-tracked and that can take any form.

It can be the better known sins of the flesh or it can be self indulgent pre-occupation with ourselves.
In the parable about the prodigal son; only one son went and wasted his substance in a far country, but the son who stayed home and lived in resentment at his younger brother was just as off the path as the more spectacular sinner.
Temptation comes in all flavors from neon delights to dark and bitter.
One temptation is as good as another. It's all to get your mind off what God wants and to become centered on ourselves.

Stones to bread
The first temptation was to turn stones into bread. Stones in the wilderness apparently looked like a loaf of bread.
Jesus was undoubtedly hungry and this would be a totally understandable temptation to use his powers to look after himself rather than trust in the Spirit to meet his needs. The application in our own life is pretty obvious, but no less important.
Sure we believe in God.
But do we trust in God enough to believe that he will look after our needs?
Enough to focus first on others and their needs rather than our own?

On another level this can be read as a temptation to turn the stones into bread for others.
After all, God sent manna to the people fresh out of Egypt. Why not?
Well simply because it was never God's plan to bribe us into following Him.
And as soon as the bread is gone, so would be our attention. God wants converts of the heart and not just the stomach.
He has given us that task however. Caring for one anothers' basic needs is our task and the love others experience is meant to point toward the author of love and caring.
But the heart of Jesus work was not to stop at feeding the hungry, though it included it.
Jesus' response is "thou shalt live not by bread alone but from every word of God"'

A leap of temptation
From one corner of the temple, it was a sheer drop of hundreds of feet into the valley below.
For Jesus to leap from there and have the angels bear him down would make a very powerful statement. This time the tempter tries using scripture. He quotes from psalm 91, saying God will send his angels to prevent him from being dashed on the stones.
A point to note: Satan knows the scriptures too and can manipulate them. The cults claim to be Biblical. In fact they claim that they alone are Biblical. That is a warning sign in its own right. Just because someone can quote scripture doesn't make him an agent of God. He could be playing for the other team.

Jesus was being tempted to prove who he was by spectacular signs. In Mark's gospel particularly, Jesus often tells people who were healed to keep it to themselves. He was not interested in being the Messiah of Miracles.
He came to be the Son of Man which was a far cry from flash and spectacles.

But why not prove himself as God. Why doesn't God prove Himself?
Any sign to show the waiting world who he is.
Well it doesn't help to change people's hearts. It hasn't worked in the past.
Consider Moses and the Hebrews:
God showed them spectacular miracles in the plagues in Egypt.
Then they were able to cross the red sea and were led by a pillar of fire and a cloud.
But what happened almost as soon as they were on dry land again?
They started grousing and complaining about God. They were hungry and where was god when it counted?
There is nothing wrong in asking God to help us in any area of our life where we need help, but God responds to our faith, rather than produce miracles to inspire our faith.

Just take it
The third temptation was to take the world and rule it.
God has promised that Jesus will take the world and rule, but in God's own time.
Satan's temptation was to by-pass all this laying down your life in humility stuff and just take it.

Jesus could do so much good as a strong ruler rather than a suffering servant who would die for us.
But he would belong to Satan.
Play by my rules says the tempter and you can have it all.

  • Stamp out world poverty Jesus. Sure, Satan can claim the souls of the rich as well as of the poor.
  • End disease. You bet, and mankind even now loves to worship at the shrine of health and beauty. That would be a winner for sure.
  • How about saving the planet's ecology? That may not have been an issue in Jesus time, but he could see the future. Why not? We even have nature worshippers now. Satan would be pleased to get our attention onto the creation and off the creator.

Don't misunderstand me. The church is given all the above as an agenda as part of the implications of how we live out our faith. But the temptation was to get Jesus onto anything but dealing with the core issue of sin and forgiveness. For that he would have to lay down his life and die on a cross. That was to be avoided at all costs. Satan could sacrifice anything to Jesus if Jesus would sacrifice his core mission.

The temptation was to take any road but the road of salvation.
It's funny, but isn't that exactly the same temptation we face?
Take any route except laying down your life at the feet of Christ.
Never let go of your agenda.
Take up your cross means every day facing the world in a different way. In a manner that says its not about me.
It's about giving my life and time to Jesus to do with as he wishes.
But I want...
There is the rub.
The Bible says commit your ways to God and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Yes but remember what is our responsibility and what is God's.
Our responsibility is every day committing our ways and our wants to God and following what he calls us to be.
Its is God's responsibility to fill our life with joy. Do you think he is up to it.

Do your part and let him look after his part of the deal.


Preached February 13, 2005
Dr. Harold McNabb
West Shore Presbyterian Church
Victoria, British Columbia

Notes
1. William Barclay, "The Gospel of Matthew" Vol. 1 The Daily Study Bible Series, Westminster Press, 1975, p.63
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