One Way? Week Two: "Tempted"
Is Jesus the only way to God? For Christians (like me) he is, which presents an interesting problem for those of us who assert this belief as trustworthy: Not everyone agrees with us. Christians can respond to this question in a number of ways. They can learn to argue better, an approach that doesn't seem to be working all that well. Or they can retreat into a Christian ghetto away from all the nonChristians. Or they can tacitly embrace the idea that there might be other ways to God other than Jesus but for them he is the way.
I think we can do better. The purpose of this sermon series is to offer another approach--an approach that challenges followers of Jesus to demonstrate with their lives all the ways that Jesus is the way.
Today we're going to be studying Matthew 4:1-11, the story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. But before we launch into that study--let me show you a photo of one of the most beautiful places in the entire state of Vermont: Huntington River Gorge.
Isn't that gorgeous?
Would it surprise you to know that in addition to being one of the most beautiful places in the state of Vermont, Huntington River Gorge is also one of the most deadly. Over the past 40 years there have been 20 deaths in the Gorge. Hundreds of people have nearly lost their lives in it as well. The surface of the water looks placid, but underneath it is a swirling mass of currents, dangerous rocks, and treacherous footing.
Despite the fact that there are signs posted all throughout the public areas of the Gorge warning people of the hazards, thousands of people each year jump in and start swimming. A young college-aged woman was interviewed for one of the local newspapers and was asked what could be done to change things. "You can't change the water," she stated simply. "And you can't stop people from going in."
I think this is a sobering illustration of what happens when people give in to the temptation of "now." We all know what this is like. In fact, we are assailed by the temptation of "now" every single day of our lives. Our culture is not founded on patience. We want what we want in the moment--or sooner. And despite all of the sociological and psychological studies on the dangers of succumbing to a culture of immediacy--we keep jumping in, don't we?
We know that below the surface, the water is treacherous, but we fool ourselves into thinking it's okay because it looks pleasing from where we stand. So we jump in... and sometimes we make it out okay... and sometimes we don't.
I think that these kinds of temptations win when we get so caught up in the trappings of life that we lose sight of eternal life right here, right now. And this is where things get kind of sticky for some people. Because most of us would be saying, "Listen, there's life now---and then there's life after you die. Eternal life begins when you shuffle off this mortal coil, my friend and not a moment sooner." The problem with this kind of thinking is it doesn't have any substantive support in Scripture.
Jesus was always telling his disciples, "The kingdom of God is coming... and is NOW." There was a "not yet" aspect to Jesus teachings about the kingdom of God. You don't have to look to far to see that the world isn't as it should be, after all. But you can't get away from the fact that he said "now." Jesus wanted his followers to know that eternal life--the kind of life that matters--is available to those who follow him right here, right now.
In fact, I want this thought to guide what we do today as we study the fourth chapter of Matthew: Jesus is the One Way to God that leads to eternal life, right now. It is our choice whether we want to experience this kind of life in the present--a choice that we have to make every single time we are tempted to do what feels best rather than what is best.
More specifically, it's the choice we have to make each time we are tempted to live and act outside of the intimacy of a relationship with God through Jesus.
Let's take a look at Matthew 4:1-11:
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.
What do you make of the fact that Jesus was "led" into the wilderness by the Spirit of God---to be tempted by the devil? Seems kind of odd, doesn't it? I think it would make it easier for me to accept this line if it read, "Jesus was driven by the Spirit..." The way it's written, it conveys the idea that Jesus believed it was God's will for him to go into the wilderness for the purpose of being "tempted." Does God set us up for these kinds of things? Well, it depends on how you translated that word "tempted." A better translation would actually be "tested." There is a big difference between the idea of being tested as opposed to tempted. Sometimes one can lead to the other, to be fair. But what this shows us is very profound. If God is calling you to do something for him--you can expect to be tested.
The symbolism of forty days and forty nights is something we can't ignore. This is a significant number in the Bible that typically accompanies a time of trial for God's people--specifically related to the struggle of God's people to be faithful in the wilderness.
And the word "devil" is important, too. It has it's roots in the Greek words dia and bello and when these two words are combined they form a word that essentially means, "one who attacks, misleads, diverts or slanders." This is why this same person is often called the "Satan" throughout Scripture--"satan" being another word for "accuser."
3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
The first temptation hits Jesus right where he lives and breathes in his frail, human form: his physical need. He's been fasting for forty days and nights, and the Devil makes a simple suggestion--turn the stones all around you into bread.
Jesus is tempted with the immediacy of Physical Satisfaction. "Feed your need!" the Devil tells him. "You don't have to suffer like these people--you are better than that... IF you are the Son of God, after all."
But Jesus doesn't give in to the temptation of now even though it means he might suffer in the present. This is huge because what we learn about Jesus in this moment is that he truly identifies with us in our frailty. And further, he doesn't avoid suffering for our sake, because he knows there's more at stake than the moment.
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
The second temptation has to do with spectacle, and the revelation of Jesus' true power. Jesus is being tempted here with Immediate Gratification. The Devil suggests that Jesus could end all of the speculation about himself by simply revealing who he really is.
"God will take care of you!" The Devil offers to Jesus. "You don't need to worry about the repercussions, just jump! It'll be awesome!"
But Jesus doesn't give in to this temptation either because he knows that despite how great it would feel to demonstrate his power and the provision and protection of God over his life, it would not accomplish the ultimate redemption of Creation. Again, he knows there's more at stake than the moment.
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
The third temptation is a direct offer of power in exchange for Jesus' recognizing the absolute dominion that the Devil has over the world. This is a temptation of Power and Domination. The Devil suggests that Jesus could have the world, establish his kingdom, make everything right---but in exchange he would be admitting that it's power, not love that makes the world go around.
Jesus doesn't give in to this temptation either. He knows that power is not an end in itself, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Although it would be easier to win people over by a show of power, Jesus knows that the only sure way to bring the kingdom of God to bear on earth was through sacrificial love. By now you know what I am going to say. He knows there's more at stake than the moment.
When you pull back from this story a bit, you see that none of the things that the Devil tempted Jesus with were evil in and of themselves. In fact, each could be considered a gift of God in the right circumstances. But you also see when you pull back from this story that the temptation Jesus was being offered was to love the gifts of God and not the Giver--something he absolutely refused to do. There is no surer path to self-destruction than when we makes idols out of the good things God has given us.
There's something else at work here that's very important to note. When Israel spent forty years in the desert wandering due to their disobedience they had moments when they were tested with all three of these temptations---and they failed the test. Jesus, on the other hand, passed them. This is important for all of us. We need to see Jesus overcome these temptations. We need to know that he was, as the author of Hebrews notes, "tested in every way that we are, but did not sin."
Because Jesus didn't exchange what felt best for what was best. He didn't give in to the temptation of now--because he knew there was more at stake than the moment.
I saw this awesome video the other day called "The Marshmallow Test." In the video, preschool children were placed in a room all by themselves and had a marshmallow placed in front of them. They were promised that if they didn't eat the marshmallow they would be given another one---or they could go ahead and eat the marshmallow and not get another. Then they were left alone to wait.
I think this is a great illustration of what happens when we are confronted with the temptation of "now."
To begin with--when do we usually face temptation? Can you recall the moments when you've been tempted? Typically temptations come when we are stressed, tired, anxious, pre-occupied, unsatisfied or alone. Those kinds of moments rarely affect us when we are feeling strong, confident, close to God and to others, right?
Then there's this little nugget. The lady in the video tells the kids "If you eat this, that's all there is. But if you wait, you can have even more." How different is that than the "If's" that Satan uses in the story we just read? "If you give in to your desires---you will have satisfaction... If you want immediate gratification, it will feel great... If you want power, than you have to stop caring so much about everyone else..."
But there is nothing on the other side of those "If's" that leads to eternal life right here, right now. Satan is like one of those television pitch men who keep ante'ing up and telling you, "But wait, there's more!" Only there isn't more--there's less.
Which leads us to this important question---one that is illuminated in that video: Will you trade eternity for NOW? Eternal life, the kind of life that matters is happening all around you. It's the real life that rejects what feels best for what is best.
In his fantastic allegory, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis presents correspondence between a senior demon named Screwtape and a junior demon named Wormtongue. Wormtongue has been given the task of ensuring that a particular human rejects God and goes to hell. Screwtape's advice is for Wormtongue to keep Christians "spiritual, but not practical." In other words, keep them focused on what makes them feel good, rather than on doing good. Keep them in the illusion that what feels best is best. Keep them focused on themselves, and their own needs... and not focused on the needs of the world.
Satan seems powerful in the temptation story. It's almost like he was in the driver's seat--able to offer so many alluring things. Make no mistake--the Accuser is powerful, and he seems to reign over the Culture of Now, without a doubt. But unfortunately for the Accuser Jesus chose what was eternal instead.
In Matthew 28:18 Jesus appears to his disciples in his resurrected body having defeated sin and death, and giving his followers new hope and strength to choose eternal life that starts right now. Satan is no where to be found in this moment. Only Jesus. And he says these words to those who would follow him, "All power in heaven and on earth has been given unto me..."
In other words, "Everything else you hear is a lie from the very pits of hell... Because I chose what was best, you can begin eternity now. You can be free from guilt. You can be free from shame. You can live in joy. You can change the world.
Because I chose what was best for you and for all of Creation---now you can do the same."
Beloved, Jesus is the One Way to God that leads to eternal life, right now.