Sermon preached 2/11-12/2012 at Burke UMC
Text: Matthew 4:1-11
“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” I was talking about my sermon topic with my five-year old son Matthew earlier this week. Matthew said, “I like temptation.” I tried to stay calm, and I asked him why. “Because temptation is chocolate,” he said. And I couldn’t argue with him, since that’s usually the word that they use for the most ridiculously decadent dessert on the restaurant menu. Not just chocolate, but chocolate fudge with chocolate chips and chocolate mousse and chocolate ice cream. I generally succumb to temptation quite easily in those circumstances.
It’s interesting how the word “temptation” has almost taken on a kind of comical meaning in our culture today. It’s a word for desserts and novels by Danielle Steel. People who take the concept of temptation seriously are seen as hopelessly old-fashioned. We tend to make a big distinction between indulging harmless vices like eating too many chocolate chip cookies and actually doing malicious things that hurt other people.
Of course, this all changes when we face very real and debilitating addictions in our lives and the lives of loved ones. Whether it’s things we don’t really want to put in our body or pictures on the Internet we don’t really want to look at, there are people for whom temptation is a very real and hideous presence in their lives. Anyone who has experienced addiction knows that its harm goes far beyond the direct physical consequences of the behavior; it becomes the spawning ground of all kinds of other evils. It makes us dishonest, paranoid, and violent, which can quickly destroy our relationships and careers. Someone who has been through the devastating experience of addiction is going to have less trouble believing that there’s some kind of evil force or person in the universe that is constantly trying to tear us down. The Hebrew word for this evil entity is Satan, or Say-tuhn (as we pronounce it in Texas). The word Satan means literally “the heckler” or, if you prefer, “the hater.”
Jesus went out into the desert to battle with Satan right after He got baptized. Since it was the very beginning of His ministry, many scholars think that Satan’s three temptations had to do with the different approaches Jesus could have taken to becoming the messiah of His people. Would he give away free food? Would he jump off of tall buildings to attract attention? Or would he overthrow Caesar and rule the world from Caesar’s throne? With the power that Jesus had, He faced a tremendous temptation to accomplish His mission in an easier, much more comfortable way than dying on a cross. But because of Jesus’ radical self-discipline, we have not only a role model to follow but a source of strength and hope every time we succumb to our own temptations.
“If you’re the son of God,” said Satan, “Tell these stones to become bread.” The first temptation. Jesus had just fasted for forty days and forty nights. I try to fast every Monday, but I often cave about 4:00 in the afternoon. And I don’t even fast all the way since I drink juice and milk to keep my strength up. I can’t imagine going without food for forty days; it’s one of those things only a messiah could do. What would have been wrong with Jesus turning stones into bread for him to eat? How is that sinful? What Satan said is true. As the son of God, Jesus had the power to make stones into bread. He did many miracles throughout scripture that were way more dramatic and significant. He actually made five loaves of bread and two fishes into enough food for 5000 people.
But Jesus responds to Satan, “We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” It’s super-radical that Jesus refuses to use His supernatural powers to satisfy a very legitimate need for physical nourishment. God doesn’t expect us to go to this extreme, which is such a tremendous contrast to our world today that constantly introduces new ways of making our lives perfectly convenient and comfortable. It’s easy to be a slave to your physical comfort. That’s what it means to live by bread alone. Whatever urge you have in your body, you satisfy it immediately and automatically. I often act this way about 11:30 at night. I feel just a little bit too hungry to sleep, so I sneak down to the kitchen and start scarfing down hummus and other food. Animals live this way. They eat when they need to eat and they poop when they need to poop. But we are more than animals; we are creatures whom God made in His image to appreciate the deeper beauty that God has to share with us. If we are owned by our physical appetites, we won’t get very far in that journey.
Next Satan took Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple: “If you’re the son of God, throw yourself down from here and let the angels catch you.” Did you notice when we read it that the devil uses scripture to support his argument? Just because something is written in the Bible doesn’t mean that the devil can’t use it. How many times in our history have we seen the Bible taken out of context to justify agendas that are completely un-Christian? Satan’s temptation for Jesus is to do something reckless with no constructive purpose whatsoever to flaunt His privilege as the Son of God.
Any of you ever done reckless things that didn’t have a purpose? I used to do that sort of thing at least several times a week when I was in high school. How many of you have ever been mudding? Might be a North Carolina redneck thing. Well, don’t try mudding in an Astro minivan, especially if there’s a pond nearby; it doesn’t turn out well. Thankfully, my parents had AAA. Jesus didn’t just have AAA; He had all the resources of the Creator of the universe to back Him up. So He could have jumped off that Temple without even a bungee cord and said, “Look at me, I can do this, because my Daddy will send His angels to catch me.” But Jesus didn’t flaunt His privilege as the Son of God. He did the opposite. He emptied Himself of privilege and spent His time with the people from the bottom rung of society. He used His supernatural power for only one thing: to heal other people.
For Satan’s final temptation, he showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and said, “I will give you all this if you bow down and worship me.” The implications of Satan’s offer are pretty sobering, because what this passage is saying is that Satan has dominion over all the kingdoms of the world, and that worshiping Satan is the way that you seize worldly power. There is a way in which the lust for power and the worship of Satan really are the same thing. Satan isn’t really in control of the world; God is; but the structures of sin and oppression that dominate the world today form Satan’s kingdom. God’s kingdom is formed out of a completely different kind of power that will ultimately overthrow Satan’s kind of power.
According to the terms of Satan’s kingdom, the one who is able to backstab and manipulate their way to the top of the social pyramid wins. The Satanic form of power consists in being feared by others and having control over them. Of course, the paradox of this kind of power is that it results in a completely isolated, paranoid existence because a leader who rules through terror and deception can never trust anyone.
The concept of power in God’s kingdom is the complete inverse of Satan’s kingdom. Jesus doesn’t just reject Satan’s final temptation. He goes on to repudiate Satan’s entire premise for offering this temptation by becoming the world’s king through dying the type of death reserved for the lowest criminals. He became what Satan offered to make Him by doing the opposite of what Satan told Him to do. It makes no sense from a worldly perspective, but the way that Jesus gains power is through submitting Himself in absolute weakness and vulnerability to the cross. Instead of seizing power by subduing the world with violence, Jesus’ power is based upon absorbing the world’s violence into His flesh. His power over people is not based on their fear that He will kill them; He has power over those who accept His death and resurrection as the source of their freedom from sin.
And this is where Jesus is more than just a role model for us. His radical discipline in the face of temptation becomes the means by which we are delivered from evil. We do not have the power in ourselves to resist evil. The forces that destroy our willpower and stir up conflict between us and other people are far too strong. It’s impossible to fight temptation alone. We will always fail, and when we fail, we will build a façade of normalcy to hide behind, which will only make us more anxious and irritable in our relationships with other people as we worry whether they can see what we are hiding.
What we need is to be embraced by a community of people who feel safe enough to confess their sins to each other and receive God’s forgiveness. This community happens among those who have put their trust in Christ’s sacrifice and taken all their failures and wounds and anxieties to the foot of the cross. Only in such an environment can we be delivered from evil. There will always be temptations. We will always need to cry out to God to lead us away from them. But this life of dependence is not something to be ashamed of. We were created to spend our lives in a relationship of trust with God. He has the power to deliver us from all evil. The question is: are we going to let Him do that?