The text for tomorrow's sermon is based mainly on Luke's account of the Temptation of Jesus: Luke 4:1-13.
Introduction – Setting the Scene
Imagine with me, if you will, a scene about 40 minutes into a 2-hour movie. We – the audience – have been closely following the development of the main character.
Armed with the screen-writer’s exposition and with a little help from the narrator, we already understand that the central character is someone very special. And right now, 40 minutes into the film, the anticipation is building. The script and the acting and the music all indicate that something very impressive is about to happen that is going to change the course of the film. From this point forward, nothing is going to be the same.
And then it happens – that compelling, mysterious event that we’ve been waiting for – Jesus is baptised. The background music swells dramatically and triumphantly. The heavens are opened. A great light pours forth and the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus. And a voice from heaven – somehow both quiet and thundering at the same times – declares “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased!”
Ahhh. So that’s it! That’s the revelation we’ve been waiting for. Mystery solved. The audience sits back in their seats and people relax a bit, content in the knowledge that they now understand who this man is. As the voice-over narrator reads the genealogy of Jesus, one or two people contemplate whether to get out of their seats to buy some Malteasers.
But wait! The scene once again changes dramatically and abruptly. The music is loud, poignant - at once both threatening and hopeful. Clearly the drama is not yet over!
Jesus is going to be tempted by the personification of all Evil – the Devil himself. Jesus, Son of Adam, Son of God will be put to the test.
And at the end of this testing, we will know the answer to the question: “What kind of a Messiah is Jesus going to be?” Is Jesus going to the sort of Messiah that many of his contemporaries are expecting – one who uses power to free the Jewish people from the hands of an occupying force? Or is he going to be the sort of Messiah that is indicated in the Gospels – a Suffering Servant Messiah? Is Jesus going to be a Son-of-Adam Messiah or a Son-of-God Messiah?
Well, of course, we know the answer. We’ve heard this story told many times, those of us who have been Christians all our lives. Jesus is going to be the Suffering Servant Messiah. He’s going to suffer and die on the cross and all who believe in him and call on his name will be saved.
The thing is, the temptations of Jesus are not just temptations that were specially designed in order to try to invalidate his Messiahship. These temptations are at the core of what it means to be a human being living in a sinful world. And if Jesus was fully divine, he was also fully human.
By human standards, these three temptations are subtle, reasonable and are considered by many to be best-advised. Evil is powerful when it weaves its way into our standard operating procedures and when it presents itself as “the way things are”.
The First Temptation
The first temptation that Jesus is presented with is the temptation of “The Lord helps those who helps themselves”. Just in case I need to say it in so many words, this saying comes from popular culture and is most emphatically not to be found anywhere in the bible.
It is in Jesus’ response to this temptation to turn a stone into bread that we can understand the precise nature of the temptation. Jesus responds by quoting from Deuteronomy 8: Moses’ warning to the people of Israel not to forget God in times of prosperity. A person does not live by bread alone, Jesus responds
The first temptation is the ever-present temptation that humanity has to try to help itself. To forget that everything that we have is given to us by God. It’s the temptation to think that we are in control of our lives, to think that the good things in our lives are there not as gifts from God but because we deserve them.
Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer we repeat the words “Give us this day our daily bread” Yet, generally speaking, our lives are not dominated by people going around saying: “I’m so thankful for everything that I have, that I sometimes can’t take it all in!” or “There are just no words that will express the feelings of thankfulness that I have.”
What we do hear are lots of cultural messages that encourage us to spoil ourselves because we’re worth it. We hear messages telling us to take a well-deserved holiday or to buy ourselves a well-deserved treat.
Now, I’m not saying that God wants us to be miserable or to suffer simply for the sake of suffering. I am saying that God-followers are called to remember the truth that all good things in our lives are blessings from God.
Although our culture gives us the seemingly reasonable message that we deserve what we have and that our lives are under our own control, disciples of Jesus are called to remember the truth of God’s sovereignty.
Jesus’ Messiahship will not be based on his reliance on his own power. Jesus’ Messiahship is going to be based in his humanity. He will conduct his Messianic mission as a human being living in radical obedience to his heavenly Father. Jesus’ Messiahship will be a witness to his faith in the sovereignty of the Father.
The Second Temptation
The second temptation is the big one – the temptation to wield power over other human beings. Jesus has just indicated his faith that everything human beings have comes from God, but now the Devil is claiming to have power over the things of this world and he is encouraging Jesus to choose to be the kind of Messiah that uses might on the side of right.
Jesus responds by quoting from the Great Commandment – the foundational principle of both Judaism and Christianity – “Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him”.
Jesus was being tempted to be the kind of Messiah that many people in his time were waiting for – a powerful King. However, Scripture tells us clearly that Jesus was being called to be a Suffering Servant and not a powerful King. And it’s not just because Jesus had to die to atone for our sins; it’s also because servanthood is the very nature of Christian discipleship The way of the world is to wield power; the way of Christian discipleship is to be a servant.
Our culture holds fast to the idea of using might in the cause of right. One of the commentators on this passage – John Pridmore in The Church Times - writes the following: ‘The same seductive voice seeks to persuade the Church, as it sought to persuade the Lord of the Church, to be a power for good - to be a power for good. To use power to achieve what must be done may be a necessity for the army, but for the Church to do so is always idolatry. The temptation to "worship the devil" is not to do weird things in the woods at midnight. It is the temptation to stride the corridors of power. And, ever since the conversion of Constantine, there has been little evidence of the Church's attempting to resist it.’
I said earlier that these temptations are subtle, reasonable and considered by many to be best-advised. I said earlier that evil is most powerful when it weaves its way into our standard operating procedures and when it presents itself as “the way things are”.
The use of might for the cause of right is hugely seductive because the alternative seems totally impractical, unrealistic and even suicidal. I do like John Pridmore’s observation that. ‘the temptation to "worship the devil" is not to do weird things in the woods at midnight.’ The temptation is simply to follow the way that seems most “realistic” and “practical” in our sinful world.
The Third Temptation
The third temptation has to do with putting God to the test.
Jesus was tempted by an action that most of us would find easy to resist. I’ve not yet heard of many people tempted to throw themselves off tall buildings. The interesting thing about this temptation, though, is that whatever the outcome, Evil would have won.
Jesus’ survival would not have been regarded as an oddity in his culture – it would have been proof of Jesus’ political Messiahship and it would have gained him the power offered by the second temptation. Had Jesus not survived the fall, his death would not have been a victory over sin, death and the power of Evil; it would simply have been pointless.
However, the temptation to test God is something to which ordinary human beings are tempted. This is the temptation to demand that God must “magically” intervene in a situation and sort things out in the manner which I think is best.
Human beings have many different ways of putting God to the test in this way.
The so-called “Prosperity Gospel” is one way in which people of faith may put God to the test. The “Prosperity Gospel” gets preached in different ways in different situations but it sounds something like this: “God wants everyone to be happy and healthy and wealthy. All you have to do is speak in tongues or give half your salary to the minister or believe the right things about healing ministry and all your problems will be solved.”
The other way that people put God to the test is by rejecting God or not believing in God because God has not intervened to “magically” sort out their problems. So some people will say that they have turned their back on God because he allowed a loved one to die. Other people will say that because there is so much suffering in the world, they are forced to believe that God does not exist.
All these ways are ways of putting God to the test, of demanding that God do things our way.
Perhaps unique amongst all human beings, Jesus overcame all these temptations. He chose to become fully human and to trust in God for his needs in full obedience; he chose to ascribe all power and sovereignty to the Father; he chose to believe in a God who does not need to be put to the test.
In overcoming these temptations, Jesus not only defined the nature of his Messiahship, he also became an example to us.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent and so I think that is it fitting that we look at our human nature in the mirror of Jesus’ example and in the light of human temptations.
I do, however, want to remind you that, as you examine your consciences during Lent, that you remember where this season is leading: to an empty tomb and a living Lord.
With the Israelites of old, Christianity proclaims that God is steadfast, abounding in mercy and most of all – full of grace – despite the unfaithfulness of his people. We believe that God offers forgiveness to all through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the cornerstone of our faith.
The examination of our consciences during Lent is the stuff of discipleship but it is our trust in God’s offer of forgiveness that makes us free to repent in the first place!
During Lent, I pray that we remember that we do not presume to come to the Lord trusting in our own righteousness, but only in the mercy and forgiveness that was brought into the world through our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen