Sermon, Luke 4:1-13. The Temptation of Jesus
What is temptation, any way? Some people would name things like wanting to eat a whole tub of ice-cream, or a whole chocolate mud cake all by yourself. And goodness knows, some people apparently do just that. But we’re not going there today, things like that are just a side-issue to the real problem of temptation.
Jesus was tempted to engage in shows of power which struck at the heart of how he was to live out his ministry as God’s anointed. Turning stones to bread when he was absolutely famished would surely have seemed like a wonderful thing to do. We could even magnify that into the possibility of stones to bread for the whole world. Feed the hungry, everywhere. What a miracle, what a glorious sign of God’s power.
Jesus was raised on the Hebrew Scriptures. He would have had full knowledge of the wanderings in the desert of the Hebrew people. More than that he had the story of the Garden of Eden, and the voice of the tempter there, writ deep inside him. He knew he was not hearing the voice of God in this instance. This was the voice of the tempter instead. He countered by saying that our life, at the deepest level, is sustained by God’s word, not by bread. Grasping for social power conferred on him by adoring masses was not the future for him. Only by listening for and following the voice of God would he fulfill his purpose amongst humanity as God’s Son.
Clearly, when Jesus speaks of life, this is about more than just our physical existence. It’s about having life inside us that only God can give. It’s about the abundant life, the freedom from fear, and the joy of God’s love for us, which God longs for us to have. We strive for many things, we wish to achieve certain goals, be they large or small. To be free from fear and anxiety, we need to trust God for God’s best purposes for us. We’ve all heard the saying “Let go and let God.” I think that means that we do our best to work towards the achievements that really matter to us. That’s common sense, that’s the way things are. Sometimes that’s a long haul, sometimes the way runs smoothly. But we always reach a point where we have done as much as we can, and the rest is up to God. We do our part, and it may be arduous at times, but often we have to wait on God for the final result. That, also, is the way things are when we are trying to do the will of God.
Jesus is tempted to grasp political power, by serving the one scripture often calls “the ruler of this world”. The disastrous misuse of immense power is being held out before him, if only he will live by the worst this world has to offer. Jesus declares that he will worship only God. The last temptation, to show himself to be the greatest possible religious figure by throwing himself off the roof of the temple in Jerusalem, is dismissed as testing God himself.
In every one of these instances, Jesus turns the focus away from himself, and on to God. And that’s exactly where our real struggle with temptation lies as well. To distinguish our own inner voice telling us what would be good to do, from the voice of God telling us what we are called to do. Let’s try a couple of examples here: A friend of mine who I recently caught up with after many years apart told me that she has trouble not jumping in with a possible solution to someone’s problem before they’ve even finished telling her what the problem is. She’s very intelligent and perceptive, and no doubt has important things to say that would be really helpful. But is it as helpful as encouraging someone to work out for themselves, from all the possible alternatives, what they feel needs to be done? After all, we cannot have exactly the same perspective as someone else does on their problem.
I also remember a quite nasty situation, in which I was a bystander, between two would-be-charismatic women. One told the other that she must remain silent in church until the other had spoken. I simply see that as one person trying to big-note themselves at the expense of someone else. Someone trying to build a reputation for themselves in the church, and simultaneously undercut someone else. I can’t see the activity of God in that at all, only a struggle for power and control. The temptation to be seen as a notable servant of God leads some people right off the track.
If I put it to you that all temptation is a struggle for control, would you agree with me? I think that’s exactly what it is, really. We want to shape our lives to be what we have dreamt they would be. We want to be spiritually mature, but we don’t want the desert experiences. We want inner peace, and we want it now. We want patience, and we want it now. Certainly one of the temptations in the spiritual life is to want things to happen really quickly, including changes that we would like to see in ourselves.
I hope we do have a picture in our minds and hearts of what we would like be in the future. In what ways do we want to grow beyond what we are now? Since love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control are the fruit of God’s Spirit, how can we put into action our desire to grow in these things? How can we discern our progress? I believe that each of us who strive to grow in the fruit of the Spirit go through some kind of desert experience along the way, maybe more than one, and perhaps quite severe.
What happens in those experiences is that we learn that we have a good deal less control in our lives than we would like to have. We learn about the limitations of our human condition. We learn that for us, there is only the trying- the rest is up to God. We learn what it is to be a creature, in relationship to our creator. Because of the love of Jesus Christ for us, we can be assured that God, who created us and loves every one of us, is leading us in the best direction for us. We take wrong turns, we go on the hardest of tracks sometimes when we actually could have avoided it. Sometimes that hardest of tracks are simply given to us by life, if you want to put it that way. But the desert is not lifeless, God is there. In confronting temptation, Jesus put that first and foremost in his response. Faithfulness to God came before all else, no matter how attractive anything else looked. Our faithfulness to God matters more than anything else, because God will always be faithful to us, no matter how arid and threatening the desert places we find ourselves in.
Thanks be to God.