Psalm 91 (Refrain #1)
It kind of goes without saying that there are temptations in the world that we face every day. As religious people, we have generally accepted the idea that there are ways of behaving, acting, and living that are contrary to God’s will for us and that we ought to avoid these things. However, sometimes these things that we know we should avoid can be very enticing. We are tempted to do them, even though we know that we shouldn’t.
The first temptation that comes to my mind is the temptation to eat something unhealthy when you’ve decided that you’re going to eat well. It’s a temptation that many people face on a regular basis, and often fail to resist.
Just last night, in the Veggie Tales movie that our youth were watching, the Veggie Tales superhero, Larry Boy, demonstrates a weakness for chocolate that many of us can probably relate to. He wants desperately to avoid chocolate so he can get in shape, but when the “bad apple” tempts him, he eventually gives in and goes on a major chocolate binge. He gets in so deep that he needs God’s help and the help of his friends to help him get free of his chocolate addiction.
No matter how much you value your goal of losing the extra weight, or keeping your heart healthy, or your sugar-level low, sometimes we all give in to the temptation and we eat the hamburger or the bowl of ice cream, or the extra serving of whatever will make us momentarily happy and content.
The thing about the temptations that Jesus experiences is that they don’t quite seem like real life to us. When we are tempted, there’s no “devil” figure that appears to lead us astray. If that were the case, it might make it easier for us to know which actions to avoid!
And then there’s the way that Jesus responds to the temptations. He uses a short, simple quote from scripture: “One does not live by bread alone.” “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” And then it’s as if those temptations are just gone. The hunger disappears. The desire for power just goes away.
The temptations we experience are so rarely like that. Even if we know all the right verses from scripture, it’s not that easy to overcome the desire for power, the longing for comfort, the strong feeling that we want, or even need, to have that thing we’ve seen on TV, that gadget that all our friends have, that product that will make everything better for us.
It’s not easy to avoid temptation in a world in which everything is for sale all the time — in which so much human effort is put towards keeping us comfortable and entertained — in which the generally accepted purpose of life is to satisfy our own needs and desires.
It’s not easy to put God first in a society in which there are so many other choices — in which we are encouraged every day to put ourselves first — in which there are so many options for how to spend our time and energy.
Maybe if we have time this week, we will come to church and worship God. Maybe if we’re not too tired tonight, we will give thanks to God for today before we go to sleep. Maybe if we’re not too busy with all our activities, we will pause and consider which activities God would ask us to put on our priority list.
One of the things that this story about Jesus’ temptations is trying to show us is that Jesus knows what it’s like to be tempted. Jesus knows what it feels like to be pulled in two directions. He knows what it’s like to know what God wants him to do, and yet to want to do something else.
The author of this Gospel tells us about three temptations all at once in order to show us the kind of life that Jesus rejected right at the beginning of his ministry. He wasn’t going to live for himself, providing for his own physical needs, but he would live for others. He wasn’t going to use his power to conquer worldly kingdoms or to rule over people. He would live as a servant of God, and worship God alone. He wasn’t going to test God’s love for him — asking God to prove his special status as God’s son. Instead, he would simply trust God — trust that God loved him — trust that God would care for him and help him.
The way Luke’s Gospel tells us about Jesus’ temptations, it makes it seem like they’re a one-time thing. Jesus responds with scripture quotes, and defeats the devil’s tricks — once, and for all. John’s Gospel, on the other hand, lets us in on the fact that Jesus was tempted throughout his life and ministry. Because Jesus was fully human, like the rest of us humans, he experienced temptations on a regular basis in the midst of real-life experiences.
After Jesus fed 5000 people, the crowd sought him out again, hoping that he could use his power to make more bread for them. And perhaps he could have done so. Perhaps he was even tempted to do so — it would keep them happy. It would make him popular.
But Jesus’ ministry was about more than meeting physical needs. He had to say no, and do something more for them. It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”
In another chapter of John, Jesus’ brothers tempt him to go up to Jerusalem and to show the people there the miracles he could do. And though Jesus’ purpose was to convince people to believe in him, it was not to glorify himself, but to glorify God. He had to refuse. It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Later, Jesus’ greatest temptation was to ask God to rescue him from his inevitable execution on a Roman cross. It took place before Jesus has been arrested. Maybe God could change the outcome. Maybe Jesus could run, or hide, or submit to the authorities — anything to avoid the suffering and agony of the cross!
But again, Jesus resisted the temptation to think of himself first, and he was willing to follow God’s plan for him. It would involve great sacrifice on his part. But in John’s Gospel, Jesus knows that by his being lifted up, all people will be drawn to God. And he chooses to live and to die for others.
Of course, though Jesus was fully human — experiencing the temptations and struggles of human choices as we do — Jesus was also fully divine. While the rest of us fail and give in to temptations on a regular basis, the Gospels show Jesus with a perfect record of resisting temptation, and humbly putting the needs of others before his own.
As Christians, we are called to follow his way and his example. We may learn from him that experiencing temptation is a normal part of life. Even Jesus was tempted to seek comfort and power and glory. We may also learn from Jesus’ example that the scriptures contain what we need to discern what is right from what is wrong.
When society, or advertising, or our friends, or that self-indulgent part of our brains is telling us that we deserve this — we’ve earned it — it won’t hurt anybody — the fact that we know the scriptures will make a difference towards helping us to resist temptation. Whether or not we can quote the perfect scripture verse for any given situation like Jesus did… if we love the word, and read the word, and let the word of God sink into our hearts, the basic principles will be there when we need them — when we’re making decisions — when we’re choosing what is right — when we’re resisting temptation.
In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, he wasn’t writing about temptation — he was writing about salvation. He was writing about the new idea that both Jews and Greeks can be saved through faith in Jesus Christ. Jews like Paul, and Jesus before him, were used to worshipping the One God of Israel and they were in the habit of following the law of Moses as a way of staying faithful to God. Paul was apparently very good at following the law. He knew the scriptures very, very well, and he lived according to every detail. I don’t get the impression that he gave in to temptation very often!
But when Paul met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, something very dramatic changed in his understanding of God and life and salvation. Paul becomes a follower of Christ, and goes on to explain in so many of his writings that salvation is available to everyone who calls on God — Jew or Greek, slave or free, man or woman. Our salvation is not dependent on how well we follow the law, or how many scripture verses we memorize, or even how successfully we resist temptation.
Paul says that “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” It’s as simple as that. We begin with our confession that Jesus is Lord of our lives. We put him first. We let him be in charge — be our guide. And we believe that God raised him from the dead — that there is more to life than this world, that there is hope, that there is meaning, that he was raised and that one day we will be raised as well. We begin with that. We say it out loud, and we believe it in our hearts. And God will help us with the rest – with the decisions – with the temptations.
With faith in Christ, let us stand and confess our faith together in the words of the Apostles’ Creed.