Matthew 4.1-11 & Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7
Temptation is a thrilling word is it not? "May I tempt you to a
glass of wine? A slice of cake? Another chocolate?" It's a word that
makes you long for the luxury of giving into it. It seems to beckon freedom
beyond the grey dullness of our restrictive, disciplined lives. And our
reaction to the word shines a certain light on our complex relationship
with sin. We hate it and we love it. We're desperate to be free of it
and yet we're addicted to it. We tell people not to feel guilty, yet we
feel guilty all the time - and in truth there are times when we jolly
well do want others to feel guilty!
I think our reaction to the word "temptation" shows how we tie
ourselves in knots over the whole business of sin. When we give in to
the temptation to have an extra chocolate, most of the time what we're
doing is relaxing and enjoying ourselves and there's no sin in that. But
it shows that we struggle to discern the difference between real sin and
things we just make ourselves feel guilty about in order to get control
of ourselves. But in doing that, we turn the whole battle against temptation
into an unequal struggle against ourselves. And that is bound to end in
failure and sink us into despair. Of course, the real battle against real
sin, does require a conscious effort on our part, but it's actually deeply
unhelpful to engage in that battle in own strength or with the wrong motives.
And that's why I believe that Jesus' temptations in the desert shed a
far more helpful light on the whole business and point us towards some
hope in the midst of this big muddle.
Firstly, we have to understand the context for these temptations. They
come immediately after Jesus' baptism and Matthew makes it clear, in his
gospel, that he goes into the desert in direct response to the words from
'This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'
So Jesus is in the desert meditating on those words. He's hard at work
letting them sink deep into his soul, informing his understanding of himself
and working out what it really means to be the son of God. So the background
to all these temptations is whether he trusts his Father's fatherhood
and love. That's why Satan's first two temptations begin "If you
are the son of God
" He's trying to sow doubt in Jesus' mind
over his father's love for him and his identity as his father's son.
And what enables him to resist temptation is first and foremost, is his
trust and belief that his father does love him and that his father's will
for his life is perfect - no other way will do.
So if we are going to are going to have any chance of resisting temptation,
we have to begin with a deep-seated understanding of God's love for us
and a trust that his will for our lives is perfect - that no other way
will do. If you do nothing else this Lent, meditate on God's love for
you and his will for your life. That is the first and most important point.
But a second point immediately rears its head because this episode from
Jesus' life shows us that if we encounter God's love, we will also encounter
deep seated temptation to choose another path. And we can only come through
that if we understand the nature of Jesus' temptations. They might seem
curious at first, but they are in fact a reversal of the decisions taken
by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve took the forbidden
fruit - everything else in the garden was food, but not that. They took
as food what is not food, but Jesus refuses to do so: he refuses to turn
the stones into bread. Bread is not the only thing we need to live, so
it's not worth turning what is not bread into bread. In the end that only
kills us. So he refuses to use his power to provide food for himself that
is not food. Instead, famished as he is, he still trusts in his father
to provide what is truly food (and he does!).
Adam & Eve failed to trust God's plans for their lives and chose their
own path. And Satan's second shot at Jesus is to tempt him to find his
own way of being Messiah. The people were expecting the Messiah to be
heralded from the heavens in dramatic fashion, so what better way to be
the Messiah than by descending from the sky into the temple, surrounded
by angels? Surely that would be more comprehensible to people than God's
strange plan of being born in obscurity and poverty and living a life
of being abused and doubted and misunderstood. The temptation has a superficial
logic to it. But no, Jesus is sticking to God's plan. He trusts his father's
love for him and his will for his life. Again, a fatal mistake of Adam
and Eve is reversed.
Adam & Eve took the food because the serpent tempted them into believing
that they would "be like God, knowing good and evil." In other
words, they began harbouring rivalry with God which led to them running
away from God, retreating from relationship. And so Satan's third temptation
is to offer Jesus power and this time he shows his cards plainly. "Worship
me" he says "and I'll give you power over the whole world."
Power is very tempting - surely Jesus could use it for good? But Jesus
isn't in the business of seeking power. He is not going to wrest power
from his father, or set up a rivalry. And he is certainly not going to
retreat from the relationship with his father which, by now, he knows
defines who he really is. Finally, every mistake of Adam & Eve is
Now, you know, by now, that I don't believe literally in the Garden of
Eden. It's a story. But I also believe it's a true story - because I am
Adam (and Eve). And I'm willing to bet everything I have that you are
too. I make exactly the same mistakes that they do. But here's the nub
of my second point - Jesus faced exactly the same temptation we have all
faced and he has reversed every bad decision that you and I have made.
So I don't need to beat myself up over it and I don't need to turn my
life into an angst-ridden battle against myself. Jesus has already made
every decision I should have made. God has stood in my shoes, in my flesh
and blood and reversed all my bad decisions and made it possible for me
to have another go and to choose right this time. So every time I face
temptation from now on, I know that Jesus has made the right decision
on my behalf and all I need to do is to choose Him. What a relief!
And that brings me to point three, which is we now have the tools for
ourselves that enabled Jesus to take those right decisions. So that we
can use our freewill to make choices that preserve our freedom, instead
of feeding our addiction. And we see that from the dynamic at work in
these temptations. Notice how innocent the temptations seem at first.
What can possibly be wrong with turning stones into bread when you're
hungry? And yet, each successive temptation gets more and more dangerous
until it ends up with Satan showing his hand openly and demanding that
Jesus worship him! From harmless temptation to full scale Satanism in
three simple steps!
Temptation is very subtle like that. What would it matter
if I just
claimed a bit more on my expenses this month? if I just went along to
séance to see what happens? if I just met up with another person's
spouse for a drink? It always begins with something that seems small,
harmless and controllable: a mere suggestion that we harbour and begin
to justify. Then it grows suddenly to unleash forces far too great for
us that send our lives spiralling out of control. So how did Jesus spot
the trap? And how can we?
Well, the answer is very simple. To every temptation, Jesus quotes scripture
back at Satan. We are thinking, in our Lent groups this week, about maturity
in faith. And Jesus' maturity is shown in the depth of his relationship
with his father and his knowledge of scripture. It hasn't turned him into
a religious fanatic. It's saved his life and the same is true of us. Jesus
knows scripture and he quotes it in context and appropriately to defeat
And the context and the appropriate use are key, because even Satan quotes
scripture at Jesus: "throw yourself down; for it is written,
"He will command his angels concerning you",
and "On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone." '
But he isn't quoting scripture appropriately. He his quoting Psalm 91,
but he's taking it out of context to twist it into a test of Jesus' Messiahship.
But Jesus knows his scripture better. He knows not only the words, but
the context; not only fragments, but the big story. And that enables him
to spot the trap and to find the true path to fall back upon.
And so our maturity in faith, if it is to enable us to stand against the
various temptations and wrong paths of life, has to have these three strands:
relationship with our father; Jesus' power over temptation; and deep knowledge
Understanding scripture in context and applying appropriately helps us
to spot the traps and shows us the alternative path to take. Jesus' power
helps us to use our freewill to choose the right path for ourselves and
his love and our relationship with him is what gives us the incentive,
not to destroy ourselves, but to cling to the God who gives us life and
who enables us to be who we truly are.
We can't do this in our own strength: the evidence is already in on how
successful that is. But when I face temptation I try first of all to take
very seriously the little tempting voice: squash it early. Don't let the
idea take root. And usually my knowledge of scripture pops into my head
and alerts me to the dangers - and that's easier when I'm keeping up my
And instead of harbouring the temptation, I try to pray, remembering that
Jesus has already chosen the right path and made it possible for me to
defeat temptation. Scripture promises us that God will not allow us to
be tempted beyond what we can endure, so all I need to do is to want the
right path. And by trusting in his love for me and his good purposes for
me and he can (and does) give me the strength to want it and then the
temptation usually evaporates. And then scripture again comes to mind
and shows me the path to freedom.
I freely admit that I don't always manage it. Sometimes I just choose
the wrong path anyway. But more and more I am finding the strength to
choose well and I do know that, as a result, I'm freer and happier than
I've ever been and I commend that freedom to you too.
Preached: Great Strickland (joint service), 13 March