Temptations in the Wilderness

Now that Lent has started, we have services on Wednesdays. It is usually a soup and bread supper followed by a brief service. I need to remember the key word is brief. I have been trying to cut some of the liturgy of Sunday mornings, but we still seem to go fairly long. This past week, we didn’t get to the soup until 6:30 as it was having a time getting warm enough in the big roaster. I was glad it worked out that way as we were running a bit late. James had an IEP after school, and Ana and I just didn’t get the bulletin and message done the way we should have. Anyway when I accidently skipped a song and a reading, I couldn’t get any complainers. I think they were all ready to head home and rest for the night. Especially those who had to get up and go to work the next day.

We looked at the time Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted by Satan. If you want to check out the scripture yourself, go to Matthew and Luke chapter 4 in both cases and start with verse 1. You will know when it is over as you read. Ironically, I studied this most when taking an English class in a public school. It was an advanced class on the British poet/theologian John Milton. His Paradise Regained is a smaller epic poem than Paradise Lost, but still worth reading studying.

Temptations in the Wilderness

Tonight we are looking at the temptations of Christ. I suppose we could glance over them and talk about current, human temptations, and maybe that is what we should do, but where do we begin/where do I begin choosing which temptations we need to hear about? What gives me the right to say this temptation or that temptation or sin is greater or more important and something we should stay away from? The fact is that all temptations and all sins, even the thoughts of sins, are enough to keep us from the love of God. The issue is that whatever we harbor as something bad for us, no matter what it looks like to someone else, if it prevents us from worshiping God, or spending time in prayer or taking time to reach out to another, it is the very thing that we should resist. So instead of talking about any of the here and now sort of things we might face, I will talk about what the scriptures say Jesus faced. And I will let you decide for yourself what it is that you face and let you decide if it is important enough to resist it and turn back to God.

Our gospel lessons tonight are about the time Jesus spent in the Wilderness fasting and preparing for his ministry and ultimate death on the cross. The time is listed as 40 days. We know that 40 is a significant number. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Elijah traveled for 40 days and even Moses fasted for 40 days, so the length of time we use for a focus in Lent is not a random of modern number. It is a part of Christian history.

The first temptation by Satan is the temptation of food. It is much like the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden. The temptation was of basic needs, something the people of Jesus day and economic status understood well. Jesus had been fasting according to the text for 40 days. To us this seems an impossibility to go for 40 days without food, but the bottom line is that no matter the time-span, it was long and would have made him vulnerable. Temptations often hit us when we are most vulnerable. Perhaps this is no coincidence. This is part of the plan that Satan uses. Hit people when they are at their lowest point, and hopefully… well you get it.

In our current society we see the fasting, or the giving up of favorite foods, or the no meat on Friday’s as a symbol of that fasting that Jesus endured. Satan begins with this form of temptation, and both of the gospels that tell this story put the “turn stones to food” temptation first; Satan begins here probably because he is trying what he considers the easiest temptation first. It certainly worked with the first humans, why not try it now. But Satan is fooling himself. Satan is delusional at best it he thinks that Jesus will be as easy a target as Adam and Eve were. For this first Temptation Jesus said, Deut 8:3b. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

So in this way, Jesus refuted Satan. He also let Satan know that he would not be about the ministry of giving away food just to gain popularity in the way that the Roman soldiers were known to do in those days. It was a common practice of theirs as a way of getting the people to go along with what they wanted.

The second-Luke/ third Matthew temptation is the temptation of ambition. Satan promises to give Jesus control of the whole world. Matthew says Satan took Jesus to a high mountain, according to Luke Satan just takes Jesus high into the air so they can see the world. Whichever the method, I have always found this to be really ridiculous. How could Satan give Jesus what God created? If Jesus is the first born Son, he would get a double share of the inheritance, but wait, Jesus is the only begotten Son so he gets it all. How can Satan begin to use that as a promise or a temptation? Of course this again is show of how delusional Satan is. He really believes that he is the ruler of the world. Satan seems to believe this is his creation and his dominion.

Again, this just shows us how desperate Satan, the powers of evil can get. If temptations are presented to Christ in such a almost weak and grasping and lame manner, how much more often are they presented to us in ways that are really lame?

Matthew lists the second temptation as Satan taking Jesus to the top of the temple in Jerusalem and telling him to jump and let the angels come and rescue him. Luke puts this as the third temptation. And for tonight’s points, I have saved it for last mostly because the great writer and theologian, John Milton, in his smaller epic poem, Paradise Regained, put this temptation third following Luke’s version. This temptation was supposed to be a way to get God to act to save Jesus. It was about a spectacular display of power. It was about having the angels come to save Jesus, showing the world who he was without having to go through the humiliation of the cross. It was a way to “die” to the human form without all the pain and hardship that he had to endure. Jesus’ reply comes from Deut. 6: 13, which basically says we are to worship God and only God.

Of course this temptation also failed, but I want to share the explanation that Milton gives for its failure because it seems to bring out an important note. We know the end of this temptation as Jesus responding by telling the devil that it is written, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” which comes from Deuteronomy 6:16.  Milton, though, points out one thing that is not always so obvious. In this temptation, Satan asked Jesus to jump, fall if you will off the pinnacle of the temple. The key here is fall. He wanted Jesus to fall from the Grace of God. Satan wanted to be equal with Jesus. He always wanted to be equal to Jesus and when he couldn’t climb to that level, the next plan was to bring Jesus down. Jesus didn’t “fall” (pun/pun) for the plan. The version in Luke shows us that Jesus stood firm and Satan fell, and Luke doesn’t mention Satan again until he enters Judas. Jesus stood. Jesus stood his own ground and resisted the temptation, all the temptations of Satan. And because of that we have the chance to become part of the kingdom.

Though it is usually only with these verses, the days of Jesus in the wilderness, that we study and talk about him being tempted by Satan, this certainly isn’t the end of Satan’s struggle to gain control of Jesus. In the Matthew version of this story, Jesus ends their time together by saying “Away with you.” And Satan leaves for the time being. Matthew notes that the angels come and serve Jesus when the temptations have ended, but we know that Satan doesn’t give up. Satan just regroups. As long as earth exists, Satan will be around trying to grab anyone and everyone. Jesus was a target, but Jesus was not a victory for Satan. Jesus’ love for us is too strong to allow Satan to have the victory.

And because of the victory of Jesus over Satan, we too can resist the temptations we face and the powers of evil that try to overcome us. This Lenten Season as we are going through our wilderness journey, we need to remember the words that Jesus used against all temptations.

Jesus said we do not live by bread (and soup) alone, but by everything that comes out of the mouth of the Lord. Not only do we need food for the body, but food for the soul and that is why we continue to come and be part of worship. In the second and third temptation we learn that God is not to be tempted and that God is the only one we are to worship. We know this, and we know this well when we are here with our fellow believers. We just need to remember it in the times when we are out in the world. When we remember this at that time, we not only are doing right for ourselves, but we become an example for others, and that is what God needs from us at this time. Let us join together in our prayer.

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