Resisting Temptation – It’s Not What You Think
Resisting Temptation – It’s Not What You Think
The first Sunday in Lent finds us travelling with Jesus into the wilderness where he will be tempted/tested by the devil. It is an extraoridnary passage that has much to teach us though we may be suprised by the heart of the message.
Scripture: Luke 4: 1-13
Don’t tempt me.
Sometimes it’s a delicious baked good. A dessert so decadent we put 5lbs on looking at it, but so worth it! Sometimes it’s splurging on what might be a luxury item, something we don’t need but would like to have.
Don’t tempt me.
It’s interesting that the idea of temptation or testing comes up during Lent. During Lent many Christians, rather than giving in to temptation, give up something instead. But what is this passage trying to tell us? That Jesus didn’t give into temptation. Sure, that’s apparent. That the devil is up to no good? For sure, that’s there to. Does this passage exist to provide us with an example of how to live based on what Jesus does? Maybe, the argument could be made and I’m sure the sermon has been preached. However, I think that’s the easy way out and misses the point.
I’m not sure that the primary purpose of this passage is to provide us with an object lesson on how to resist temptation, specifically temptation of the evil kind. To simply say ‘follow Jesus’ example, trust God and you will be able to overcome the evil one’s temptations’ is too simple, to easy and quite frankly not very helpful. What happens when we don’t resist, what does that then say about us? Suddenly the theology doesn’t hold up or is very damaging to ourselves. Now you’ll note that this is the message I shared with the young people a few minutes ago. It’s a place where we can start, but as growing and maturing Christians it is not where we should remain.
Why does this interpretation miss the mark and fall short? Simple, if the message is to be like Jesus and trust God so we won’t give in to temptation, why does the Spirit lead Jesus into the situation in the first place?
When we look at the larger context of this passage this simple message doesn’t hold up very well. It’s not that it’s wrong, it’s just not the point of the passage. The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness where for forty days he will be tested. That’s the first sentence of our reading today. The Spirit leads Jesus.
As Christians we believe God is Triune, three-in-one, one-in-three. Further we believe that each aspect of the Trinity is equal. It doesn’t always feel that way, but that’s what we confess we believe. So why does God, lead God into the wilderness to be tempted, in order to trust in God to not be tempted.
We need to take a step back and ask a key question. What is Luke, the author of this gospel, trying to tell his audience about Jesus and God. What is the function of this narrative? Is it simply to trust God and not put God to the test and your life will turn out fine? If that’s the message, if that’s what we are supposed to buy into then I want a refund.
We need to have a greater appreciation for how Luke uses the aspect of God, which is the Spirit, in his gospel. Jeremy Williams writes, in Luke’s gospel and in Acts “the Spirit fills people and leads them into trials, uncertainties, and wildernesses. For example, in Luke 1:41, John the Baptist in the womb of his mother Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. By Luke 3, John is in the wilderness critiquing Roman tax-collectors, military personnel, and Herod. His critique gets him prosecuted. In Luke 4, the Spirit that had filled John and overshadowed Mary (Luke 1:35) descended on Jesus (Luke 3:22), and now it leads him into the wilderness.” (Jeremy L. Williams)
Luke uses the Spirit to help flesh out characteristics of God in order for the audience to believe. Let’s look at the temptations Jesus experiences.
The first test is to turn a stone into bread. Jesus resists, does not give in to his personal cravings. We should also remember that through much of the gospels Jesus uses many parables and stories to illustrate that he is the one true bread. As we read in John’s gospel where Jesus says, “I Am the bread of life.” And as the Bible Study group is discovering in the many stories from Mark’s gospel which feature bread. The choice of food is deliberate and tells us something. This first test establishes identity.
The second test is one of temporal power, to rule a kingdom. Jeremey Williams asserts that another way to read this, which is very blunt, is simply “Roman Empire.” The response from Jesus is to assert that fame and authority aren’t what Jesus is looking for. The second test begins to illustrate the ministry of Jesus.
In the third test two Psalms are woven together to trick Jesus into leaping from the height of the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus responds by quoting scripture, saying, “Do not put God to test.” Another way we might say that is to simply trust God and not go along with bad ideas from dubious characters. The third test is for us to simply realize that God is worthy of our trust.
The Spirit leads Jesus to the wilderness to experience these trials. The trials are an attempt by the Diabolic One to get Jesus to put God on trial. Jesus’ response insinuates that the Scriptures should not be used to cast doubt on God’s presence with God’s people. They should not be used for a game of ‘gotcha’ nor should they be recited to serve selfish interests. Instead, the Scriptures are reminders of God’s powerful presence with God’s people even in the wilderness. (Jeremy L. Williams)
Even while we are feeling remote and alone, the purpose of this story is not to demonstrate that if we can just be like Jesus we won’t be tempted. No, actually the opposite. Even if we do fall into temptation the message is that God is with us anyway. The message of the scripture isn’t about us, it’s about God. We aren’t the primary character, God is.
Beverly Gaventa writes the following and I think it can help us understand what is happening here. She writes, “The gospel involves a cosmic conflict between God and powers aligned against God. The gospel declares God’s unwillingness to leave humanity enslaved to sin and death, God’s rescue operation: delivering and re-creating humanity for rightful relationship with God.” (Beverly Gaventa)
About this quote Rolf Jacobson says, “Jesus does not resist temptation or overcome the testing in order to provide us a model for how we should do the same. Rather, Jesus enters into conflict with the devil in such a way that he announces that he has come to contend with all of the powers that defy the life-giving will of the Triune God.” (Rolf Jacobson)
God leads God into the wilderness to demonstrate that God is sincere about God’s intentions for life. I am the bread of life, I have no interest in ruling over you but of living with you, and that God is worthy of your trust. The point of this passage isn’t to instill you with a superhuman belief that through God you can overcome every temptation and then have a spiritual crisis when you do eventually fail at that. The point of the passage is to speak to the character of God.
God already knows you’re a screwup and give in to temptation far more than you confess in prayer. Don’t sweat it. As we journey through Lent we will watch the disciples and all the others (the Pharisees, High Priests and rulers of the world) screw up in ways that will amaze us. So dismayed are they at the characteristics of God and what it really means, they will kill Jesus. And despite this we will witness Jesus demonstrate the characteristics of God. Trust that God is with you, that the rescue operation of delivering and re-creating humanity for rightful relationship with God has been completed despite humanity’s best efforts to thwart it. Trust in that. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.
St. Andrew’s supports the gathering of community agencies, providing space for the Affordable Housing Committee. Rev. Ellis’ voice is key in advocating for improvements in awareness, empathy and action on key determinants such as housing, income and food security.
Donate to St. Andrew's
Thank you for visiting St. Andrew’s. It’s our prayer that this sermon was helpful to your walk of faith. We would ask you to prayerful consider donating to the mission of St. Andrew’s. You can make an online donation through our website.