The Born-Again Sermons, Part One: Temptation

 Pastor Chico Martin

March 5th, 2017  The 1st Sunday of Lent

Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil. -Matt. iv. i.


All of us recognize our selfishness; all of us know how bad our heart feels when we give in to the temptation to satisfy our own desire at the expense of hurting another.  Scripture talks about temptation as a trial, test, ordeal or trap.  Sometimes temptation is personified as a temptor.  Other times temptation is identified as foolish and harmful desires, denial of faith, strangeness, wrong motives, pleasures of adultery, friendship with the world, a turn of heart, a wrong path, intent, enticement, shifting shadows…

While helpful to keep in mind temptation’s many shapes, the bottom line is this: When we feel bad in our heart, it’s a pretty safe bet that something is amiss. Then the question becomes, what are we going to do about it?  Lent is a time for us to strengthen our character; during Lent, we renew our commitment to avoid the temptation of selfishness and nurture the character of selflessness.  Fasting, prayer, and alms-giving help us to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.

A little ditty comes to mind, from Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So Stories

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

Checking off Kipling’s honest men, today’s Gospel gives us Jesus (who), in the desert (where), about 29 C.E. (when). That leaves two W’s plus the H up for discussion. Let’s take the easy one first:  how was Jesus tempted? By Satan? Ah…anyone believe in the devil?

Let’s move on: what were Jesus’ temptations?

  1. to make bread out of stones to relieve his own hunger;
  2. to jump from a pinnacle and rely on angels to break his fall;
  3. to worship the devil in return for all the kingdoms of the world.

For each temptation, Jesus had an antidote, taken from Scripture:

  1. man does not live on bread alone…but on the Word of God;
  2. man does put God to the test;
  3. you shall worship the Lord your God.

Finally, why is Jesus tempted?  Does Matthew say? I don’t think so.

To answer why, we need to step outside of God’s Word and into the tradition of the church. Here is how Thomas Aquinas presents the church’s answer. Jesus exercised himself to be tempted:

  1. That he might assist us against our own temptations. St. Gregory says, “That our Redeemer, who had come on earth to be killed, should will to be tempted was not unworthy of him. It was indeed but just that he should overcome our temptations by his own, in the same way that he had come to overcome our death by his death.”
  2. To warn us that no man, however holy he be, should think himself safe and free from temptation. Whence again His choosing to be tempted after His baptism, about which St. Hilary says, “The devil’s wiles are especially directed to trap us at times when we have recently been made holy, because the devil desires no victory so much as a victory over the world of grace.” Whence too, the scripture warns us, Son, when thou comest to the service of God, stand in justice and in fear, and prepare thy soul for temptation (Ecclus. ii. i).
  3. To give us an example how we should overcome the temptations of the devil, St. Augustine says,” Christ gave himself to the devil to be tempted, that in the matter of our overcoming those same temptations He might be of service not only by his help but by his example too.”
  4. To fill … our minds with confidence in His mercy. For we have not a high-priest who cannot have compassion on our infirmities, but one tempted in all things, like as we are, without sin (Heb. iv. 15).

All very insightful:  Jesus’ temptations were endured and thwarted for us.  He was tempted that we might survive temptation, that is, Jesus was tempted for our benefit.

The forty days of Lent “fulfill” the forty years the nation of Israel journeyed through the desert, following its escape from slavery in Egypt, and the forty days Jesus fasted by himself in the desert, following his baptism.  During Lent, we follow Jesus as he makes his way to Jerusalem and his death on the cross. Jesus resolutely avoids the temptation to save himself, so that he can deliver his followers from death.

We conclude with two thoughts. First, Lent is the season we renew our commitment to resist temptation. The word “resist” shouldn’t be used lightly, because, as we saw, Jesus was tempted by Satan, and however we understand Satan, he represents in some sense the opposite of Jesus.  Jesus does everything for our good; Satan does everything for our harm.  Satan leads us astray with lies; Jesus shows us the way of truth.  Satan destroys us; Jesus gives us eternal life. Take your pick.  As Bob Dylan famously said, “You’ve gotta serve somebody.”

The second thought is this:  when we align ourselves with Jesus, we see he was tempted for our benefit.  Jesus gave us the example we need to successfully resist all the shapes of temptation:  trial, test, ordeal, trap; the temptor; foolish and harmful desires, denial of faith, strangeness, wrong motives, pleasures of adultery, friendship with the world, a turn of heart, a wrong path, intent, enticement, shifting shadows… Everything, that is, which either spectacularly or almost imperceptibly leads to ruin.

When we are tempted, let us direct our minds to recall the temptations of Christ, and generate in our hearts thankfulness and gratitude for the example he provides for our spiritual life; we will be safe then.  Our refuge will be secure.

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