Thursday, March 9, 2017

Sermon: Testing and Temptation

Matthew 4:1-11

In the book Where the Red Fern Grows,

Billy needs a coon pelt to train his dogs. So Grandpa tells Billy a surefire way to catch raccoons.

"Now," he said, "You go down along the river where there are a lot of coon tracks. Find a good solid log close by and bore a hole down about six inches. Drop one of the bright pieces of tin down the hole, and be sure it's laying right on the bottom." [skip a bit]

"Now, say this is the hole you bored in the log," he said. "About an inch apart, drive these nails in a slant opposite each other...the ends of the nails will enter the hole about halfway between the top and the piece of tin," he continued. "Leave an opening between the sharp points big enough for a coon to get his paw through." [skip a bit]

"You see a coon is a curious animal. Anything that is bright and shiny attracts him. He will reach in and pick it up. When his paw closes on the bright object it balls up, and when he starts to pull it out from the hole, the sharp ends of the nails will gouge into his paw and he's caught."

Billy thinks this sounds like a great idea, until he realizes that all the raccoon has to do is let go of the shiny thing, and decide that freedom is more important than being trapped. But Billy builds the traps anyway, and eventually catches a coon.[1]

In today’s scripture, the devil tries to use coon traps on Jesus. He tries to find things that are so attractive to Jesus that he will grab hold of them and not being willing to let go. Listen to Matthew 4:1-11.

Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him. After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.”

Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.”

After that the devil brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”

Jesus replied, “Again it’s written, Don’t test the Lord your God.”

Then the devil brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He said, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.”

Jesus responded, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.

That is a pretty exciting confrontation between Jesus and the devil. Things have been going well for Jesus as his ministry opens up before him. He is beginning a new step in life, he has just been baptized, and God has said, “you are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.”

So Jesus is in the desert preparing himself for his ministry by prayer and fasting. After 40 days, he is in pretty bad shape. He is literally starving. He needs medical help as his body and mind are on the edge of breakdown. And it is at that moment that the devil walks in with a loaf of fresh baked bread. Well, actually it is a rock, but he reminds Jesus that if he wanted he could turn that rock into bread. But Jesus says no.

The devil then challenges Jesus to test God’s power and protection, and ultimately offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. Yet Jesus also resists these traps. In each case, what the devil offers is something that looks attractive, especially to a worn out and weary Jesus. And Jesus is able to see beyond the temptation, keep track of what is vitally important, and pass the test.

Somewhere along the line,

Jesus must have told this story to the disciples. They weren’t there when it happened; in fact, no one witnessed it except Jesus. But Jesus felt that this incident was important enough for his disciples to know about. Why? Was he bragging about how he had defeated the devil in one on one bible verse combat? No, I doubt it.

I think Jesus shared this story with his disciples, because he knew that all of us as human beings face temptation. He knew that there are coon traps out there in life – and if we aren’t careful we might lose track of what is vitally important.

While we may not be offered the kingdoms of the world, we are often offered things that seem to be life-giving, desirable, and even valuable; but in reality distract us from God’s will and God’s way. These trials may come just when we think things are going well, when new and exciting opportunities are on the horizon, as if they are especially meant to stop our progress. Like they did for Jesus. They may come just after we have spent significant time getting ready spiritually for what is to come.

There may be physical things thrust in our way, like the hunger from fasting for a long time, or a disease, a bout of surgery, or the troubles of aging.

There may be spiritual doubts that creep in, like will God really protect me? If I threw myself from the rooftops, would the angels catch me?

There may be temptations to turn from our way, from the call of God and the opportunities ahead, and instead take another road, a road of self-satisfaction. These are all quite common. So Jesus is reminding us, that if it happened to him, it can happen to us.

What Jesus reminds us is that

the challenge of these trials and temptations is always to seek God’s will, to be guided by what we know is right, and not let ourselves be deceived by half-truths and misleading thoughts. So he gives us examples of ways to respond to each of the temptations in life.

For example, to our physical problems like hunger or health, we say, life is not just about our bodies. It is so much more, there is a depth far deeper than our hunger, our pain, our mortality. Life springs from the mouth of God, in words of hope, in acts of love, in courage in the face of death, and the power of resurrection. That is life.

So while our physical needs are important, they are not the same as life. Which we all know. We know that there are things that are more important in life than the food we eat, we know that good health does not last forever but we have the promise of God that life goes beyond this mortal body. We just have to remember all of that, when these temptations come our way.

Then Jesus talks about our spiritual doubts and worries, those moments when we would test to see if God is real, if God’s love is active. He knows that we will have those moments. He understands that there are days when we wonder if God really will protect us, if God really does want the best for us, if the angels really will hold us in their arms when danger is near.

So he reminds us that in those moments we have to say, I will not put myself in danger just to prove a point. I will trust God to do what God will do. I won’t try to manipulate God. God is not my personal assistant hired to do my bidding, but the Divine Creator that loves me – and it is our relationship that matters, not whether everything in my life is perfect. So when it is our temptation to judge God, or test God, or pressure God to follow our personal agenda, we have to step back and reconnect with God, listen to God, allow the love of God to refill us.

Finally, when the devil offers Jesus the kingship of the world, it is an offer of power, but it is also a temptation to leave the path that God has charted for Jesus. It is an offer to rule the earthly kingdoms instead of the heavenly one. We also have temptations, while not normally at that scale, to leave the path and way of God, to give up on God’s plan for us. We might also be tempted to choose a path of power and pride in the here and now.

So Jesus shows us that in the face of such temptations we are to say, though there are many things in the world that promise fulfillment, I know that the greatest reward is in doing God’s will, and only God’s will. Nothing more. Nothing less. If it is not God’s will for me to rule the nations, then I should not, even if I am Jesus. I should seek God’s will even if it leads me to a cross and suffering, rather than a throne and glory.

Jesus tells his disciples about his temptation and trials

So that when we face a life filled with temptations and trials, we can overcome them. He doesn’t want us to get trapped. So he reminds us to keep our focus on the life that God gives, the relationship that God offers, and the way which God leads us. If we do those three things, we can overcome. And in overcoming, the angels themselves come and care for us, even in our struggles.

[1] Chapter 7. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, 1961.

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