Sermon for 01-08-12: “In Good Faith, Part 1: Temptation”

"The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple."

This sermon is first part of a seven-part series on the challenges of Christian living. Today’s scripture is Luke 4:1-13, Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. The most important fact about this scripture is that since Jesus was fully human, just like you and me, these temptations were truly tempting.

The heart of these temptations was the question of trust. Jesus trusted his Father so much that he was willing to die of starvation rather than break that trust. How can his example help us as we face the challenge of temptation?

Sermon Text: Luke 4:1-13

The following is my original manuscript.

At the risk of sounding like Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, I’m going to talk briefly about comic books. Years ago, there was a wonderful comic book in the DC Universe called Starman. You’ve probably never heard of Starman. He was one of the lesser superheroes. In fact, Starman, himself, knew he was one of the lesser heroes. He had superpowers, but he was clumsy. In his well-meaning effort to help, he sometimes made things worse. One time, he was out at dinner with a friend who was teasing him about Starman’s shortcomings. The friend turned to a stranger and said, “If your life were in danger and needed saving, who would you want to save you: Starman or Superman?” The stranger replied, “Superman, duh!”

Starman was O.K. with this. After all, how many superheroes are better than Superman? He’s strong, fast; he can fly. Short of deadly Krytonite, he’s practically invulnerable. Then, as if to rub it in, Starman’s friend said to the stranger: “O.K., but say you needed saving, and you had to choose between Starman and Batman. Who would you choose then?” And the stranger said, “Batman.”

Now this really wounded Starman’s pride. Starman said, “What are you talking about? Batman doesn’t even have superpowers! He’s a normal human being.” The guy’s like, “Sorry, dude! I’d rather have Batman. Nothing personal.” See, even though he was only human, Batman was as superheroic as any superhero.

My point is this: When Jesus Christ, the Word of God, became flesh and dwelt among us, he emptied himself of all rights and privileges associated with being God. As Paul writes in Philippians 2, “he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” He was completely human in every way. 

In other words, Jesus had much more in common with Batman than Superman.

We can easily get this wrong, can’t we? If we’re not careful when we read this scripture, we can imagine that Jesus is like Superman. We can imagine that this period of testing was easy for Jesus. He didn’t have to break a sweat. He’s not a mere mortal like you and me. He swatted away each of these temptations as if he were swatting away a gnat. No big deal for Jesus.

When I was a kid, I remember asking my dad, “What language did Jesus speak?” (The answer, by the way, is Aramaic and Greek.) But I didn’t know this, so I asked Dad. And he said, “I’m sure Jesus could speak any language he wanted to!” Because my dad was thinking that Jesus had superpowers, after all. But that’s not what scripture teaches. When God became human in Jesus, he accepted all the limitations of being human, including limitations of knowledge. He had to learn and grow and mature just like the rest of us. And Jesus was tempted just like we are.

So the first and most important thing to keep in mind while reading this passage is that these temptations were truly tempting.

Someone might object: Hold on! Jesus obeyed God perfectly, right? Right! Unlike us, he never sinned, right? Right! So how could he truly be tempted? It’s like this…

Years ago, there was a TV show and then a movie set in Prohibition-era Chicago called The Untouchables. Eliot Ness was the lawman, FBI, sworn to fight organized crime and take down notorious gangster Al Capone. He was the fiercest opponent of the mob, and he enjoyed early success against them. So what did the mob do? They showed up at his door with a bag of money in hand—a lot of money—as a peace offering, an attempt to buy him off. Would Eliot Ness give into the temptation or would he resist? He was only being tempted with this large sum of money because he was working so hard against organized crime. The mob was afraid of him. The temptation that came Ness’s way, therefore, was a sign of his strength.

And so it was with Jesus. Temptation will happen. It isn’t a sin. It’s a normal part of Christian living.

So what was so tempting about these three temptations? The first temptation is to turn stone into bread. For someone who later turned a few loaves and fish into enough food to feed thousands, what could be wrong with performing this little miracle? After 40 days of fasting, Jesus would literally be on the brink of starvation. Surely his Father doesn’t want him to starve before he even begins his ministry. Starving isn’t good. And eating isn’t bad. So what’s the problem with turning stone into bread?

The second temptation was for Jesus to take over all the world’s kingdoms and nations and empires and set up God’s kingdom of peace and justice on earth. This is the very thing that many first-century Jews expected the Messiah to do. Why wouldn’t that be a worthy goal? After all, we look forward to a day, Paul writes, when “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”  Jesus wants to rule over us. Why not make that happen in the here and now?

The third temptation is for Jesus to perform a spectacular miracle to demonstrate to everyone living in Jerusalem that Jesus was the Messiah. What would be wrong with that? Doesn’t Jesus want all of Israel to believe in him as Messiah? What better way to do this than through a powerful demonstration that God’s Spirit is with him?What I want you to see is that there is something to be said for each of these temptations. That’s the nature of temptation! There’s always something to be said for it! A pastor friend told me recently that the reason why young people aren’t waiting for marriage to have sex is because people are getting married much later than they used to. If you’re getting married at 13 or 14, it’s easier to wait than if you’re getting married at 27. Hmm… There’s something to be said for that. Well, of course there is! Because when it comes to temptation there’s always something to be said for giving in to temptation! Otherwise it wouldn’t be a temptation!

After all, our enemy, who is trying to trick us and trap us and make us stumble and fall, isn’t dumb. Remember the Garden of Eden? When the serpent had the conversation with Eve, what he said was at least half-true. His argument was subtle and crafty. So Eve, who’s no dummy herself, tries to reason her way through God’s command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. She tries to figure it out, make sense of it, instead of just accepting it.

When it comes to our relationship with God, it’s not up to us to figure everything out; it’s up to us to obey. And I say that as someone who loves to figure things out. I love to make sense of things. One reason I blog is to help people—especially people who struggle with Christian faith—to make sense of difficult questions. But there’s a limit to that. Ultimately, we finite, imperfect, sinful human beings can’t figure out God!

I used to hate when I was a kid and Mom would tell me to do something I didn’t want to do or didn’t want to hear. I would ask, “Why?” And what did Mom say—nine times out of ten? “Because I said so.” I hated that answer! You hated that answer! We all hated the answer. We want to know why! But as a parent myself now, I understand why Mom answered that way. Her will for me wasn’t arbitrary: there was a good reason for it, but either I was too young and immature to understand it or she didn’t have time to explain it to me. Besides,  she shouldn’t have to explain it to me. Because Mom understood that when I asked “why?” it wasn’t because I wanted to satisfy my intellectual curiosity. I wanted to get my way! When I asked “why?” I was saying, in so many words, “I don’t trust you! I don’t trust that you really have my best interests at heart. I don’t trust you’re going to treat me fairly. And maybe if you explain it to me, I can show you that you’re wrong, and you’ll change your mind.”

Mom never did change her mind! Even though my arguments were perfectly reasonable.

Could I trust my parents to know what’s best for me, to do what’s best for me? Can I trust my heavenly Father to know what’s best for me, to do what’s best for me?

“Human beings,” Jesus said, “don’t live by bread alone,” which like all of Jesus’ responses to Satan, comes from Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy, Moses is preaching to the Israelites not long before they cross over into the Promised Land. He’s talking about their experiences of wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. God fed them with manna from heaven when they had no other means of providing for themselves. Manna wasn’t what they wanted, but it was what they needed to live. God was trying to show them that they could depend on God; they could trust in God. In spite of this, when Israel’s faith was tested in the wilderness, they failed to trust God, time and again. Jesus, by contrast, who was Israel’s representative, would pass his test in the wilderness. Jesus understood that everything he needed in life came from God alone. If it didn’t come from God, he didn’t need it.

Jesus, in fact, would rather die of starvation than fail to trust God. Of course, he didn’t have to starve, but he would face a test later in which trusting God would mean his death—death on the cross.

I hope I’m not simply stating the obvious when I say this, but trust is hard! It’s hard to trust that God has everything we need to live.

Many people in our church have saved their own lives by becoming part of an Alcoholics Anonymous group. Or I should say that God has saved their lives through AA. And God has saved their lives by forcing them to trust God in a way that they never had to before. Because it’s either trust or die. Trusting in themselves means death. Sometimes it’s a good thing to be brought to your knees by God. The first three steps of AA are the following:

One: Admit you’re powerless over your addiction.

Two: Believe that only God can restore you to sanity.

Three: Turn your life and your will over to the care of God.

Brothers and sisters, these three steps aren’t just for alcoholics. They are for all of us. We can be addicted to many harmful, destructive things other than alcohol or drugs. Maybe our sin is less obvious and more invisible to other people, but it prevents us from being everything that God created us to be.

What are you addicted to? Where do you try to find happiness apart from God? Where do you place your trust when you don’t trust in God? It’s time to repent and change.

As a response to this sermon, I invite us to pray a prayer together based on these first three steps of AA. Repeat after me:

“Merciful Father, I am powerless over sin in my life. Instead of trusting you to give me everything I need, I trust in myself and my own strength, and it’s not working. Forgive me. I believe that only you can restore me and make me whole. Take my life into your care. Redirect my will so that what I want is what you want for me. I pray this in the strong name of Jesus. Amen.”

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