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Temptation

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Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 & Luke 4:1-13
1st Sunday after Lent
10.30am Communion
(17-2-13)

The gospel reading today takes us back to the start of Jesus' ministry, and follows on immediately from His baptism in the river Jordan by John the Baptist. Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

The wilderness - a wild, inhospitable place - silent, lonely, dry...

40 days - he would have been quite literally starving by the end of this, most likely weak, disorientated.

So why did he do it, why did the Spirit lead Him there? The gospels tell us that withdrawing to a quiet place was a regular feature of Jesus' ministry, so perhaps it should not surprise us that He would choose to spend time with God to prepare for His life of ministry. Of course the devil took this opportunity to tempt Jesus during this formative retreat. (It is still the practice that ordinands spend the week leading up to their ordination on retreat.)

This reading is known by two names - the Temptation of Jesus or Jesus in the wilderness. And there are a couple of parallels here with the Old Testament. First, Jesus is like Adam, who was tempted by the devil in the Garden of Eden; but where Adam failed, Jesus succeeds in resisting. Second, Jesus is like Israel going out into the wilderness (albeit for 40 days rather than 40 years): but where Israel grumbled and fell into temptation Jesus submits to the wilderness call and succeeds in resisting the devil.

But let's look at this word temptation for a minute. For most of us temptation has come to mean something like: chocolate, pizza, holidays, sports car luxury - or perhaps an iPad or other electronic device. But in this context temptation really means something that leads us into sin. This is why the Lord's Prayer includes the line 'Lead us not into temptation'. The temptations Jesus is faced with here are to do with who he is - his identity; and Jesus gets his identity from God. As Jesus comes up from the waters of baptism God's voice is heard saying: "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." Jesus is the one Isaiah prophesied about: "Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations." (Is 42:1) It is this that the devil keeps challenging - "If you are the Son of God..." Satan tempts Jesus to be the Son of God who avoids sacrifice and weakness. But Jesus embraces this sacrifice and weakness precisely because He is the true Son of God.

Let's look more closely at Jesus' 3 temptations:

Temptation 1 'If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.' Jesus answered him, 'It is written, "One does not live by bread alone."'

The devil assumes that Jesus is able to produce miraculous bread in the wilderness. After all God has done this before when he provided manna for the Israelites when they were in the wilderness (Exodus 16). And Jesus will do it again in the miracles of the loaves and fishes (Matthew 14 and 15). But in those cases the Son of God provides bread for others. Later Jesus will say: "I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world."(John 6:48-51). And in this first temptation Jesus will not feed Himself. He has come to die – and a death far worse than starvation – to feed others. And so He entrusts himself to God

Temptation 2 'Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, 'To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.' Jesus answered him, 'It is written, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him."

Here Satan tries to tempt Jesus to enter into partnership with him, to compromise in order to receive immediate power and glory and to avoid suffering; but Jesus will receive the Kingdom from His Father, not the devil. He will not bow to Satan, and though it will cost Him His life, Jesus will not compromise with evil. His heart is wholly for God His Father.

Temptation 3 The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. "If you are the Son of God," "throw yourself down from here. For it is written: "'He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'" Jesus answered, "It is said: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test'

Satan is here quoting directly from Psalm 91. But Jesus has come to throw Himself down, not at this point in time or from this place. He will fall into a much deeper and darker place. As the Son of God He must die on the cross, and in an amazing symmetry at the end of his earthly ministry, at the point of his arrest Jesus is again tempted, and again resists. He refuses the help of angels to prevent his arrest saying, "Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?" (Matthew 26:53-54). Jesus will fulfil this scripture - He must be the One who dies. Jesus will not test His Father but obey Him, even to the point of death.

Notice how Jesus does not enter into debate or argument with Satan. He relies on his knowledge of who God is, who he is and his knowledge of scripture. His own needs seem not to be important to Him. So in each of these 3 temptations Jesus proves Himself to be exactly who the Father had declared. He is the beloved Son of God because through every temptation He resolves not to serve Himself but others, he entrusts Himself to His Father, He will not compromise with Satan and He refuses to take the easy way out. So Satan is defeated, Jesus has won the battle - "Then the devil left Him".

These temptations have echoes later in his ministry: and Luke hints at this, saying that devil leaves "until an opportune time". In Matthew 16 we have another heavenly declaration of Jesus' identity. This time it comes through the lips of Peter – "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (v16). From this time on Jesus begins to show His disciples that He must suffer and die. And Peter, who one minute previously had correctly identified Jesus as the Son of God now loses confidence and says, "Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you." Immediately Jesus recognises the devil's assault: "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."

Later, when Jesus was on the cross the religious leaders called out to Him: "Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!" "IF YOU ARE THE SON OF GOD". The same words used by Satan in the wilderness. Again here is the temptation for Jesus to avoid the way of the cross, to serve Himself, to save Himself. But Jesus resisted. He did not come to be served but to serve and to die for many. And when He died, a most unlikely man also understood the real identity of Jesus - a Roman centurion declares: "Truly this was the Son of God!" (v54)

So let's now look at are our temptations - the things that lead us into sin. So often we insist on

  • going our own way rather than God's and doing things in our own strength
  • working to our own agenda rather than God's
  • putting our own needs first
  • looking for the easy life
  • losing hope and giving into despair

As we have seen Satan challenged who Jesus was, His identity given him by God. But in our world many of us find our identity in worldly things; we seek success to give us status and security, then we take authority - and from these things we try to find our identity. So does Satan challenge this identity or does it serve his purposes better to allow us this worldly identity? St Paul says, "Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour." (1 Peter 5:8) So we might imagine that people are 'devoured' when they fall prey to financial or sexual scandal or such like. But the main way Satan devours people is by tempting them to take an easy life which in turn leads people to become complacent, selfish and to feel that they have no need of God. HOWEVER - we do each have an identity in Christ, and God says "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine".(Is 43:1)

When we watch the wilderness battle, we are watching the two masters of temptation. Satan is the master tempter, Christ the Master resister. We have much to learn. But the learning begins with the realisation that the most devilish temptations of them all are the temptations to serve, feed, protect and save self. To resist these we must look to Christ. We can't do this on our own, the task is too great. But Psalm 91 suggests God will be there to help us: "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, "He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust." (v1-2) "I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honour him". (v 14-15)

Christ's temptations are not primarily in Scripture to be our Example. This is Jesus who has taken on our humanity and who has waged war on our behalf. If we only see 'Jesus our Example' we put ourselves at centre stage. But if we see 'Jesus our Champion' we not only get a good example of how not to be led into temptation but also our eyes are taken from ourselves and fixed where they should be, on Jesus.

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