temptation

One of Us


Mark 1:9-15 (NRSV)

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”


It is the season of Lent, and this story of Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness tells us much about how to put sin behind us and grow spiritually, seeking holy alignment with God.

Not that Jesus, who was in a mysterious way fully divine and fully human, had sin in his life. He did have the potential to sin; he simply did not succumb to temptation, as we so often do as frail humans.

We often think of baptism as an act of repentance and a cleansing of sin, and these are accurate notions. We have to go a little deeper into baptism’s meaning, however, to comprehend what the sinless Christ accomplished at the Jordan River, and how it ties to our lives today.

When Jesus was baptized, a new alliance between humanity and God was affirmed. When we accept baptism as the key identifying event in our lives, we make ourselves part of that alliance, with ties that run as deep as the purest bonds of family.

The Father in Heaven affirmed Jesus’ sonship; in baptism, we too become children of Father God, siblings of the Savior Son. As the author of Hebrews notes, “The one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.”

Think of baptism as God lifting up his children, gazing upon them and claiming them as his own. God also kneels down with his children. Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness was God, through Jesus’ eyes, seeing life from our level. And what a painful place the wilderness can be.

In the other synoptic gospels (Matthew and Luke), the effort to tempt Jesus is described in greater detail. We hear specifically the lures old Satan dangled to try to convince Jesus to sin: You know you’re hungry; make bread from stones. Throw yourself from the highest point of the temple; angels will save you. Bow down to me and I’ll let you rule the world!

I also like the less-detailed account in Mark, however. It creates the possibility that Jesus faced the temptations most dangerous to me. I feel I can see him walking about in the chalky, sun-baked wilderness, hungrily praying about everything that draws humans away from God.

I’m also reminded of the need to find time apart for meditation and prayer. Folks, we’re really not very good at this in our culture. It is as if our goal is to fill every moment with something to tingle the ears or penetrate the eyes, as if time spent in unstimulated silence is somehow wasted.

We fail to do what Jesus did. We fail to go without so we can remember our fragility and dependence. That’s the real purpose of fasting. The act helps us become more conscious of the voids within us, deep depressions in the soul we too often try to fill with excesses in eating, sex, recreation or other diversions.

Having consumed the wrong kind of sustenance and thinking we are satisfied, we then fail to gather our strength through direct communion with God. That’s the great result of intense communal worship and private prayer: Those voids can be permanently filled with God’s Holy Spirit.

I don’t talk about our failures to make us despair, however. No, I point them out so we can, with God’s help, overcome them and be amazed at all that God wants to do for us!

Never forget that in the midst of what seemed like vacant, dry wasteland, a place of constant danger, there were angels ready to tend to our sibling Savior. Do you not think they will do the same for us, his little brothers and sisters in the family of God?

All around us there is a God-aligned spirit world ready to come to our aid. Its members stand between us and what tries to afflict us. They go to war for us against the forces of evil, if only we let them.

When the brokenness of this world overcomes us, the angels comfort us. They want to help, particularly as we, like them, work on God’s behalf more each day.

Yes, the Bible stories in the Lenten season remind us of sin. But more importantly, they remind us of the joy and power in a life redeemed from sin, a life connected to eternity by Jesus Christ.

 

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Saying It, Living It, Part 2

Matthew 16:21-28

“Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus said to Peter. Ouch.

Last week, we heard how Jesus declared Peter to be the rock, the foundation for the church that will exist for all time. That blessing was rooted in Peter’s declaration that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

How quickly the mighty can fall. To go back to a lesson we first learn in kindergarten, actions speak louder than words.

In defense of Peter, he was navigating uncharted theological waters. He was right to declare Jesus the Messiah, the Christ. His problem was that he had not fully grasped the role Christ plays in the universe. Like most Jews, Peter had reduced the expected Messiah to a warrior king, a recycled David who would form his army, take back Israel for the Jews and establish a physical, righteous kingdom for all the world to emulate.

It was a big, exciting concept, but it wasn’t big enough to capture the role Jesus came to play.

Matthew tells us that Jesus began speaking plainly, telling his disciples how his ministry would actually play out. Ultimately, he told them, he would suffer at the hands of the Jewish religious leaders of the day, be killed, and then be raised from the dead.

Peter responded like a tactful public relations manager. He didn’t confront the boss in front of others; he pulled Jesus aside to provide a little counsel. When he told Jesus, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you,” Peter was focusing on the torture and death part of Jesus’ prediction—none of that seemed to fit the clear path to victory he was envisioning. How could the masses get behind a warrior king who planned to lose?

And in a way, Peter was right, at least from a human perspective. The masses abandoned Jesus once the beatings began. In Matthew, only a handful of women followers are recorded as witnessing the crucifixion.

God’s plan was not dependent on human understanding or support, however. The last part of Jesus’ prediction, that he would rise again on the third day, came true, marking the great turning point in history. The inevitability of death ended on the first Easter Sunday. Christ’s resurrection made clear that death’s power was gone, replaced by eternal life through Jesus Christ. It is the core truth of Christianity sustaining us today.

We should also remember that Jesus didn’t call Peter “Satan” just to rebuke or insult the disciple. The phrase “Get behind me, Satan!” is there to remind us of an earlier story found in Matthew 4. There, the devil tempted Jesus to abandon God’s master plan and define his ministry in terms of worldly success.

As Peter argued there must be another way, a way fit for a warrior king, he reminded Jesus of his duel with the devil, and the very real temptation that went along with it. Peter was inadvertently tempting Jesus again. Jesus knew with his divine mind he needed to go to the cross for our sakes, but his very human side also clearly did not want to suffer. Midway through Matthew 26, Jesus’ prayer just before he was arrested makes clear his reluctance to suffer and die: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

After upbraiding Peter, Jesus went on to tell his disciples about the cost of following the Messiah, knowing they would face similar difficult choices themselves as leaders of the church. It’s a lesson for all of us. We could have our own bitter cup of death to drink; certainly, many of our brothers and sisters in Christ are facing such choices now. We all have our own crosses to take up. By that, Jesus meant we have to take up his cause and give up whatever causes or desires we may have that conflict.

In choosing Christ, there could be some sort of human glory, I suppose, but glory, riches, fame or other worldly goodies should not be counted on or even sought. There are preachers becoming rich by telling their followers that faith automatically begets worldly success. They are wrong, and they need to listen to Jesus’ teachings more closely.

The only glory we are promised—the reward for drinking from that cup, taking up that cross—is, of course, eternal life. The concept sounds vague and distant to us now, but on our deathbeds and beyond, nothing in this life will compare.

Knowing We Are Naked

Adam and Eve in Paradise, Lucas Cranach, 1532One of the weird things about sin is you sometimes find yourself committing it without having consciously thought, “I am now going to go against God.”

Oh, sure, there are people who revel in sin. But I feel certain even they achieved open defiance of God by first practicing an almost naive experiment, a slight turning away from the Creator to see what would happen.

The story of the first human sin is the classic example. Whether you read it literally or allegorically, you get to the same place: Sin begins with small, careful steps taken down a very slippery slope.

It doesn’t help that someone is looking for company as he slides down. Despite what Flip Wilson said, the devil doesn’t make us do it. He does, however, make right and wrong seem unclear, and suddenly it becomes easy to follow his lead.

Now, if you’ve read the story in Genesis, you know that Satan doesn’t actually make a formal appearance. The story of what we sometimes call “The Fall” is built around Eve’s encounter with a serpent. But Revelation refers to Satan as “that ancient serpent” for a reason. Both represent a very personal evil, a dark antagonist seeking to drive a wedge between God and humanity.

Eve was like a child in her innocence. She and Adam had just one rule to follow to stay right with God—don’t eat fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden—but the serpent was able to muddle even something that simple.

The serpent began by misstating the rule. “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

Eve rushed to correct him, but oddly enough, she followed the serpent’s lead in making the rule more restrictive than it actually was. She accurately said the humans were not supposed to eat of the fruit, but she added her own little twist, saying they would die if they merely touched it.

Why she did this isn’t completely clear. She had not yet been made when God gave Adam the rule; maybe Adam overstated the matter to keep the astonishing, treasured companion God had given him a safe distance from the tree. Or maybe her inaccurate gloss is just evidence of how quickly we begin to describe God as a harsh taskmaster when we let evil whisper to us.

The serpent then sowed further doubt about God, telling Eve she had been misled. God, he told her, was trying to keep the humans from being like their creator. We know where the story goes from there—she took the fruit, passed her self-devised “touch test” with flying colors, and proceeded to dig in, giving some to her husband, too.

That’s when they knew they were naked. Not that there was anything wrong with being naked before they ate the fruit. The problem was this fruit gave them knowledge of good and evil, and with all the possible choices in the universe suddenly before them, they felt vulnerable at the potential horrors they could see.

And, of course, they who defy God cannot exist for long in the presence of God, and they certainly cannot be allowed near the source of eternal life. Goodbye Paradise.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, saw a pattern in this story explaining how we step toward and finally slip into sin. It begins in a state of unbelief, a moment where we don’t trust that God is our loving Creator, the one to whom we owe complete allegiance.

Unbelief gives birth to pride, Wesley said, resulting in thoughts like “I know as well as God what to do” or even “I know better what to do.” From there, pride leads to self-will, that is, the decision to follow your own thoughts rather than God’s will. Finally, self-will leads to all sorts of foolish desires, wants unconnected to God, and a person ends up eating “forbidden fruit,” usually the indulgence in activities, possessions or people not part of God’s plan.

What is a weak, broken human to do? In the story of the fall, all we’re left with is the inevitability of sin, this sudden knowledge that we’re vulnerable.

We cannot do anything, of course. We remain dependent on God. Fortunately, God continues to love. God remains the source of grace. Even before banishing Adam and Eve to a world equally broken—a world where they could survive for at least a limited time—God sacrificed some of the precious animals of the garden so their skins could cover the humans’ shame. It was a precursor to the great sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, just as all the animal sacrifices to God in human history would be.

I find it poetic that Jesus Christ, God walking among us in our flesh, preceded his ministry to rescue us from sin by going toe to toe with Satan, in the process reversing the pattern of temptation we see in Genesis. From the story, it is obvious the devil was unsure of Jesus’ identity. Satan’s first strategy was to deal with Jesus as a fallen human, one already familiar with the pattern of temptation and rooted in sin.

Satan began by placing before the fasting, hungry Jesus a temptation based on foolish desire: Turn these stones into bread. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” Jesus replied.

The devil then appealed to Jesus’ pride, testing to see if he would willfully demonstrate holy power: Throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple, he told Jesus. “Again, it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test,’ ” Jesus said.

Finally, realizing this was a tough one to break, Satan tested Jesus’ belief, offering Jesus all the world if Jesus would worship Satan. “Away with you, Satan!” Jesus said. “For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

Here is one who did not fall, one worthy of Paradise. And when we trust in the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, we know we can return to that blissful place, too.

Gimme Three Steps

However you’re tempted to sin, there’s a way out.

That’s Paul’s promise in the 10th chapter of his first letter to the early church in Corinth. He begins with a reminder of the early history of the Israelites, evoking images of them fleeing Egypt, escaping Pharaoh’s army, crossing the Red Sea, and wandering in the desert for 40 years.

He highlights particular sins they committed during that time: idolatry, sexual immorality and complaining. These are just three items on a very long list of sins potentially separating us from God, but Paul makes a point of connecting these three sins to death.

It’s not difficult to see how these ancient temptations remain relevant today. We don’t make little idols out of wood or metal too often, but we live in a culture that offers us many alternatives to God. I would define an idol as anything that becomes more important to us than our relationship with God. Some examples might be sports, celebrities, work, or the acquisition of wealth for wealth’s sake.

Sexual immorality has become so rampant that we now live in a culture trying to redefine what God has clearly defined as sin. Many of your minds went to homosexuality when you read that previous sentence, but it’s important we keep that particular sin in context with other sexual sins. Frankly, within the church we have a more visible problem, if we’re just willing to see it. It is sex outside of marriage—premarital sex and adultery.

I’ve actually known people who railed against homosexuality while they were at the same time involved in adulterous or extramarital relationships. But in God’s eyes, they are all grievous sins. And the readily available, addictive nature of pornography only makes matters worse as people engage in behaviors that actually change the chemical structure of their brains, damaging their ability to participate in present and future holy relationships.

The sin of complaining also is not hard to find in modern times. It’s the sin of negativity, an unwillingness to trust that God is at work in the world. The early Israelites failed to trust God when he was visibly before them. We fail to trust God despite his full revelation to us through Jesus Christ and the promise he is changing the world now through the resurrection.

At a minimum, these sins can bring about the death of dreams and plans. At worst, they can separate us from God in ways that lead to eternal death.

So how do we escape? If we trust the Bible, we have to believe what Paul tells us: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

As I was working on this sermon, the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Gimme Three Steps” kept coming to mind. It tells the story of a man in a bar who has gotten a little too friendly with another man’s girlfriend, and he ends up “staring straight down a forty-four.”

When you’re looking down the barrel of a very large gun, you’re facing death. The frightened man asks for one thing, “three steps toward the door,” a way out.

When we’re facing sin and the death sin brings, we need three steps away from where we’ve found ourselves. Here are the three best steps I know to take:

Prayer. Yeah, I know, preachers are always telling you to pray. But I mean it. When you realize you’re about to cross a line, stop and reconnect with God. Temptation arises when the connection is broken. It doesn’t have to be a fancy prayer. A good start would be, “Lord, help me out of this situation where you and I both know I’m weak.”

Scripture. The Bible isn’t just any book. Believers understand there is life-changing power from God flowing through it as we study its words and absorb their meaning. Learn where the Bible talks about your temptation. Learn also where the Bible offers you words of comfort and grace in difficult times.

Accountability. Here’s the step most American Christians don’t like to consider. This involves a relationship with another strong Christian who can talk with you in confidence when you’re struggling. Maybe it’s a one-on-one accountability partner who has faced similar temptations. Maybe it’s a small group of people you can trust. This third step is so important—it is your accountability partner or partners who act as the presence of Christ. They allow the Holy Spirit to fill them so God is visibly with you as you struggle.

By the way, if you’re in the Kingsport, Tenn., area, there’s a new Friday night worship opportunity that should result in the formation of such accountability groups.

Finally, remember that we’re doing more than just avoiding death. We’re accepting the life God continually offers us. As Paul tells the story of the Israelites in the desert, he speaks of the water that sustained them, water flowing from a rock as needed. “And the rock was Christ,” he says.

It’s a startling reminder. The redemptive aspect of God has always been with us; Christ simply was most visible on the cross. He remains with us today, continuing to heal us from sin.