I read recently that the most popular thing to give up this year for Lent is social networking… that is, according to the analysis of nearly 40,000 comments… made on Twitter.
It rather sounds like those people are adopting the approach of Oscar Wilde, who famously said, “I can resist everything, except temptation.”
Alternatively you could follow the advice of the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther who stated: “Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!”
But on a more serious note, let’s recognise this morning that all of us face temptation regarding how we live. It’s not cool or hip in the 21st century to talk so directly about sin and the devil, but these concepts — these choices — are inherent in the life of a follower of Jesus.
Every day we face many different voices, telling us how we should live, which values we need to uphold. But who do we listen to, when deciding how to live? Do we follow God, or the siren call of personal satisfaction and instant gratification? This is the temptation that confronts us today.
It helps, perhaps, to know that we’re not alone in facing temptation.
Our reading this morning shows Jesus facing exactly these circumstances. The reading takes place at the beginning of the account of Jesus’ adult life. He has just been baptized by John the Baptist, just received God’s blessing; and now Jesus has retreated to the wilderness; a period of prayer and preparation for the ministry he is about to embark on.
All the challenges of his ministry lie ahead of him; everything he has been sent to do remains to be done. He has spent forty days fasting, so for the devil, it must have looked like the prime time to strike. Jesus at his weakest: hungry — no, famished — and with an apparently insurmountable task ahead of him.
And so the devil tests Jesus’ trust in God, enticing him with the immediate gratification of all of Jesus’ needs.
The first temptation is expedient, as the devil taunts Jesus with the pangs of hunger: “Forty days is along time to be without food — why wait, when you could have bread right now? Just a burst of your divine power and your human hunger goes away.”
And when Jesus resists him, the devil moves on to more weighty matters, exploiting Jesus’ mission and ministry. “Look at all the work that awaits you. Why make things hard for yourself? Glory, authority — you don’t have to earn it. Just follow me and it’s yours.”
And finally, the devil attacks Jesus’ confidence in his relationship with God, trying to provoke him into a flashy display of power. “How can you be sure God loves you that much? If you are so certain, then surely he’ll rescue you? Take the plunge. Show us what divine protection really looks like.”
Three times, the devil deploys his cunning, to seek out the places where Jesus might be vulnerable; to put Jesus’ trust to the test, and see just who Jesus was going to listen to.
Now the big mistake the devil made, if I can be so bold, is that he went in too audaciously, challenging Jesus with spectacular feats of divine power. He’d have been much better off to start small — as we are tempted — with seemingly insignificant matters, trivial choices that are easy to say yes to.
He’d have been better advised to listen to a modern devil, C. S. Lewis’s character, Screwtape, who has this advice for a junior devil-in-training: “the safest road to hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
I think Screwtape has it right — we are more at risk from the temptations found in smaller, less dramatic transgressions; impulses that are so instinctive that we fail to even recognize them as temptations, or to see the way they pull us away from God.
Anger, jealousy, and greed. Selfishness, impatience, and resentment. Their pull on us is almost inescapable. They feel so satisfying, so immediately gratifying, feeding our visceral desire to be right and have what we want.
And our modern world is turning these desires into new temptations faster than we can keep up — piracy, trolling, ghosting…
Temptation says, “You can watch the latest movies whenever you want; why wait? All you need to do is download them from the internet; everybody does.”
Temptation says, “You’re entitled to your opinions and you can express them however you like; if some stranger online is getting upset, that’s their problem.”
Temptation says, “So the relationship went cold; she’ll figure it out when you don’t return her calls; you don’t owe anyone an explanation.”
Perhaps your own personal Screwtape is telling you now that this is an extreme view to take, and I’m getting wound up about nothing. Believe me, the Screwtape in my head tried this many times as I prepared this message.
But this is a classic temptation tactic — to downplay the seriousness of what you’re doing; making you feel like you’re being narrow-minded or prudish and that you’re overreacting.
It’s just another step down that gentle slope.
But a lack of subtlety wasn’t the only problem the devil faced. He fundamentally didn’t understand the depth of Jesus’ commitment to the will of God — to being the person God wanted Jesus to be, and for Jesus this was rooted in the Bible.
Look how Jesus counters every temptation by referencing scripture: “One shall not live by bread alone … Worship the Lord your God and serve only him …Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” God’s word protected Jesus from making poor choices.
But this strength comes from more than just words on a page, or in a scroll. Jesus’ commitment to the will of God is empowered through his relationship with God — listen to the very first phrase from our reading today, where Jesus is described as “full of the Holy Spirit.”
Full of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is protected from the devil’s temptation because he doesn’t stand alone; he is trusting in God and is empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
God sustains Jesus to resist all the temptations he’s facing here; just as God the Father and the Holy Spirit are going to sustain Jesus throughout his ministry, and even ultimately to endure the cross.
Now, there’s one other element of this story that’s important to consider.
How do we know? How do we know that all this took place?
Think about it: in almost every part of the gospels the accounts are public events or group gatherings. There are witnesses who could relate what happened — even if it was a conversation with only the disciples present. But not this one.
It’s just Jesus and the devil, so how do we know what happened? And there’s only one explanation — obvious when you think about it, but vitally important.
We can only know because Jesus told this story to someone. Jesus told this story; most likely to the disciples. Jesus told this story because he knew that his disciples — then and now — would face temptation, and he wants us to know that he knows how that feels; that he has been there and resisted temptation. And Jesus wants us to know how to resist it too.
Temptation has taken Raul Baez to the depths of despair. His childhood was a veritable checklist of poverty and deprivation: an absent father, abuse, drugs, and crime, until he found himself serving 12 years in prison for armed robbery. Jailed and a junkie, temptation had enticed Baez, and temptation had won.
Then one day, walking through the prison yard, Baez heard the sound of a service taking place in the chapel. Temptation again whispered at Baez, and he headed over, making straight for the free coffee and donuts.
But this was when temptation met its match. As Baez stood in the chapel, he heard a reading from Matthew 11: “Come to me, all of you who are heavy at heart for I will give you rest. My burden is easy and my yoke is light.” And as Baez describes it, “The words just penetrated my heart.”
Baez found faith and began the long, slow process of turning his life around. He found the strength to quit drugs and spent his time learning everything he could about coping with life on the outside. Finance, real estate, budgeting, healthy eating — Baez taught himself the life skills needed to live free from crime.
But Baez didn’t do this on his own — like Jesus in the desert, he was filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s the only way he could get through something like this. God’s teaching and God’s love embraced Baez in the depths of his despair and showed him how to live.
And God wasn’t done with Baez yet. Baez realized he was being called to help and so, still in jail, he began teaching other inmates what he was learning.
After he was released, Baez went on to set up an organization to share the crime-free life skills he had learnt — or more precisely, to teach others how to resist temptation.
The organization now runs programs in six New York prisons and nearly half the program graduates have found jobs after their release. And even more impressively, three quarters of the graduates have stayed out of jail.
Our challenges in life may not be as overwhelming as those facing Baez, but we are equally supported by God. We don’t face temptation on our own, because being “filled with the Holy Spirit” is a promise God gives to us as well.
Through faith we are protected, encouraged and enabled to live our lives, following God’s word. Through faith, we receive the Holy Spirit who strengthens and protects us and keeps us close to God.
I think it’s helpful at this point to remember that faith isn’t just something you either have or don’t have; faith is something you nurture and grow. Faith is strengthened through the behaviours we choose that build our relationship with God.
Coming to church is an action we take that strengthens our faith, because in church we are reminded of God’s love for us, and are assured that the Holy Spirit supports and protects us.
Prayer is an action we take that builds our faith, as we reach out to God to know and strengthen God’s presence in our lives.
And reading the Bible is an action we take that strengthens our faith, especially when we take the time to reflect and listen for God’s word to us.
I’m going to throw in a shameless plug for the Walton Lent Devotional here. Creating time for scripture, reflection and prayer is at the heart of the Devotional; its reason and its purpose. Something as simple as reading the devotional each week helps us combine these three things to bring us closer to God; to better hear God’s word for us.
But you are already on your way, because you are here. You are reaching out to God in faith — be that in strong and robust faith or shaky and under-attack faith — and regardless of how you are feeling right now, you can be confident in how God is feeling. God loves you. God loves each one of us and wants to hold us close and strengthen and protect us to face whatever the world will throw at us.
Because God is on our side! And with God on our side, temptation can never win.
Let us pray.
Preached at Walton United Church, Oakville, ON, on March 10, 2019
Standing on the shoulders of giants
Sermons are always the product of wide reading and research. For this sermon, in particular, I have drawn on the thoughts of David Lose, Norman Pritchard, Karoline Lewis and Alyce McKenzie. Also, the Daily Good article on Raul Baez.