The temptations that surround us

Kevin Gasser

Staunton Mennonite Church

Matthew 4:1-11



4:1Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.


            Today is the second Sunday of February, the 6th Sunday of 2008.  So I was thinking that maybe we should start today by taking a little poll.  How many of us set New Year’s resolutions this year?  And now how many of us have cheated on those resolutions?  Interesting.  How many of us have ever been on a diet?  And how many of us cheated on these diets?  Has anyone ever tried to stop smoking, drinking, swearing, lying, stealing, gambling…and cheated?  Probably all of us have.

            So why do we cheat?  Temptations, that’s why.  Like the little girl that gets a new bike for her birthday and her parents tell her not to ride it until they can be there to supervise, like the teenage boy that just agreed to go steady with a young lady and then the girl behind the counter at the convenience store begins to flirt with him, like the office worker who decides to go on a diet and finds that someone has brought donuts to the office meeting, we have all been tempted.  And I am going to guess that most of us have given into temptation at some time in our lives.

            I think these are all good examples of temptation as we normally understand it.  Temptations usually arise from something that we know will give us temporary pleasure, yet we know that in the long run that they are not good for us.  But today I want to look a little deeper at temptation by looking at the temptation of Jesus.  And today I want to broaden our understanding of temptation, and our understanding of sin by addressing each of the three temptations of Jesus.  We will see the temptation of personal gratification at the expense of our relationship with God, the temptation of security, and the temptation of power.

Temptation One—Personal gratification at the expense of our relationship with God

            Our scripture for today begins with Jesus being led into the desert.  Guided by the Spirit, he goes out to the wilderness alone, and he stays there for forty days where he fasts and he prays.

            So after these forty days are up Jesus is pretty hungry.  Famished, my text says.  And Matthew says that the “tempter” came to Jesus.  Now I would like to pause just a moment here because there can be a lot of confusion about this tempter.  Who is he or she?  Or is it even a person?  If we read on, Matthew calls this being the devil.  Other places refer to it as Satan.  In fact, there are many terms for this being; the devil, Satan, the serpent, chaos.  Whatever we want to call it, it is evil.  I cannot deny that there is an evil presence in this world.  Now I don’t think we need to think of evil as a little red devil with horns and a pitchfork.  But I can’t see how anyone could deny the presence of evil in this world.  Call it what you want, evil is present and has manifested itself throughout history.  In the Garden of Eden, in the killing of an innocent man on the cross, more recently in the Holocaust, and in the genocide in Darfur.   The list could go on and on.  So if anyone wishes to deny that there is evil in the world, you would have to really be blind to history.  Call it what you will, evil is out there, tempting us every day.

            But Jesus wasn’t blind to history or to evil.  Actually, he met evil face to face.  Jesus is met in the wilderness by the devil.  The devil is evil personified.  He is the anthropomorphic-ation of evil, meaning he is evil in human form.  And the devil, seeing Jesus in a hungered state, he “suggests” to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loves of bread.”  And thus we have the first temptation.

            Now we call this a temptation, but really, what is wrong with this?  People need to eat.  If Jesus can make the stones into bread, why not do it?  What’s one loaf of bread going to hurt?  But the bread isn’t the problem.  The problem is that Jesus came out into the wilderness to fast and pray.  You don’t go around fasting and praying because it feels good to do it.  You fast and pray because it helps you connect with God.  Fasting and praying helps you to align your will to the will of God.  It is meant to be a time of listening to God and discerning God’s will.  So when the devil is tempting Jesus to turn rocks into bread, there really isn’t any sin in that act.  The sin is putting our own personal pleasure before our relationship with God.

            This is kind of the normal way we look at temptation.  We know that we are not to do certain things because it will interfere with our relationship with God or with others.  Sin is a roadblock between God and us.  So we deny ourselves certain pleasures of the flesh because if we indulged in these things it would be sinful.  And that sin interferes with our relationship with God.  Like Jesus disturbing his time of fasting and praying in the wilderness to turn stones into bread, sin is putting our personal pleasure before our relationship with God.  So things like fornication, drunkenness, gossip, these are thing that might make us “feel good” at any given time.  But when we put our own personal pleasure before our relationship with God, we are sinning.  Instead, we should be like Jesus.  Expounding upon what he said, we should answer, “One does not live on what gives temporary satisfaction, but on the teachings and the promises of God.”

            Which brings to mind a question.  How many people in our society are willing to give up something that gives us pleasure to increase our relationship with God?  Or even in the church, how many people are willing to give up something we like and fill that emptiness with God?  I know that many of us do not give up anything for Lent.  It isn’t a common Protestant practice to give up anything for Lent.  But there is a biblical foundation for this practice.  It isn’t a coincidence that the 40 days where Jesus fasted in the wilderness coincides with the 40 days of Lent when many people give up something that gives them pleasure.  The goal is to give something up and fill that void with God.  Because one does not live on bread alone.  True life is found in God alone.

            Unfortunately, the practice of giving something up for Lent loses its significance when we do not fill that void with God.  For instance, many people around the world have chosen to give up meat, television, movies, alcohol, or other items for Lent.  For the last few years, I have chosen to give up sweets for Lent.  Now the reason for giving up something, like fasting, is that you then take the time that you would normally spend eating or watching television, and you fill that time with prayer or reading the Bible, or serving God in some other way.  When I gave up sweets for Lent, I don’t remember spending more time with God because I wasn’t eating ice cream and cookies.  So you know what I was doing?  I was on a diet, not giving something up for Lent. 

            Jesus taught us in the wilderness to give up things that give us pleasure so that we can grow closer to God.  We should never let our own personal pleasure come between us and God.

Temptation Two—Security

            When we return to our story from Matthew, we find the devil and Jesus transported to the highest part of the temple, overlooking the Kidron Valley.  And the devil says to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

            Again, at first examination, does there seem to really be a sin involved here?  What would be wrong with Jesus jumping off the temple and having God saving him?  Nobody gets hurt, so what’s the big deal?

            The reason this is a temptation is because jumping off the temple and asking God to save him would give Jesus a false sense of security.  Or do we even know that God would save Jesus in this case?  Some people believe that Jesus just came to die for our sins.  If that is all Jesus came to do, then couldn’t he have died by jumping off the temple?

            This sense of security that the devil is trying to trick Jesus into is the sense that he can manipulate his own security.  That Jesus can somehow decide when God will chose to protect him and when therefore he can go through life doing whatever he wants without fear of death.  And that just isn’t true.

            We as Christians have almost 2,000 years of searching for security, knowing that we will be safe.  But the truth is, we are at risk to die as much as anyone else.  And it is my opinion that those Christians that have the strongest faith will live according to the Kingdom of God knowing very well that it might get them killed, not blindly thinking that God will always keep us safe.  Now this is not to say that God cannot keep us safe.  God can do anything God wants to do.  But God never promised that we would always be safe and free from harm if we followed him. 

            Think of other followers of Jesus Christ.  Peter, Paul, Stephen…what happened to these people?  They all met the same demise as the one they followed.  What about the early Anabaptists that helped begin our denomination?  Michael Sattler?  Burned at the stake.  Felix Manz?  Drown in the river, because it was a fitting death for someone who committed the crime of an adult baptism. 

What about the missionaries of the 19th century?  I think these missionaries proved that any sense of security on this earth is a false sense of security.  Do you know what most of the young missionaries of the 19th century packed their belongings in when they were going off to the mission fields in Africa and South America?  They packed them in coffins, because they knew that serving Christ might mean that their return trip home might not be first class, it might be in a wooden box.

But that is the old days, right?  We Christians today have security.  We are always safe.  Does anyone know the story of Tom Fox?  Tom Fox served as a part of the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq.  Tom and the like minded people around him believed that what Iraq needed to change their society for the better was not more bombs and bullets delivered by the US.  Tom believed that what the Iraqis needed was to hear the message of Jesus.  And though he knew that it might cost him his life, Tom was willing to pay that price.  Tom and the others were taken hostage by the Iraqi troops on November 26, 2005 and found dead on March 9th 2006.  It has been said that there were more Christian Martyrs in the 20th century than any other century previous. 

Living as a Christian is dangerous.  Because I don’t have the same protection as much of the rest of the world does.  Being a Christian means that I don’t sleep with a 9 mm under my bed so that I can shoot the intruder that might break into my home.  Being a Christian means that I would rather die than to take your life.  Being a Christian means that I don’t throw myself off the highest point of the temple and say “God save me!”

Of course it isn’t that grim and gloomy.  There is a positive side here.  Because being a Christian means that if I do die, the next thing that I will know will be eternity with Jesus Christ in heaven.  So if a person threatens my life, and I have the opportunity to take their life to save my own, I will allow myself to die.  I know my final destination.  And if I take this other persons life, am I robbing them of a chance to come to know Christ? 

Temptation Three—Power

            The final temptation this morning involves the devil taking Jesus to a high mountain and as they look over the kingdoms of the world the devil says to Jesus, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”  Sell your soul to the devil and you will have all of the power in the world.  Kings and peasants, rich and poor, all will do your bidding.  Now that would be tempting, wouldn’t it?

            No more washing my own car, or mowing my own lawn.  No more doing the dishes or vacuuming the carpet.  Meals fit for a king and I could even have somebody exercise for me to burn off the pounds(?).  Not too shabby.  But instead of this taking the devil up on this offer, what kind of life did Jesus live?  He was poor.  He did not have his own home.  When he needed money to pay taxes, he had to send Peter fishing.  On the last night he spent with the disciples, he humbled himself to wash their feet.  The Son of Man came to serve, not to be served.  But what a tempting offer.

            As a part of the Kingdom of God here on earth, the church, we are called to live not by the ways of the world, but by the ways modeled for us by Jesus Christ.  And Jesus modeled for us servant leadership, not absolute power.  What do we say about absolute power?  Absolute power corrupts…absolutely.  And often the bottom line is, well, the bottom line.  It all comes down to money.

            For instance, you may be familiar with the electronics chain Circuit City.  Well, last March Circuit City fired 3,400 of its employees claiming that they could rehire less experienced workers at a lesser wage.  Well, I guess that might be true.  If someone had been working at a particular job for a while, they are probably making more than someone who was just hired.

            A 24-year-old employee in North Carolina was one of the 11 people fired from his location.  He was working between 15 and 20 hours a week and making $11.59/hour.  He had been working for the Circuit City for seven years.

            Now guess how much the chief executive of Circuit City makes.  Over 1.4 million dollars, plus stock options, plus $340,000 in other options.  Seems to me that there is some major injustice going on in that organization.  The people with the power exploit those with out power.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.  And though I don’t believe that Jesus, even if he had all of the power in the world given to him by the devil, he did model for us a better way.  Servant leadership, humbling oneself, caring for “the least of these.”

            So these are the temptations that Jesus had to face.  The temptation of personal gratification at the expense of his relationship with God, the temptation to seek security rather than living in faith, and the temptation of power.  And he overcame all of these temptations.  What was it that helped him get past these temptations?  The word of God.  Each time he was tempted, Jesus replied with scripture.  And with God’s help, we too can over come the temptations that surround us.  And with Jesus’ grace, we can be forgiven for the times when we fail to overcome them.  Thanks be to God for his wonderful gift of strength to overcome temptation and grace for when we fail.


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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