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For most of us, most of the time, temptation is not hard to find. In fact, it's all over the place. It's all we can do to avoid it. And we pray to God, "lead us not into temptation."
So we spend our time running away from temptation, and patting ourselves on the back when we succeed in avoiding temptation. At least, the high-visibility temptation.
But what if, instead of running away from temptation, we turned and CONFRONTED IT? I mean, what if we FOUGHT BACK? What if we REVERSED COURSE?
So what does that MEAN? Well, I would suggest to you that most of the time humans take the path of least resistance, and it is that low resistance that causes us to succumb to temptation. But I think that there are at least three ways we can do something about that.
First of all, what if, instead of always doing what was CONVENIENT for us, we chose, from time to time, to go out of our ways and do the INCONVENIENT? Parents do this all the time, because they love their children.
But what if we worked at making it a PART of our Christian lives. What if we BROKE OUT of our COMFORT zone?
Second, and this is closely related to the first, instead of being a Christian so long as it didn't interfere with our earthly lives, what would it be like to be a Christian in ways that WOULD interfere with, and maybe even change, our earthly lives?
And third, instead of building our lives around our friends and neighbors, what would it be like to be a Christian in ways that might have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with our friends and neighbors?
And what I'm saying in all of this is that most of us, myself included, can be good Christians as long as it's EASY and CONVENIENT for us, as long as it doesn't conflict with the patterns of the lives we lead, as long as it neatly FITS into our social lives.
But what if we took a tougher course? What if we INVITED temptation into our lives, CONFRONTED it, FOUGHT BACK?
And that's what I think Jesus did when he began his ministry following his baptism. He may have been the Son of God, but he was still human, and he KNEW that the devil was going to throw temptation his way every chance he got.
Now, Jesus could have done like we do. We take our chances with temptation and hope we won't yield, hope we won't get taken. But Jesus did something different.
At the opening to the fourth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew, we read, "Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil."
Now, my interpretation of "led by the Spirit" is NOT that he was dragged kicking and screaming into the wilderness. The leading of the Spirit was not done TO Jesus, it was done FOR Jesus.
And should WE choose a wilderness experience, the Spirit would likewise be available to lead us.
But how does the devil fit into this? Does the devil LIVE in the wilderness? No, the devil would have been anywhere that Jesus might have gone. But this verse tells us WHY Jesus has gone into the wilderness. He has gone to do battle with the devil.
"He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished."
But WHY did he do this? Why didn't he just take the EASY, the CONVENIENT, route? Why didn't he just sit down on a rock and wait for the devil? Well, Jesus NEVER did the convenient thing.
He knew that if he was going to truly confront temptation, he was going to have to leave himself open and vulnerable.
But since fasting is not well-known in our culture--the land of the ubiquitous Big Mac and the Thickburger (a heart attack on a plate)--let's think of this another way.
Imagine yourself--and this should not be too difficult--having to do without something or things that you would really like to have. Imagine yourself being deprived. Because it is WHEN we are deprived that we are most vulnerable to temptation. It is when people desperately WANT something that they will do anything to get it.
And then the devil shows up.
"The tempter came and said to him, "If you ARE the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread."
Well, of course, he COULD have done that. If he could turn water into wine, he most certainly could turn stones into bread. But that would have been too EASY.
The devil is sneaky. "If you ARE ths Son of God..." It is as if to say, "If you CAN'T turn the stones into bread, maybe you ARE NOT who you say you are!"
So there is really a two-fold temptation here: to make some bread and to prove who he is. And how often do we feel the need to PROVE who we are? The devil knows he can always appeal to our vanity. The humble are seldom tempted as much as the vain.
But Jesus fights back.
"...he answered, "It is written, "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God."
Now, let's be clear about this. Jesus is NOT saying, "I don't need any bread to eat." But he IS saying, "That's not enough!" And he's telling the devil that he's not going to perform a parlor trick just to prove who he is.
Lots of churches have worship services that begin at eleven o'clock. And folks think they should last precisely one hour. Otherwise, somebody MIGHT be late for dinner. (And I probably made a lot of you late last Sunday.) Unfortunately, there are some Christians who haven't heard that verse. Or weren't paying attention.
"Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying 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."
Well, the devil knows his scripture, and he's quoting from the eleventh and twelfth verses of the ninety-first psalm. But the devil is SELECTIVE. What he doesn't point out, because it would work against him, is that God doesn't take kindly to being PUSHED.
When the Israelites were in the wilderness coming out of Egypt, they were constantly giving Moses a hard time. And at one point Moses became so desperate that he begged God for help, and God told him to strike the rock and water would gush forth. But God never forgot that he had been PUSHED into it. And as a result, Moses never made it to the promised land.
Hear the words from the thirty-second chapter of Deuteronomy: "because you broke faith with me among the Israelites at the waters of Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, by failing to maintain my holiness among the Israelites."
And the point of all this is that God WILL take care of us, but only on GOD'S terms. And if Jesus were to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, Jesus would have been dictating terms to God.
But how often in our own lives do WE expect God to take care of US on OUR terms. We have crises of faith when things don't go well, and we think to ourselves, "I don't understand! I've been a good person and a good Christian!" And we behave as if WE'RE the ones who write the rules.
"Jesus said to [the devil], "Again it is written, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."
And I know that at the saddest moments in our lives we feel like crying out, "Where IS God? Why isn't God taking CARE of me?"
Well, Job has an answer. After everything that COULD go wrong for Job HAD gone wrong, listen to the ninth and tenth verses of the second chapter of his story: "Then his wife said to him, "Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die."
But he said to her, "Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?"
But too often we forget the overwhelming good.
"Again, the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me."
And this, I believe, is the ultimate temptation. It is the temptation of the earthly. And indeed, anything on this earth CAN be ours...IF we are willing to pay the price.
Although I love to read, sometimes I learn things through my reading that make me wish I was illiterate.
I find myself appalled when I read about politicians who take public positions that contradict their PERSONAL principles, because they know that if they stick by those principles, they won't get elected. And I have to ask myself, WHEN is the price too high? If we violate our moral and spiritual principles for earthly gain, aren't we essentially selling our souls to the devil?
"All these things I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me."
They say that power corrupts. And the greed for power corrupts. And greed for ANYTHING corrupts. The test of our spiritual lives is, I've come to believe, whether our earthly desires are under control or OUT of control. How satisfied ARE we with our earthly identity and our earthly possessions? What would we DO to BE more and HAVE more? To what LENGTHS would we go?
Later in Matthew Jesus is heard to say, "For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?"
So "Jesus said to [the devil], "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, "Worship the LORD your GOD, and serve only him."
So Jesus gave up all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. And a relatively short time later he gave up his EARTHLY LIFE as well. By earthly standards, Jesus was a real LOSER. And what does that TELL us about earthly standards?
So Jesus confronts the devil's temptations, fights back, and wins. WE can do that, or at least make a START at it. WE can confront the temptations in our lives, speaking a defiant NO to the devil and a triumphant YES to God. We can ask ourselves, "Do I place more importance on my earthly life than on the word of God?" "Do I take advantage of God, and not appreciate what God has done for me?" "Are my earthly values such that I worship the DEVIL more than I worship God?"
A pastor friend of mine boils all this down to one simple--maybe too simple--question: "Where IS GOD in your life?
"Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him."
But I don't think the devil ever completely leaves us. At least not me. Temptation is always there. The question is: What do I DO about it?
During this season of Lent, as we anticipate Holy Week, we have a marvelous opportunity to invite temptation into our lives and work to defeat it. For only in CONFRONTING temptation can we come to truly APPRECIATE the power of GOD in our lives.
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