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Encounters with Jesus on the Way to the Cross: The Tempter

February 21, 2010
Sermon:  Encounters with Jesus on the Way to the Cross:  The Tempter
Text:  Luke 4:1-13


Always at this time in the service, there is a silence.  People settle in their seats.  Some turn up their hearing aids; others turn them down.  You wait to see if anything worth hearing will be said.  You wonder what is coming as an average-sized man stands here, shuffling note cards like a riverboat gambler. 

To be very honest with you, I sit here on this bench and worship as you do.  I am still amazed that you trust me with this responsibility.  It is one I do not take for granted.  It is a privilege, a very awesome responsibility, to speak on God’s behalf and offer something that can be meaningful to us as we seek to be the Christians that God wants us to be.

Today during this season of Lent, we enter into a new series entitled Encounters with Jesus on the Way to the Cross.  We will return to some of the most familiar passages in the Gospel accounts.  This time, though, we will look at certain events as intersections in the life of Jesus, points at which Jesus had to make major decisions.

 I believe that the first miracle in Jesus’ life was that he was God incarnate.  It is a miracle that God could create this human being born of a peasant woman from the town of Nazareth but conceived by the Holy Spirit.  The incarnation defines a constant tension between his divinity and his humanity.  The Christian faith affirms that Jesus is both 100 percent God and 100 percent human.  It is almost more than we can get our minds around to consider this God-Man.  The great heresies of the church have occurred when people decided to settle on one side or the other instead of holding those two concepts in balance.  Some will say, “He was just a good man.”  That is heretical.  Others will say, “No, this is the Son of God.  He is divine, so his feet could never quite touch the ground.”  We must never lose sight of the truth that Jesus is both human and divine, a truth that creates some difficulty in understanding passages we will consider.  It is so important that we hold those two truths in balance if we are to understand the life of Jesus. 

Turn with me to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 3, beginning at Verse 21 with the baptism of Jesus.  Notice that the Scripture says, “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too.”  That one statement puts him in the water with us.  He is one of “all the people.”  He is right there with us.  At least one purpose, one meaning, of his baptism is that it symbolizes that he has joined us in our humanity.  The passage continues:  “And as Jesus was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’”  Jesus is there in the water with us – fully human.  All of a sudden, the heavens open, and God makes the remarkable affirmation that Jesus is the very Son of God.  We see both sides of the argument – Jesus is fully human and fully divine – right there in the Jordan River.

I have always believed that whenever something particularly special or affirming happens in our lives, we had better beware.  It is exactly in the wake of those important experiences that the tempter comes and knocks us off course.  Soon after a person rises to some level of fame, it is not very long before the person encounters temptation.  Jesus was fully human, so we might well expect that he, too, would be tempted. 

We pick up the story in Chapter 4, Verses 1-2:  “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”  How does this square with the Lord’s Prayer that states, “Lead us not into temptation”?  That in itself can be confusing to us.  The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert, but the devil tempted him.  The way that Luke words this time in the wilderness reveals that the Holy Spirit did not just dump Jesus in the desert and leave him on his own.  The Holy Spirit continued to be with Jesus throughout the entire time he was in the wilderness, throughout the entire time he was tempted.  Jesus was never without the presence of the Spirit. 

The typical Hebrew way of talking about a long time was through the use of the word “forty.”  It rained for forty days and forty nights in Noah’s day.  The children of Israel wandered for forty years in the wilderness.  I do not know how long the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness, but it was a long time. 

As we come to these temptations in the desert, we must ask ourselves some important questions.  Could Jesus have yielded to these temptations?  Was Jesus capable of sinning?  Our immediate response is, “This is the Son of God.  He is not going to sin.”  Jesus did not have some sort of firewall built around him so that sin could not penetrate his being.  Could he have sinned?  Could he have yielded to temptation?  The answer has to be yes.  If not, this story is just a sham.  The temptations can only be taken seriously since Jesus could have possibly yielded to them.  Otherwise, this story would have little relevance at all for our lives. 

Hebrews 4:15 says that Jesus was “tempted in every way, just as we are” tempted.  Jesus was tempted in every way as we are tempted?  In the same way that he was in the water with all people, in the same way that he walked the dusty roads of Palestine as other people did, he faced the same kind of temptations just as surely as we do.  Jesus was not immune.  If Jesus really was tempted, if he really could sin, then we can find ourselves here.  Because he could have sinned, this story becomes much more important to us.

You and I watched on television, maybe on replay, a young man, the greatest golfer in the world, stand before a national audience and talk about what a shambles he has made of his marriage.  Caught in sin, he has been unable to avoid condemnation.  People criticized him, even criticized him for reading his speech of apology.  He is not a public speaker; he is a golfer.

As we examine the temptations the Gospels provide, we see that Jesus was tempted in the same way that Tiger Woods was tempted, in the same way that Mark Sanford was tempted, in the same way that Bernie Madoff was tempted, in the same way that P.T. Barnum was tempted.  Jesus was tempted like every other human being, yet he resisted.  He was without sin.

Consider the three temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness.  The devil confronted Jesus the first time by beginning his sentences with, “If you are the Son of God…”  Satan enticed Jesus to turn a stone into bread.  If you have ever been to the Holy Land, you know that the terrain is absolutely littered with large round stones that look like loaves of bread.  Satan knew that Jesus was hungry.  He had not eaten anything for a long time.  Satan said to him, “Prove to me that you are the Son of God.”  Jesus did not have to prove that to anybody.  All Jesus has to do is be the Son of God.  At the same time, he is the Son of Man, the phrase he most often used about himself.  Jesus resisted the temptation to satisfy his own physical desires, quoting from the Old Testament, “Man does not live by bread alone” (Deuteronomy 8:3).  Jesus was not to be an economic messiah.

The second temptation, found in Verses 5-6, involved expediency.  “The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.  And he said to him, ‘I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to.”  Satan, the father of lies, does not own all the kingdoms of the world.  They are not his to give.  Jesus had no reason to bow before Satan.  He was already the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.  Satan was asking Jesus why he should go to all the trouble of telling people one at the time or even telling them in groups of 5,000 what they had to do to inherit the kingdom.  If Jesus bowed down to Satan, Jesus could claim power and wealth.  Once again, Jesus resisted by quoting Scripture:  “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only” (Deuteronomy 6:13). 

For the third temptation, Satan tried to lure Jesus to be spectacular.  “The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.  ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down from here’” (Verse 9).  This time, the devil himself quoted Scripture, Psalm 91:11-12, saying that if Jesus would do this, surely God’s angels would lift him up.  My, how spectacular this would be!  Again Jesus resisted, saying, “‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Deuteronomy 6:16).  Is temple jumping an Olympic event?  Is Jesus to believe that he is on some sort of mysterious bungee cord?  Is he to believe that if he somehow jumped, he was not going to be hurt?  Of course, Jesus had that power, but he has no interest in being a spectacular messiah.

Dr. Wayne Oates, one of my teachers, wrote a book called Christ and Selfhood.  He said that when we look at the temptations of Jesus, we not only see that he was tempted in all the ways that we are tempted, but we also see that Jesus, as a young adult, was working out his own sense of identity.  He knows that he is the Son of God.  He knows that he is to fulfill the role of Messiah. 

How is Jesus to do that?  In these temptations, we see him working those issues.  He is not going to be an economic messiah just interested in feeding the hungry, not a messiah just interested in social action, though he certainly cared for “the least of these.”  He cared for people of all kinds.  He was not going to sacrifice proclaiming the kingdom of God.  Jesus rejected the role of an economic messiah.  Jesus rejected the role of an expedient messiah.  He was not going to take the easy way or the quick way.  He was not going to lose his own integrity by bowing down to Satan. Jesus was faced with the temptation to be a spectacular messiah.  Satan tempted him to win friends and influence people, to have approval, to play to the applause.  You know that Jesus refused to do miracles on demand.  Jesus rejected the role of being spectacular. 

What, then, did Jesus choose?  Look a little further in the Gospel of Luke.  Chapter 4, Verse 14: 

      Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread throughout the whole countryside.  He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. 
     He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.  And he stood up to read.  The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him.  Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written,
 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me
because he has anointed me
     to preach good news to the poor. 
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners,
     and recovery of sight to the blind,
to release the oppressed,
     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus, quoting from Isaiah 61:1-2, had found his purpose, his meaning, his way of being the Messiah from that Scripture.  He takes the identity of the suffering servant. 

There is an issue here, as well, for the church.  The temptations that Jesus faced are temptations that the church faces.  Are we going to be a church so involved in social action that we lose sight of our evangelical purpose?  Are we going to be a church so enamored with power, prestige, and status that we seek only large numbers, sacrificing our integrity as the people of God to be the church that Christ has called us to be?  Will we be a church that is interested only in entertainment, in drawing crowds?  You know the expression “There is no business like show business.  Let me entertain you.”  These are the temptations of the church – every church. 

If Christ – the head of the church – chose to be a suffering servant, then we – the body of Christ – should choose the role of a servant church, a church with the desire to serve with the heart of Jesus, to see with the eyes of Jesus, to hear with the ears of Jesus, to respond with the mind of Jesus.  If Jesus Christ is our leader, if these intersections in his life correspond to intersections in our own life, then we, too, must become servants.

One of the rules in writing is if, in the first chapter of your book you put a revolver on the mantelpiece, you had better do something with it by the last chapter.  Luke included in his writing something about temptation that cannot be ignored.  Following the temptations in the wilderness, Luke said that Satan left Jesus until “an opportune time” (Verse 13).  When did that “opportune time” happen?  It is not difficult to see that throughout his ministry, Jesus resisted these temptations.  To Simon Peter, who declared he would not let Jesus be crucified, Jesus said, “Satan, get thee behind me.”  Jesus refused to perform miracles on demand.  He refused to be what others thought he should be. 

The more opportune time came the night before Jesus died when he went into the Garden of Gethsemane.  He told his disciples, “Pray so that you will not enter into temptation” (Luke 22:46).  Then he went away and prayed and prayed and prayed hard until sweat fell like drops of blood.  Satan had found his more opportune time and tempted Jesus to divert from God’s purpose, to take a detour.  Jesus resisted Satan again and surrendered to God, saying, “Lord, if possible, take this cup from me, yet not my will but Thy will be done” (Matthew 26:42).  Even to the end of his life, Jesus resisted temptation. 

You can do what is right for a long, long time, but it is so important to finish strong, to live your life so that you resist these temptations all the way to the end.  As we see in the life of Jesus and in the life of so many others, Satan is never far from us.

When Jesus died on the cross, he could say, “It is finished.  It is complete” (John 19:20).  Fully human, Jesus was tempted in every way as we are tempted.  Fully divine, Jesus never once yielded to sin.

Jesus is our Lord and Savior.  He is the Christ we follow.  Have you made a decision to follow Christ?  If not, could I invite you to make that decision today?  Perhaps this is the day you need to renew your commitment to him.  You may have said, “I have been doing this half-heartedly.  I really want to do it right.  I want the church to pray for me.”  We invite you to respond in whatever way God leads.

Kirk H. Neely
© February 2010

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