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The Spirit of God in Daily Life: In Temptation

June 26, 2011
Sermon:  The Spirit of God in Daily Life: In Temptation    
Text:  Luke 3:21, 4:1-13


Today as we continue our series of messages entitled The Spirit of God in Daily Life, we will consider the work of God’s Spirit in our experiences with temptation.

She really wanted to get married in this Sanctuary though she was not a member of Morningside.  She had visited here and loved how the Sanctuary looked.  When she came with her mother and her aunt to make arrangements for her wedding to be here, she asked if I would perform the wedding.  I agreed.  Ordinarily we ask that one of our trained directors organize the weddings here, but she said that her aunt had done this before.  I, in a moment of weakness, agreed that her aunt could direct the wedding.

The rehearsal went well without a hitch, and the rehearsal dinner was delicious.  On the day of the wedding, I thought everything was fine.  The musicians began playing music that precedes the entrance of the mothers and the wedding party.  After I finished getting the marriage license ready and putting on my robe in my study, I passed by the bride’s room on my way to the Sanctuary.   I never heard such weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth in all my life.  Three women inside the room were sobbing.  Just as I started to knock, the father of the bride, a huge man, came out the door.  At least 6’5” tall, he probably weighed about 320 pounds.  The tuxedo he was wearing was made by Omar the tent maker.

I asked him, “What in the world is wrong?”

“Three of the most upset women you have ever seen in your life are in that room.  I’ve got to go figure out something.”  Muttering to himself, the father walked past me and out a back door of the church.

Here we were, twenty minutes before the wedding with a calamity of some sort in the making.  I found the groom and his best man and got them in place in the vestibule.  The organist began playing Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” our cue to enter the Sanctuary.  The music changed several more times, signaling the groomsmen and the bridesmaids to enter.  At that point, the director closed the door at the back of the church.  A few moments later, the door re-opened so that the little flower girl could come forward and sprinkle petals on the floor.

I looked toward the back of the Sanctuary again and was surprised to see the bride, standing next to her father, arm-in-arm.  Beside him, she looked petite.  When she reached us at the front, however, her groom looked petite.  I do not want to be unkind, but let me just say that this young lady was a lot like her father.  She was ample, stout.  You get the picture.

The wedding ceremony went beautifully without any trace of running mascara.  No one would have known that anything had been wrong just moments before the service.

Following the wedding, the couple was photographed, and we signed the marriage license.  After going back to my office and removing my robe, I walked around to the Fellowship Hall.  There I found the bride, eating her second piece of cake.

Still confused, I said, “I came by the bride’s room before the wedding and heard you crying.  You sounded so distraught.  What was wrong?”

“Oh, Dr. Kirk.  I thought we were going to have to call off the wedding.”

“What on earth happened?”

She answered, “I was measured for my wedding dress about four months ago.  It just never occurred to me to try it on again before today.  I guess I was tempted to eat a lot of food at the many bridal parties and wedding showers for me.  I put on a few extra pounds, and no one could get my wedding dress zipped.  Both my mother and aunt tugged on it.  Then my dad came in and tugged on it, but he could not get it zipped either.  I thought I was going to have to call off the wedding because I could not wear my dress.  My dad knew what to do though.  He went to his truck in the parking lot and brought a roll of duct tape to our dressing room.  He told me, ‘Honey, reach to the ceiling.’  I did, and he wrapped that duct tape around and around and around me.  He cinched me up and made the best-looking duct-tape corset you have ever seen in your life.  My wedding dress fit perfectly.  I love my daddy.”

That story is incomplete.  I do not know how it ended.  I have had no word about that petite groom encountering all that duct tape on the couple’s wedding night. 

We often trivialize temptation, talking about it as if it were death by chocolate.  We trivialize temptation as if it were eating another slice of bread.  We talk about temptation in terms of inconsequential matters.  Every Christian encounters the serious issue of temptation.  Every person encounters temptation.

Our Scripture today comes from two passages from the Gospel of Luke.  I invite you to turn with me to Luke 3:21-22, where we read the story of Jesus’ baptism.

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him 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.”

Luke 4:1-13 provides the account of Jesus’ journey into the desert wilderness immediately after that baptism:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
            3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
            4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”
5 The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
            8 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
            9 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. 10 For it is written:
                          “‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully;
11 they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
            12 Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
            13 When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

In our text for today, Jesus has left his home in Nazareth and has an experience of baptism with his cousin John the Baptist.  The Spirit of God is present at Jesus’ baptism when Jesus receives the great affirmation:  “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  This baptism has to be one of the high points of Jesus’ life.  In the very next part of the narrative, we read that this same Spirit of God led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted.

I have tried to teach my children about putting on the whole armor of God, detailed in Ephesians 6.  An attack, a time of tempting, a period of testing, will often follow mountain-peak experiences.  It happens to so many people who have any kind of recognition, any kind of great achievement.  I would suggest one additional part of the armor of God not mentioned in Ephesians:  a cloak of humility.  I have emphasized to my children that the temptation to pride is not far behind any kind of honor, any sort of acclaim.

The Scriptures repeatedly warn us against the dangers of temptation:

Matthew 6:13:  Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”

Matthew 26:4:  Jesus tells the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.  The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Paul gives wise counsel in I Corinthians 10:13:  “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to all mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”

Hebrews 4:15-16:  “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

James 1:13-14: “When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”

James 4:7: “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

Those of us who have had the experience of leaving home can attest that temptation likely follows.  Any college freshman can tell you of the temptations that soon appear after leaving home.  The story of the prodigal son is a good example of a person leaving home and falling immediately into a life of sin because he did not have the strength of will to resist temptation.

The baptism and subsequent temptations of Jesus raise a number of questions.  We cannot deal with every issue today, but right at the top of the list is a question about the unusual role of the Spirit of God in both events.  The same Spirit of God that descends upon Jesus like a dove leads him immediately into the wilderness where he encounters three temptations.

We tend to think that those temptations are unique to Jesus, that they are not a part of our experience.  We might think that we will never be tempted to turn stones to bread, to jump off the temple, or to claim all the kingdoms of the world.  I would suggest to you that those temptations are very much like the ones we face.  When we come to a time of wilderness, we might feel isolated from God, separated from Him, making us most vulnerable.

We can think about each encounter with the tempter in turn.  How does the temper first approach Jesus?  He addresses Jesus at the source of his physical need – hunger.  Why is Jesus hungry?  He has been fasting.  Why has he been fasting?  At this time in his life, he has been involved in spiritual discipline.  Fasting is a spiritual discipline in his tradition and in ours.  A part of Jesus’ function in the wilderness is to crystallize or clarify his identity before he goes to Nazareth and declares his role as a suffering servant.

If Jesus has the power to turn stones to bread, what would be wrong with that?  A time comes when the discipline of the spiritual life has to take priority over the satisfaction of physical need. Jesus does exactly that here.  He does not allow his physical desire to overcome his spiritual hunger, his spiritual need.  He resists the tempter’s efforts to sabotage his goal and divert his attention.  He embraces the spiritual discipline instead of yielding to the physical temptation, saying, “It is written:  ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” We also need more in life than bread.

Next, Satan leads Jesus to the top of a high mountain and promises, “All of this belongs to me, and I can give it all to you.  I will give you authority over all the kingdoms of the world if you only bow down to me.”  Right at the core of this promise is a great lie.  Satan is the father of lies.  The kingdoms of the world do not belong to tempter.  They belong to God alone.

We say again, “Surely, that type of temptation is unique to Jesus.  I am not going to face that same enticement.”  The truth is that we will.  We all have goals.  We all have a purpose.  We all have ambition.

Satan is offering an expedient way to make Jesus’ purpose happen quickly.  He encourages Jesus, “You don’t necessarily have to do it the right way.  The end justifies the means.”  Christians are not to think that way.  We are not “the-end-justifies-the-means” kind of people.  The way we live makes all the difference.  We can accomplish our goals and aspirations, whatever they are; but the way to do that is through what the Scriptures call “paths of righteousness.”  Psalm 1 says that a righteous man does not toy around, standing in the way of sinners or sitting in the seat of the scornful.  The righteous man takes a different path.  He does reach his goal, becoming like a tree planted by rivers of water that brings forth fruit in its season.  He reaches his goal through righteousness, not by yielding to the temptation of expediency, not by stepping on other people, not by taking advantage of other people.  A Christian proceeds in a way that is pleasing to God.

The third temptation, one that encourages Jesus to be spectacular, is to jump off a pinnacle of the temple.  At first blush, we might say, “This temptation allows Jesus to prove that he really is unique.  If he jumps, forcing the angels of God to save him, he can prove more quickly to others that he really is different, that he is the Son of God.”  Satan entices Jesus to put God to the test, but Jesus resists that temptation, choosing instead to place trust in what God has already promised.  He places trust in his heavenly Father, just as he was told to do.

One of the great temptations of the church is to be spectacular.  There’s no business like show business.  We, too, face the same temptation.  God has promised us that He will be with us.  He has promised, “I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you.”  If we get in a position of testing God, then we demonstrate that we really do not place our trust in Him.  This temptation undermines a relationship of trust.  It can happen in a marriage when a husband and wife become suspicious of each other.  They test each other, trick each other.  Trust is the basis of the marriage relationship.  Trust is the basis of our relationship with God.

The three temptations Jesus encountered illustrate three truths:  it is so easy to forget about the spiritual life and yield to the desires of our bodies; it is easy to focus on the end result rather than focusing on the right way; it is so easy to test God instead of depending on His promises and their truth.

Great Christian leaders have differing opinions about the role of God’s Spirit in temptation.  In the book entitled My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers wrote a devotional based on James 1:13.  Chambers makes a claim that may come as a shock to many people:  God does not tempt us, trick us, or give us the opportunity to sin.  Doing so is contrary to His nature.  Chambers maintains that Jesus underwent this type of temptation and testing so that we would never have to go through that.  The Bible does record that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert where he was tested by the devil.  In this period of testing, Jesus proved his faithfulness to God and to all of us, as well.

On the other hand, Charles Spurgeon says that yes, God does take us into the wilderness and allows us to be tested.  Spurgeon points to Martin Luther and John Bunyan as examples.  He says that extraordinary afflictions are not always punishment; sometimes God wants to sharpen the grace of His Spirit in the lives of His people.  Spurgeon adds that God has many sharp cutting instruments and rough files for polishing His jewels, those He especially loves, those He means to make the most resplendent.  Spurgeon states, “I am a willing witness that I owe more to the anvil and to the hammer, to the fire and to the file, than anything else in the Lord’s workshop.  I sometimes question whether I have learned anything except through this kind of discipline, this kind of testing.”

Some seek to resolve the conflict between these two viewpoints by making a fine distinction between temptation and testing.  You can do that if you like.  I know that God placed a serpent in the Garden of Eden and told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of that tree.  He told them how to make the right decision.  Almost inexplicably, God gave them the freedom to make the wrong decision.  Why would God do such a thing?  He is not up in the sky calling the shots like the great Jim Henson, making us act like the Muppets.  God wants a loving relationship with us.  The only way to achieve that desire is by giving us the freedom to choose Him.  Of course, when He gives us that freedom, He also gives us the freedom to choose against Him.  So often we make that decision.

Our journey into the wilderness of temptation is an opportunity for refinement.

I asked my dad one time about the meaning of a section in “How Firm a Foundation.”  Dad explained the line “Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine,” by saying that we are like gold that is put into a crucible.  We are heated to white hot so that the impurities can be burned away, leaving only the portion of value.  Dad would say, “Putting a piece of strong iron through the fire makes it becomes so much stronger.”

God allows us to be tempted in order to make us the strongest instruments for His purpose.  Look at what He did to His own son, Jesus.  Look at the temptation Jesus endured.  He came out of that experience stronger.

We see in Verse 13 that Satan leaves Jesus until a more “opportune time.”  Do you know when that “opportune time” comes?  Jesus meets the same temptation of the wilderness when he goes to the Garden of Gethsemane.  Though tempted to turn away from God’s ultimate purpose there, he did not yield.  He addresses God, “Not my will, but Thine be done.”

Scripture tells us that God provides a way of escape, a way to resist, the devil.  We best resist temptation by yielding, not to the tempter but to the One who can deliver us from the tempter, God Himself.  Jesus does not yield to Satan in the wilderness.  He does not yield to Satan in the garden.  He does yield to God in the garden.  He calls us to do the same.

An Episcopal priest told me a horrifying story about a student in college, a loner who did not make friends easily.  When this young man began hanging out at a local bar, a guy there befriended him, buying him drinks and eventually introducing him to marijuana.  One day this new friend invited the student to accompany him on a camping trip.  The young man agreed, and they rode together to the campsite.

After parking the truck, the two walked down a path through the woods until they reached a fire surrounded by other people.  This man quickly sensed something terribly wrong.  When he saw one person wearing goat horns and heard the group chanting, he realized that he was in the middle of a satanic worship service.

When those in the group started grabbing, pulling, and tugging on him, he began quoting the only prayer he could remember: the Lord’s Prayer.  He got to the line “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” and repeated it again and again.  “Deliver us from evil.  Deliver us from evil.  Deliver us from evil!”

Those accosting him yelled, “Hush!  Don’t say that!”

He persisted in repeating, “Deliver us from evil!  Deliver us from evil.”

Finally, the leader of the group gave him a final push and ordered, “Go then!”

The terrified young man fled from the scene in the woods.

After recounting this story to me, the Episcopal priest commented, “Evil lurks everywhere, and Satan will try his best to undo us.  The only way to resist is to turn to the only One who can deliver us from evil, God.”

The Bible gives us wonderful assurance that we will never be tempted beyond our strength to resist.  It gives us assurance that Jesus was tempted in all ways as we are tempted.  The same Spirit of God that leads us into the wilderness and allows us to be tempted is also our Deliver, our Savior.  It is only through this Spirit that we can resist temptation.

Do you know that to be true in your own life?  Only through God can we resist temptation.  Have you accepted Christ Jesus as your Savior?  If not, could I please ask you to make that decision today?  If God has laid that decision on your heart, we invite you to respond.

Kirk H. Neely
© 2011

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