Saturday, March 08, 2014

Resisting Temptation

Matthew 4
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
“‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
    but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
    lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,
“‘You shall worship the Lord your God
    and him only shall you serve.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.

In the Broadway Play, My Fair Lady, one of the characters sings a memorable song.
The Lord above made liquor for temptation,
To see if man could turn away from sin,
The Lord above made liquor for temptation,
BUT, with a little bit of luck,
with a little bit of luck,
When temptation comes you'll give right it.

We all know about temptation, and there is a sense in which we like to trivialize temptation.

We whittle it down to things like,  “Oh, I’ll just take one piece of chocolate cake – I know it is against my diet, but it won’t hurt to yield to temptation.”

Or…  “I’m going to fudge on those numbers just a wee bit on the tax return.”

Or… “Honey you look fine.  Of course that suit isn’t out of style.  Now let’s go before we miss our dinner reservation.”

White lies, cheating on diets – those are temptations, but to think only of temptations in those terms trivialize the power and danger of many temptations.
It is, in fact, almost frightening how often we encounter people whose entire lives are destroyed or forever changed because when temptation came, they gave right in.
In spite of the song of My Fair Lady, temptation is no laughing matter. It destroys us and even the people around us.
Early in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus encounters evil and faces temptation. 
When we look at the New Testament lesson, we find Jesus successfully resists temptation, and by doing so, he gives us a model.
First, we need to remember that temptations often begin in forms that, on the surface, seem very innocent, very subtle.
Temptations don't come like a hurricane, but like a gentle breeze. They come as subtle and almost innocent opportunities.
To help you to understand what I mean, remember that the temptation of Jesus takes place when he has been in the desert for 40 days. Now, that is a long time. Where were you 40 days ago? That was back on January 28th.  A lot has happened to you since then. Imagine how you would feel if you had been in the desert since January 28th. Imagine having very little to eat or drink.
Now, imagine you are Jesus and the thought crosses your mind -- You could, by the sheer power of your will, turn the stones in front of you into bread.
What would have been the big deal?
That is the real problem with temptation. It is so easy to respond to the temptation with the phrase, "It's no big deal."
If you jump to the end of the temptation passage you see Satan telling Jesus, "Worship me!" Now it is easy to see why that is wrong, and it is simple to understand that this is something Jesus should not do. Satan worship is a big deal!
But that first temptation is such a subtle one. It doesn't come bursting into Jesus' life with hurricane force winds, but more like a gentle breeze. It doesn't come with the face of evil, but with an air of innocence.
You're hungry.
You have the power.
Turn these stones to bread.
It's no big deal.
During the height of the Cold War, a former FBI agent described Soviet spies working in Washington, and how the KGB would solicit workers in the FBI and CIA and in the military to work for them. The writer said the KGB would never start by approaching an American and asking him or her to steal "top secret" documents. Instead, they would start with something simple.  It usually began with providing something that was public information, such as office telephone directory. It was no big deal. It was something the American worker would justify as no big deal because it was public information. But it would still be a thrill!  It would also put some extra spending money in the American's pocket. It would also be just enough to hook the American into doing it again. Next time it would be a file. Then it would be something confidential, and finally it would be something very secretive.
That would come later, however. At the beginning, it would be nothing more than that telephone directory. No big deal.
And so it is with temptation.
Read stories about people who embezzled millions of dollars. It never starts with the desire to embezzle a million dollars. It starts with the worker needing a few extra dollars. He or she takes it, thinking, "I'll just borrow this. I'll put it back. It's just enough to buy a lunch, or a book. No big deal."
Or think of the man or woman who commits adultery. It rarely starts with a full-fledged affair. It starts with a simple, innocent conversation. Or a meeting over lunch in which there is nothing wrong, it's just never shared with the spouse. It's no big deal.
Jesus faces his first temptation, and it is no big deal. Turn these stones into bread. He has the power. As far as I know, God the Father never told The Son not to turn stones to bread. But Jesus is able to realize that there is something about this suggestion from Satan that makes it a big deal. He resists because He is always on the watch, understanding that temptations can appear so innocent at first.
We learn a lot about how to face our temptations by looking at Jesus in the way he faces his temptations. The first thing we can learn this morning is that you have to be very, very careful. Temptations sneak up on you very subtly. It is easy to yield to them because they come across as "no big deal."

Another thing about resisting temptation is that the Word of God is the greatest power in resisting temptation.

And every time Jesus responds, he doesn't resist by the sheer force of his will. Nor does he resist by engaging the devil in eloquent debate. He simply says, "The Word of God says..." and then he quotes Scripture.

There is something important about being so nurtured by the Word of God that it becomes part of your soul.  It becomes your heritage.

One of my friends in the ministry recently told me about being on vacation one day and attending church with his family.  Instead of being up in the pulpit, he was in the pew with his wife and children.

It came time for the Apostles’ Creed. 

Everyone stood.

They started into that holy murmur.


My friend says he suddenly became aware of a voice he had never heard at that point in the worship service.

It was the voice of his 11-year-old son, David.  David, who had a wad of bubble gum in his mouth. David, who could barely pass 5th grade. David, who in the presence of a congregation stood and confessed Trinitarian theology.  My friend says it was a moment of great parental pride.  And because this minister is a close friend, he admitted to me that it was also a moment of great theological confusion. Where did David memorize that? They never taught David to recite the Apostles’ Creed. They never sat around the kitchen table showing flash cards…

“I believe in God the Father almighty”
            “Maker of heaven and earth”

Where did he pick this up?

He picked this up by participating in life of worship. He picked it up by Sunday after Sunday hearing it said in the family of faith. And when he was old enough to speak, by saying those phrases with everyone else.

And one day, the words of faith became his own words.

And now when David becomes a man and life pushes him against the wall he has somewhere inscribed in his heart, “I’m the kind of man who believes in God the father Almighty.”  He doesn’t invent it on the spot.  He doesn’t try to figure out something new on the spur of the moment.  He calls it out of his tradition.  And that is what Jesus does.  He calls out of Scripture creedal statements of faith.
Study of the Word of God is important in giving us the strength to resist temptation. Psalm 119 asks and answers the question in verse 9, "How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word."
Further in that Psalm, the writer says, "Thy word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against you."
By immersing ourselves in a reading and understanding of the Word of God, we are able to be more successful with resisting temptations. Jesus met every temptation with a response from the Word of God.
In many ways, we have forgotten the Word of God. We do not read it. We do not memorize its most important passages. We do not try to answer temptation with the power of God's word.
We have forgotten even the stories of the Old and New Testament that can serve as examples for our lives. We have become like actors on a stage of life who have forgotten the lines from the script.
I was a member of the stage crew when I was in high school. That was a great job, because we worked on all the plays and shows and programs. I was in charge of things like lights and sound effects and opening and closing the curtain, so I had this feeling that the play could not start or finish without me.
One year, Miss Sorrells was in charge of the Senior Play. She was a brand new teacher and she came to our school full of enthusiasm and a love for teaching. She was young and fresh and bright, and she would pour herself into this play. She would teach all day, and then in the afternoon she would rehearse with people in their lines, and then she would go home and put on some jeans and would bring in some hamburgers and start painting the sets and the backgrounds.
I worked on a number of programs each year, and most teachers took all this in stride, they'd directed class play because it was part of their job, something to endure.  But with Miss Sorrells, she took all of this as a personal challenge.  She really believed in the importance of this play and she threw herself into it with great energy, imagination, creativity and love.

On the day of the play, everything went well.  Or at least, it started well.
Then somewhere in the second act, Tommy lost his place.  He had some line to say, and he couldn’t remember the line. He just stood there. His face grew suddenly pale. The actors stood around him, and no one knew what to do. It was a moment of panic.
I looked at Miss Sorrells and she was the face of calm and confidence.  She was standing at a podium, with a small light illuminating her copy of the script. 
She had the words.
She was just about to whisper them to Tommy when all of a sudden Tommy spoke.
It wasn’t the words from the play. But they were funny words and everyone laughed. And everyone relaxed.  We had gotten through a crisis moment, and now the play could continue.
But with the sound of the laugher still ringing in his ears, Tommy said something else that was funny.  Those words were not in the play either.  But they were funny.  People laughed.
And then he said something else.  The audience was still laughing.  But the actors were panicking again.  Tommy had left the words.  He was making this up as he went along.  This play was collapsing.  It was out of control.
I looked at Miss Sorrells.  She was no longer calm.  She was no longer confident.  She was in tears.
We face the crisis moments in life, and when we do we often make up these words as we go along.  And when that happens, life spirals out of control.  And God is in heaven, in tears.
We have the script.
We have the Word of God.
We need to stick to the Word.

Copyright 2014, Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved. 
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