Summary: In this message, part 2 in series Episodes, Dave looks closely at Christ's temptations in the desert. As it was for Jesus so it will be for us, so how might these temptations come to us?

The Great Temptations of Christ

Episodes, prt. 2

Wildwind Community Church

September 26, 2010

As it was for Jesus... As it was for Jesus...As it was for Jesus...

So it will be for you. Jesus is our model. Our path. Our guide. Our example. Traditionally in the church when we have talked about Jesus as our example, we have been talking strictly in moral terms. Of course we don’t even come close to following Jesus in even just a moral sense, but at least this way we can contain him and keep him from really posing a threat to our values and basic way of life. If Jesus, though, is to be a model for us not just in terms of morality but in terms of walking for us the very journey we must also walk, showing us how to perfectly combine spiritual and physical in our bodies, and showing us how to love, how to refuse to play by the world’s rules, how to truly be free and think for ourselves, how to suffer, how to forgive, how to die, and how to overcome death – well, that’s a different animal, isn’t it?

We’re in a three-week series right now I’m calling Episodes – scenes from the life of Jesus where we look not just at what happened and how we can moralize about it, but how we can see in Christ’s journey the journey each of us must also take if we wish to truly follow him. Last week we looked at the baptism of Jesus – how at his baptism he affirmed the idea that God is not just in the temple, but God is here in the desert – and perhaps more powerfully here than in the temple. We saw how at his baptism, Jesus receives the clear message from God that he belongs to God, and is chosen, marked, and loved by God. It is in this realization of who he is that Jesus begins his ministry. But before he can officially start his ministry, one other thing must happen first. Jesus must confront the illusions of the world. He must grapple with and realize the distortions that envelop him like they envelop everyone who lives in this world. Jesus, like you and like me, must find out who he is – hear God clearly speaking his name – and then he must come to see the world’s illusions for what they are. We pick up in the last verse of the previous chapter:

Matthew 3:16-17 (MSG)

16 The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God's Spirit—it looked like a dove—descending and landing on him.

17 And along with the Spirit, a voice: "This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life."

Matthew 4:1-11 (NIV)

1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.

2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.

3 The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread."

4 Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.

6 "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written: "'He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'"

7 Jesus answered him, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.

9 "All this I will give you," he said, "if you will bow down and worship me."

10 Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'"

11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

The first thing of course that we need to note is that scripture says Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted. The best way of understanding this, I believe, is to realize that this simply is the journey. It was the journey of Jesus, and as it was for Jesus, so it will be for you. If you are following God, if you seek to know the truth, if you desire to see clearly, then you too will find yourself in the desert – the place of barrenness – facing the same temptations Jesus faced.

Make no mistake about it – the temptations ARE the desert. You and I will probably not actually spend time in the Sahara or the Mojave. Our deserts will be not literal, but figurative, but they will be deserts. They will be places where we will experience, like Jesus did, deprivation. And they will be places where, like Jesus, we will have to have heard our name from God if we are to come through them successfully.

Do you see the journey of Jesus here? This is his journey. As it was for Jesus, so it will be for you. In our Western way of thinking, we have tried to manufacture the spiritual journey – we have almost created a fake one. Our journey doesn’t require hearing our name from God personally, or having that experience of coming to know deep in our bones that we are chosen and marked by God and the delight of God’s life. We’re content to say, “Here’s the story of how you can be saved from sin and become a moral person – if you want to have Jesus do that transaction for you (work that magic trick in your heart), just say our Open Sesame prayer and God will pop out of the lamp, forgive your sins, and fill you with holiness and splendor.

And since we miss hearing God call our names, we almost always miss the journey into the desert, where we too will have to confront the “demons,” where we too will be in a place of powerlessness, where we come to the end of ourselves and will then be in a position to rely fully on God for the first time. See, Jesus’ baptism is where Jesus knows God has decided fully for Jesus. Jesus’ temptations in the desert are where Jesus decides fully for God. This does not happen with a simple “commitment” or a “decision” at an altar based on willpower– but through testing – through deep self-examination and reflection upon our deepest values and priorities. This almost always requires great suffering. We tell people to say a prayer and then “decide” for God, but we tell them to decide for God before they have clearly experienced that God has decided for them, and before they have suffered; before they have come to the end of themselves and faced down the same “demons” Jesus had to face down. We neglect the journey. That’s why God seems distant and unreal to most Christians. We think we’re supposed to be “saved” and that we’re “Christ followers” and yet we have simply not been on Christ’s journey – we’ve just been doing religious stuff. God will only be real to people who take the journey Jesus took, and God will be real to everyone who takes that journey.

So Jesus is led by the spirit into the desert , and there he is tested. First is the temptation to turn stones to bread. Now remember, Jesus has been fasting for 40 days. He is famished, and the symbolism here is that of vulnerability, of weakness, of being in a place where his defenses are down. Ever been in that place before? Jesus has.

But what is this test, really? It is a temptation to produce something, to satisfy himself with something tangible, to get clear results that meet his ego needs, to do for himself. Ever face that challenge? Jesus has. This is what I’d call the pastor’s challenge. Not just pastors deal with this, but certainly it’s one that pastors have to struggle through. Will this be primarily about numbers of butts in seats, Dave? Will this be about you and building your kingdom, and making things happen, and satisfying your ego and your hunger for effectiveness and productivity? Or will it be about allowing God to flow through you?

This test Jesus faced is also your test. Will your life, your work, your family – will it be about making things happen? Will it be about living constantly with the sense that you have to produce results that please you in order to feel worthwhile in this world? Will you choose to live in the world as if God is not involved, and thereby live under a constant feeling that if anything good is going to happen in your life, you must do it yourself? Or will you learn to live freely and trust God for results?

This is the first great temptation. Jesus had to face it down, and so do you. Think about this. What did Jesus really accomplish? Though he enjoyed popularity for a time, he was ultimately abandoned by almost all his followers except his inner circle. And then one of them betrayed him, and ten of the remaining eleven disappeared during his hour of deepest need. What if Jesus hadn’t faced down this temptation? How could he have dealt with the fact that his ministry was so brief, that so few people listened, even fewer believed, and that ultimately his real impact on the world was extremely minimal as far as what he could see? Why do you think Jesus never gave in to the pressure to appease the powerful religious leaders? How do you think he was able to remain committed to his small and humble ministry instead of ditching it in order to build a mega-church? He could do it because he knew who and whose he was, and he had faced down in the desert the idea that he had to have tangible results that would feed his ego.

Matthew 4:4 (NIV)

4 ... 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"

Now that we have the Bible, we can memorize that and say it and think we have really learned it. But we haven’t learned it until we have suffered for a while, like Jesus did. Jesus chose for God in the moment when he was most vulnerable and most likely to choose for himself. You will not fully choose for God until you arrive in a similar place.

Jesus’ second great temptation was to throw himself off the highest point of the temple.

Matthew 4:5-7 (NIV)

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.

6 "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written: "'He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'"

7 Jesus answered him, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

From this we can conclude that, like the spirit landing on him at his baptism, this happened not in the physical world but in Jesus’ mind’s eye. It was what we might call a vision, or an epiphany. It is important that you understand this. Jesus had these epiphanies but that does not make them less real. After all, most of you have had epiphanies – moments where suddenly it seems the veil of the world is lifted and you see something with clarity that you have never seen before – you might say, “It just ‘dawned’ on me” – but it is a direct and real experience that changes the way you live in the world and what you know to be true about it. That is what I believe Jesus is experiencing at his baptism and here in his temptations. This should help us to take these things more seriously – to realize they are more than just last night’s bad hamburgers but can often be real ways that the Holy Spirit reveals spiritual truths to us.

So in his mind’s eye, Jesus stands on top of the temple and is encouraged to throw himself down and allow God to save him. In Jesus’ world, who was understood as living in the temple? GOD HIMSELF. Notice the temptation is disguised as being religious – after all, he is encouraged to trust that God will save him. What’s wrong with trusting in God? Well, what’s wrong with it is that Jesus, like you and I today, is encouraged to trust that God will line up behind his personal agenda. That is using God for his own purposes. That is the second great temptation.

Not only does God live in the temple, but the temple is the seat of religion itself – it is the place where people come to meet God, where access to God can be made. And here’s Jesus standing above it all – look at me. I know it all. I’m higher than all of it. I’m RIGHT. I’m the center of everything. I can do whatever I want with God, with religion, and God will bless my plans.” Now it might seem ironic that Jesus, who actually is above religion and above all kingdoms, chooses to resist this temptation. But remember how Jesus received that place of honor above all kingdoms and religions and authorities:

Philippians 2:5-11 (NIV)

5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,

7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!

9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,

10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

See? It is Christ’s unwillingness to be exalted through illegitimate means that ultimately allows God to exalt him above all of it. As it was for Jesus, so it will be for you. We think we have to be all about pointing out the errors in all the other religions besides our own, proclaiming our own superiority and exalting in our rightness. But if we are to follow the model of Jesus, this is precisely what we must reject. Jesus refused to give in to the need to be right, to know it all, to be above others, and ultimately to call on God to come to his rescue with a fantastic display of so-called “faith.”

Notice in the text it is the devil who leads Jesus to stand on top of the temple. As it was for Jesus, so it is for us. It is not God who leads us to place ourselves above others because of our religion, it is the exact opposite. And how easily we can be led to believe that our vain attempts to get God to bless our plans are godly.

When I was a much younger pastor, I used to occasionally pray, “God, exalt me. God, give me a huge ministry. God, let me speak to tens of thousands of people and go all around the world preaching your word.” I prayed this prayer with the best of intentions, completely convinced that it was motivated by the Holy Spirit. I realize now that it was youthful foolishness and spiritual immaturity. God is far more interested in how I deal with my ego in our church of 150 people than in “blessing” me with a church of 15,000. The devil is the one who puts Jesus on top of the temple and exalts him to that place, and he even quotes scripture when he does it. Jesus sees this for what it is and rejects it, also with scripture. But this shows how easily scripture can be misused, misinterpreted, and misapplied, and how when we are spiritually immature we can easily be fooled into thinking we are godly and mature. Our immature egos will speak to us in whatever voice will appeal to us, get our attention, and move us into a place where we will do what is in our deepest hearts.

You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” (from Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott; on page 22 of Bird by Birdshe attributes this quote to “my priest friend Tom”)

This is a huge temptation for us and one it is hard for us to even recognize, and that is why if we are prudent we will willingly place ourselves under the spiritual care of someone more mature than us. Jesus responds correctly to this temptation. Perhaps he draws on this very experience later in his ministry when he says,

Luke 14:8-11 (NIV)

8 "When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited.

9 If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, 'Give this man your seat.' Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.

10 But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, 'Friend, move up to a better place.' Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.

11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

In this temptation, Jesus humbles himself, and chooses to live humbly, and because Jesus refused to exalt himself, God was pleased to exalt him.

The third temptation Jesus faces is the temptation to take power.

Matthew 4:8-10 (NIV)

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.

9 "All this I will give you," he said, "if you will bow down and worship me."

10 Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'"

Once again, Jesus is high! Interesting that the last two of the temptations involve Jesus being in high and exalted places. So here’s Jesus, again exalted by the devil – set on a high place and promised power. All he has to do is worship the devil. Now you may think you could never be tempted to worship the devil, but this is simply a way of saying that the price of pursuing power in this world is nothing less than your soul. That is the common price for power.

A few weeks ago I was talking about 9/11 and how in this country we can just never seem to resist running immediately to the place of power. Our government always does it (because we can, which is why Jesus speaks so positively about being powerless – powerless people simply cannot run to power, and that’s a good thing). We as Americans nearly always do it. We pair up God with our guns. We wrap Jesus in the flag and believe God loves America in ways he doesn’t love other countries and other peoples. We have been thoroughly indoctrinated into associating American power with the very hand of God itself. So much so that my simply saying these words will be offensive to some people. Some people have bought so much into the myth of power that if you challenge that myth with the gospel, they will defend the country before they defend the gospel. That is simply where they are most fully invested. God is power, and America is power, so America is God. Some people ask, “What’s the difference?”

But in this third temptation, Jesus categorically rejects the seeking of power. Now again, we must realize that no one has more power than Jesus. But Jesus’ power only came to him in his public ministry after he had faced these temptations successfully – after he had determined that it would be God he would seek after, and NOT power. In other words, before Jesus could become powerful, he first had to reject power. It is generally safe to say that the person who craves power is the person who probably should not have it, and the person who shies away from it might stand a chance of not being corrupted by it.

Because most of us neglect the Jesus journey, we actually see this the other way around. We think God gives power and it is our job to learn to use power well. In other words, we think that power is used appropriately with more power – will power! The path of Jesus is the exact opposite. Jesus runs not to power but to powerlessness, and blesses those who do the same:

Matthew 5:5 (NIV)

5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

As it was for Jesus, so it will be for you. Jesus himself could not accept power before he had completely rejected it. Do we think it can be any different for us? Are we not willing to follow him, or do we simply not see how true it is that his journey must be ours?

One last observation is that scripture records that after Jesus rejected power (the third temptation), the devil left him. Once we learn to say no to power, there is very little left to tempt us with, as all temptations are, in some way, a temptation for us to make ourselves all-powerful like God.

So those are the three great temptations and they come to all people, and all people will have to decide what to make of them. Will we try to engineer our lives and never be happy until we achieve the results we think we deserve, or will we live honestly and humbly, doing our best at our respective stations in life, and leave the rest to God? That’s the temptation of turning stones to bread. Will we insist on manipulating God? We will place ourselves above God and expect God to get on our agenda and bless all our plans, or will we – like Jesus did – empty ourselves and give up all our claims to superiority and rightness? That’s the temptation to jump off the temple. Will we run to power as a way of escaping pain and bending the world to the way we want it, or will we embrace poverty of spirit and powerlessness like Jesus did? That’s the temptation to accept power. If we do not face these temptations and resolve them in the same direction that Jesus did, we will never have the Jesus life. We cannot choose in favor of engineering our own lives, always having to be right, and always running to power and expect to become like our Lord who always trusted God to provide, surrendered all his rights, and became powerless. We cannot end the journey in the right place if we start it in the wrong place.