ďTemptation on the WayĒ

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

Matthew 4:1-11

February 29, 2004


††††††††† Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent, which is the forty-day period starting on Ash Wednesday and ending on the day before Easter.The season of Lent means different things to different people.Some of us understand Lent in its traditional way as the time when we fast or give up something.Others of us understand Lent from a more contemporary point of view as a time to take on something that is self-giving and self-sacrificing.Certainly these different understandings and ways to observe Lent are indeed faithful, but neither fully grasps the depth of what this season means.†††

††††††††† The fuller understanding of Lent is that it is a time of devotion and discipline, a time of self-examination when we reflect more deeply and more honestly our spirituality and faithfulness, a time when we really ask the tough questions of ourselves and confront the reality of the human condition.But Lent is also a time when we look beyond ourselves to the One who brings forgiveness, reconciliation, renewal, and new life.Lent therefore is a spiritual journey of a people on the way, a journey that leads from the wilderness to Jerusalem, from temptation to Easter, from human rebellion to divine redemption, from sin to grace.

††††††††† Our first step on this journey starts us off with two familiar stories: Adam and Eve's temptation in the garden and Jesus' temptation in the wilderness.These are more than stories about all those tempting things we would like to do, but know we cannot do.These stories are about all those temptations to be someone other than who God calls us to be, to deny our own identity that we are God's children, to obstruct and resist what God intends for human life.

††††††††† These stories symbolize all the possibilities for doubt, misdirection, faithless choices, and unholy distractions to which God's people are always at risk.These are the stories of all our temptations as God's people.

From the very beginning, God's people have been tested, tried, and tempted.Adam and Eve in the garden, the Israelites in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt, Jesus, and even the church then and now.But that is the cost of discipleship, the cost of faithfulness and obedience, the cost of following the one who came to serve and not be served.

††††††††† Sometimes the path on which we must walk is not always so clear.There are always obstacles on the way; testing and temptations that make our journey at times difficult and the path seem impassable.But we know that it's the path we must take, it's the only path we can take, because it is the path Jesus took, and we are called to follow him.But what kind of leader is this Jesus?How can we be sure Jesus knows the way?

††††††††† Have you ever been hiking in the woods, when you suddenly get that sinking feeling in the bottom of your stomach when you realize you are off the beaten path and donít know where you are?Remember the feeling of panic and isolation, especially when you are leading a group of people through the wilderness and they expect you to know the way?How can we trust that Jesus knows the right path to take?How can we be sure that Jesus is worthy enough for us to follow in our own walk in the wilderness?Maybe spending some time on the story of Jesusí temptation will help us answer this question.

Jesus' first temptation seems harmless enough, but usually this kind of temptation always seems to be harmless and not any big deal. Doesn't Jesus, since he is the Son of God, have a right to think about himself first, to take care of himself first, to satisfy his own needs first?After all, fasting for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness would make anyone hungry, very hungry, so to turn a few stones into bread certainly doesn't seem like such a big deal.Just a little bite is all Jesus needs.Certainly the Son of God should be able to serve himself first.

††††††††† But Jesus does not succumb to the temptation.He will not put his own wants and needs before God's purpose and plan for him.He will not reduce his mission to only what he desires it to be, and his ministry to only himself.Jesus is called to a mission and ministry of great size that encompasses all the needs, both physical and spiritual, of the whole world.

††††††††† Whenever we the church lose sight of the great mission and ministry we have been called to, then we fall to this temptation.Whenever we in the church measure the effectiveness of work by how quickly we respond to our own personal ideas and needs, our own demand to be fed, then we lose sight of our calling to serve and not to be served.††

††††††††† Then the devil then takes Jesus to Jerusalem, the Holy City, places him atop the temple, and then proceeds with the second temptation.If Jesus is the Son of God, and trusts God's very word, then why not jump off the temple.The devil has a good point.If Jesus is the Son of God, then surely Jesus trusts God to do what God promises.

However, such testing of God comes not from trust, but from lack of it.Trying out the promises of God to see if they really work is a sign not of sure faith but of fundamental doubt.It implies that we are in God's position, able to decide how, when and where God is supposed to fulfill these divine promises.If God doesn't meet our test or perform, as we believe God should perform, then God must either be a liar or no God at all.Putting God to the test dramatically reverses our relationship, and sets us in charge rather than God.

Jesus will not fall for empty, self-gratifying faith that says, ďIíll believe in you, if you first prove yourself to me.ĒJesus trusts God for everything, even when the promises of God are not forthcoming.A faith that seeks proof or places demands on divine action is not faith.Itís idolatry.

The third temptation is the lure of false worship and the empty, lying promise of "all the kingdoms of the world".Jesus is Lord of all, not because he fell down before the devil, but because he was nailed to the cross.This may be one of Jesus' and our greatest temptations: to achieve the destination without undergoing the sacrificial journey, to claim the victory without enduring the struggle.

The ministry of Jesus is hard and messy, his crucifixion and death is even more so.It will involve teaching slow-learning disciples, touching the sick and diseased, facing oppositions from religious leaders, being betrayed by his closest friends, spit upon and mocked, and humiliated and executed on the cross.

The temptation for Jesus and for us to abbreviate the story, to cut out all the painful parts and get right to the heart of victory, to deny the cross and take up ourselves, to find the easy and quick road to travel to our final destination rather than going the tough way through the cross, to substitute the power of positive thinking for the power of sacrificial love and costly grace, to attempt to soften the cost of discipleship and pretend that the work of Christ does not involve suffering.

Jesus does not waver from his calling, does not step off the way of suffering lured by the illusion of a shortcut.He does not bypass the cross, but willingly follows the path laid out before him.In the end, Jesus does not waver from his calling and from Godís will for him.He refuses to take things into his own hands; refuses to force God to prove Godís divine power and promise, and refuses to follow the easier path.

Jesus emerges from the encounter as one tested and found genuine, tried and found trustworthy, tempted and found faithful.He is the one who the church can depend on to lead us on the way, he is worthy of our confidence and commitment, because he has been through what we go through and he has overcome.

He is the one who shows us the way, the way of faithfulness, devotion, disciple, devotion, and obedience, because he did not try to be God or become as God, and he did not try to use God to claim something for himself.Where we falter in our obedience, he remained unwavering in his.Where we stumble in our devotion, he remained committed in his.Where we rebel against God's will for us, he remained steadfast and true to God's will for him.Where we fail, he remained faithful.

As we begin our own journey through the wilderness of Lent, let us remember that we do not follow someone who does not know the way, but someone who has already walked on the path laid out before us.Even though the wilderness of Lent may be difficult at times to go through, let us no be tempted to shortcut the route, but rather let us walk in Jesusí footsteps.After all, isn't that what discipleship is really all about in the first place.Amen.