THE MOUNTAIN OF TEMPTATION
TEXT: Matthew 4:1-11
We have a lot of jokes about temptation... "I can resist anything but temptation," is a common phrase in all circles...religious and non. I think we do that because we're nervous. We know it's not just funny, but true, and maybe by making light of giving in to temptation, it won't matter quite so much.
Let me say first that there is a lot of misplaced guilt in the world. People talk with me feeling guilty for all sorts of things that are not their fault, and as a society we have recognized that. What we are not so good at doing is recognizing that guilt over something we have actually done wrong...guilt over giving in to temptation and falling into sin...is entirely appropriate, and even helpful. There is no forgiveness until we recognize guilt...how can we repent of something we don't realize was wrong?
So, I want to encourage you to hear the balance in this sermon...to look at your own life and see what applies and what doesn't. That's what spiritual growth is all about. Applying what fits and putting aside what doesn't. The story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness is a rich one, and it is no accident that it is the first thing he encounters in ministry. Jesus is baptized, and no sooner is he out of the water than the Spirit of God leads him out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
It is an initiation rite of sorts and, in keeping with the theme for the summer, it takes him up a mountain. I would like to invite you to see the whole temptation process as the climbing of a mountain. With each of the three temptations, Jesus moves physically higher and higher as the tests get harder and harder. Finally, he beats them all and the angels of God meet him on top of the mountain to replenish his strength.
The specific temptations he beats are not ones we often encounter. Even if we were hungry enough to want rocks to become bread, there are few of us who could make them edible. It's not a temptation because we couldn't really do it. As for the second temptation, aside from a few of us with Super Hero fantasies, we are not likely to be jumping off of tall buildings either.
The final temptation might sound a bit more familiar, because there is actually Satan worship in this area. We might be mad enough at God to decide we want to flirt with Satanism, or we might give in to peer pressure. Honestly, I would rather have you become an atheist...Satanism is dangerous, cruel, and will suck the life out of you.
And please, don't go telling your kids that liking Harry Potter is satanic. If you do that, they will grow up not being able to tell the difference and are all the more likely to get suckered in. The only thing akin to Satanism in Harry Potter are the practices of Voldemort, who Harry is trying to battle at every turn...as he should. If your child is identifying with Voldemort, get help. If the child wants to be Harry or his friends, be grateful and learn to like owls. Get off Harry's case and spend your energies battling the real thing. So we have some connections with this third temptation, but I don't think that is referring only to Satanism.
I think all three temptations are examples of larger issues that face us all. Those larger issues were just made very specific for the person of Jesus, just like they are made very specific for each one of us...according to our abilities and personalities. Conquering them is like climbing a mountain...it gets rougher as you get toward the top, and it takes a lot of effort.
At the bottom of the mountain is the first type of temptation. For Jesus it became the opportunity to turn stones into bread. I think the larger type of temptation is our general tendency to try to get nourishment from the wrong places. The prophet Isaiah asks Israel in chapter 55, "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread? And why do you work for things that don't bring you any satisfaction?" The tendency to do that is the first level of temptation. In that category are most of the things that society generally terms "temptation," the addictions of our lives that we turn to, but which never satisfy our real hunger...drugs, sex, shopping, alcohol, tobacco, the habits of lying or cheating or stealing, the need to take extreme risks to get an adrenaline rush. They are all stones that we are trying to turn into bread that will feed us.
Guess what? They don't. Worse than that, they make you in worse shape than before...just as would be the case with your physical body if you took to eating rocks instead of real food. Turn the stones into bread if you will...make them palatable through justification and excuses...they will not nourish either your body or your soul, and soon they will have you ruined.
We beat this temptation by recognizing the truth of Jesus' words when he said, "I am the bread of life. The one who comes to me will never go hungry, and the one who believes in me will never be thirsty." The Psalms tell us over and over again that God is the one who provides food in due season for every living thing. If you are trying to find satisfaction elsewhere, you will never even start to climb the mountain. You are beating the bushes all around the base of the mountain, looking for the wrong things. Look up. The light shining down will show you the one place at the base of the mountain where there is a path. Go there. Even if it is hard. Don't spend your money and your labor for that which is not bread. Feed on the Bread of Life.
From the plain, the devil takes Jesus to the city, up to the rooftop of the temple, suggesting that he prove his importance to God by jumping off and getting the angels to catch him. This is a higher level temptation, and it takes advantage of what we learned at the first level. By this point we know what feeds us and what doesn't. We took a step out in faith to see if God would provide nourishment and satisfaction if we left the stones behind. God did provide, and that was exciting. We began to climb eagerly, wanting to get to the top. The path is plain before us, but sometimes it looks too hard and we think...I know now that I have to go up the mountain, but there are other ways up. That path over there looks a bit easier. God will provide for me.
The second temptation is the temptation to be irresponsible and let God pick up the pieces from our dumb decisions. I can jump off the temple roof and God will catch me. The world is full of well-meaning Christian folks who jump off roofs and then complain to God that they are paralyzed for life. At this level we are tempted to become the spoiled children of God, expecting that God will pick up all our messes, even if we spend the whole day watching TV.
I find this temptation all the time in my life. Let's take writing sermons as an example. I have this regular deadline of Sunday mornings when I need to get up and say something. There are some weeks when every minute of the week is jammed with work and stress with no day off in sight and I have no clue how I am going to get a sermon written. Well, by golly, in those times somehow a message comes through. Sometimes it says, "Use an old one!" Other times the sermon gets written almost by miracle.
So I get used to that. Then, if I have a week when there isn't a lot going on, it is very tempting to take more time to relax thinking, it's okay...God's not going to let me get up there without something to say. Well, I'm here to tell you, He just might sometime, if only to teach me a lesson. I remember praying once, "God, please help me be disciplined enough to get the sermon written tomorrow, when I have the time." My answer was, "I provide the message. It's your job to have the discipline." Ouch.
Examine your life. Are you living beyond your means, expecting God to bail you out financially? Are you neglecting or abusing your body, thinking God will not let disease strike you? Are you involved in a risky relationship, thinking God will change things and make it okay? Are you a spoiled child of God, never moving out on your own, living off the King's largesse? If we ever want to get to the top of the mountain, we have to quit expecting God to do the climbing for us. God gives us strength and nourishment and all we need for the journey, but the journey itself is ours to choose and ours to make.
And then comes the summit, and the hardest test of all. It is the question we faced last week in choosing between the altar of Baal and the altar of Yahweh. Who will you worship? In one sense it is the same question that we faced at the bottom of the mountain...will we look to God or to other things? But here at the top, the temptation is more subtle. At the bottom we faced off with the things that everybody knows will ruin you. At the top, our choices are all good options. The question at the top is what is your priority? Out of all the good things in the world, what gets top billing?
We look around. One choice is family. We could put family first, nothing comes before them. We could put financial gain in front...not in a destructive way like at the bottom of the mountain, but if I just dedicated more time to my work and brought in more income...if I really made my investments my priority, just think of the good I could do in the world. I could start a foundation to help the poor. I could fund a chair at the University. I could give so much more to the church.
The church itself sits at the top, vying for top position. I could make my work for the church and the survival of my church priority #1. There are other less important things I could be doing, I could drop those and volunteer more time at church. That is really where my allegiance belongs. The church and God are not the same thing. Or it might be some other worthy cause that would like to be the most important thing in our lives. It might be some other person.
What sets off the temptations at the top of the mountain, is that they are all good things. None of them are things that should be ignored...all need attention and some level of priority. This is the final test, the final sorting out of whether we are truly committed to living out the words of Deuteronomy 6, which the Jews call the Shema...You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. All. All. All. Jesus said, "Seek first the Kingdom of God and God's righteousness. Then all these other things will be given to you as well."
It's like buttoning a shirt. If you get the top button right, all the others will fall into place. If you keep the main thing the main thing, life will fall into place. If you miss the top button, you're going to look like a dork. Ditto for your spiritual life. "Worship the Lord your God, and serve God only."
When Jesus passed that test, the devil left him, and the angels came and ministered to him. Now there's incentive. You get the devil to go away, by passing the test. The angels come to minister when we finally prove that God is the most important...God is our first priority. If we make something or someone else number one, then look to them for support. It might last for awhile, but other things will let us down.
There will come a time when we need to be ministered to, and they are not there. They can't be...and it's unrealistic to expect them to be. They are not God. Only God, with a myriad of angels, can be there to minister to us each and every time we need it. But if we prefer to look elsewhere, God will abide by our decision, and hold off until we get our priorities straight. God comes by invitation and by our choice, not by force.
The story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness is the story of our spiritual growth. It is what Jesus must prove before He is sent out into ministry, and so it is with us. If we want to be disciples, our first task is to climb the mountain of temptation. To learn first that God alone can nourish us; to learn second that we have to do our part in the climbing; and to learn lastly that, even though many wonderful things clamber for our attention, we need to make God absolutely and unquestionably first in our lives. Then the angels will come and strengthen us.
Where are you on the mountain? Do you dare climb higher? Amen.
© 2003, Anne Robertson
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