From Fear to Courage
Grace United Methodist Church
March 13, 2011
Matthew 4: 1-11 (NIV)
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3The 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 shall 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.’
7Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8Again, 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.”
10Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
11Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
A young man was sent to Spain by his company to work in a new office they were opening there. He accepted the assignment because it would enable him to earn enough money to marry his long-time girlfriend. The plan was to pool their money and, when he returned, put a down-payment on a house, and get married. As he bid his sweetheart farewell at the airport, he promised to write her every day and keep in touch. However, as the lonely weeks slowly slipped by, his letters came less and less often and his girlfriend back home began to have her doubts. “Spain is filled with beautiful women,” she wrote to him, “and after all you are a handsome man.” When he received that letter, the young man wrote her right back immediately, declaring that he was paying absolutely no attention to the local girls. “I admit,” he wrote, “that I am tempted. But I find myself so busy with my work that I have no time for such foolishness.”
However, in the very next mail delivery, the young man received a package from his sweetheart. It contained a harmonica and a note. “I’m sending you this harmonica,” his girlfriend wrote, “so you will have something to take your mind off those girls.” The young man wrote her back, thanking her for the gift and promising her that he would practice the harmonica every night and think only of her.
Finally, after months of waiting, the day came for him to return to the States and his sweetheart was waiting for him at the airport. As he rushed forward to embrace her, she held up a restraining hand and said sternly, “Hold on there. First, I want to hear that harmonica!”
As the young woman began hearing less and less from her fiancé, it didn’t take too much thinking to figure out what might be distracting him. It wasn’t very difficult to discover the temptations with which he might be dealing. And that’s the way temptation works, that’s why it’s such a powerful force in our lives. It’s always lurking just underneath surface; ready at any point to feed on a moment of weakness.
I’m sure many of you are familiar with Achilles. According to Greek mythology, Achilles was the guy who was dipped head first into the River Styx. This little swim supposedly made him immortal and completely invulnerable, except for the heel that he had been held by as he was dipped into the river. Achilles later suffered a mortal wound to that heel—his vulnerable spot. Temptation is like that; an Achilles heel for each of us. It is that weakness, where even the slightest lure can send us over the edge and ruin us in sin and evil.
Temptation comes to us in moments when we look at others and feel insecure about not having enough. Temptation comes in our judgments about strangers or friends who make choices we do not understand. Temptation rules us, making us able to look away from those in need and to live our lives unaffected by poverty, and hunger, and disease. Temptation rages in moments when we allow our temper to define our lives or when addiction to wealth, power, vanity, influence over others, or an excessive need for control defines who we are. Temptation wins when we engage in the justification of little lies, or small sins: a demeaning joke, a questionable business practice for the greater good, a criticism of a spouse or partner when he or she is not around. Temptation wins when we get so caught up in the trappings of life that we lose sight of life itself. These are the Achilles’ heels, the seemingly insignificant moments of evil that, while mundane, lurk in the recesses of our lives and our souls.
Temptation is a constant companion and a very real danger to everyone’s life. And we’d like to think that we have the power to resist temptation. But we all know how often we’ve sworn we wouldn’t “give in” to temptation, only to do so in the end. But the key to overcoming temptation is more than willpower. The greatest remedy to defeating the devil is more than to “just say no.” It would be so easy if that were true, wouldn’t it? But it isn’t as simple as that. It isn’t that easy to say no. Perhaps Mark Twain was right when he said: “I can resist anything except temptation.”
When we cannot overcome temptation, we may lead a life centered on a very unholy trinity — me, myself, and I. We grow apart from God, and we become less and less the people God created us to be. But, as we learn in today’s reading, because Jesus became fully human, he understands the world in which we leave. He faced temptations and trials; we saw that quite clearly in today’s passage. And we know the great trial he faced as he hung on the cross. Christ understands our struggles, Christ has experienced it himself, and even more! And because Jesus was divine, God’s very own Son, he will set us free from our past failings, and by his grace help us to overcome our temptations. God in Christ Jesus understands our plight — our temptations, our weaknesses. Yet God will work in the midst of our temptations to perfect us in love and show us the better way. The good news of today’s message is that there is hope in dealing with temptation. There is help for those who battle with sin; for there is one who has faced temptation and overcome it. Jesus Christ promises to strengthen us in our battle with the devil. He stands ready to come to our aid, but we have to be ready to receive that aid.
One of the focuses of Lent is fasting. And as I mentioned at the Ash Wednesday service, a lot of the talk around this time of year is around what everyone has “given up;” that is, what they are fasting from. We talk about giving up chocolate and desserts, sodas and coffee. But what if we made a decision to fast from the things that provide such easy access to our temptations? What if we made conscious decisions that move us away from temptation and towards God? Suppose we made a decision to stay away from the computer outside of work, or watch less TV. Perhaps we need to take a break from “friends” who invite temptation. Maybe we should avoid those places where we have fond memories from a time when we gave into temptation more easily. We know those places in our lives where we are tempted, and we know their power.
Jesus knew the power of temptation, too. He knew its appeal for the human heart, and he knew the solution was not simply willpower. Certainly, overcoming temptation involves our will – the will to resist temptation, the will to do what is right, the will to live more closely with Jesus and be a child of God. Because without that willpower, without that resolve, there is no hope that we can ever overcome temptation.
However, the great key to overcoming temptation is not our willpower but God’s power. It is not our resolve, but God’s Spirit. We have to so open ourselves to God that we allow God’s Spirit to fill the void within us. We have to allow God’s power to empower us. And that’s really all Jesus did as he encountered the devil in the wilderness. Those words that Jesus spoke were not his words; they were his Father’s words. Jesus was so familiar with the Scriptures, with God’s words, that those words flowed through him, giving him the power he needed to overcome temptation.
Now, I’ll grant you the fact that Jesus has quite an advantage, seeing as how Jesus is God’s own Son. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t resist temptation too. We just have to be disciplined and practiced. We have to carve out time to study, really study, the Bible. We have to ask the tough questions that will eliminate the doubt in our lives. We have to go to God in prayer and open ourselves to God’s movement in our lives. We need to so fill our lives with the divine that we will not even hear the voice of the tempter whispering evil words into our hearts. And in those inevitable moments when we sense temptation rising to the surface of our lives, we have to let the power of God’s Spirit take over. And it all starts with the heart; having our heart in the right place and filling our heart with the presence of God.
Soon after his baptism, the Holy Spirit led Christ into the wilderness. The wilderness is a scary place. When Matthew speaks here of the “wilderness,” it conjures up in people’s minds memories of struggle. For Jesus’ hearers, the wilderness was the “domain of demons.” And that is certainly what Jesus faced in his forty days and forty nights alone in the wilderness. It is no wonder that we are afraid in the face of temptation. We are certainly fearful of entering the “wildernesses” of our lives and facing the demons that lurk just under the surface. But the message of today’s gospel lesson is precisely that we can step into the wilderness; we can face even the greatest temptations because Christ has gone before us. We do not need to be afraid in the wilderness, we can have courage in the face of temptation because of God in Christ Jesus. In his great and unexplainable grace, Christ will set us free from our past failings and help us overcome future temptations. Christ will lead us not into temptation. Christ will deliver us from evil. Praise be to God! Amen.