Encounter: Temptation

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
March 5, 2017

Matthew 4: 1-11 (CEB)
Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him. 2After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. 3The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.”

4Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.”

5After that the devil brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, 6“Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”

7Jesus replied, “Again it’s written, Don’t test the Lord your God.”

8Then the devil brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 He said, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.”

10Jesus responded, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” 11The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.

Who are you? When all the layers are peeled back; when the rubber meets the road, who are you? Who are you when the going gets tough? Who are you when things are going well?

Studies suggest that, more than ever, we feel pressure to show off “who we are” in order to impress others—even if it’s not really who we are. And while things like Facebook may cause many of us to exaggerate our good qualities while glossing over the bad, for some of us, our inability to be real is more than an online issue. It is a struggle in every part of our lives. According to one expert: “To have a solid identity we need to be able to see that we are the same person no matter what our environment. That doesn’t mean that we act the same all the time, not at all. We might know we are moody, or that we act a bit differently depending on who we are around. We are not, for example, going to act the same around a romantic partner as we act around our parents or colleagues. But even with these differences in our behavior and moods, we want to feel that we are the same person underneath—no matter what.”

Jesus faced questions of identity throughout his entire ministry. When Jesus was baptized, “the Spirit of God [descended] upon him like a dove…and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” This happened immediately before our Gospel lesson for this morning. “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” And when the devil came to Jesus what did he say to him over and over again? “If you are the Son of God…” do this. “If you are the Son of God…” do that.

A similar thing happens to us, throughout our entire lives—with nearly every decision we face: “If you are a follower of Christ” then do this. “If you are a child of God” then do that. If we are Christians, then the people we are “underneath it all” should reflect that. Because when we accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior—we are called to die to self and live for God. We are to take up our cross and follow him.

We are, in fact, to be “like Christ” himself. Even the word “Christian” means: “Little Christ.” We are to be “Little Christs.” And that might not seem so hard from the outside looking in, but when the rubber meets the road—when life is hard—that is when our identity as Christ-followers is most heavily tested.
In our Gospel Lesson, Jesus had fasted forty days and forty nights—he was famished when the devil came and tempted him. If you are like me, you might find yourself most easily tempted when you are stressed out, overtired, anxious, sick, or just plain bored and lonely. Think about it. It was in the wilderness that the Israelites struggled the hardest to identify themselves as people of God. They even created a golden calf to worship in place of God when they felt most desperate or insecure. And oftentimes for us, temptation comes to us in moments when we are feeling insecure, as well.

Most of us can’t imagine the devil tempting us to turn stones into bread after a forty-day fast. And we probably don’t know the fear of being held over the ledge at the top of the Empire State Building. And we certainly don’t know the temptation of being offered all the power in the world. Each of us, though, understand the temptations of pride, vanity, selfishness, and apathy. And again, these temptations often come to us when we are struggling—or feeling the most insecure—the most vulnerable. Perhaps things aren’t going well at home, or work, or both. Maybe we are dealing with financial struggles, marital problems, or the loss of friends. And at times like these, perhaps we look at someone else’s car, or home, or salary, and then the devil comes and whispers in our ear: “How come you don’t have those things? Why does that person have it so much better than you? Well, if you were to just let go of some of your morals, the way you feel called to live out your life—your identity as a Christ follower—you can have all those things too! Don’t worry so much about others. Look out for number one instead.”

If we allow temptation to rule us, it will become very easy for us to look away from those in need and to live our lives without being bothered at all about those who are living in poverty—the hungry, the diseased, the marginalized, the forgotten. And when we aren’t bothered by those things—we do nothing about them.
What did Jesus say to those on his left in Matthew Chapter 25? “Depart from me you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me…I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

Jesus came into this world to save us from our sins, to re-establish our relationship with God, and to teach us how to live out our lives as those who love God and our neighbors. But what if Jesus had decided to take the easy way out? What if Jesus had decided to live for himself? What if Christ went for power and fame instead of service, mercy, and sacrifice? What if Jesus left the entire messy, bloody cross right out of it?

That was at the heart of the devil’s temptations wasn’t it? First, the devil tempts Jesus to get rid of his hunger by using his divine power: “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” In other words, how human will the Son of God be? Jesus will later miraculously feed thousands of others, but here he doesn’t choose to feed himself in the same way. And in doing so, he makes the decision not to try and escape human pain and suffering, but to be more fully one of us. Next, the devil challenges Jesus to test God’s faithfulness by throwing himself down from the highest point on the Temple. Here Jesus must decide what the nature of his faith—and thus our faith—will be. Will he choose to test God’s faithfulness by asking for grand demonstrations—circus-like feats? Next, the devil offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus will fall down and worship him. And so, will Jesus choose God’s kingdom or this earthly kingdom? Will he choose a life of power or the life of a servant? Who will the Son of God be? And, when it comes down to it, who is God?

You know, the temptations don’t really end at Matthew Chapter 4. They continue on throughout the entire journey. And they reach their biggest climax while Jesus is hanging on the cross. And it’s here that we see the devil’s near verbatim words coming out of those “who passed by [hurling] insults at him, shaking their heads and saying: ‘save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!’” But Jesus resisted all these temptations. He knew who he was. He knew what it meant to be the Son of God. And he trusted that what he knew was true.

At the very end of the Book of Matthew we find out what true power looks like. We find out the result of Jesus being true to who he is. And this is when the resurrected Christ meets his disciples on a high mountain and gives them and us, what has since been called the Great Commission. And it begins with this: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Love wins. The humble are lifted. Salvation has come. The Son of God has triumphed. Good has out-done evil. The devil stands defeated.

“Therefore,” Jesus says to you, to me, and to all who will find their identity in him, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Is this who you are? Is this who I am? Even when the going gets rough? Is this where you find your identity?

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