Curling Up with the Good Book: Handling Temptation

given on Sunday, January 22, 2017.  Originally this sermon was to be given on Sunday, January 15, but the predicted ice storm forced churches in our area to close.  The storm was much less damaging, but it was slick.

Opening scripture: Mark 1:12-13 (NLT)

12 The Spirit then compelled Jesus to go into the wilderness, 13 where he was tempted by Satan for forty days. He was out among the wild animals, and angels took care of him.

Scripture connection: Matthew 4:1-11 (NLT)

4 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted there by the devil. For forty days and forty nights he fasted and became very hungry.

     3 During that time the devil[a] came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become loaves of bread.”

     4 But Jesus told him, “No! The Scriptures say,

‘People do not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’[b]

     5 Then the devil took him to the holy city, Jerusalem, to the highest point of the Temple, and said, “If you are the Son of God, jump off!     For the Scriptures say,

‘He will order his angels to protect you.
And they will hold you up with their hands
so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone.’[c]

     7 Jesus responded, “The Scriptures also say, ‘You must not test the Lord your God.’[d]

     8 Next the devil took him to the peak of a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. “I will give it all to you,” he said, “if you will kneel down and worship me.”

     10 “Get out of here, Satan,” Jesus told him. “For the Scriptures say,

‘You must worship the Lord your God
and serve only him.’[e]

     11 Then the devil went away, and angels came and took care of Jesus.

Reflection: Curling up with the Good Book: Handling Temptation

             The temptation to curl up and read this week was very real as we watched the outside world bounce from spring-like days to icy storms then right back to warm spring-like days. Needless to say January is filled with some of the strangest weather shifts I can ever remember.

Fortunately, we continue to be safe in our homes and the spring-like days make it possible to get out and get supplies we need before the next winter bout hits. The anticipation of an ice storm made it easy to stay home and read last week and the foggy days added to the mood this week .

In our last gathering, the topic of self-help reading based on the Beatitudes began the discussion of the wide range of literature included in the Bible. Beatitudes can be guidelines for making resolutions as January opens a new year.

Today, reading the Gospel report of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness is timely as the new resolutions are tested almost as soon as they are made. Temptations swirl around us all the time, even when sitting in the warmth of our homes as ice builds up around us.

Personally on cold winter days, one of the most basic temptations for me can be identified with one word: SWEETS. I get cold and I begin thinking about hot chocolate loaded with marshmallows or topped with whip cream. Sometimes I get the itch for a cake, pie or batch of cookies—the more chocolate the better.

Granted my temptation for food is far from the temptation that Jesus confronted when fasting for 40 days. Fasting with no food and limited water in the middle of a wasteland or desert certainly is no comparison to warm cozy homes filled with all the amenities of electricity, running water, and comfortable furniture. Yet the Gospel books of Matthew, Mark and Luke all share the story of Jesus 40 days in the wilderness.

Jesus had just been baptized by John the Baptist, his cousin, and even though that baptism was with water, it was also the baptism by the Holy Spirit as identified by the image of a dove in Matthew 3:16-17:

16 After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened[a] and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.”

 

The baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. The baptism by the Holy Spirit presents the Trinity: God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit all in one. And at that moment, Jesus begins his journey as God with us and goes into the wilderness alone.

Reading through the Gospels’ report of the temptations Jesus experienced during the 40 days can be difficult to understand as the setting is so foreign to us in today’s culture. Lent is a similar time if one makes the conscious effort to follow a strict discipline practice as part of the Christian tradition. Still, few have ever experienced the total deprivation and Spartan-like conditions during any 40-day timeframe.

Curling up with the Good Book and reading through the three references to Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness was encouraging. When the winter months start wearing on my psyche, I know how easy it is to give in to temptation, run to the kitchen, make a hot chocolate and then add in a cookie or something else sweet. How easy it is to give in to that temptation!

Satan or the Devil knows when we are weak. Maybe the winter cravings for sweet may not be a critical temptation, but it is real. Jesus’ temptations were so much more significant. The temptations targeted the most basic human needs: food, power and self-worth.

Of course the drive for sweets on gloomy, house-bound days does relate to the basic need of food, but Jesus was alone in a desert fasting. He chose to fast in an effort to prepare for the challenges that would face him as he began the ministry to teach the people how to stay in a faithful relationship with God not with Satan.

The Bible shares two full stories of Satan’s temptations during the 40 days: one in Matthew and a second in Luke. The words are almost identical in the translations, but remember the audience for each book was different.

In Matthew, the readers were the Jewish faithful that needed to understand Jesus was the Messiah that the ancient scriptures prophesied.   Luke was written to the Gentiles, the ones who had no background in the Jewish tradition. Mark’s reference was written for the earliest Christians: he mentions it in just two verses, Mark 1:12-13:

12 The Spirit then compelled Jesus to go into the wilderness, 13 where he was tempted by Satan for forty days. He was out among the wild animals, and angels took care of him.

 

Yet, the message to us in the 21st century is no different than it was during that first century after Jesus’ life. Good literature is timeless and the story of Jesus’ temptations is as pertinent today as it was then. God wants a relationship with us and his human experience shared with us in the Gospel is good reading for us guiding us in handling temptation.

Satan tempted Jesus just like he tempts us. When we are hungry, he teases us to eat whatever we want regardless of how bad it might be for us. Jesus was hungry, but he was fasting with a purpose. He fought off the temptation to use his supernatural powers to create bread out of rocks. His defense of the temptation demonstrates to us that we should depend on God to provide for our needs. Jesus answered Satan with a reference to Deuteronomy 8:3, saying

‘People do not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’[b]

 

These are words of wisdom and we can depend on them, too, if we read and study the scripture so it becomes internalized. What we learn and practice becomes our defense when temptation strikes.

The second temptation of Jesus focused on human emotions. One of the most basic emotions we all seek is security. Think about how the drive to stay at home during an ice storm is tied to the need to be safe and secure. Then reflect on all that the news that surrounds us day after day that threatens our sense of personal, communal and national security.

Satan’s second challenge to Jesus tested his need for personal safety. Placing Jesus in a precarious location, the highest point of the Temple, tells him to jump proving God would send angels to protect him. Satan wanted Jesus to demonstrate his supernatural power to save himself from danger. All of us are subject to the same sense of self-preservation, but Jesus resisted the temptation saying that we are not to put God to the test.

One final temptation during the wilderness narrative is one that challenges one of the most powerful temptations in our current culture—that of power. Satan challenged Jesus’ power. He wanted Jesus to demonstrate his power:

     8 Next the devil took him to the peak of a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. “I will give it all to you,” he said, “if you will kneel down and worship me.”

 

In our human experience, this is a temptation that is experienced in so many different facets of our lives. We may have had to handle that temptation in our work settings, in our organizations, and in our own homes. In politics we witness the drive to have power repeatedly and struggle to identify leaders who do put the good of others before the good of self.

Jesus experienced the same needs, emotions and psychological desires that we do. He lived the human experience in order to teach us how to maintain a relationship with God. We can be human and faithful to God. We can be human and trust in God to provide for our needs. We can be human and have our emotional needs met by living the very servant life God asks us to live. We can be human and calm the psychological cravings for power by loving one another as we want to be loved.

Reading the scripture is our defense against temptations. Maybe curling up with the Good Book is ideal for days we are weather-bound in our homes, but it is a practice we need to incorporate in our daily lives throughout the year. Scriptures read and re-read become internalized. The words become our defense just like Jesus responded to Satan in the wilderness: But Jesus told him, “No! The Scriptures say,. . .

There is no better defense against Satan than the words found in the Good Book. Curl up with the Good Book and read. Read the words that have sustained the faithful since the beginning. Read the words that tell the story so that you are able to tell the story to others. Curl up and read the Good Book so you can continue to develop and to maintain your close relationship with God. He will always be with you and sustain you as long as you remain in the relationship Jesus demonstrated. Reading the Good Book prepares us to handle temptations.

Closing scripture: Luke 4:12-13 (NLT)

     12 Jesus responded, “The Scriptures also say, ‘You must not test the Lord your God.’[a]

     13 When the devil had finished tempting Jesus, he left him until the next opportunity came.

Closing prayer:

Dearest Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

Guide us on these cold wintery days

Through the words in the Good Book.

As we read the words written and translated

By the faithful since the beginning of time,

Strengthen our resolve to stay in relationship with you

As Jesus demonstrated in the wilderness.

As we learn the lessons of faith-based living,

Let us take the stories to those who are lost.

Help us find ways to be story-tellers

That can reach out to others in love

Through the Holy Spirit.

We thank you for all that you do for us.

We thank you for meeting our needs.

We thank you for keeping us safe.

We thank you for warming our hearts

Through the gift of Jesus Christ. –Amen.

 

 

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