March 22, 2020 - Sermon - Rev. Mark Simone

The service on March 22, 2020 was live-streamed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

To listen to a higher-quality audio recording of the sermon, click below:

Finding God in the Midst of Temptation

Scripture: Matthew 4:1-11

Oh boy. What is Jesus up to now. After a great beginning in Matthew of establishing his lineage back to Abraham, a key importance in Jewish bloodline recognition, followed by parts of the Christmas story – the parts about the prophecies, an angel visiting Joseph, the wise men, or scholars, following the star and presenting gifts, fleeing to Egypt and then returning, and then his baptism by John. After all of this, Jesus is now already being engaged in a test. He has yet to call even one disciple or be part of any preaching or healing miracles. In fact, he was still pretty much a non-player. But before engaging his world, Jesus was placed by God in a sticky situation. This was to be Christ’s test. From Matthew 4:

The Test

4 1-3 Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the Test by fasting forty days and forty nights. That left him, of course, in a state of extreme hunger, which the Devil took advantage of…

Remember how Flip Wilson, and this will surely age you, proclaimed that “The Devil made me do it!” Since the 60’s almost all of us have likely said this in jesting, but my guess is that we have also felt it in reality.

       As Christians, we are not exempt from the challenges of life – even those challenges that move in contrast to our faith and morality.

       During staff this week I asked folks to share what things have tempted them in their lives. One shared that sometimes she is tempted to put her children and their needs ahead of God. Another shared that she sometimes becomes critical of others, and often judgmental of those who think differently from her. People confessed that they had succumbed to peer pressure at times in their lives. One talked about how they had identified various idols as in attitudes and objects that seem more important than God. Another said that it is tempting at times to go it alone and to make decisions and move ahead without God. I talked of a great temptation in my high school years to get involved in drugs.

       While none of us came into the company of the Devil after a 40 day fast, it was obvious that all of us had been distracted to wrong behaviors by being drawn away from God. And as with Jesus, the spirit of wickedness came to take advantage of us. Continuing with Jesus who was very hungry following his fast:

 …which the devil took advantage of in the first test: “Since you are God’s Son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread.”

       OK, for this to be real, this transformation of rocks to ciabatta had to be something that Jesus could have actually done. There had to be possibility for it to be a temptation. Jesus was hungry.

4 Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.”

       Notice, Jesus strikes back at the temptation by quoting from God’s word. Life is more than food or whatever the temptation may be. Life is found in learning and living in God’s word. Lesson #1 – we fight temptation by utilizing scripture to inform us, direct us and sustain us. The Bible is far more than words of wisdom. The Bible, as Jesus told the Devil, is God’s very voice, speaking to whatever challenges we face.

5-6 For the second test the Devil took him to the Holy City. He sat him on top of the Temple and said, “Since you are God’s Son, jump.” The Devil goaded him by quoting Psalm 91: “He has placed you in the care of angels. They will catch you so that you won’t so much as stub your toe on a stone.”

       Now the Devil gets really devilish. He begins tempting Jesus by also using God’s word. Jesus. Do this miracle. Dive off of the tip of the Temple and lets all watch God’s angels scurry forth so you don’t get hurt. Very clever, Satan. (Evil laugh). How does Jesus respond.

7 Jesus countered with another citation from Deuteronomy: “Don’t you dare test the Lord your God.”

       Jesus shows the Devil, and us, that while God’s word is life, it is not to be a manipulation for personal gain or to prove something. God’s word is life, not something with which we gain an advantage.

       I suspect we have seen frequently in our lives. I have watched in amazement as TV preachers have used the Bible for incredible amounts of money for their ministries. Just recently I watched two very well-known TV evangelists make a plea for multiple millions of dollars for Brother So and So in order for him to buy a new jet for his ministry. They even admitted that this man already had a jet, a good jet, for his ministry, but wouldn’t God want him to have, and I quote, “the best jet money can buy” so that he can be well rested and ready to share the Gospel of Jesus wherever needed? They quoted scripture after scripture and made loose applications to the verses stating God wanting YOU to send money for the jet. They were so convincing that I even reached for my checkbook. Just kidding.

       I would juxtapose this story with another story of another missionary, gospel sharing family, that had been gifted with a new Volvo station wagon. It was a magnificent gift, given in love and support of the missionary family that traveled by dusty roads in Eastern Europe to bring Christ’s love to the needy.

       The car was a very expensive model and the family loved it. Yet, after much soul seeking, they refused the generous gift believing it sent the wrong message to those poor folks that they served.

       In true Christian humility, the giver suggested that the family sell the car and buy one that was appropriate for their work, stipulating that they buy a good, reliable car and not some junker, and then use the remainder for their mission.

8-9 For the third test, the Devil took him to the peak of a huge mountain. He gestured expansively, pointing out all the earth’s kingdoms, how glorious they all were. Then he said, “They’re yours—lock, stock, and barrel. Just go down on your knees and worship me, and they’re yours.”

       This part of the story has always amazed me. The Devil offers the world to Jesus, all of the glorious kingdoms, and Jesus does not argue that these are not Satan’s to give. It makes me think of the verse that states “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” (Psa 24:1). But note, Satan is offering the kingdoms, not the planet. He is offering governments and systems and cities that are upon the earth. But Jesus knew that the earth itself was God’s alone.

10 Jesus’ refusal was curt: “Beat it, Satan!” He backed his rebuke with a third quotation from Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and only God. Serve God with absolute single-heartedness.”

       Satan’s plea for Christ to worship him, to change sides in the eternal struggle, was met again with scripture. Jesus affirms that there is only one God and all worship is solely for this wonderful and praiseworthy God. How humiliating for the Devil. How instructive for us. The exchange ends here.

11 The Test was over. The Devil left. And in his place, angels! Angels came and took care of Jesus’ needs.

       After the test is completed and the temptations are faced and refused, God sends what Jesus needed most, an affirmation that God was present with Jesus through all of this, and angels came to care for Christ’s needs.

       I suspect that we are all facing unexpected needs in these days of social distancing and self-imposed isolation. We are tempted to giggle, but I know a friend who actually does need toilet paper and whose spouse is experiencing severe stomach distress with the accompanying issues. This is the world in which we find ourselves. The temptation is to groan and complain and see only the inconvenience in which we find ourselves. The other temptation is to assign blame for these circumstances upon governments and leaders. None of these temptations will bring any relief or satisfaction. They are not helpful.

       But what can help is to imagine a different response. This is what high schooler Sarabeth Rutkowski decided and as a result, she is heading up a new ministry at Federated called Angel Assist. Sarabeth has enlisted something like two dozen volunteers to assist our church family as needed. Are you a shut in and need some groceries? Do you have a prescription that needs to be filled? Maybe you just need a visit by phone. This is what Sarabeth and her crew are standing ready to assist with.

       Finally, I found it liberating years ago when someone shared with me that temptation is not a sin. I had lived in guilt and shame under that misconception for much of my life. But it is not a sin to be tempted. In fact, today’s scripture lesson is often called the Temptation of Christ. Granted, temptation can be dangerous, and it might be a precursor to acting out in sinful ways. But the harsh words, judgmental thoughts and bad behaviors can be stopped at the source – in our hearts and minds. Temptation always requires a response. But giving in to failure is not the only choice, nor should it be an assumption.

My wife noted that in the Message version of the Lord’s Prayer, the sentence usually spoken as, “lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil” is worded differently. It instead says, “keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.” Jesus is telling us to pray in a way that reminds us that we don’t have to feed the dark side of choices. We don’t have to focus on the weakest part of ourselves, but rather, control our negative impulses and keep us safe from the Devil. The book of James tells us:

James 1:14-15 The Message (MSG)

13-15 Don’t let anyone under pressure to give in to evil say, “God is trying to trip me up.” God is impervious to evil, and puts evil in no one’s way. The temptation to give in to evil comes from us and only us. We have no one to blame but the leering, seducing flare-up of our own lust.

            We are tempted when we give in to our desires that stand in opposition to what we know about God. We are drawn away by our desires in committing sin. That drawing away is temptation. Failing to resist temptation brings us into the act of sin.

The Devil tempted Jesus by playing upon his hunger or his physical needs, trying to lure him with status and false security, and giving him ultimate power if he just bow. In Christ’s resistance, he models for us how to see God in all things, and in that, we have our greatest strength – God’s presence with us always. Always. Amen