3/6/2017 11:01:23 AM
The Four "I"s of Temptation - March 5, 2017
Sermon text: Matthew 4:1-11
Today’s gospel reading gives us plenty to talk about, so we will get right into it. We can start with the very first word: “Then…” In our gospel readings lately, we have skipped around a bit in the life of Jesus, so it would be easy for us to lose track of the chronology—the order of things—but we don’t want to do that. What had just happened in Jesus’ life? At the end of Matthew chapter 3 was Jesus’ baptism. He had gone to the Jordan River to be baptized by John, and we are told that when Jesus came up out of the water, the Spirit descended on him like a dove, and God the Father spoke from heaven saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” …
Of course Jesus heard those words, and so did the devil. That is the context for this showdown in the desert. But don’t miss the rest of our first verse: Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. Our first reaction might be that we are a little troubled by that idea that God the Holy Spirit would put Jesus in this kind of position. But remember, this same Spirit had just anointed Jesus at his baptism for this very purpose: to face the devil, like Adam and Eve did, like every sinner does, like every one of us does; the difference is that Jesus will face the devil and defeat him. We already read through the gospel account once; and as we review it now, we will learn about how temptation works and how temptation is defeated as we watch for the four “I”s of temptation.
Now, we don’t know exactly how this worked; we don’t know if Jesus saw any kind of physical form or not. All we know for sure is what we are told: 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Is that how temptation works with us? Yes and no. What does temptation sound like to you? How many of us have been minding our own business when we were personally confronted by Satan himself with a challenge like this? On the one hand, we have to say we don’t remember this happening to us; on the other hand, it happens every day. Satan is still crafty, he is still good at what he does; he has been in the temptation business a long time. And his goal isn’t to get us to decide to do what he wants us to do; no, none of us would ever want to call ourselves followers of the devil. So how does temptation work in our lives?
What the devil wants is for his temptation to sound like it is our idea. That brings us to the first “I” of temptation. “I need.” Bread is not evil. Hunger is not evil. Human relationships are not evil. Sex is not evil. Alcohol and prescribed medications are not evil. All these are good gifts from our loving heavenly Father. But sin happens when we pursue gratification of these desires, these urges—these needs—apart from God’s will.
So how does the temptation of “I need” happen? God wants you to eat; Satan wants you to eat too much or starve yourself. God wants you to enjoy alcohol legally and responsibly; Satan wants you to drink too much. God wants you to find healthy expression of sexual desires within a marriage relationship; Satan wants you to satisfy those urges with pornography and lustful thoughts and adulterous actions. God wants you to find companionship in friendship; Satan wants you to look for ways to take advantage of people and manipulate them and take more than you are willing to give. In all of these cases, a God-given healthy desire is twisted into an evil expression whenever “I need” replaces “my Father gives.” We have all been tempted, and in our own ways, we have all sinned. And the wages of sin is death.
The second temptation: 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.’” Once again, the devil is crafty. Here he even uses God’s Word as part of the temptation. He wants Jesus to take what God says and turn it into the second “I” of temptation. There is a good chance it will sound familiar; it sounds like this, “I can probably get away with it.” It is a temptation to take what we know of God and his promises and manipulate them for our own purposes.
And so we are tempted to say, “I can probably get away with it just this once,” or “just one more time. God won’t really be angry with me or make me pay for it; I will just ask for forgiveness and then everything will be ok again.” (Do you see how we are tempted to misuse God’s Word, too?) We are tempted to test the limits of laziness on the job or in our homework—I can probably get away with it. We are tempted to adjust the numbers on our tax forms—I can probably get away with it; everyone else does it. We are tempted to make unhealthy lifestyle choices, not taking care of our bodies—I can probably get away with it; God will take care of me. Every time we say, “I know it’s not exactly right, but…I can probably get away with it” we are facing this very temptation. We have all been tempted, and in our own ways, we have all sinned. The wages of sin is death.
The third temptation: 8 Again, 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.” When we see Jesus in this position, we say, “how foolish he would be to listen to Satan!” When we are in the same spot, it doesn’t sound so harmful, because it seems so natural for us to repeat the third “I” of temptation again and again: “I want more.”
We know it so well that we don’t need any convincing here. We all know the temptation to take stock of our lives and our homes and our possessions and our bank accounts and our health; instead of counting our blessings, we find ways to be dissatisfied. Even as we are surrounded by all the good things God gives, we are tempted to find ways of calling them not good enough. No matter how much God gives, “I always seem to want more.” We have all been tempted, and we have all sinned. The wages of sin is death.
But today isn’t just about our temptations. And it isn’t even about how Jesus defeated the devil, as if we are just looking for a strategy to follow so that we can be like him. Today’s gospel is all about how Jesus was tempted, just as we are, and yet he served as our perfect substitute by defeating the devil in our place. How did he do it? By remembering what the devil wants us to forget, by using the fourth “I” of temptation, which is way bigger and far more powerful than the first three combined. Jesus remembered his baptism. Jesus remembered what the Father testified there, and he held so tightly to that Word that with every temptation, Jesus had an answer, and it was the same basic answer each time. “I am God’s Son, whom he loves…”
So when the devil wanted Jesus to focus on his physical need, Jesus maintained focus on His Heavenly Father, who provides what we need most in his Word, and promises to take care of our physical needs, too. When the devil wanted Jesus to focus on what he might be able to get away with, Jesus maintained focus on his Heavenly Father, who loves us and doesn’t want us to put him to the test by taking unnecessary risks. When the devil wanted Jesus to seek out more power and more glory and more worldly control, Jesus maintained focus on his Heavenly Father, and knew that his power and glory and control over all creation would soon be restored, but only after a perfect life was completed and a perfect sacrifice was made for all of us who lose focus on our Heavenly Father, from Adam and Eve all the way down to us and our children. Why was that so important?
So that one day, so that today, so that every day…we can remember our baptism, and we can see first of all how we are forgiven of every sin, every time we have fallen in our bouts with temptation, all because Jesus didn’t fall. No, Jesus fought. Jesus won. And then Jesus, perfect though he was, paid our wages for sin by dying our death, so that we could die and be buried with him in baptism and be raised with him to a new life as… what?
Here’s our fourth “I.” Every one of us who believes in Jesus and is baptized can say, “I am God’s child, whom he loves.” I am God’s child, whom he forgives, whom he provides for and protects and promises more than we can ask or imagine, because through Jesus we have an eternity to share in Jesus’ glory and joy and perfection in heaven.
And because through Jesus we can say, “I am God’s child,” we can also say with Jesus, “Away from me, Satan,” knowing that the one who fought for us now fights with us as we seek to worship the Lord Our God, and serve him only. May God our Father continue to hold us close to him through his Word and sacrament, and may he empower us by his Spirit to fight temptation for his glory. AMEN.