Temptation, Trust and God

March 1, 2020

First Sunday of Lent

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Psalm 32

Matthew 4:1-11

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. (Matthew 4:1-11, NRSV)

Let us pray: God of the covenant, in the glory of the cross your Son embraced the power of death and broke its hold over your people. In this Season of Lent, a time of repentance, draw all people to yourself, that we who confess Jesus as Lord may put aside the deeds of death and accept the life of your kingdom. Amen.

Jesus has just emerged from the waters of the river Jordan and his baptism. Notice he doesn’t head off to a celebration with family and friends complete with a Confirmation cake.  There will be no nice photos next to the Jordan River, the Baptizer on one side, Mary and Joseph on the other with the smiling Jesus in the middle.  Instead, quickly after hearing the voice of God say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased,” and seeing the Spirit descend, like a dove; this same Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness.[1] 

The wilderness— think — desert.  Deserts are dry barren areas of landscape where little to no precipitation occurs and, consequently, living conditions are hostile for plants, animals and humans.  The lack of vegetation and tree coverage exposes the unprotected earth to harsh conditions.  It is out here in this unrelenting space that Jesus is tempted.

Temptation.  We have just heard two stories of temptation — the first from Genesis.  We know it as Adam and Eve, or the fall and its tragic ending.  The other from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus in the wilderness and his extraordinary triumph.  If there is one thing that we all know, it is temptation.  We live with it daily.  When someone angers us, we are tempted to give him or her a piece of our mind.  When our cravings overwhelm us, we are tempted to give in to them.  You know the waiter as she removes your dinner plate, “Can I tempt you with some dessert today?”  If you have ever tried to quit something then you know how tempting it can be…that little voice in your head saying try it just this once, it will be different this time.  Temptation is a problem that never goes away and one we cannot solve on our own.  Twelve step programs know how true this is as one of the key steps is putting one’s trust in a higher power.

While there is a clear allusion in Jesus temptation to the story of Israel’s wandering – in the wilderness, the place of challenge; forty days reminiscent of the 40 years that the Israelites wandered – it is directly related to the temptation of Adam and Eve.

Both stories deal with temptation and we know temptation but on a basic level these are stories that cut to the heart of the Christian Faith, do we trust God?  Adam and Eve were told by God not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or else they will die.  The serpent tells them that this not true and he invites them to eat.  Ultimately the serpent is playing on their insecurity and is saying to Adam and Even can’t really trust God.[2]

In the same way after fasting 40 days and 40 nights, Jesus is visited by Satan who plays on his hunger and vulnerability.  Satan asks Jesus to a stone into bread. Then Satan tempts Jesus to throw himself off the Temple, and finally Satan tempts Jesus to bow down and worship him.  Each of these temptations strike at the assumption that God is not trustworthy.  That God will not provide, God will not save, and God is not worth placing one’s trust.

Trust or faith is the basis of the Christian Faith.  It is the currency that the church deals in.  Do we have the audacity to trust in God? Can we truly believe the promises of God as found in scripture?

It seems so quaint to give something up during Lent.  To force ourselves to face temptation, as if we don’t already face it enough or to sacrifice, which maybe a much more holy endeavor. Yet, in a small way, we identify with Jesus, who began his ministry this way.  Because, before he could be the true Messiah, he had to discover the sort of messiah he would not be.

The real battle, Jesus teaches, is to be waged and won in the believer’s heart. It goes much deeper than giving up chocolate, or alcohol, or cussing, or striving to be kind, for the next forty days.   The real issue of temptation is not trusting God. Satan’s temptation is the same for Jesus as it was in Genesis – the greatest temptation is to “become like God,” or to think that we do not need God.  This is especially true for us, American Christians.[3]

We are taught to work hard, just do it, if it is gonna be then it is up to me…Self-made woman, the American work ethic, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.  Depend on only on yourself, your mind, your body, and your spirit. 

It may be my reformed education and my Presbyterian upbringing, but the Season of Lent is really more about God than it is about us. God is sovereign, meaning that God created all things, God rules over all things and God sustains all things.  While we are invited to examine ourselves and our lives during the season of Lent, it is extremely important to remember that ultimately Jesus is Lord and everything else is a distant second.  In saying that I don’t mean we don’t look at our brokenness and sin, and don’t care — instead we understand that we can’t fix our brokenness and sin that is God’s work, that is God’s promise.

That is at the heart of these temptations where Satan invites Jesus to imitate the Emperors in Rome who secured their own power by ruling people with an iron fist.

The temptations with which Jesus was faced are the very ones we, you and I, fall victim to on a regular, a daily basis.

In little subtle ways we seek popularity or power or possessions as a way of hedging our bets against the uncertainty of the world.

After all, we live in an age in which a disgruntled employee can go to his workplace and kill five of his co-workers; the corona virus seems to be spreading world wide, our stock market plunged as a result, and our political leadership seems to be in total chaos.  In our world – wars continue to rage, violence and senseless deaths remain shaking the very heart of our structures of belief.  A little control over our own lives and a bit of money securely invested, what’s wrong with that?  Absolutely nothing…

It comes down to a matter of faith, of trust, of belief and confidence in the promises of God to love and care for us throughout life’s trials and temptations.

In our world today it seems that God has lost control, that the world is in chaos and that God can’t be trusted. That is our temptation.

Satan tempted Jesus to do things that are selfish, and self-serving and ultimately self-glorifying.  And Jesus rejected them because being centered on self is inconsistent with being the Messiah, Christ, the Beloved, the Son of God, the one sent to save others.[4] The true temptation is do we have the courage to believe in the promises of God? This is what Lent is all about.

Let us pray:

[1] Reverend Christopher A. Joiner, “The Only Temptation of Christ” Lent 1 – (Year A) February 10, 2008 Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11. First Presbyterian Church Franklin, TN.

[2] Reverend Dr. Fred B. Craddock, “Testing That Never Ceases,” The Christian Century Living By The Word. February 28, 1990 Page 211.

[3] Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton, Matthew 4:1-11, The Lectionary Lab Year A — The First Sunday in Lent Posted on March 3, 2011

[4] Ibid.