Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Testing Time - A Sermon Preached in Drumgooland and Drumgath Parishes on 10th February 2008 (First Sunday in Lent): Matthew 4:1-11

As we have been thinking this morning, it is the first Sunday in Lent, a time when we remember Jesus being tempted. This morning, though I want to focus on what the temptations say to us about the person of Jesus. Who is this Jesus, who goes through the temptations, and why does the devil spend so much time with him?

If you’ll look with me at the opening words of our reading, Matthew 4 verse 1, you’ll see the importance of context. ‘Then Jesus was led by the Spirit.’ What happens in our reading this morning comes directly after what came before. So when was Jesus led by the Spirit? This comes immediately after Jesus was baptised by John in the River Jordan.

Look at the last verse of chapter 3 – 3:17 ‘And a voice from heaven said “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”’ At Jesus’ baptism, God the Father had affirmed that Jesus was his Son. Now, straight away, the devil puts Jesus to the test.

What are the devil’s first words to Jesus in chapter 4? ‘If you are the Son of God…’ The devil tests Jesus, challenging the word that the Father has spoken to him. This is nothing new for the devil. Do you remember what the serpent said to Eve in the Garden of Eden? ‘Did God really say…?’ (Genesis 3:1) Right back at the beginning, he was challenging God’s word, and it is no different today.

But before we go on to look at the temptations themselves, we also have to think about the wider biblical context. When you heard the reading earlier, did it make you think about the grand story of the Old Testament? You see, in Matthew 2, Matthew tells of Jesus going down into Egypt to escape from Herod the Great murdering the children of Bethlehem. After Herod’s death, Jesus is brought to Nazareth, and Matthew says that this happened to fulfil the words of the prophet Hosea – ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’

When Hosea spoke those words, he was speaking about the exodus, when God brought Israel out of Egypt. The nation of Israel, the people of Israel was considered by God to be his son. Yet what happened when God rescued them from Egypt? They spent forty years in the wilderness, because of disobedience to God’s word, and they complained about having a lack of food.

Israel in the desert (wilderness) failed the task. As God says in the Venite (Psalm 95), ‘Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah… where your fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did’. Jesus comes into the world, the Son of God, who will obey the Father’s word and satisfy the law.

Therefore, it is highly significant that the temptations happen at the very start of Jesus’ ministry, and that they come in the desert. Having considered the background, we’re now able to think about the temptations themselves.

Jesus had been fasting for forty days and nights in the desert. (Again, the significance of the number 40). After that time, it was natural that he would be hungry. And this gives the devil the opportunity to tempt Jesus. ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’ Notice that the devil recognises that Jesus has the power to do it. After forty days of hunger, it might even seem like a good thing to do. Yet Jesus recognises that he wasn’t given power and authority to use it selfishly.

In response, Jesus quotes from God’s word, from Deuteronomy 8. In Deuteronomy 8, Moses was reminding the children of the generation of Israelites who had failed in the wilderness what had gone wrong. God had been testing the people ‘in order to know what was in [their] heart, whether or not [they] would keep his commands.’ (Deut 8:2). By causing them to hunger, then feeding them with manna, God was reminding them that they don’t live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Therefore, for Jesus to use his power selfishly, or to satisfy his own needs would be in disobedience to God’s word. Instead, he depends on God to supply his needs, and trusts for his provision. Jesus 1, Satan 0.

Satan then tries another approach. Once again, he introduces it with the challenge – if – ‘if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.’ Satan had taken Jesus to the highest point of the temple. And look at what happens – even the devil can quote scripture! He ties it to the promise of Psalm 91 that God will command the angels to protect his own. So surely if Jesus is the Son of God, then God will protect him if he abseils without a rope. What’s more, it would be the perfect way to prove to everyone (as well as Jesus himself) that Jesus was God’s Son. After all, the temple would be a busy place with lots of people around. If everyone saw Jesus jumping off the top and landing without any injury, then they would know that he was the Son of God and follow him.

Yet Jesus knows what is going on. While the devil may be able to quote scripture, his use of it will be as twisted as himself. He only uses the verses from Psalm 91 because it seems to help his cause. But while God promises ultimate security for the believer, it isn’t something you should try out, or provoke God into action.

Again, Jesus quotes from the early section of Deuteronomy as Moses speaks to the Israelites. ‘Do not test the Lord your God as you did at Massah.’ Once again, the temptation was for Jesus to use his power in an inappropriate way. It would have been sensational, but would have been in disobedience to God’s word. Jesus 2, Satan 0.

The devil then tries his final temptation, for the time being. Again, Jesus is taken to a high place, and shown the kingdoms of the world and their splendour (or glory, in some versions). ‘All this I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me.’

What a vision that must have been, to see the glory of all the nations. If you’ve ever visited the Tower of London, you will have seen the Crown Jewels dazzling. And that would be a very small part of the glory of all nations. And Jesus could have all this, if he just bows down to Satan?

Yet when we think of it, this temptation is probably the most subtle. Jesus knew what his mission was – to die on the cross, in obedience to the Father, and through that, would be crowned with glory and honour. Think of that passage from Philippians 2 which speaks of Jesus’ descent into greatness, being obedient to death, even death on a cross; then Jesus is raised up so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The way of glory for Jesus was the way of obedience to death. As the old slogan goes, ‘no cross, no crown.’ Yet this was precisely what Satan was offering. He could enjoy the glory of the nations and have it all, without having to endure the cross. What a prospect!

But once again, Jesus recognises the temptation for what it was. In worshipping the devil, Jesus would have been disobeying the first commandment, and would have ultimately lost all that he had been sent to do. And once again, Jesus responds with that ‘it is written’ – again, God’s word is the motivation of obedience, and resisting the temptation. Jesus 3, Satan 0.

So how do the temptations of Jesus help us today, as we struggle with temptations? Firstly, we see that it is not a sin to be tempted. As the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, we have a high priest ‘who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.’ Jesus was sinless, yet suffered the same temptations that we face.

Also, we see that temptations will be things that relate to our situation in life, and appeal to us. After fasting, the temptation for Jesus was to satisfy his hunger. Where do the temptations come in your life? Are there particular situations in work or in your street that present temptation? How can you watch out for temptations?

We also see that the temptations sought to make Jesus disobey God’s word. His solution was to quote scripture (in context) to keep him on track. How do you know what God’s will for your life is? Remember that Paul talks of the word of God as the sword of the Spirit – the one offensive weapon in the armour of God. How is your sword work?

But I want to finish with a word of grace and hope. Jesus demonstrated how he did not yield to temptation, and he is our example – as we seek to become more like Jesus. Yet there are times when we mess up; when we fall into temptation, and follow the desires of our human nature. Be assured that it is not all over – failure is not final!

Jesus fully obeyed the word of God and the law of God, and as we trust in him, God credits our account (bankrupt as it is by ourselves) with Jesus’ righteousness. Failure is not final because Jesus has died for our sins, and he gives us the grace to follow, the grace to rise again, the grace to stand and face the accuser (what the name Satan means).

Through the temptations of Jesus, we see again that Jesus is the Son of God, the one who obeys the Father’s will, and that he chooses to obey even when it hurts, as he goes to the cross. He knows what you’re going through, and is there for you. Hear these marvellous words from the letter to the Hebrews:

‘Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.’ (Heb 4:14-16)

Let us pray!

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