So we begin Lent and our journey with Jesus to the Cross. When we get to the Cross, we are used to saying things such as, ‘Jesus died for us,’ and indeed he did.
But one thing we miss is that Jesus could only die for us because he lived for us. Yes, his death was an atoning sacrifice for our sins, as the New Testament says, but there is more to it than that. In his death and our faith in him, we are united to his life and the benefits of his life for us. He did not only die for us (as if everything up until Calvary was just filling in time), he also lived for us.
I think that’s important when we consider the temptations of Jesus. It’s important to say he was tempted for us. And that’s the way I want us to explore this oh-so-familiar story that we read in one of the Gospels on the First Sunday of Lent every year.
So here are three strands of the temptations story that help us because we are united with Christ:
Most weeks when I prepare a service I have to choose the hymns before I have written the sermon or even know what direction I’m going in with the Bible passage. More often than not that works out all right, but I have to confess that this week we’re now going to be singing a hymn after the sermon that takes a completely different tack from what the passage says.
What we’ll be singing is the hymn ‘Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us.’ It imagines Jesus in the wilderness and the hymn-writer says,
lone and dreary, faint and weary,
through the desert thou didst go.
And that’s how I’d conceived Jesus’ wilderness experience – as a tough, solitary time.
However, then I began to read and consult scholars about the passage, and I’ve had to admit I was wrong. Ian Paul points out that Jesus wasn’t alone. At the beginning, the Holy Spirit leads him into the wilderness (verse 1), and at the end of the story ‘angels came and attended him’ (verse 11).
So if last week when we thought about the Transfiguration we sang the old 80s song ‘Weak In The Presence Of Beauty’ by Alison Moyet, this week we sing with Michael Jackson, ‘You Are Not Alone.’
Jesus was not alone in facing temptation. Neither are we, and that’s good news. It’s easy to feel that we are on our own when temptation comes, but it’s not the case that we are isolated. The Holy Spirit is with us to give us strength to do what is right. God’s angels are not far away to encourage us in the ways of the kingdom.
We may well feel alone when temptation comes, but that is all part of the lie. God’s Spirit is on hand to help us to say no to temptation and yes to Christ. It may be that all the noise and pressure of the temptation is there to stop us recognising God’s presence with us, but present he is.
Or it may of course be that really to our shame we want to give in to this particular temptation, and so we ignore the presence of the Holy Spirit with us in our hour of testing.
But God is there. He is our escape route. He is our strength in times of weakness.
When we are tempted, let’s look for God. He won’t abandon us.
I once heard a preacher declare as if it were blindingly obvious to everyone, ‘Of course Jesus was unable to sin,’ but I sat there thinking, well if that’s the case, the whole story of the temptations is pretty pointless!
I think the preacher’s error came from so wanting to defend the divinity of Jesus (which is a right and noble thing to do) that he forgot Jesus was fully human as well as fully God. And because Jesus took on sinful human flesh, it would have been possible for him to sin.
The Good News, though, is that he didn’t. Here at the temptations as at every stage of his life, Jesus, in the words of John Calvin, took sinful human flesh and turned it back to obedience to the Father.
You can’t miss the parallels between Jesus in the wilderness for forty days and Israel in the wilderness for forty years. But whereas Israel disobeyed and her life became futile, Jesus obeyed. He redeemed sinful human flesh by his obedience.
So when you and I find ourselves facing temptation, our union with Christ means that we have his obedience available to us. Before we resist the devil we submit to him and say, ‘Lord, give me the gift of your obedience.’
Our world doesn’t appreciate talk of obedience. It claims we are only answerable to ourselves and only need take others into account by ensuring we don’t hurt them. Obedience to anyone – let alone the Almighty – is out of date and repressive.
But you know what? Obedience to God is nothing of the sort. It is in fact the way we enter into true freedom. For true freedom is not the chance to do anything we like, but freedom to do what is right instead of being enslaved to sin. And as such, obedience to God is the most liberating of practices.
The expression, ‘Do what thou wilt’ is actually one of the cardinal tenets of Satanism. But ‘Do what God wills’ is the road to freedom. It may seem difficult, if not unattainable at times, but it is possible for the Christian because we are united with Christ and he gives us the gift of his obedience.
The thing about the temptations story when it comes to us preachers is that it looks like an easy shoo-in for one of our favourite three-point sermons, one point for each temptation. And I’ve done that plenty of times over the years.
But while I’m still giving you three points this morning, I’m trying to show you the bigger picture. And so I want to think about all three temptations under this one heading about Jesus’ example. Because the temptations that the devil tries on Jesus come in some form to every generation. And Jesus’ example shows us how to rebut them.
So the devil tries to attack Jesus’ identity – who God says he is. God has just spoken from heaven at his baptism to say that Jesus is his beloved Son, and so the devil kicks off two of the temptations with the words ‘If you are the Son of God.’
Likewise to us he would love us to take on any identity except that of being beloved children of God. I could say that my identity is male heterosexual, a husband, a father, a Methodist minister, and a photographer, but these all pale into insignificance beside the fact that God loves me as his child. There is no more secure identity than that, and it’s important not to let the enemy to tempt us into skewing what our most fundamental identity is.
The devil wants Jesus to live by bread alone, just as much of our society, especially that influenced by atheists, wants us to believe that life is solely comprised of material things, that there is no soul or spirit, and unless something is material, it doesn’t exist. You and I know otherwise, and we cannot afford to compromise or forget that truth.
The devil wants Jesus to test God by jumping off the top of the Temple to certain death, and many people today say they will only accept the existence of God if he passes a test they set for him. It even comes in apparently heart-rending forms: ‘I will believe in God if he heals my auntie from cancer.’ Now it isn’t that God lacks compassion, but it is that allegiance to him must come first, whether he blesses us by fulfilling our requests and tests or not.
Finally, the devil comes out with his most naked temptation: you can have all the kingdoms of this world, Jesus, if you will only worship me. And this reminds us that we are all worshippers, whether we accept it or not. As Bob Dylan sang,
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
To what do we give our time, our affections, our money, and our energy? This will give us a good idea of who or what we worship. Those which are lesser than God may well be good things, but if they command our affection ahead of him then in our lives they are instruments of Satan.
Lent can be quite severe as we engage the spiritual discipline of warring against evil. But Jesus teaches us here not to lose heart, and to be encouraged.
For he is with us, and we can draw on his presence when we fight evil.
His obedience is available to us through our union with him so that we can conquer.
And his example shows us that what we face today is nothing new but rather simply old tricks given a new polish. They can be resisted in his name as he did, and we can live for the glory of his Name.