Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. (Ps 19:14)
“Then was Jesus led up of the spirit… to be tempted of the devil” (Matt 4:1) [Lent 1, All Saints, Prescott, AZ, 18 Feb 2018]
Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we fulfil three things: we praise God, we ask Him to remember our needs here on earth and we beg Him not to lead us into temptation. The first three petitions address God’s glory. God is first given His supreme place in our hearts and prayers. We call Him “Our Father”, and we acknowledge that He is in heaven, the place of everlasting peace and glory. Then we say: “Hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done…” to emphasize our wish for unity with Him, and to extend the fulfilment of this wish not only to heaven, but also here on earth. Only then do we turn to ourselves and our needs. First, we ask for food, both spiritual and physical, because it is necessary to maintain life and grow in faith, and thereby we bring the needs of the present before God the Father, the Creator and Sustainer of life.
Second, we ask for forgiveness… and we offer the past to God the Son, our Savior and Redeemer.
Third, we ask for help against temptation and commit our future to God the Holy Ghost, the Comforter… the Guide of our life.
In these three brief petitions, we are taught to lay the present, the past and the future before the throne of God and ask for His grace. 1
But, it is that last petition, “lead us not into temptation”, that troubles some people.
Would our God really lead us into temptation… set us up to fail… blame us for not having the strength to persevere? Would God play games with our chances of losing eternal life?
If that was possible, God would not be a loving God, but a cruel one. It would make a mockery of His only-begotten Son’s death for us. It would quench our hope if we could be tempted at His command, and… after we have failed… be condemned to hell. Satan would win our soul, and God would give us up to eternal damnation.
That is not the God we pray to. That is not the God who cares for us and blesses us and protects us! Our God forgives us our sins because He is merciful and righteous! He is compassionate, and full of kindness. Our God wants us to be reunited with Him in eternity!
And yet, today’s Gospel says: “Then was Jesus led up of the spirit… to be tempted of the devil.” (Mt 4:1) In St. Mark’s Gospel, the words are even stronger! He wrote: “The Spirit drove Him into the wilderness.” (Mk 1:12) In fact, Jesus had just been baptized and was about to begin His ministry when He left all that behind to be tempted in the desert.
That is an incredible, frightening thought! Why would God the Father inflict such a terrible experience on his Son? Why would the Holy Ghost be involved with such a torturous event?
Actually, it was the only way through which Jesus could truly empathize with us. If He was to stand with us in our frailty, He had to experience our broken humanity first-hand. If Christ was not tempted, He could not stand with us, or for us. It is certain that, right from the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was a servant, obeying the will of the Father… choosing to resist the temptations of the devil… and reversing the effects of our fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. Remember that the serpent tempted Adam and Eve and they chose, by their free will, not to resist. And here, no longer in a Garden but in a wilderness, the devil tempts even the Son of God! But unlike Adam and Eve, He chose, by His free will, to resist, and to start undoing the age-old curse against mankind.
To us, the words “tempt” and “temptation” are always bad words, but the original Greek is perhaps better translated to mean “test” and “testing”. Adam and Eve were tested, and failed. Jesus was tested and surpassed everything that Satan hurled at Him. "The tempter came and said to Him, 'If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.'" Please notice that Satan begins with the word 'if’… always planting doubt… always holding out he promise of a better outcome… always wanting to force the issue. The point of this test is not stopping His hunger but testing His trust in His Father.
Satan is very subtle, and He tells us all the time: If God cares about you like you think He does… why are you in this or that situation?
If God takes care of all the other people, why not you? I'm offering you whatever God offers, except for your struggle in life and the anguish over right and wrong.
And so… Satan will always tempt us… always test our resolve. If he can create doubt in us about God’s goodness, doubt about our spiritual future, doubt about the standards and authority figure in our lives, doubt about God’s commandments and His promises… then Satan can lessen our concerns about eternal life and salvation. And so he tests us with evil whispers, breathing doubts into our souls about the truth of God's revelation, doubts about God's power, doubts about God's love and care, doubts about God's presence… and doubts about the Son of God’s sacrifice.
The second test is more dreadful than the first. Satan dares Jesus to throw Himself from the Temple’s pinnacle and prove that angels will save Him. This is a test of trust in God.
This test is like saying to us: If you say you trust God, you certainly believe that God will take care of you, no matter what. Then why not just do something that will force God to save you? If you trust God and if He cares what happens to you, why don't you let God prove Himself? If you say you can trust Him, then put Him to the test. Just do as I tell you, and then you will find out whether God cares for you, or not. Now, the first temptation was designed to spread doubt on God's will to perform a miracle, but the second temptation is to have God prove Himself.
This is an even greater sin, because this is the sin of presuming God’s grace while testing Him. In the first test hunger really existed, but we are now asked to create a peril and then presume that God will deliver us from it. This is extraordinarily clever and subtle… this is extraordinarily sinful.
Let us remember that many people came to Jesus asking for a sign… for Him to perform a miracle… so that they would believe in Him. He would never perform a miracle when they demanded it, because He did not come for popularity; He came to be rejected. He came to be despised. He came, as Isaiah says, "As a suffering servant". (Is 53:11) He came to be mistreated… to be hated… to die for our sins… so that we may partake of the kingdom of God.
We should never use God's power to test God; there is no sense in seeing how far we can go with God; there's no sense in putting ourselves deliberately into a threatening situation, doing it recklessly and needlessly, and then expecting God to rescue us from it. Conversely, Satan will tempt us to distrust the care God extends to us. He will tempt us to distrust the love of God. He will tempt us to distrust the will of God, the way and purpose of God, the forbearance and compassion of God. Satan does not want us to believe God when God says He will supply all our needs. Satan wants us to grab some satisfaction for ourselves in this life, regardless of the long-term consequences.
And so, Satan tries the ultimate test on Jesus, and also on us. Satan offers Jesus the world in exchange for His worship. Of course, that did not go over very well, and Jesus strongly rebuked Satan by telling him that “it is written, Thou shall worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve.” (Mt. 4:10)
Unfortunately, such a rebuke is not always what we would say or do when Satan offers us unlimited power and pleasure. Time and again, Satan succeeds in convincing us that we can have it all, that we know what we want, that we know what we desire and… that we deserve it! He tells us: Remember that God always says: Thou shall not…; I say, take it… take it with both hands and enjoy whatever you can get!
Every time we sin, we worship Satan. Every time we sin, we bow to him and declare him to be our sovereign. Every time we sin we do his will, and he calls the shots. Instead of taking one long bitter road to heaven, we take just one short bow to Satan, and we say to ourselves that we can rule our lives with abandon and enjoy all it can offer! No shame… no agony.
And this is a temptation we face on a daily basis. It seems that our whole society is geared up for this. As each generation passes, we are getting worse at waiting: whatever it is, we want it now! We want more of it – and, actually, we can have it now, all of it, and it doesn’t even feel like a temptation anymore… because, these days, patience is no longer a virtue; it has become a vice.
The pursuit of instant gratification places my needs at the center of the universe and I will pursue them, whatever that may mean for others… whatever the cost may be to my standards… whatever the end result may bring for my soul.
But Jesus stands with us in our temptations. He truly knows what it is like to face these and other tests. He has shown us that resisting temptation is possible if we are immersed in the Word of God and in the intimacy of a relationship with the Father.
In addition, we have a number of defenses against temptation:
The Word of God: We model our life after how Christ lived. He overcame Satan’s temptations by dwelling in the word of God. When we talk about the Word of God there are two parts to that: First, the Bible which reveals to us who God is. His nature, character, qualities. Over and over again, Christ used Holy Scripture to refute the works of the devil. But then… the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, died for us, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven to be our Mediator and Advocate.
The presence of Jesus Christ in our earthly life: Jesus is a living presence, not a memory or just another member of society from 2,000 years ago. Would we commit a sin if we remembered that Jesus is near us at all times, and that He is more than willing to bless us and give us the strength to overcome temptation?
Those whom we love and respect: If we had to face those we love and see the pain inflicted on them, would we commit this or that offense anyway? Examples of offensive behavior that affect those we love include selfishness, brutality, lack of responsibility, and a direct attack on the other person, mentally, emotionally or physically. Love and respect for the other person prevents these offenses. 2
There aren't any shortcuts to receiving a blessing. There aren't any shortcuts to avoiding sinful behavior. Satan comes at us by insisting that the end justifies the means. He suggests that, in our world, we must be “somebody” …and being “somebody” often means to compromise.
But for Christ… the issue was clear; submission to Satan and an easy path to popularity and temporary power was out of the question… it would have been disloyalty to the Father. We have the same choice today: We either have unswerving loyalty to God, or we compromise.
But God may test our loyalty. Abraham was tested when God seemed to demand the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22:2); Joseph, the son of Jacob, was tested by the wife of an Egyptian officer, but he refused to commit adultery with her. (Gen 39:6-20); Moses was tested at Meribah when he was instructed to strike the rock and make water flow out of it (Ex. 17:6).
And so we see from examples in the OT and NT that testing is not imposed on us only; testing is not something that was just recently invented to trip us up… nor is testing something that we cannot overcome. Through acknowledgement of Christ’s presence in our midst, especially in times of trouble, we have the power to resist temptation and to resist the Devil’s intrigues. We can, therefore, continue to pray with confidence “lead us not into temptation… let us not be tested beyond our capabilities… but deliver us from the evil one…”
As we move forward through the season of Lent, it is good to seek a new intimacy with God and become stronger in our resistance to temptation. Ultimately, it is only by the strength of the Holy Ghost and the cross of Christ that we will be victorious over sin. We must play our part in the battles with Satan, and we must continue to pray for strength and endurance to resist temptation and dwell in the Word of God.
When we come to Holy Communion today, let us give thanks to God for the example Jesus gave us in resisting Satan. Let us give thanks for the opportunity to reevaluate our approach to Satan… to watch out for his subtle ways of deceit and seduction, and to renew our commitment to our heavenly Father with trust and loyalty.
1 William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol 1, 1975, pg. 199
2 William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol 1, 1975, pg. 230 – 232