The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
March 5, 2017 – First Sunday in Lent
Life is a battle – and the more good we strive to do the more evil strives to stops us in our tracks. Those most engaged in God’s purposes of justice, compassion and witness encounter the most intense and aggressive opposition from the forces of darkness.
Jesus, from the start of His life’s work until its end, was engaged in a struggle against powers invested in His failure. If that struggle was His fate, why should anyone who follows in His steps expect to be exempt from the same? The truth is that the more we fight for the right, the worse the warfare we undergo with wickedness.
Not even being filled with the Holy Spirit spares a person from struggle. After all, Jesus – full of the Spirit – was “led” by the same Spirit onto a desert battlefield “in order to be tempted by the devil”.
Jesus was put to the test immediately after God had at His baptism attested that He was the beloved Son with whom God was well pleased. Jesus then was severely tempted before He’d preached a single sermon, cast out one demon, or given sight to any blind person. Evil wanted to halt His work before it could even begin.
Famished by forty days of fasting, alone in a desert inhabited only by jackals and scorpions, Jesus found Himself locked in a battle with Satan – who meant to run Him through every test the Israelites had encountered in their desert testing. Only Jesus, full of the Spirit’s power, was equal to the challenge and would pass every test.
First, Jesus was tempted, as the Israelites had been, by hunger and the fear of scarcity. But, unlike the Israelites who kept complaining about what they perceived as God’s poor providing, Jesus put the demands of His body in their place and satisfied Himself with fulfilling God’s will. He cited the Deuteronomy scripture that says, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Second, Jesus was tempted, as the Israelites had been, by the challenge of in trusting in God’s promised care of His own and the allure of seeking some assuring proof that would remove any possibility of doubt. But, unlike the Israelites who kept quarreling with Moses over continuing to rely on God in the face of uncertainty about God and kept whining over the doubt-inducing delay of God’s coming through for them, Jesus accepted His struggle by bearing in mind God’s constancy of character and God’s deserving of trust. He cited a second Deuteronomy scripture: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Third, Jesus was tempted, as the Israelites had been, by the seeming wisdom of hedging bets, even those placed on God. But, unlike the Israelites who, to give themselves some back-up insurance, played both sides and bowed down before the idol of the golden calf, Jesus refused to compromise His undivided, exclusive loyalty to God and remained “all in” in His commitment to stay true to God’s wishes even if they led Him to His death. In turning Satan down on the deal he proposed, Jesus cited a third Deuteronomy scripture: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him.”
Notice the devil’s strategy in trying to trip Jesus up and do Him in. Satan appealed to Jesus’ best desires. When he encouraged Jesus to turn all those stones into loaves of bread, he knew Jesus would see it as an opportunity to feed all the hungry of the world. To reject Satan’s suggestion was to give up a chance to exercise compassion, a cause dear to Jesus’ heart.
And when Satan encouraged Jesus to defy gravity and ride on the hands of angels in a spectacular show of supernatural power, he knew Jesus would see it as an opportunity to convince folks of religious truth, almost coercing them to believe by the weight of overwhelming evidence. To reject Satan’s suggestion was to give up a chance to promote faith, a cause dear to Jesus’ heart.
Finally, when Satan encouraged Jesus to take possession of political power at the price of worshipping him, he knew Jesus would see it as an opportunity to take control of governments and set the nations right. To reject this suggestion was to give up a chance to establish justice, a cause dear to Jesus’ heart.
The most enticing temptations are those that invite us to do others real good. Stones to bread? – the hungry would love it; leaping from the temple’s pinnacle? – those longing to find faith would love it; obtaining political power? – the oppressed would love it. All this is to say that the most dangerous temptations offer a promise that one will rise and not fall – albeit by the means evil supplies. After all, the tempter in Eden did not ask Adam and Eve, “Do you wish to be like the devil?” but “Do you wish to be like God?” Satan, playing off of what looks like failures by God and playing on our self-delusional pretensions in thinking we could do better, engages any available noble intention we have to attempt to bring us to moral or spiritual ruination.
In other words, the people of the strongest virtue know the strongest temptations and have to fight in the fiercest struggles.
As we grow in greater likeness to Christ, our temptations grow greater; and as we become more dangerous to the forces of darkness aligned against the highest pursuits, our struggles become more severe.
“Narrow is the gate and hard is the way that leads to life,” Jesus said. It is a struggle to stay clean and sober, to do business with integrity, to remain true to our code in defiance of peer pressure, to fight for justice when every advantage seems to lie with the unjust, to stand up and speak the truths no one wants to hear but everyone needs to hear, to endure deprivation and uncertainty and disadvantage as Jesus did, to hold on to the reality of God as we walk down the hall of mirrors that is this world, and to persevere in faithfulness and the faith that, despite appearances, God is good – and strong enough to win in the end.
We may not be tempted to turn stones into bread, but we are tempted to mistrust God’s capacity to help and to take things into our own hands. We may not be tempted to leap off a tall building, but we are tempted to doubt Him, to seek confirming proof and to delay doing what we should until we have it. We may not be tempted to bow down before an idol or Satan, but we are tempted to compromise ourselves and make a deal with the devil to accomplish divine ends.
It is a struggle to wait on the Lord, to obey God’s will no matter what, and to hope in the victory of the right at last. Yet, we can fight on, and expect to win in the end, if we allow God to fill us with a power beyond our own, His own Holy Spirit. Let us have that faith and be faithful. Let us pray.