How Temptation Works

A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

 March 9, 2014

 by Eleanor Lee Wellford,  Associate Rector

 After Jesus was baptized, he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 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.'”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

                                                                                                                               –Matthew 4:1-11



What kind of image do you attribute to evil?  Is it an image of a snake such as the one we just heard about in the Garden of Eden?  Or is it a dark hooded figure such as the way the Grim Reaper or the Angel of Death is depicted in movies?   Or perhaps it’s a red figure with horns and a pitchfork.  Maybe it’s a particular face that comes to mind such as that of Adolph Hitler or Osama bin Laden. 

  What if you sensed that you are in the presence of something evil but you couldn’t put a face on it?  Could that be temptation? 

Matthew didn’t give us a description of the evil one that Jesus encountered in the wilderness.  He simply called it “the tempter” and left it up to our imaginations as to how to envision it.

 Whatever temptation looks like, it understands human nature really well and its timing is always impeccable.  It waited for just the right moment of weakness to begin filling Jesus’ head with ideas that for most humans would have been impossible to resist.  And there’s not much that weakens us more than hunger.

Being hungry, whether physically or spiritually, can make us especially vulnerable to doing things that we might not otherwise do just to fill that emptiness.  That’s why temptation has such power over us, and that’s what the devil knows so well.

Picture Jesus in the wilderness.  Matthew told us that after fasting for 40 days Jesus was not just hungry, but famished.  I’m not sure any of us has ever been truly famished so I can only imagine how desperate it would make us feel – how we would do just about anything to take away that deep, gnawing uncomfortable feeling.

Before Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, he had just been baptized and affirmed as God’s beloved son.  So, Jesus must have begun his 40 days of isolation feeling full – full of love and purpose.  And the tempter was happy enough to bide its time, just waiting for that fullness to become emptiness so that Jesus would be open to any number of quick fixes to take his hunger away. 

Looking just at the surface of what the devil in this morning’s story was doing, we find that it was tempting Jesus first with something to take his physical hunger away and then something that would take away other types of hunger that it knew that we humans are known to have: a hunger for power and control and a hunger to be adored.

So, food was the first and obvious temptation.  “Command these stones to become loaves of bread” the devil said.  The mere mention of bread would have been enough to cause anyone to break a fast.  That’s something the Israelites knew so well when they wandered in the desert for 40 years after Moses led them out of Egypt.  Their hunger became so intense that they were tempted to return toEgypt as slaves just to be able to eat again.

But Jesus wasn’t biting, so to speak.  He may have been famished but he was filled in another way that compensated for his physical hunger.   He was still so filled by the Holy Spirit that there was no room in his soul for the devil’s temptation.  Feasting on the word from Deuteronomy, Jesus answered: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

Then the devil took a different tact.  Taking Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem, he suggested that Jesus fling himself off of it, for surely God would send his angels to save him from harm.  Just think what an overnight sensation Jesus would have become – a real star worthy of worship and praise.  But Jesus wasn’t hungry for that, either.  Feasting on the word once again, he quoted from Deuteronomy: “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test'” (Matthew 4:7).

And finally, Satan took Jesus to the highest mountaintop – a place like the Tower of Babel that would get him as close to heaven as possible. It was a place from which Jesus could view all the kingdoms of the world and the splendor that came with them.  The devil was counting on Jesus being intoxicated enough by such a display that he would sell his soul to him.  After all, so many humans had sold their souls to the devil for far less. 

Matthew doesn’t tell us if Jesus was tempted in any way to give the devil his due, but he did write that Jesus quoted again from Scripture: “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”  And then he sent Satan packing. 

Beneath the obvious of what the tempter was offering Jesus, was something more sinister and insidious than a power play.  It honed in on our inability to trust without substantial amounts of proof.  All that the devil thought it needed to do was plant the seeds of doubt in Jesus’ mind and the traps of temptation would close in around him. 

Jesus had been told that he was God’s son, yet with each suggestion of how Jesus should prove it, the tempter planted a seed of doubt.  “If you are the Son of God” he would say.  Not “because you are the Son of God” or “as the Son of God…” but “if you are the Son of God”. 

Satan was counting on Jesus’ needing proof to be able to fully and completely trust in his Father.  And if Jesus had succumbed to that temptation, then it would have been at that point that the devil would have claimed his soul.  

How easy it is to forget who we are and whose we are when we are famished spiritually and physically.  As Anna Carter Florence, Professor of Preaching and Worship at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA writes: “Notice how Lent begins: from filled to famished in two verses.  From the banks of the Jordan, baptized and blessed, to the middle of nowhere, so empty you can’t remember your own name.  From ‘This is my beloved Son; I am so pleased with him!’ to ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to be loaves of bread.   “From ‘You are!’ to ‘If you are!’”  And the difference between those two statements,” she writes, “is a wilderness” (Lectionary Homiletics, Volume XIX, #2, p. 19). 

She continues that during Lent many of us turn our spiritual disciplines and preparedness into a proving ground.  How familiar does that sound?  How many times do we have to prove to ourselves and others that we are good enough Christians because we give up something for Lent? 

Does that really nurture our spirituality or does it increase our hunger?  If it increases our hunger then doesn’t that take our minds off of why we are denying ourselves anything in the first place?  And doesn’t that hunger lead us right into the hands of that faceless form of evil we call temptation? 

It’s a vicious cycle, this season we call Lent.  But it’s not supposed to be and it doesn’t have to be if we use it as Jesus did when he was in the desert to figure out who we are and whose we are.  To be secure in that knowledge is to be free of doubt and to be free of doubt is to be free of our need for proof.  But as always, though, that’s easier said than done. 

Our hungers are persistent and there are so many ways to fill them, many of which are not particularly healthy as the tempter knows so well.  So maybe our best defense is a healthy diet of Scripture, a discipline of reading and inwardly digesting the words inspired by God – a discipline that lasts longer than 40 some days.  Because the evil of temptation isn’t limited to the length of Lent; and with God’s help, neither should be our resolve to resist it.