The Temptation to Not Be
Text: Luke 4:1-13
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Temptation is one of those slippery words we have in our modern language. It’s become so broad that it doesn’t have nearly as much punch as it really should. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation,” showing the battle between good and evil as we ask our heavenly Father to save us from that which would drag our souls into darkness. But then a parent will say that they’re “tempted” to order pizza because they don’t feel like cooking—hardly the life-or-death struggle of real temptation. We talk about fighting temptation, speaking of it as a struggle; and then commercials tell us that their new richer, more flavorful line of yogurt will be called “Temptations”.
When we talk about temptation in the Scriptures and in our lives of faith, we tend to have a very fixed idea: there’s something that our fallen nature wants to do that’s not in line with what God wants for our lives. We may know or we may not, but there is a commandment against whatever it is we’re tempted about. And that’s where most of our talk about temptation ends: it’s the lure to do something. But rarely do we talk about other side of that coin: the temptation not to do something; the temptation not to be in a particular situation. It’s just as real and just as dangerous. And now, in this time after the last two years where we’re doing less and less—less work, less responsibility, less attendance, less volunteering—it seems a good time to talk about this particular form of temptation. For this is the type of temptation that our Lord Jesus was faced with in our reading today.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, immediately after His baptism, when the Father’s voice from heaven announced that this is His beloved Son, was now driven by the same Holy Spirit into the wilderness to fast and pray. He was preparing for His earthly ministry, and the best way to prepare for anything is to pray and strengthen yourself on the Word of God. But after forty days of fasting, much like our forty days of Lent, Jesus was hungry.
It was then that the tempter came to Him. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” That is, “If you are the Son of God, why would God ever want you to be hungry? Why should you have to lack anything if you’re God’s Son? Why would He ever hold back anything from you? It’s fine—go ahead, speak your powerful word and command this stone to become bread. Stop suffering, stop going without. The Son of God should never have to go without whatever He wants.” The devil was tempting Jesus to not be hungry.
Now to be sure, eating is not a sin. Food is a gift from God. We believe that. We ask God for daily bread—those things, food included—that keep our bodies and lives going. But when the gift of food, or any gift for that matter, gets between us and the Giver, then it becomes a problem. So the tempter tries to drive a wedge between Jesus and the Father with the gift of food. “If you are the Son of God, just make the stone become bread and eat. Why should you go hungry? A loving God would never keep you from having what you want. A good loving God would never tell you not to indulge. Surely if God is your heavenly Father, He would never say ‘no.’ He would never ask you to go without, even for a short time.”
And there’s the trap. The tempter uses good things, twisting their purpose, so that if we don’t have unlimited access to them, if we don’t get these good things on demand, then there must be a problem between us and God. If God asks us to go without, to wait, to reconsider, to find greater value in something else, then He must not be loving. He must be strict. He must be mean. He must be untrustworthy. If God would hold back anything from us when we want it, then He must not be the kind of God we want.
This is the real heart of any temptation. The devil doesn’t tempt us to do something wrong simply to get us to do something wrong. No—his goal, as it always has been and always will be—is to use whatever we’re being tempted with to erode our faith. The tempter wants to get us to doubt God’s good will toward us, to doubt His love for us, to get us to question if we’re really God’s children and that He’s our Father if this thing we don’t like is happening, or because He hasn’t given us this or that thing that our weak nature wants. His goal is bigger than getting us to break the rules. His goal is to weaken and destroy faith.
It worked in the Garden of Eden. “You will not surely die,” the serpent told Eve. “God is holding out on you. He knows that when you eat the fruit He’s keeping back from you, that then your eyes will be open. He knows that then you’ll be like Him, you’ll be like God, because then you’ll have what He has—the knowledge of good and evil.” The goal was to get Eve to doubt God’s motives in keeping the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil from her. God was being arbitrary and mean. He was being selfish, keeping it away from her and Adam. The serpent whittled away at her faith and in the end, that’s what broke the relationship between our first parents and God. Faith, the foundation and core of the relationship, was broken.
And how he still uses that temptation today. We hear that God forbids something and our first instinct is to question it. “How could God say no to that?” we think, “Why wouldn’t He want me, or anyone, to have that? Why should some receive this or that gift, but not others? What kind of God would hold that back from someone? That’s not the God I believe in.” And right there, faith has been eroded, chipped away. Doubt grows. The assumption is that God, and His messengers, are lying. God is holding out. God would never ask anyone to be uncomfortable, especially not now in our soft, luxurious age. God would never ask someone to be in danger, we assume, forgetting the danger of simply being a Christian that most believers have had to face in world history. God would never ask us to go without, we cry in our most self-indulgent era. God would never let others have things that we don’t, we think as we switch between commercials advertising all the things we don’t have.
The worst part is that it still works. After all these centuries, after millennia of the same old trick, the same old questions that get us to doubt God, it still works. How often do we get angry with God because we have had to go hungry—if not literally, then metaphorically—going without something we really want? How often do we get resentful when God tells us no, that something isn’t the best for us, that something isn’t the way He designed for our lives? How often does faith and trust take a backseat to keeping up with the Joneses? We wonder why God wouldn’t let us. We ask why He can’t just speak and turn the stones to bread, or money, or cars, or happiness, or whatever it is we want. And it’s then that we find ourselves with Adam and Eve, right there, back at the first temptation.
Now we could just treat this reading about Jesus’ temptation as a lesson in moralism. We’ve learned how to recognize the threat of temptation and how to neutralize it with passages of Scripture. And yes, Jesus does show us how to answer doubts that come from temptation. When temptation causes us to ask dangerous questions that chisel away at our faith, it’s best answered by the certainty of God’s Word and promises. But, as it always is with Jesus, there’s more.
For this is no mere lesson in morals. This entire account about Jesus facing temptation is all about Jesus fighting for us. That’s the heart of it. He’s doing what we never could. Adam and Eve fell to temptation with all the comforts and perfection of Eden around them. We fall to temptation surrounded by comforts and wealth unknown to 99.9% of humans who have ever lived. But Jesus, in the wilderness, fasting, hungry, uncomfortable, and in danger—He defeats the devil’s temptations. He never wavers. He never doubts His heavenly Father. His faith remains whole, intact, and perfect. And it’s not as if He’s fighting just to prove something. He’s fighting for us.
Jesus defeats the devil for us. After his battle with Jesus, the tempter has no power left. His weapons, his lies, his poisonous questions of doubt, are all broken. They’ve been shattered by the unbreakable shield of Jesus’ faith. We talk about how the power of death and hell were destroyed at Easter by Jesus’ resurrection. Here, in this account, the power of temptation is broken. Because of what Jesus accomplishes here in the wilderness, the tempter only has power over us that our weak natures will give him. But as far as his real strength, he’s judged. The deed is done. One little word can fell him.
So rejoice. Even when you’re lacking, even in discomfort and fear and danger, rejoice. You are still God’s child. That hasn’t changed. You’re still forgiven. You’re still protected. You’re still strengthened and shielded by the faith given to you in Baptism, by the blessing given at the Communion rail, to strengthen and preserve you to life everlasting. You’re still loved. God is still a hiding place for you, a mighty fortress you can hide yourself in, because He has already gotten the victory. He shares that victory with you. In the name of Jesus, who has defeated the evil one. Amen.