After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil (Luke 4:1-13).
I have never like tests. And for one who has spent many, many hours in classrooms, I just do not like tests. As an undergraduate and as a graduate student, I always preferred those classes where the assessment of my mastery of the course material was measured not by a test, but rather by a written essay or some other writing project. Tests for me are a source of anxiety. And it’s not just in the realm of academia. I dread going to the doctor. I dread those medical tests, stress tests, even the taking of my blood pressure. Hi, I’m Bill, and I am a testophobic.
Tests are part of our daily lives whether we recognize it or not. Sometimes we admit it: “Jim is really testing my patience!” we might mutter to a co-worker at the water cooler. But the truth is, it’s not only other human beings who test us daily. God tests us daily, too. And we are in good company, because Jesus, God’s only Son, was tested by his Father, too.
When The First Sunday in Lent we always read the story of Jesus’ temptation by the devil in the wilderness. The story appears in the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Our collect for today provides the theological highlights for this day, and begins this way: Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan. First Sunday in Lent, every year, we read about Jesus being led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan.
This is what I want us to focus on today—temptation and its place in our lives.
There’s a story of a shop-keeper who had a fruit stand out front of his store. One day he saw this little boy out there, who was staring at the beautiful apples in the fruit stand. Every time the shop keeper would look at the boy, the boy would quickly turn his gaze away from the shop-keeper. This went on for a few minutes—the shop keeper would look at the boy who was looking at the apples, and then the boy would feel the heat of the keeper’s gaze, and look away. Finally, the shop keeper said to the boy, “What are you doing, son? Trying to steal one of my apples?” The boy replied, “No sir. Trying NOT to!”
Have you ever felt temptation like that? Maybe there’s a story behind this story; maybe the little boy is like a character out of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, a poor orphan left to fend for himself on the streets. Maybe it’s not that the boy is just prone to stealing things but rather that he has this growing pit of hunger in his belly, has not eaten in a day or two, and knows that if he can just swipe that red apple and eat it, his hunger will go away for a while. Maybe stealing an apple is the only way he can get food for himself; and so if he gives in to temptation, and steals the apple, can we really blame him? Is stealing an apple really that bad?
Well, harsh as it may sound, yes it would be. “Thou shalt not steal,” the Lord commanded Israel, a people who were living, wandering, in the harsh desert, a people who were wondering daily where their next meal would come from.
For those of us living in the most affluent nation on earth, temptations such as the little boy experienced while gazing at the apple might seem somehow alien. Most of us can purchase an apple or a dozen with just the swipe of a debit card. Most of us can get almost anything we want to eat at any hour of the day. Lack of food is not, for most of us, the problem. The problem with most of us is the temptation to want, or to use the Biblical term, covet. With this story of the shop-keeper and the boy and the apple, let’s not read between the lines; let’s take the story at face value. The boy sees the ripe, red apple; the boy wants, the boy covets, the red, ripe apple; the boy is trying hard not to steal the apple. The boy wants what is not his. The boy is trying to overcome temptation, and at last glance, he is winning that fight.
In Luke’s Gospel the word we translate as “tempted” is peirazein. In English, the word tempt has a uniformly and consistently negative meaning. It is used to describe situations where one is being enticed to do the wrong thing; think of the story of Adam and Eve and of the serpent who, in one translation of the story, the serpent “seduces” Eve so that she will eat the forbidden fruit. When we are faced with temptation, we are at a fork in the road—we know the one way is right, and the other is wrong, and someone tries to persuade to take the wrong road.
But if we take another look at peirazein, the word can also be translated as tested or tried. And some bible translators go with that translation, and it offers a significantly different take on this struggle between Jesus and the devil—and can also greatly inform our own understanding of why we are tempted.
Jesus went off into the desert, led by the Holy Spirit, where he was tested by the devil. Really, the testing was by God. Look again at that first verse: After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. After that great spiritual “high” when Jesus was baptized and the heavens were opened and a voice proclaimed, “this is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased,” And now filled with the Holy Spirit, that same Spirit that had descended on Jesus in the form of a dove now leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Ah, the Wilderness. The wild, unruly place where animals prowl, where in the history of Israel the Jews wandered for two generations on their exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. The wilderness, through which God led the Israelites by God’s servant Moses, and where Israel was often painfully tested by God.
It is in the wilderness now, that unruly and wild place, where Jesus has been led by the Holy Spirit of God to be tempted by the devil. So who really was doing the testing here? Satan may have been the instrument of the temptations, but it was God who was conducting the test. How can this be? How can God lead someone to be tempted to sin? Because God is sovereign over all things, including Satan.
God the Father was testing Jesus, God’s Son. This might sound a bit hard to believe, a little harsh, but that’s ultimately what is happening here. Satan might have been the one challenging Jesus, challenging Jesus to meet his material wants at the expense of his relationship with God. But Jesus stands firm. Challenged again by Satan with an offer of worldly power if Jesus would just worship him, Jesus rebukes the devil: “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” Finally, the devil encourages Jesus to test God, to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple because God would surely save his Son. Again, Jesus passes the test, rebuffing Satan, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” The devil departs; Jesus has passed his test. But Satan will be back…
God frequently tests His servants. In the Old Testament we have many examples of God testing those He has called or is calling. Consider Abraham and Isaac. Perhaps one of the most terrifying stories in the Old Testament is the story of Abraham being called to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Genesis 22, in the King James version, reads, “And it came to pass after these things that God did tempt Abraham…” That temptation was, again according to the King James version, “take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and…offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.” Did God tempt Abraham here? Did God woo, or seduce, or try to persuade Abraham to do the “wrong thing?” No, what happened in this story that what God was doing was testing Abraham. The time had come after God had called Abraham to be his servant that now he would face the supreme test of loyalty. Abraham loved nothing more on earth than his son Isaac; the test was, did Abraham love God more? Did Abraham love the gift or the giver more?
The NT scholar William Barclay wrote in his commentary on this gospel reading, “Just as metal has to be tested far beyond any stress and strain that it will ever be called upon to bear, before it can be put to any useful purpose, so people have to be tested before God can use them for His purposes.” The rabbis have this saying: “The Holy One, blessed be his name, does not elevate a man to dignity till he has first tried and searched him; and if he stands in temptation, then he raises him to dignity.”
What we call temptation, then, might not have as it’s end result the question of whether we fall into sin; rather, when we are tempted, we are being strengthened by God for God’s purposes. Temptation, understood as a test, is meant not to make us bad, but to make us good. The temptations we face, whatever they might be, are intended to make us emerge stronger from the encounter, not weaker. Much like the tests I despise—those in the classroom or in the doctor’s office—they are used as assessments to prepare me to be a better student, or to potentially diagnose an illness or disease or other medical condition so that a remedy or cure might be administered. The purpose of the test or trial is to strengthen and refine, not destroy.
This was what was happening to Jesus in the wilderness. The Spirit of God had come upon him in his baptism—descending like a dove, we are told—and then God led Jesus into the wilderness to be tested. His task would be the greatest of all. First he had to battle the devil and overcome the temptations of pleasure, fame, and power; and Jesus withstands these temptations, passes this test…for now. The devil departs from Jesus after this episode, but will always be lurking in the background, waiting for another chance. The devil appears again when Peter tells Jesus that he should not have to be crucified, and Jesus responds to Peter, “get behind me, Satan!” And then the greatest temptation, the greatest test will be the night before Jesus is crucified, as he prays in Gethsemane, “Father, if it be thy will, take this cup of suffering from me; but not my will, but thy will be done.” Jesus was tempted and tested through his ministry, and by the grace of God, he passed all those tests—for our good.
God continues to test us. Daily we face temptations. A few years ago the magazine Discipleship Journal asked its readers to rank the areas of greatest spiritual challenge—temptation—to them. The results came back as follows:
- (Tie) Anger/Bitterness and Sexual Lust
If I were to go down this list, I could pretty much check them all off. Been tempted by each and every one, and I certainly could add a few more—but this is a pulpit, not my confessional. But what is striking to me is, looking at that list, how the more things change, the more they stay the same. If you look back at the history of Israel, or of the Church or just human history, those eight items would appear on almost all lists. Consider that it was around the 4th Century that the Church developed a list of the “Seven Deadly Sins”: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. They’re all there. My, how little human nature has changed.
Brothers and sisters, as you face temptations in your lives, pray to God—pray as our collect does: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; pray that God will help you with temptations, that God will guide you and support you and strengthen you pass the test he has given you. Because God is doing a great work in your life, working through the power of the Spirit—and even, sometimes, through the devil himself—to mold and shape you into what we pray for in baptism: that we might grow into the full stature of Christ. God provides the growth, and much growth comes as the result of our facing tests and temptations and, like Jesus, passing those tests and resisting temptation. As you stand against temptation, God is glorified, and you are a better witness to the power of God. Trust in the Lord, friends, and lean on Jesus not just when you are tested but at all times. My prayer is that your eyes would be open to a broader understanding of the sovereignty of God. God is in charge of all things; remember that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Amen.