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Temptation & Obedience

by RevJan

based on Matthew 4:1-11

In his book, The Cultural World of Jesus, John Pilch writes: The Mediterranean world lives by a deeply rooted belief in spirits who exist in numbers too huge to count and whose major pastime is interfering capriciously in daily human life. . . . When the voice from heaven identified Jesus at his baptism as "my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased" (Matt 3:17), all the spirits heard this compliment. Every Mediterranean native knows what must and will happen next. Spirits will test Jesus to determine whether the compliment is indeed true, and just in case it might be true they will try to make him do something displeasing to God. It is no surprise, then, that the very next scene Matthew presents is "the temptation." . . . Three times Jesus is tempted to do something that would make him a displeasing son. Three times Jesus replies with a quotation from Scripture to vanquish the temptation. The devil also quotes Scripture to Jesus but still does not succeed in tripping him up. Jesus wins the contest and the devil leaves him. . . . . . . The story of Jesus' victory over the devil is not intended . . . as a model for baptized Christians who also have to battle against evil spirits. No Christian possesses the powers that Jesus is here tempted to misuse. Matthew's purpose in this story is to present Jesus as the faithful and obedient son of God . . . Jesus is a model of obedience to God. He emerges victorious from his combat with the devil. He can safeguard and maintain his honor and avoid shame. Until his arrest, trial, and death, no one — human or spirit — succeeds in shaming him, tripping him up, or causing him to fall from his stated position and goals. This is the consequence of unflinching obedience to God.

Obedience has fallen out of favor in recent years. In a democracy, the idea of swearing allegiance, obedience, to a king is abhorrent. The idea that one should obey one's boss — unless you're in the military — has become the teamwork approach to problem solving. Bosses are no longer those who decide upon a solution, they are the ones who direct the problem-solving team. Few young women ask to have the word "obey" included in their marriage vows, and there are many clergy who refuse to include it. Even the idea of children obeying their parents — or their teachers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, or anyone their senior — has declined. This may be because child abusers use obedience to intimidate the child, and thus hide the abuse. Certainly, one should not be made to succumb to anything that harms them — either in body or mind. Yet, learning obedience is important. Many of you know that when Bob and I were first married, we cared for one of his students. Michelle was six years old, and wore a two toddler when we first met her. She was a Down Syndrome child, but was neglected by her adoptive parents. Bob saw potential in her, and asked for permission to work with her outside of school. One of the characteristics of Down Syndrome is stubbornness. Michelle would stand next to the dinner table, cock her head, and look at you, trying to figure out just how far she could push before she really, really had to sit down and "eat like a lady." Eventually — two minutes, five minutes, ten, twenty minutes later — and I never knew what finally clicked with her — she'd give a little sigh, sit down, and "eat like a lady." I remember telling Bob that she had better learn to obey, or someday there was going to be a fire, someone would yell "Come on, Michelle," she'd stand there looking at them, and get left behind — because she wouldn't obey. When he was starting an orphanage, John Wesley wrote to his mother asking how she had managed to raise twenty-one children. Here is part of what she replied: In order to form the minds of children, the first thing to be done is to conquer their will and bring them to an obedient temper . . . by neglecting timely correction, they will contract a stubbornness and obstinacy which is hardly ever after conquered; and never, without using such severity as would be as painful to me as to the child. In the esteem of the world they pass for kind and indulgent, whom I call cruel, parents, who permit their children to get habits which they know must be afterward broken. . . . religion is nothing else than the doing the will of God and not our own . . . Therein lies the temptation presented by today's scripture lessons — the temptation to do our will and not God's. Adam and Eve made the decision to disobey God's will and to follow their own will. You can claim that the devil made them do it. But I haven't read where the Bible says the snake reached up, plucked the fruit off the tree, and stuck it in Eve's mouth. No where does the Bible say that Eve twisted Adam's arm. Both Eve and Adam made the decision to disobey God. Whatever the reason, whatever the rewards, whatever their needs, one fact is indisputable — they disobeyed God. Jesus was different. Jesus never disobeyed God. As Pilch says, none of us will ever be tempted with the powers that Jesus was tempted to misuse. We do, however, face other temptations every day. Every day we decide whether or not we will obey God. Perhaps the temptation is subtle. There are times when it is much easier for me to make a decision on my own than it is to try to discover God's will. It can take quite some time to find a Bible passage that even remotely relates to a crisis I may be facing in my life. Then there's that thing about prayer. I'm very good at asking God for what I want. I'm not so good at listening to what God wants for me. Yet, without Bible reading and prayer, I can never know what God's intentions for my life are. Those two elements — scripture and prayer — are what kept Jesus faithful to God when he was tempted. Throughout the gospels, there are incidents of Jesus quoting scripture: He said to them, "It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer'; but you are making it a den of robbers." [Mat 21:13] Then Jesus said to them, "You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.'" [Mat 26:31] He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;" [Mark 7:6] and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day," [Luke 24:46] "Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" [John 6:31] It is obvious that Jesus was familiar with the scriptures, and used them in his daily life. For Jesus, the scriptures were not merely something to be read, memorized, and put on the back burner, they were directives, models, words for daily living. Prayer, too, was a habit for Jesus. Prayer was not something he did at church, before meals, and at bedtime. Prayer was a constant source of strength and renewal for him. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,[Mat 14:23] After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray. Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. [Luke 6:12] Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. [Luke 9:28] Jesus knew scripture, and took the time to pray. That's how he was able to resist temptation.


What is it that tempts you the most? Some people say we are tempted most by our weaknesses. That it is in the times and places we are most vulnerable that Satan comes to challenge our obedience to God. Certainly, Jesus was at his weakest when the devil came to him. He'd been in the wilderness, fasting, for forty days. He'd had no human contact. He was hungry, tired, dirty, thirsty. Suddenly, here came the devil offering him bread, power and glory. No one would ever fault him for taking the bread. "After all," we could say, "he only gave-in once. That's understandable. But look at what a good job Jesus did! He resisted two out of three temptations! Give him an A-." We could then be saying about Jesus, "He only made one bad choice in his life. Isn't that good?" But that's not what Jesus did. Jesus refused all temptations. Sometimes, it is the places where we feel like complete failures that tempt us the most. Because we feel we can never improve, we refuse to work on our weaknesses — even when God is compelling us into the wilderness to work on those issues. Being faithful to God is not dependent upon how we feel about ourselves, or how we feel about God. "Well, God, I fell pretty good about myself today, so I guess I'll try to do what you want me to." Or, "I'm so far behind in my work, my prayer life, my bills, my house cleaning, that I'm just going to give up and never work, never pay bills, never clean house, never pray again."


What is it that tempts you the most? Some people say we are tempted most by our strengths, that it is there we will fall the hardest. We all have a tendency to say we do not need to work on our strengths. We see our weaknesses as temptations. We quit working on the places we know we are good, and lose the edge. I'd hate to tell you the number of people I know who can quote the Bible, but who refuse to do Bible study, or read interpretations. After all, if the King James version was good enough for Jesus, it ought to be good enough for us! It is the stubborn belief that our way is right, that we know enough, that we are religious enough, generous enough, faithful enough, that most often leads us into temptation. Jesus was able to resist Satan because the spiritual disciplines of prayer and scripture reading were well-established habits in his life. He didn't have to thumb through his personal copy of the Torah looking for a verse to throw at the devil. The words came easily to him because he lived with them every day. Prayer was not something Jesus did only when he was in trouble. It was as natural to him as talking. Knowledge of scripture and prayer were as much a part of Jesus as the hairs on his head, or the color of his eyes. When we pray the Lord's Prayer, we pray "lead us not into temptation." Through the spiritual disciplines of prayer and scripture reading, we can avoid being lead into temptation. Yet, they must become to us as they were to Jesus – as much a part of us as the hairs on our head, or the color of our eyes. For me the problem is not only finding the time to pray and read scripture (other than for sermons), but remembering to seek God's will in all things. Audrey has said that she's spent a lot of time in prayer these last two months. The other day we were talking about Matthew's schedule — school, Lost in Yonkers, Scouts, Beta Club, piano, show choir, acting lessons — and whether I should allow him to be in the school musical, too. Audrey said something that, as pastor I should have thought of, but as a mother I hadn't had time to do. She said, "Pray about it. Pray about it as a family." Now, I pray to God a lot. Some days are a constant prayer. Yet, I very seldom think to ‘bother' God with little things like schedules. After all, isn't that why God made Moms — so God didn't have to worry about the little things? No. God wants to worry about the little things, too. That's why God is God. People who go to God in prayer, for even the littlest things in their lives, have developed the spiritual discipline that allows them to turn to God, to trust God, and to discern God's will in the little and the big things. Sales people tell us that anything you do for twenty-one days becomes a habit. There are forty days in Lent. Now is the time for us to begin the spiritual disciplines of prayer and scripture reading. Now is the time to turn to God for all the little things in our lives. Then, when the big temptations, the big challenges, the times of trial come along, we won't have to search for the right words, or flip through the pages of the Bible trying to find appropriate words of comfort and strength. The prayer and the scriptures will be as inborn in us as breathing. And so I challenge you, I challenge me, I challenge us, to begin today to set aside time for scripture reading and for prayer each day for the next twenty-one days. No excuses. Find the time. Take the phone off the hook. Set aside the newspaper, the novel. Do it at breakfast with your spouse, at dinner with your family. Get up five minutes earlier, go to bed five minutes later. Whatever you do, spend time each day for the next twenty-one days reading scripture and in prayer. I'll check back with you on March 14th. Jesus was perfectly obedient to God. We may never reach that pinnacle, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. Whatever the powers, whatever the forces, whatever the temptations you face, remember this, God is for you. Who then, can be against you?