Sermon

Matthew 4:1-11

The Tempter, the Tease

By Pastor Steven Molin

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

It began quite innocently; my life of crime, that is. I don’t know how old I was, maybe ten? And I can’t remember what I took from Henderson’s Ace Hardware Store on Rice Street, but I remember I didn’t do it on purpose. I think I just put it in my pocket while I was looking at something else, and then I discovered my theft long after I had left the store. I do remember one thing “Wow! That was easy!” So I did it again, some time later. And then I broadened my sights and started taking things at Setzer’s Pharmacy, the most memorable item being a large, heart-shaped box of Valentine’s candy for my English teacher.

My career in random crime came to an abrupt end in 9th grade when I was caught shoplifting with my best friend, Dean Anderson. You know Dean; he’s the actor who played MacGuyver on the television series. We were caught red-handed at a Snyder’s Drug Store, and the fear of my father finding out made me rethink my life and change my ways. Oh, I still do inappropriate things; don’t we all? But I haven’t given in to that temptation for over forty years.

Temptation. It’s so subtle when it first comes to us, we may not even know its temptation. Rather, we are given a glimpse of something that we want, or something we think we really need, or more subtly yet, something we think we really deserve. And then our mind starts to work on us.

• “If I write notes on my hand I’ll do better on that chemistry exam.”
• “Other guys have fancy cars, why shouldn’t I have one?”
• “If I don’t report this income on my taxes I’ll save thousands!”
• “If I take just one drink, I’ll relax, loosen up; have more fun.”

And when we yield to the temptation, next time, it becomes easier. We reason that “I did it once, one more time won’t hurt” and we give in to temptation again. After awhile, we don’t even bother with the formality of inner-conflict; as the commercial says, we “just do it.” We’re not proud of it, we still sense its perhaps wrong, but we don’t stop…or we can’t stop.

In his book The Screwtape Letters, author C.S. Lewis describes the relationship between Screwtape, a sort of “high ranking officer in the devil’s army,” and a “devil in training” whose name is Wormwood, and who happens to be the nephew of Screwtape. Wormwood’s assignment is to lure one suspect away from his faith in God, using all the tricks and toys that the devil has in his arsenal. Early in the assignment, Screwtape writes this:

“My dear Wormwood, the first thing is to delay as long as possible the moment which he realized this new pleasure is a temptation. You will say that these temptations are merely very small sins. That is true, but it doesn’t matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to lead the man out of Light and into our darkness.”

And then Screwtape concludes:

“Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

C.S. Lewis says something in the preface of his book which speaks directly to the topic that stands before us. “There are two equal and opposite errors into which people can fall when it comes to the devil. One is to disbelieve in his existence; the other is to believe and to feel an unhealthy interest in him.”

When we speak of temptation, it seems reasonable to begin with the tempter himself. Our first lesson today describes that familiar story in Genesis, after Adam and Eve have been given free reign of the Garden of Eden. “Its all for your pleasure” God tells them. “Enjoy it, but stay away from that one tree, you know, the one in the middle of the garden. Because if you eat from that tree, you will die.”

God warned Adam and Eve; he told them that, for their own safety, but then the tempter went to work. “C’mon Eve, didn’t God say you could have it all?”

“Well yes,” said Eve. “But that tree is off-limits. God says if we eat from it, we will die.”

“You’re not going to die! God’s just jealous because it will make you as smart as he is. It looks delicious doesn’t it, that fruit. And you deserve it; I mean, you’ve been working hard in this garden, naming all the animals, and aren’t you just a little bit curious about how it would taste?”

“Well, I suppose you’re right. I mean, one little bite wouldn’t hurt.” And she bit, and then she brought it to her husband, and said “Look, I took a bite and I’m fine. Try it.” And he bit. And immediately sin swept into their lives. And they did die, spiritually. The choice they made separated them from God.

That time, the tempter came in the form of a snake. In our gospel lesson, it seems that the tempter is just a voice. “Psstt! Jesus. Hey, Jesus. If you are God, turn these rocks into hamburger buns. Come on Jesus, can you prove you’re God or not?” The tempter now begins the tease. “Hey Jesus, let’s try something fun. Jump off of this cliff. If you’re God, you can fly. Come on, show me.” That didn’t work, so the devil tries a different tease; “Hey Jesus, look at all the wealth and power and stuff the world has to offer; new cars, pretty women, castles and servants, and I’ll tell you what; I’ll give it all to you, Jesus, if you’ll just get on your knees and say that I am your hero.”

Martin Luther wrote of the brutal temptation he faced while living in Wartburg Castle. He determined that he would mock the devil each time he was tempted. There is an ink spot on the wall of his room yet today, left there when Luther allegedly threw his ink well at the devil, and another time he recounted that he shouted to the devil “I hope you would poop in your pants and then tie them around your neck!”

Well, when the devil teased Jesus, he wouldn’t have any of it, but what about us? The teases in this world look so very attractive, don’t they? New cars, pretty women and big castles are the trophies of success in this world. If we have them, people will love us. If we have them, people will listen to us, and follow us, and worship us. And if I don’t hurt anyone else in the process, what’s the big deal? No blood – no foul. That’s the tease.

I remember an incident in our home when our kids were very young. In a previous energy crisis, we had purchased a portable kerosene heater and placed it in the center of our living room, and told the kids “Do Not Touch!” Looking back now, it was the Tree in the middle of the garden. “You can touch the television set, you can touch the stereo, you can even touch the plants in the window, but don’t ever touch the kerosene heater, because if you do, you’ll be hurt.” Like God, we gave our kids that warning because we loved them and we didn’t want to see them get hurt.

Well, Kyle was a curious little four year old, and he was most curious about that kerosene heater. “Can’t I touch it, just once?” he asked. No Kyle, you’ll burn yourself. Every time he walked by it, he came a little bit closer. “I really want to touch it.” No, Kyle, it will hurt you. “But I really want to try.”

Marsha thinks it was me; I’m sure it was she who finally gave in to Kyle’s curiosity. “Okay, go ahead and touch it; but I’m warning you, it’s going to hurt.” He touched it lightly and immediately retracted his hand and said “Ouwie, ouwie, ouwie! That hurts! Why did you let me touch it?” I suppose his response also resembles our own prayers to God after we have given in to temptation and then blame him for the poor choices we make. “Why did you let me buy that expensive car? Why did you let me take that first drink? Why did you give me free will and let me gamble?” Even Adam and Even went through that contortion in the Garden of Eden. “It’s not my fault” Adam said, “it was the woman you gave me.” “It’s not my fault” said Eve, “it’s the snake that you allowed in the garden.” So we blame God; it’s been going on since creation began.

When you leave this place today, the temptations will begin again. You will be teased by the beautiful, or the powerful, or the potential that the world offers. The tease will look good to you: success, money, intimacy, excitement, influence; the tempter knows what lures us. And this will be a test; or call it a trial, whatever. Will we give into that temptation, or will we resist? Will we cave, as did Adam and Eve? Or will we fight the good fight, as did Jesus in the wilderness when the devil tempted him?

Let me provide you with one bad statement and three good questions, and then I’m through. The bad statement is this; in fact, it is the only bad prayer that I’ve ever heard of, and this is the prayer: “Forgive me, God, for what I’m about to do.” Knowing it’s wrong, realizing that to follow the tempter into his snare and asking God in advance to rescue you is a horrible prayer. We do it – I do it – but it’s a terrible prayer. It cheapens grace is what it does. And if nothing else, we need to call it what it is.

The three good questions are these; you might even jot these down, and next time you are tempted, go through the list.

The first question is “Is this thing I am about to do good for me?” We know the things that are good for us and the things that are bad for us. I’m not talking about having a second piece of pie; I’m talking about a decision that is immoral or illegal or detrimental to our lives or the lives of others. We know right from wrong, we just need the courage to follow through.

The second question is this: “Will this thing I am about to do honor God?” Do you know how much God hurt when Eve ate the forbidden fruit? Do we know how God grieves when we follow through with things that we know are against his will?

And the third question: “Will I regret my actions tomorrow?” A generation ago Pastor Phil Hansen wrote a book entitled “Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired” and in it he described his decision to change his life so that he might feel better about himself. We might consider the same deliberation.

People, let me be clear about this: Lent is not the season of legalism; it is not a time to beat ourselves with rules and regulations and the failures of our lives. Lent is the season of introspection and repentance; a time to consider God’s amazing grace, and how our living might be the evidence of our gratitude for that grace. In the coming days of Lent, may we refuse to let temptation go unchallenged. And may that lead to good choices, joyful living, and deeper faith in the Savior. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Copyright 2008 Steven Molin. Used by permission.