“Beating Temptation” sermon from First Sunday of Lent

Message Manuscript for “Beating Temptation”  Luke 4:1-13
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
First Sunday of Lent, February 14, 2016

Oscar Wilde was right when he confessed: “I can resist everything except temptation.”[1] I feel the truth of this every time there is a plate of freshly baked cookies on the kitchen counter as I walk by.  When I smell them baking, I remind myself that they are not for me; of how they do not fit my low-carb, sugarless diet.  The desire ends and I go on about whatever I was doing. Then I happen to walk through the kitchen and see the cookies. Again, they aren’t for me and I remind myself of what my doctor told me about the evils of things like cookies and white bread when my triglycerides were off the chart.  As I walk back through the kitchen, I see the cookies again, my stomach growls, and I soon begin justifying to myself that it wouldn’t hurt anything to have one.  Before long, that’s just what I do.  Have one.  That wasn’t so bad, so I have one more.  You know the rest of the story.

Have you found the same thing to be true for you, that temptations are at times irresistible?  Let’s just agree here this morning that temptations are a struggle for us all.  For some of us, temptation comes at us in the arena of food.  For others, it comes to us with alcohol or a drug. Some people battle against the temptation to judge other people, to indulge in pornography, to take what belongs to another person, to cheat on a test or on your 1040.  There are also the temptations that are more subtle because they relate to sins of omission, like when we know we could make a difference in someone’s life and don’t or when we see someone in need and do nothing to help.  In whatever way it comes to us, temptation is an inevitable reality for us all and one that can have a life-changing effect on us and the people we know.   So, do we just resign to our powerlessness and give in or is there a way we can learn to beat the temptations that come our way?Christ in the Wilderness, Ivan Kramskoy 1872

Luke’s account of Jesus’s forty-day journey in the wilderness provides us with an answer.  It comes in the form of one technique for beating temptation.   We can see it as a recurring phrase in these thirteen verses, in response to each temptation Jesus received.  By the way, we must first see here the significance of the fact that Jesus—the Son of God who was just baptized and affirmed with bold and loving words from his Father in heaven—was confronted with powerful temptations.  The devil is stalking Jesus, this Son of God as he begins his ministry, fresh from the baptismal waters and now “full of the Holy Spirit.”  What better time to bring down Jesus than when he is on such a spiritual and physical high point?

He first tempts Jesus in the area that must have been the weakest at this stage of his forty days of fasting: hunger.  He says “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” The devil then takes it up a notch and tempts him in the area of ambition and pride, showing him a view of all the kingdoms of the world, saying to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.  If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Again, Jesus resists the temptation and continues on his journey, gaining spiritual strength even as his physical strength was waning in the unforgiving surroundings of the wilderness.  The devil, persistent and unrelenting in his attempts to derail Jesus early in his ministry, comes at him again, this time to lure him away from his belief that God was watching out for him.  He challenges him to jump off of the pinnacle of the Temple to see if God would catch him.  He even quotes Scripture to him, “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus, who could have wondered during those forty days if God was still with him and cared for him, replied, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”  Jesus beat temptation once again and the devil left to regroup for another time.

Did you catch the technique Jesus used?  Each time he was tempted he responded with Scripture, with an “It is written . . .”  Jesus had a knowledge of Scripture, one not just in his head but also in his soul.  He not only knew what God had said but he knew how to apply those words to his life and circumstances.  The appropriate words of God came to him just when he needed them the most, all because he had learned them.  Learning would have involved hearing, reciting, meditating, and practicing them. All of this served as preparation for when Jesus when rely most on what he had learned.

The same thing is true for us with the temptations that come our way. We need to be prepared for our temptations.  It is not enough for us to want to beat them; we must be intentional about how we do it.  As Bear Bryant said, “It’s not the will to win that matters—everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.”[2]  This is critical, for our temptations never announce their arrival; they just show up at the most opportune times.  They target our greatest area of vulnerability and offer us a beautiful alternative to God’s plan for our lives.  You’ve never seen an ugly temptation, have you?  Forbidden fruit is always the most attractive choice among the offerings we are presented with in our lives.  Temptations promise the easiest route, the highest reward, the shiniest container, the greatest satisfaction, the smallest risk, the biggest return on investment, and the brightest future.  This was true for Jesus and it is true for you and me as well.  This is the one predictable characteristic of temptation.  The problem is that it can never deliver what it promises.  Giving in to them suddenly or eventually leads to harmful consequences for us, for the people around us, and sometimes for the world.  Just think of the terrible outcomes for Jesus and the world if he had given in to any of those temptations.  But he didn’t.  And he left us with his strategy to win against temptation as well.

The strategy is as powerful and simple for us as it was for Jesus:  applying Scripture to address what’s at the core of the temptation.  Applying it, of course, assumes knowing it.  That’s where we always need more exercise.  Like Jesus, we need to be familiar with Scripture, having a regular intake of it by hearing it, reading it, memorizing it, meditating on it, sharing it, and living it.  It is to be our daily bread, not just something we encounter at church or on a clever Pinterest posting.  As we go through Lent, are you willing to commit to daily intake of Scripture?  One of the things I am challenging our church, with me included, to do is memorize one key verse each week.  So, next week we will recite the one for this week and continue to add verses for each of the following weeks of Lent.

It is not enough, though, to memorize and know Scripture; we must practice applying it.  Let’s say, for example, you are tempted to lie to your boss.  If you know Proverbs 12:22 in your heart, “The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy,” then you will remember it and be able to say it to yourself as a defense.  Or, if you are on a diet and someone at work brings a big batch of homemade cinnamon rolls with a thick layer of icing on top, you can quote (to yourself or to everyone in the room!), then knowing 1 Corinthians 6:19 will come in handy as you remember, “Do you know know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God?”  Another verse that works well for temptations in the area of judging other people is from Matthew 7:1-2, where Jesus says “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” If you are tempted to serve yourself and build your own kingdom, knowing the word of Jesus in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” will ensure an alert will go off within you causing you to reconsider.

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As a reminder of the vital necessity of Scripture in our battles with temptation, everyone will receive one of these mini keychain Bibles.  I know, they look a little cheesy and people may think you are another one of those Bible thumpers.  Maybe that’s ok.  We could all stand to do a little more thumping during this season. The idea is to put it on your keychain as an ever present reminder of the usefulness, power, and presence of God’s word with you wherever you go.  Keep it there with your keys throughout Lent and remember how Jesus used the words of God, a winning technique available for the temptations you face today.

AUDIO OF THE SERMON IS HERE

[1] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/temptation.html

[2] http://www.leadershipnow.com/preparationquotes.html

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