The Undertow of Temptations of Power

Message Manuscript for Lent 1A Matthew 4:1-11
Delivered to Church for the Highlands        John Henson
Sunday, March 5, 2017

[Audio of this sermon is here.]

How long can you endure in a crisis? That’s a question Lesley Alderman asks in her book, The Book of Times. Here’s what she finds:

If you’re ever stranded in the wilderness, are caught in a burning building, or find that your scuba tank has run out of oxygen, remember these survival rules courtesy of National Geographic magazine:

1. Humans can survive for just 2 to 3 minutes without air, but with training
it’s possible to hold your breath for 11 minutes.
2. Humans can survive for just 10 minutes at 300° F (children can only
survive a few minutes at 120° F).
3. Humans can endure barely 30 minutes of exposure to 40° F water.
4. Humans can survive for up to 7 days without water.
5. Humans can survive for about 45 days without food.

Our text for this morning describes the kind of endurance Jesus maintained in the challenge he faced while fasting forty days in the wilderness. Isn’t it helpful to know that Jesus, our leader and Savior, was faced with the powerful pull of temptations? We don’t often think of Jesus in this way, as a human like us. Our theology is nice and neat when we emphasize just the God part of the God-Man identity of Jesus. Neglecting the human side of Jesus not only makes us heretics, it causes us to miss out on the benefits of God’s incarnation into our world as one of us. Matthew, here in our text this morning, provides a powerful picture of what it looks like when God experiences the undertow-like pull of temptation that is an inevitable reality for all humans. While there were other temptations Jesus would face throughout his life, Matthew focuses in on three of the most significant ones, which the devil came to him with during his time in the wilderness.  (Lesley Alderman, The Book of Times (William Morrow, 2013), page 311)

temptation-of-christ-1872b1All three of the temptations have one thing in common: power. The first temptation was for Jesus to use his power to break his fast by turning the stones around him into bread. Stones were all over the place as Jesus walked through the wilderness. After a few days of fasting, they probably all started to look like loaves of bread. If you are the son of God, the devil whispers in his ear, just go ahead and turn one into bread. Jesus resists him. The second temptation was for Jesus to test God’s power to save him by jumping off the top of the temple. This was also a test for Jesus to prove he was really the son of God. Surely Jesus had times of questioning if he really was the son of God while he was out in the rugged terrain and suffering of the wilderness. Again, though, Jesus resisted the devil and his temptation. The third time the devil tempted Jesus by giving him a glimpse of all the kingdoms he could see from the highest mountain. The devil offered them all and all their power to Jesus if he would just bow down and worship him. This would have been a nice shortcut to power for Jesus. “Enough of all this fasting and discipline,” Jesus could have said. I can get to power faster by going with the devil’s plan. A third time, though, Jesus resists, saying no to the false promises to a false power.

It is a great understatement for me to say that we, like Jesus in the wilderness, have experienced the power of temptation. Chances are, you have already encountered temptation today. Maybe it was to roll over and sleep instead of getting up to go to church. Or perhaps you chose to love yourself more than a family member. Or what about being tempted this morning to eat something you gave up for Lent? Yes, if there’s one thing we know, it’s what temptation is like. We are tempted to think that we don’t have enough power and that God’s version of power is weak and lame; that what we have with God isn’t enough and that kingdoms and things would make our lives better. We are tempted to believe that there are shortcuts to success and that only fools wait to get things. We are tempted to believe the lie that God doesn’t care for us. We also know the other side of temptation—what it is like to give in to it and to realize how it doesn’t give us what we are really wanting; just empty promises.

The remarkable thing about temptations, though, is not the kind of power they have on us; it is the power they give us. Isn’t that what happened with Jesus as he was tempted? He found real power as he resisted each temptation. The very things intended to bring him down actually became the things that filled him up, with power. He found real power, not the kind the devil promised him. Matthew reveals how Jesus received power in his temptations by relying on God’s word, by drawing from God’s strength, and from experiencing God’s presence via the angels who came to him.

“That’s Jesus though,” you might say. “I’m not Jesus and certainly don’t have much power to say no to what tempts me,” you and I think to ourselves. Where and how can we find that power? The first part of answering that question is by getting clear on where we won’t find it. We won’t find it in the empires, regimes, agendas, and techniques of this world. It doesn’t come from money, prestige, religion, political party, or weapon. Wouldn’t our world be a better place if each of us as individuals and all of us as a church exercised power in Jesus’ way? And what would our world look like if our nation adopted the Jesus kind of power rather than going with the devil’s version?

We find real power just where Jesus did: in God’s word, in God’s strength, and in God’s presence. Jesus would continue to draw from it in each of those places, even as he would take his last breath while hanging on the cross. What about you? Where are you looking for real power? And where are we as a church looking for real power?

1As we partake in Communion together this morning, we do so while remembering that the source of real power is in what looks like real weakness: the body of Jesus broken by the political force of execution; the blood shed by one who died so selflessly. Don’t be fooled by appearances, though. What looked like weakness and defeat becomes the ultimate power and victory.

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