SERMON – THE FIRST (AND LAST?)TEMPTATION OF CHRIST

THE FIRST (AND LAST?) TEMPTATION OF CHRIST

A sermon based on Luke 4:1-13

First Baptist Church of Lynchburg

March 10. 2019

By Paul Dakin

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

 

Today is the first Sunday in Lent. Lent is a time of repentance and examination leading up to Palm Sunday and Holy Week—and then culminating in the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord on Easter morning.

 

As a thoroughly Baptist kid growing up in the Deep South in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, the churches that I attended never had much to do with Lent. There was no special emphasis. Nothing different or unusual about that time of year at our church. It was just the usual church activities from week to week. No one ever said this, but I think that the reason that we did not do anything with Lent—or the rest of the church calendar apart from Christmas and Easter—is that it appeared to many of those good Baptist folks that such emphases as Lent or Advent were “too Catholic” or “too Episcopalian.” And the Lord knows that no good Baptist wanted to ever be accused of that back in those days!

 

Nowadays, I know of a lot of Baptist churches that do observe Lent—at least in some form. In some traditions, it is customary to “give up” something for Lent as a sign of penitence. Members of several religious bodies used to give up meat during the season of Lent. I suppose that there are still some good church people that go vegetarian during Lent. Though I have noticed that most often folks nowadays prefer to give up something like chocolate…or TV…or something else as a way of practicing their devotion to God.

 

[Side bar: As the time of Lent was approaching one year, I have a friend who half-jokingly told me that, after much consideration, he had decided that he would be “giving up his morals for Lent.” When my wife Miriam heard about it, she remarked to me, “You cannot give up something that you don’t have…” In his case especially, I guess there was more than an element of truth…]

 

The gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent is usually the story of Jesus being tempted by the Devil in the wilderness. And so it is this year. Today’s gospel passage is the account as told by Luke.

 

Luke tells us that immediately after he was baptized by John in the Jordan River, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness—the desert. (Interestingly, Mark tells us that the Spirit drove him into the Wilderness. It is a much more forceful word. It makes me wonder if our Lord really would have preferred not to go…)

 

While he was fasting alone in the desert for forty days, Luke tells us that the Devil came to Jesus to tempt him. Mark’s account, which only lasts two verses, does not give us the nature of those temptations. Matthew and Luke tell us that the Devil tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread, to bow down and worship the Devil, and to throw himself off of the highest point of the Temple in Jerusalem.[1] Jesus, of course, refused to do the Devil’s bidding at every turn.

 

But then Luke makes a statement at the tail end of this temptation story that neither Matthew nor Mark include. In verse thirteen, Luke writes that “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from [Jesus] until an opportune time.” Depending on the English translation that one uses, that last phrase can rendered as “for a season,” “for a while,” “for a time,” “for a better time,” “until a favorable time,” or “until the next opportunity came” among others.[2]

 

Luke says that the Devil was waiting for the next best opportunity to trap Jesus and make him sin—he wanted to derail Jesus’ mission—he was attempting to cause Jesus to stumble and fall. As best as I can tell, there is no other place in any of the gospels where it explicitly says that our Lord went toe-to-toe against the Devil in the same way that he did here. So what’s the rest of the story? Did the Devil realize that he had been beaten and so did not confront Jesus any more during his earthly ministry? That the Devil was going to leave Jesus alone? No—I am sure that is not the case. And that is not what Luke says. Luke tells us that the Devil withdrew for a while so that he could plot his next move.

 

And when would that next move against Jesus likely be? It is instructive to note that this confrontation between our Lord and the Devil in Luke 4 occurred right after a significant event in Jesus’ life. In this case, that event was his baptism. You remember that John the Baptist had announced that Jesus was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John’s words were confirmed by God when a voice came from heaven, saying, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased.” And Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove. What an exhilarating experience that must have been for our Lord! It certainly was an important milestone in the life of our Lord. And then, after that event, our Lord went into the desert to be alone and it was there that the Devil approached him.

 

As one reads through the gospels, it is noteworthy that Jesus often withdrew to a deserted place after a significant event. I have a suspicion that today’s text reveals a pattern of spiritual conflict that was repeated over and over in the life of Jesus. And it occurred whenever Jesus sought solitude away from the disciples and the crowds…especially after a major event in his ministry…

 

For example: the next time that Luke tells us that Jesus sought out solitude is in chapter 5. In this chapter, Jesus called his first disciples to follow him—Simon Peter, James and John. These new disciples travelled with Jesus as he went to some of the surrounding towns on a teaching and healing tour. Luke tells us that Jesus healed a lot of people. Most spectacularly, he cured a man who was covered from head to toe with the dreaded skin disease of leprosy. The news spread like wild fire about Jesus’ ability to heal all kinds of diseases. Verse15 tells us that crowds came from all over to hear him and to be healed. But in verse 16, Luke writes that he “often withdrew to lonely places to pray.”

 

Do you suppose that the Devil might have seized this opportunity to test Jesus once more? Think with me: What kinds of things might the Devil have tempted Jesus with on this occasion? Maybe the Devil was whispering words of flattery in Jesus’ ear in an attempt to awaken in him a pride that was not God-honoring. (“Look at all this marvelous stuff you have been doing!”) Or maybe he was suggesting that Jesus had already done enough and should turn his attention to some other endeavor. Or maybe he was playing on Jesus’ sense of weariness and tried to make him take an extended break from his mission and so distract him further. Maybe that was the Devil’s approach…

 

Another example: In Luke chapter 6, Jesus has his first serious run-in with the Pharisees. They accuse him of being a flagrant Sabbath breaker by plucking grains of wheat from a field. And then, to add insult to injury, he broke the Sabbath again by healing a man with a withered hand—right under their noses in the synagogue, no less. (Being a Sabbath breaker may not seem like much to us, but to those folks back in that day, it was a BIG DEAL.) In the minds of the Pharisees, and maybe in the minds of others as well, one sent from God would certainly not be guilty of such a deliberate—and very public—sin. And so, consequently, Luke tells us that the Pharisees began to plot against him. Verse 12 tells us, “Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.” Do you suppose that the Devil interrupted our Lord as he prayed? Did he attempt to make him discouraged as he began to ponder the hateful opposition that was already gathering itself against him? Did he try to suggest to Jesus that there were easier ways to go about his business that would engender less opposition and less conflict? I do not know, but maybe that is how the Devil tempted him this time…

 

In Matthew 14, Jesus and his disciples learn of the death of John the Baptist. You may remember that John had been imprisoned by Herod and then he was beheaded. After learning what had happened to John, verse 13 tells us that Jesus “withdrew by boat to a solitary place.” What might the Devil have said to him this time? I do not know, but maybe something along the lines of “See what happened? If you continue down this path that you are going, there is nothing to stop Herod and the Roman authorities from doing the very same thing—and worse—to YOU—and to your followers. You don’t want that to happen, do you? It does not have to be that way, you know. You can follow God without having to rock the boat so much. All you have to do is tone it down a little bit. People will understand and they will still love you for being you…” This time, maybe that was the Devil’s tactic in tempting our Lord…

 

And then there was the final showdown between Jesus and the Devil in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night that he was betrayed. Luke 22 tells us that Jesus went on ahead of where his disciples were resting at the Mount of Olives. And he prayed and struggled within himself, knowing what lie in store in the hours ahead. You remember that he asked, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” Luke records that Jesus was in so much anguish that his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

 

Also noteworthy is the fact that Jesus had already cautioned his disciples to be on their guard, so that they would not fall into temptation. (vv. 40 and 46) If our Lord was concerned that the disciples could fall into temptation at this critical hour—and he warned them about it ahead of time—then why would Jesus think that he would be exempt from the Devil’s temptations as well? I do not think he was.

 

Can’t you just hear the Devil describing the horrors—both the physical and spiritual horrors of the Cross—that Jesus would soon face in order to persuade him NOT to go through with it? To paint for Jesus in lurid detail the awful physical pain, the emotional suffering and abject spiritual abandonment that he would experience as he was being crucified? The Scriptures indicate that Jesus experienced great emotional agony in the Garden. I imagine that the Devil pulled out all the stops on this occasion in a last-ditch effort to make our Lord fail. But once again, it was not Jesus but the Devil who failed. Praise be to God—Jesus was faithful to the very end—all the way to the Cross…and beyond…

 

The main take-away from this sermon is this: We are always to be on our guard to avoid temptation. But some of the most critical times when we are tempted are often during times of great emotional and spiritual victory…or emotional and spiritual upheaval.

 

Who among us that call Jesus as Lord has not experienced temptation’s snares very soon after a time when we have experienced God being especially close to us? We have basked in the warmth of his love and feel him near during a time of worship…or in a time of prayer…or at some other time when the presence of God is very apparent to us in our lives, only to have some temptation very quickly rear its ugly head, enticing us to fall back into our old ways of thinking—our old comfortable ways of living—our old ways of behaving that are not so God-honoring. All of a sudden, seeming out of nowhere, our new resolve, our new outlook, our new focus on God is put to the test to see if we really intend to carry on through with our desires.

 

Or conversely—sometimes it is when our lives are at a low ebb when temptation threatens us the most. A once-precious relationship has gone sour. A financial reversal threatens our well-being and future. We experience the loss of health, the loss of family, the loss of physical ability. And we mourn those losses. That is only natural. But it is often right at that point when temptation will come to us, inviting us to take the path of least resistance—to find something else to fill the void—to invite us to make choices that are not at all beneficial in helping us to really come to grips with and face the situation. Choices that pull us farther away from—and not closer to—God…

 

The Apostle Paul knew how strong the pull of temptation can be. It was true even in the life of someone as devoted to God as he was. In Romans 7, he writes about the predicament in very clear terms. He says, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do…for I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good that I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep doing…When I want to do good, evil is right here with me…” (vv. 15, 18-19 and 21)

 

Does that sometimes describe YOUR life when you are tempted? He goes on to say that the only way to break the cycle of falling to temptation in our lives is to cast ourselves on Christ, for it is only he who can deliver us from the temptations which come our way—enticing us to be less than what God intends for to be in Jesus…for it is he who defeated the Devil at every turn…

*******

Today’s sermon concludes with a performance of a song that became popular during the folk music roots revival of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Many people became acquainted with the song through recordings by folk singers like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary. But it has also been recorded by many other artists, including the likes of Sir Paul McCartney and Elvis as well. The song is “All My Trials.”

 

No one knows for sure about the origin of the song. There is some kind of connection of the song to the Bahamas, but it is not clear if it originated there or if it was imported there from somewhere else. But it does not really matter. I think that the song has a wide appeal because it speaks to the trials and temptations that we all face—and the end result of how those tests work out in our lives.

 

All my trials Lord soon will be over

 

The river of Jordan is muddy and cold

It chills the body but not the soul

All my trials Lord soon will be over

 

If religion were a thing that money could buy

The rich would live and the poor would die

All my trials Lord soon will be over

 

There grows a tree in Paradise

And the pilgrims call it the Tree of Life

All my trials Lord soon will be over[3]

 

To God alone be the glory! Amen.

 

 

 

[1] Matthew 4:1-11 and Mark 1:12-13 in addition to today’s text.

[2] www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/Luke4:13 (Accessed March 6, 2019)

[3] As with most folk songs, there are many variations of the words of this song. This is a compilation from a couple of different sources.

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