Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
A man named Jack was walking along a steep cliff one day, when he accidentally got too close to the edge and fell. On the way down he grabbed a branch, which temporarily stopped his fall. He looked down and to his horror saw that the canyon fell straight down for more than a thousand feet. He couldn’t hang onto the branch forever, and there was no way for him to climb up the steep wall of the cliff. So Jack began yelling for help, hoping that someone passing by would hear him and lower a rope or something. “HELP! HELP!” He called “Is anyone up there? HELP!” He yelled for a long time, but no one heard him. He was about to give up when he heard a voice.
“Jack, Jack. Can you hear me?” A voice answered, “Yes, yes! I can hear you. I’m down here!”
“I can see you, Jack. Are you all right?” the voice answered. “Yes, but who are you, and where are you?””
“I am the Lord, Jack. I’m everywhere.” Jack responded, “The Lord? You mean, GOD?”
The voice answered. “That’s Me.” And Jack cried out, “Oh, God, please help me! I promise if, you’ll get me down from here, I’ll stop sinning. I’ll be a really good person. I’ll serve You for the rest of my life.”
“Easy on the promises, Jack. Let’s get you off from there; then we can talk.” God answered. Now, here’s what I want you to do. Listen carefully.”
“I’ll do anything, Lord.” Jack said, “Just tell me what to do.”
“Okay. Let go of the branch.” God said. “What?” Jack answered.
“I said, let go of the branch. Just trust Me. Let go.” There was a long silence.
Finally Jack yelled, “HELP! HELP! IS ANYONE ELSE UP THERE?”
It was no accident that Jesus wound up in the wilderness. He was not being punished for something he had done wrong, nor had he walked a little too close to the edge. He had been led by the Holy Spirit for a purpose: to be tested. Throughout scripture, the wilderness represents a place of preparation, a place of waiting for God’s next move, a place of learning to trust in God’s power and strength. For forty days and nights Jesus remained in the wilderness, without food, getting ready for what would come next, and there he was tempted and tested by the devil. So today, let us meditate on temptations and strength to resist.
Temptation is part of everyday life, and there’s a day that goes by when you and I won’t experience temptation in a variety of ways -like the temptation to stay angry at someone, or the temptation to give up, to worry or complain, or the temptation not to keep your word to someone who’s depending on you. Temptations are endless. And we’ve all got our hands full resisting it- even Jesus.
Mind you, temptation itself is not a sin. So if shallow thoughts haunt you, if base desires disturb your work, congratulations! This should be good news to you. It should be encouraging to know that the devil considers you worthy enough to site you as a target and to distract you from God’s purpose. Thoughts and actions only become sinful when you enter into them.
For Jesus, his temptations were not a one-time ordeal to get through, but they were tests of preparation for the choices he would make in the future in his earthly ministry. The heart of the temptation in the wilderness, you see, was not to prove that Jesus was the Son of God. The tempter already knew that. The testing was not to show that Jesus was better, stronger, and faster than the devil himself. Nor was the testing to demonstrate Jesus’ personal best to show his Father that he was up to the task. Rather, the testing was to give Jesus a glimpse of what challenges would lay ahead. Like all the prophets of old, Jesus would face battles where the forces of evil would try to discredit him. It suggested that doing the will of God would require going beyond one’s own self-interests. It said that the kind of obedience God needed would demand extraordinary vigilance. Jesus knew his source of his strength, that’s why the Spirit drove him out into the desert to test him. Unfortunately, you and I don’t always know the source of our strength.
I am reminded of the Sunday School teacher who was struggling to open a combination lock on the supply cabinet. She had been told the combination, but couldn’t quite remember it. Finally, she went to the pastor’s study and asked for help. The pastor came into the room and began to turn the dial. After the first two numbers, he paused and stared blankly for a moment. Finally, he looked serenely heavenward and his lips moved silently. Then he looked back at the lock, and quickly turned to the final number, and opened the lock. The teacher was amazed. “I’m in awe at your faith, pastor,” she said. “It’s really nothing,” he answered. “The number is on a piece of tape on the ceiling.” Regretfully, the secret to God’s inner strength for us is not written on a piece of tape, but it is available to you if you, if you know where to look.
It would be a disservice to the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, if we consider his victory against the devil a one and done. Jesus would continue to be tested every day. It is the truth that every person who has wrestled with addiction knows. Victory is only good for one day at a time. Temptations keep knocking at the door, waiting for the day when the resistance is low.
Instead, the story of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness teaches us that our Savior found strength for his testing in scripture and prayer, and that we can find it there as well. But we need to know where to look. So let me close, by offering you three portions of scripture to read and embrace.
The devil met Jesus at a time of great need. Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. And the tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” The devil was toying with Jesus’ sense of self-worth. It is a common fear, and tempts us as well. Have you really provided enough? The question sounds rational and respectable. As a parent, you wonder whether you are providing enough for your children. You begin to sacrifice more and more of your time, energy and income. When the devil challenges your self-worth, and makes you question whether you have done enough and tempts you to abandon God’s dream for your life, commit these words to memory, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” 1 John 3. Martin Luther liked to say, “God loves you more than your love yourself.” Indeed, God is more concerned with you and your welfare than you are. The more you wish to be blessed, the more he chooses to bless you. When the devil is testing your self-worth and tempting you to abandon God’s purpose in your life, say to him, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and so we are.” 1 John 3.
Then the devil took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem and said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’” Obviously, the devil was trying to foster some doubt in the mind of Jesus. He was treading on Jesus’ self -confidence.
Whenever you stand at the pinnacle of life, the devil whispers. “What are you doing up here? Do you think you really deserve to be here?” And when the Devil tests your self-confidence, and causes you to doubt your call, say to him, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4: 13. A social worker battling frustration and failure with hardcore addicts was asked, “How do you keep going?” She replied, “I guess it’s because I am under higher orders. I don’t have to succeed, but I have to keep trying.” Such is your duty as one called by Christ. “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13.
Again, the tempter took Jesus away to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” The devil was testing Jesus’ integrity and self-control. Over 20 years of parish- ministry, this is where I have seen the greatest struggles. The devil is often tempting people to abandon their integrity and self-control when the Devil tempts you to be compromised, remind yourself that you are never alone, and boldly answer. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witness, let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Hebrew 12: 1 and 2. The devil wants you to believe that you are alone. But my friends, you are never alone. Christ is going before you, and there is a host heaven cheering you on. They are filling the bleachers of heaven and are shouting to keep the faith. Hebrews 12: 1-2.
As for prayer, there is perhaps no better consolation in times of temptation and testing, than the words, “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the thinks I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Now you may be wondering, but why is this knowledge of scripture and prayer so important? Why? Because God never promised to remove temptation from us, and the devil will keep knocking at the door. Even Christ was subject to it. The promise of the gospel, however, is that the one who is “with you always, even to the end of the age” has already gone ahead of his followers, even to the most forsaken places of the wilderness; he meets them in the most difficult tests of their own lives. He will walk with you. No place is so desolate, so distant, or so challenging that Jesus has not already been there; no test or temptation is so great that Jesus has not already overcome it. When you facing in the everyday temptations of life, call upon God in prayer and scripture, and you can be assured that you will not walk alone. You can let go trusting, that he will catch you lovingly in the palm of his hand. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.