A Time for Testing

September 17, 2017

Norwalk First United Methodist Church

Gospel of Mark

15th Sunday after Pentecost

A Time for Testing

Mark 1:12-13

          Mark, the author of our gospel moves very quickly in telling the story of the Son of God. The coming of Jesus has been announced by John the Baptist, Jesus is baptized, and now immediately, Mark says, Jesus is driven into the wilderness to be tempted.

The Holy Spirit does not remove Jesus from the struggle against the ungodly powers of the world. He is tempted the same as you and I are tempted. But the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit who came upon Jesus at his baptism, drives him into the wilderness to challenge and test the strength of these ungodly powers.

William Barclay says in his commentary on Mark, that “in this life it is impossible to escape the assault of temptation; but one thing is sure – temptations are not sent to us to make us fall; they are sent to strengthen the nerve and the sinew of our minds and hearts and souls. They are not meant for our ruin, but for our good. They are meant to be tests from which we emerge better warriors and athletes of God.”

Folks, temptation is something that all of us must deal with. It is an everyday thing. There is not a person on the face of this earth that is exempt from temptation. If Satan will tempt Jesus, then you had better believe he will tempt you and me.

This account in Mark of Jesus’ temptation is very brief. However, the account was expanded by the authors in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Obviously, Jesus’ encounter with Satan was just between the two of them. Therefore, none of the gospel writers would have been privy to this event if Jesus himself had not told his disciples about it at some other time when they were together. And so today, we will be reading from Luke 4:1-13 to get more of the details of the temptations of Christ. Would you pray with me?

PRAYER

As we read the temptation story in the gospels, we first need to note two things. The length of time of the temptation and the one doing the tempting. In Hebrew literature, both in the Old Testament and in other sources, the phrase “forty days and forty nights” is often used. Moses was on the mountain with God for forty days. It was for forty days that Elijah went in the strength of the meal the angel gave him. The flood continued for forty days during Noah’s time. And in today’s story, Jesus was in the desert forty days and forty nights before he was tempted. This common Hebrew phrase is not to be taken literally. It simply means a considerable time. This temptation lasted long enough that the authors of three of the gospels considered it important to include in their stories.

The one doing the tempting is called Satan in Mark, the Tempter in Matthew, and the Devil in Luke. This is the same Tempter we find in the account of Adam and Eve. The writers of the Old Testament saw Satan as one of the sons of God whose particular task was to consider men and to search for some case that could be pleaded against them in the presence of God. He was the accuser of men before God. The author of Job writes, One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it.”

            Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”

            “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

            The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord. Much like Job, God permits the devil to test his Son and so leads Jesus into a confrontation with the devil.

There is no doubt that Satan, the leader of the fallen angels from heaven, wanted to tempt the Son of God to demonstrate his control over the physical world and over the ability to change God’s creation, in such things as political kingdoms, power and military control of humans, and faith in God. But through all of this, Jesus didn’t seem to be surprised. After all, he had known the tempter since the time of creation.

You and I shouldn’t be surprised either when temptation comes to us. First Peter 5:8 reads: Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. We need to open our eyes and realistically prepare for the devil’s onslaughts when they do occur. Like Jesus, we may feel the temptations more when we are tired or under stress, when we are alone or away from home, after a spiritual high, when we are not expecting it, or when we withdraw from the church.

We need to realize that throughout our faith journey we never “arrive” at a place where we are temptation free. We are never so spiritual that something can’t get to us, to test us to see what decisions and choices we will make. And you know what, temptation is not necessarily bad. Temptation allows us to test our convictions.

It has been said that “your convictions are only strong if they hold up under pressure.” Temptation is not meant to weaken us but to make us emerge stronger from the ordeal. In the Book of James, he writes this, consider it pure joy, my brothers [and sisters], whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.

Please realize this, temptation, in itself, is not a sin. Jesus was tempted by Satan, but he never sinned! We sin when we give in and disobey God. Hopefully, remembering this will help us turn away from the temptation.

And so, we come to the first temptation, reading from Luke 4. And when [the days of fasting] were ended, [Jesus] was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”

Jesus, being very hungry, hot, and fatigued after this long period of fasting, is now quite susceptible to Satan’s temptations. Jesus experiences physical, psychological, and emotional power issues just as we do. And so this first temptation appeals to Jesus’ physical well-being, his hunger being satisfied. It is the same type of appeal of the serpent to Adam and Eve. So when [Eve] saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes…she took of its fruit and ate. There is no resistance by Adam and Eve to the temptation.

What is so wrong about Jesus doing whatever is necessary to relieve his hunger after his long fast? What is so bad about meeting a physical need? Yes, Jesus is hungry, but Satan is tempting Jesus to use his divine power to satisfy a physical need. Every one of us is tempted to give greater concern to our physical needs than to our spiritual needs. Would God provide food? Of course, he would. So many times, we provide for our own needs rather than relying on the provisions from God.

Jesus’ reply, Man shall not live by bread alone. A life lived in reliance on God is preferable to a life lived in reliance on material things. Our spiritual living is far more important than our physical living.

In the second temptation, Satan appeals to Jesus’ psychological need for power, significance, and achievement. Satan wanted Jesus to take a short cut to his full messianic authority. Once again from Luke: And the devil took [Jesus] up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”

At this time in history, the “inhabited world” was controlled by the Roman Empire and its emperor. This political temptation would have appealed to the Jews whose hope rested on a Messiah who would lead them in a revolt against Rome and establish them as an important nation in the world order.

Satan was sure Jesus would want to rule over all the earthly kingdoms. It was a temptation for quick power, easy solutions, and equality with God. If Jesus gave in to Satan, he could forget about the plan of salvation and step into quick power without traveling the way of the cross. But most of all, Satan wanted Jesus to worship him instead of God. Jesus’ reply, You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.

This was Adam and Eve’s downfall. They wanted to be like God. Once again from Genesis 3: For God knows that when you eat [of the fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. So many times, we want to take the easy way to achieving power, significance, and accolades without fulfilling the purpose God gives us to bring him glory.

And lastly, in the third temptation, Jesus is tempted to do something spectacular which would appeal to his emotional need for security. Satan wants to know if God will protect his son. And [Satan] took [Jesus] to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you.’”

Satan in essence said, “Dare God to rescue you.” Satan wants to force the issue of divine protection. If Jesus falls from the temple and is saved by the angels, Satan knows it will win the Jewish people’s favor to follow Jesus before his ministry and teaching has even begun. The Jews will see this as a sign that their Messiah has come from heaven.

Adam and Eve as well, wanted the emotional security of not facing death. And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “you will not surely die.”

For Jesus, Satan presents a temptation to take unnecessary risks and then expect God to protect. There is pride and insecurity here, a need to test God in a foolish way. How many times do we take foolish risks and then call out God’s name or rely on God to protect us?

Jesus’ reply, You shall not put the Lord your God to the test. Jesus has the opportunity to sin. But he doesn’t because he has three things that help him to resist temptation; three things that are most useful for us as well.

First, Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit. Jesus walks closely with his Father in heaven. And so we have to ask ourselves, “Are we walking close enough to the Lord that when temptations come we can recognize them through the wisdom that the Holy Spirit gives us?” Temptation comes through ordinary situations and ordinary desires. When it comes, we are not usually shocked by it. Eve was approached by the serpent. It was not a frightening experience. Because temptation is so subtle and made to look so good, it is easy for us to walk right into it.

Second, Jesus knew the Scriptures and how to use them skillfully in answering Satan. The Holy Spirit fights temptation with whatever scripture we have hidden in our hearts. Do you and I know the scriptures well enough to use them skillfully? Prepare for temptation ahead of time. Know what your plan of action will be. Know enough scripture to defeat the devil.

And lastly, with Jesus, Satan’s temptations are non-negotiable. Jesus doesn’t discuss the temptations with Satan like Eve did. He doesn’t stick around to debate the issue. Although it seems at times that we may make many bad choices, if we listen to the counsel of the Scriptures and understand them, we will make fewer wrong ones.

During these temptations, Jesus proves the quality of his Sonship with God by resisting the devil’s temptations. After these temptations prove the quality of Jesus’ birthright, he begins his ministry. After these temptations, our scripture in Mark says, [Jesus] was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

Van Bogard Dunn writes this in his commentary on Mark: “The power at work in Jesus is absolutely mightier than any other power. Thus the paradise of God which was destroyed by the rebellion of the first man, Adam, is restored and renewed by the obedience of the last man, Jesus. Here the hope of the church is rooted and grounded in what God has done in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The Word is clear and unequivocal,” he continues. “Evil has no ultimate power. It has been shown to be impotent in the face of the invincible power revealed in God’s faithful Son.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, know this, Satan has no power over you when you are rooted in faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus knows firsthand that if anything on this earth would have given him what he really needed, he could have had it anytime he wanted. But what he wanted the most was you and me. And knowing that, we can make it through our pain, our frustrations, and our letdowns. But most of all, with Jesus Christ, we can resist temptation.

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