Gracious God, we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from your mouth. Make us hungry for this your Word, that it may nourish us today in the ways of eternal life. Through Jesus Christ, the bread of heaven, we pray. Amen.
Dr. Loran Nordgren, a senior lecturer at Northwestern University once ran a series of experiments that placed college students in "tempting situations,” ones that would tempt them to smoke, eat junk food, or put off their studies, things like that. His research found that we often display what's called a "restraint bias." In other words, he says, we often tend to overestimate how much self-control we will have against temptation when we're not in the "heat of the moment."
And personally speaking that makes sense to me. I too sometimes overestimate how much self-control I have, let my guard down, succumb to temptation, experience guilt and shame, then time goes by, I get overconfident again and that vicious cycle starts all over again.
To quote my former pastor at BelPres Scott Dudley, riffing off of something the Apostle Paul said in Romans 7, “15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do and end up in do-do.”
Yes. Been there. And though we each struggle with temptation in different ways, you’ve probably been there too. Whether it be struggles with procrastinating or overeating, gossiping or excessive spending, endless internet scrolling or cursing, we all find ourselves in a bit of do-do from time to time, don’t we?
And yet in the midst of the universal struggle with temptation, there was one person in human history who, though he was tempted, did not sin. Who, although he was tempted in every way, did not succumb to temptation itself. And yes, I’m talking about Jesus and I’m talking about talking about our scripture today.
This morning we continue on in our sermon series in the Gospel of Luke, and here this morning we find ourselves in the beginning of chapter 4, where after he is baptized in the Jordan River, Jesus is then led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for 40 days he was tempted by the devil.
And in what is effectively the culmination of his temptation, (the final exam if you will), the Devil puts before Jesus 3 final temptations, each one a bit different from the others, each with their own allure within them. And yet, rather than looking at each of the three temptations individually, we’ll instead look at them in a sense collectively, as we instead zoom in on what the three temptations have in common, rather than what sets them apart. And so to do so, we’ll reflect on first,
Devil’s Schemes. And then, secondly, Christ’s Response
And by structuring the sermon in this way, we’ll better be able to identify the common themes and strategies that both the Devil and Jesus employ in inviting temptation and resisting temptation respectively. And more importantly by doing so, we’ll each walk away with a stronger game plan for how we can resist temptation too.
And yet, real quick before we look in depth at what the Devil has to say, let’s first address the moderately sized elephant in the room, that understandable question of, “Does the Devil even exist?” It’s a worthwhile question, and one worth briefly addressing, because I know for many people today, the idea and possibility of the Devil sounds like something medieval, weird, like the stuff of hocus pocus magic, and the like.
C.S Lewis, in his classic book The Screwtape Letters, strikes I think the right balance when he says this, saying:
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devil. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”
I appreciate that balance. To neither dismiss the Devil as some kind of fictional character nor use him to explain the reason for every temptation ever.
For example, consider the first temptation most of us experience each and every day. It happens before we even get out of bed. The alarm goes off and we have a choice, will we get up or will we press snooze?
For me to hit the snooze button and then later say, “The Devil made me do it.” You’re probably thinking, “Yeah, I’m not buying it.” A more likely reason for me hitting the snooze button is because the night before I made the conscious and immature decision to stay up too late watching T.V. Purely hypothetical scenario there.
Yet that said, have you ever had a fight or argument with your spouse or kids or someone you love, where you are both so mad at each other and can’t get on the same page and can’t for the life of you figure out what created the conflict in the first place? Well, the truth is, the Devil wants it that way. He wants you to point the finger and accuse the ones you love, rather than at him. You see, when the bible nicknames the Devil as the accuser, it’s for good reason.
So there you go, a few thoughts on the reality of the Devil and his existence today.
Now, having addressed all of that, let’s get back to our original intent.
Let’s take a look at some of the Devil’s Schemes.
One of the repeated tactics that the Devil seems to use is to try and convince Jesus to exert and wield his personal power for his own personal benefit.
Notice how twice the Devil introduces his temptations with the phrase, “If you are the Son of God …” “If you are the Son of God …”
If you really are the Son of God, then why are you going hungry? If you really are the Son of God, then with a word you can turn a stone into bread as easily as God created the world through his words. Show off your power and end your misery.
If you really are the son of God, then jump off this tall ledge. If you really are the Son of God, you won’t die, you can land safely on your own two feet. Show off your power and show me just how invincible you truly are.
You see in some sense, the Devil is trying to get Jesus to exert his power for his own benefit.
And my goodness, this is our temptation too. No, not that we have Godlike powers, but that we are often tempted to use the power and authority entrusted to us in ungodly ways.
From what I understand, this was one of the main culprits of the 2008 financial crisis, as banks and those in positions of power were allowed to act freely and behind the scenes to create systems that were in many ways for their gain.
Oftentimes it’s when we’re in positions of power, we’re tempted all the more, because we have the freedom and ability to act unchecked, whether it be with our kids, employees, or moving decisions and outcomes in certain directions.
For example, have you ever noticed that sometimes we tragically save our harshest words for the people we love the most? With our spouses and kids, we feel a unique sense of security, a different kind of power, we know (or think) they’re not going to go anywhere, and so we can speak more freely, and I’m not necessarily talking about outright verbal abuse, but even something as insidious as an unnecessary and unhelpful sarcastic side comment.
You see, the Devil wants to repurpose our personal power and either abuse it or wrongly steward it, for our own personal benefit. That’s one tactic the Devil uses. Here might be another:
Another tactic the devil seems to use against Jesus is to try and cast seeds of doubt when it comes to his personal identity and to see if he can prove it.
If you are the Son of God, If you are the Son of God … that is, are you really? Are you though? If so, prove it. Do your magic and turn these stones to bread. Jump off this wall and come away unscathed. Come on, do it, let’s see it. If you are the Son of God, well, prove it.
You see, this is where the Devil often tries to get us, how he often tries to tempt us, you want to show me you're good enough, well, then, prove it. Which then leads us into doing all sorts of unbecoming things in order to prove to ourselves and to the world that we’re good enough.
To the kids and students in the room, when I was in college, I worked in and around some summer camps, and there was this phrase that was often jokingly said between students around camp, saying: Do it and you’re cool!
Everybody was kidding when they said it, but it was funny because it was partly true. We feel this temptation of: “Do it and you’re cool!”
Do whatever all of your friends are doing, even when you know it’s wrong, even when you know it’s honoring to God, and people will think that you’re cool, that you’re good enough.
Go to unhealthy extremes to get in shape or lose weight, do it and you're cool.
Cheat on a test, or upcoming assignment, so that you can get the grade you want and the approval you crave. Do it and you're cool.
And yet, here’s the beautiful thing: When we know who we are in God’s eyes, we don’t have to prove a thing.
When Jesus hears these seeds of doubt from the Devil “If you are the Son of God” what I imagine he’s hearing in his head over and over and over again are the words that heavenly Father had blessed him with in his baptism:
“This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased.”
Jesus doesn’t have to prove anything because he knows who he is.
And the same can be true of us. Through faith in Christ, because of Christ’s work on our behalf, God looks upon his children and says, “This is my son and daughter, whom I love, with them I am well pleased.”
When we are rock solid in our identity, remembering who and whose we are, we don’t have to prove a darn thing.
All of which brings us to the second part of our message for today, and the flip side of this temptation narrative, and that is Christ’s Response.
Notice the consistent theme and tactic Jesus uses to combat the Devil’s schemes and resist temptation …
It’s really quite simple. Each and every time he’s faced with temptation, Jesus responds with scripture. He responds with the truth and power of God’s Word.
Saying, “It is written, it is written, it is written.” Man shall not live by bread alone. Worship the Lord your God and serve him only. Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
This isn’t the stuff of inspirational and motivational self-talk. This is just straight scripture.
And since it was Christ’s best defense against the allure of temptation, it’s our best defense too.
So friends, the application here is rather simple. If we’re going to employ scripture as a defense against temptation, we need to make sure we know scripture first. (How’s that for a captain obvious statement?)
But it’s true. And not just that we know our Instagram bibles, you know, where you get an inspirational verse here, an inspirational verse there, (nothing wrong with that), but that you get straight scripture, verse by verse, chapter by chapter, allowing ourselves to be immersed in the truth of God’s word.
I know we’re halfway through January now, but if you’re looking for a bible reading plan, a favorite of mine is the 5x5 plan. Where in 5 minutes a day, 5 days a week, you can read through the entire New Testament over the course of a year. Very doable and very rewarding.
And as you read, you’ll not only get a deeper sense of God’s Word and the heart of God, you’ll also be better equipped for temptation the next time it comes your way, whether it be in the form of a negative truth, a positive truth or an identity truth.
For example, imagine a situation where you are tempted to lie. Where you know how telling the truth is the hard thing to do and it’s the right thing to do, but yet you don’t want to do it. Scripture can be your anchor in that moment.
We can remember God’s truth that’s framed in the negative, as we remember one of the 10 commandments: “Do not bear false witness”
We can remember God’s truth that’s framed in the positive, as we remember Paul’s words to the Ephesian church: to “live a life worthy of the calling you are received.”
And yet remember God’s truth in what we might call identity truth, where in 1 John, we read, “See what great love the Father has for us, that we should be called children of God, for that is who we are!”
Do you see the connection? Often we are tempted to lie in order to cover something up about ourselves so that we can win or uphold the approval of others. We believe we have to present a false version of ourselves in order to be liked.
But yet scripture says the exact opposite: “See what great love the Father has for us, that we should be called children of God, for that is who we are!” When you have that identity truth locked in as your anchor, you can tell the truth, no matter how hard it might be.
In addition, consider the Lord’s Prayer, that Jesus gives his disciples and that we recite each and every Sunday here at church. It’s chock full of connections to the temptations that Jesus faced in the wilderness long ago.
Are we feeling worried, anxious, wondering if and when God will provide? Do we feel tempted to seek comfort and security and abandon suffering at all costs? Jesus tells us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Are we tempted to increase our influence and power and authority? Seeking status and notoriety? Desiring to accumulate? The Devil promises Jesus that if he worships him, he’ll give him the world, he’ll help him build his own little kingdom. And yet Jesus tells us to pray not my kingdom come, but “thy kingdom come.”
And of course, encompassing it all, Jesus says, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”
And so, if you’re thinking to yourself, gosh, I’m not that well versed in bible, I don’t know God’s word all that well, well friends if you can recite the Lord’s Prayer, then you’ve just recited scripture. And be sure to recite it again the next time you face temptation.
And of course, you can memorize and remember scripture not only for your own benefit, but also, for the benefit of others … speaking words of hope and truth in their lives In moments of need.
And so friends, there you have it, the Devil’s schemes, Christ’s response, now you’ve got some tools and knowledge as to tactics the Devil will try to use against you and also a game plan for you, like Jesus, can resist temptation too. So I think we’re good, right? Now with that in place, you and I will never struggle and succumb to temptation ever again.
C’mon, do you buy it? I know I don’t and by the look on your faces, I know you don’t either.
Truth is, you and I, though we certainly can grow in our ability to practice self-control, one of the fruits of the Spirit, we’ll always struggle with temptation in some way. We’ll never get a perfect score.
And yet, the best news of all is that that’s okay.
The good news of the gospel is that at the end of the day we won’t be judged because of our ability to withstand temptation, but because of Jesus’s. That’s ultimately why Luke includes this story, not to outline before us 3 tried and true ways to withstand temptation, but rather to remind us of the unbelievably good news that there was one who did!
And that while we as faithful Christians want to avoid sin and temptation at all costs, we can rest, knowing that Jesus has won the battle on our behalf, where on the cross, he defeated sin, death and the Devil himself.
Luke ends his temptation on a strangely ominous note. Saying,
13 When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.
That is to say, he’ll be back. He’s going to give it one more shot and find an opportune time to bring Jesus down, for scripture later says, Satan entered Judas, using the traitor Judas as an accomplice, to see to it that Jesus would be put to death once and for all. And this time Jesus delivered the knockout blow, where he defeated death by rising from the grave.
There’s a play in football, called the Victory Formation. It comes at the end of the game, the game is effectively over, and the quarterback can simply kneel down and run out the clock. It is without question, every team’s favorite play.
And in many ways, that’s how it is with the Devil still today. Though he still exists, he’s been given the knockout blow and his time is running out.
Because of Jesus, we can confidently say to the Devil … “Though the game may not be over, the victory is won, and your time is running out.”
And Amen to that.