Trusting Jesus when you’re tempted

Here is a slightly amended version of my sermon preached on Sunday 5th March, the first Sunday in Lent. The Scripture is Matthew 4:1-11, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. 

My hope is to try and put on some reflections over Lent, so thought this would be a good place to start. Do forgive the fact it’s not completely polished, but hope I will be helpful anyway.

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There isn’t a single person in church today who hasn’t been tempted at some point. No one is immune to it. None of us walk through life with some kind of protective bubble, shielding us from things which will  enter into our lives as destructive influences.

The word temptation has lost a lot of its power. When advertisers talk about temptation they use it in such a way as to suggest that here is something a merely a bit naughty that we shouldn’t have, but isn’t really bad for you. ‘Go on, anyway you know you want to.’

Temptation is not necessarily the problem. Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. And there was nothing that Jesus did in his life and ministry that was sinful. He remained sinless but he was still tempted. So temptation is not the issue, but failing to resist it. Our muscles grow through resistance. If your muscles don’t face resistance then they will begin to become weak. Temptation is the resistance our spiritual muscles face and, like a muscle, if you don’t use you will weaken in your ability to resist temptation

In the account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, Jesus teaches us here what temptation really is and how we are to resist it. In the letter to the Hebrews, we read this: “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” Like a kind older brother, Jesus is showing us the way to do it. He’s the forerunner. He’s run the course. He was was the first person in history to fully resist Satan’s temptation. And so because he has done it, he has given us the power to do so too.

The context

Jesus has just been confirmed as the Son of God. He has been baptised and stood alongside people who came to John in repentance for their sins, and with a desire to live a new life. The voice from heaven affirms him in his identity: “This is my son.” And God’s pleasure: “With whom I am well pleased.” None of what follows is because Jesus has displeased his Father; indeed, quite the opposite.

Jesus is affirmed by God by the Holy Spirit, and immediately he’s sent out into the desert for 40 days of fasting and prayer. And its there that he will do battle with God’s enemy, Satan. And he’s sent there in order for the battle. For all of us, sin is a reality. Even if we have been Christians for many years, we are tempted to sin, and to put our trust in anything but God.

But sadly we forget that we are in a battle. The war has been won, but the battles and skirmishes -which can still be costly – continue in our lives. But the good news is that Satan is a spent force; he has no authority, so can be defeated. He has been defeated by Christ on the cross, and the battle in the wilderness here is a foretaste of it.

And as Jesus defeats Satan here, he leaves behind his tools for us to pick up and use in our battles with temptation.

The devil’s temptations, if received and acted on, are always intrusive, always destructive and always seek to distance us from our heavenly Father. Repeat. They are always intrusive, always destructive and always seek to distance us from our heavenly Father. No one ever said “I’m so pleased I was tempted to do that; I’m so pleased I gave into that temptation.” No. Always intrusive, always destructive, always distancing us from our heavenly Father.

But on the other side, God uses this testing to prove us, and refine us. So when we go through a period of what appears to be testing, when we are tempted, that does not mean that God is somehow against us. Just as the devil uses temptation to make us fall, to ruin us, so God tests in order to prove our faith and his power.

In 1 Peter 1:7, Peter tells embattled Christians that their faith is being tested like gold refined in fire, so that the genuineness of their faith can be seen (by themselves, by those around them, and by God). If you are a Christian, God’s Spirit is working inside you to give you power, always for your good, and always to bring you closer to God so you can rely on his grace and provision.

The temptations

To really appreciate these, remember that Jesus has been fasting for 40 days. He has gone without food for all that time. So he’s hungry – very hungry. Perhaps he’s moved beyond the aching of an empty stomach. Imagine that kind of hunger. But Jesus is not weak, far from it. Because he has been concentrating on his Father, he has been spiritually preparing for this battle.

The first temptation is about purpose. Notice Satan starts ‘if you are the Son of God…’ trying to encourage Jesus to use his powers to create bread. But God has said no; Jesus has not come to serve himself but others. So his powers are not there to merely serve himself, but God. So he replies, “Man doesn’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Jesus is talking about obedience to his Father. And Jesus chooses to obey his Father, and not listen to Satan’s sly words to try and make him listen to him instead.

The second temptation is about trust. Jesus is taken to the very top of the temple, and encouraged to throw himself down. Why? Because God said that he would send his angels to bear you up so that you don’t even stub your toe. But that would be putting himself in danger when no danger existed, or was needed.

Satan’s taunts here are all about trying to get Jesus to prove his Father’s love and care for him. “If you are the Son of God, prove it.” It’s like a playground taunt: “Go on – prove it. I dare you.” But Jesus doesn’t need to. He knows that Satan’s use of Scripture is a misuse. “Don’t put God to the test,” is his response. He is secure in his identity, and secure in the knowledge of his Father’s love and care for him. He won’t use his power for the sake of pleasing Satan or proving God’s love for himself.

The third temptation sees Satan showing Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and offering them to him, in return for exclusive worship. These are not Satan’s to offer. In fact, they are Jesus’ already. So what is the devil tempting Jesus with?

All three temptations are attempts to swerve Jesus from what he has come to do: to go to the cross. If Jesus cannot endure hunger without finding a shortcut through his power to provide bread for himself, he will not endure the cross.

If Jesus has to have God prove his love for him, he will not go to the cross. Jesus himself said that he could have called down an army of angels to fight for him instead to going to Calvary. But instead he chose the cross.

The nations are Jesus’. But they must be redeemed. Jesus could have come in power and glory, and demonstrated his power and majesty from the beginning. But he didn’t. Why? Because he had come not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.(Matthew 20:28) He had come to die on the cross for our sins. Without the cross, he would be Lord, but not Saviour.

But as he is, the cross and resurrection prove he is both.

How do I apply this to my heart?  

Here are a number of applications we can take from this example left for us by Jesus.

  1. Jesus fights the devil with Scripture. One of the things I have noticed in my ministry is just how difficult it is to get people to read their Bibles. The bible is not just a set of rules, guidelines, history. It is the word of God. In Ephesians 6, Paul describes a Christian like a soldier dressed for battle. He has the shield of faith to protect against the devil’s arrows. But the only offensive weapon is the ‘Sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’ (Ephesians 6:17). But most Christians walk around with the sword left at home, leaving themselves utterly unprotected. We need to know our Bibles, we need to know the promises of God, what God has said and done, and what he continues to say and do. We need to fill our heads and hearts with God’s word – and believe it – and hold up God’s truth if we are to counter the devil’s lies.
  2. Here is encouragement: resist the devil and he will flee from you. (James 4:17) He has no choice.
  3. Sin is fundamentally lazy. It always prefers the easy route, the quiet life, the road of least resistance. Temptation is always a lie though it seems like truth at the time.
  4. We need to trust in the gracious provision of God. God doesn’t withhold good things from his children. And when he appears to, it is because he has a much better provision for us. But we tend to want to take the shortcut. God delights in us trusting him. It brings glory to him when we entrust ourselves fully on him. Don’t believe the devil’s lies that God doesn’t care, doesn’t act. he does.
  5. Jesus said, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Whe things are tough, we need to find our comfort in Christ and his promises We talk about comfort eating, comfort shopping. But they aren’ helpful, and can be destructive. Where do we go? We need to do more comfort praying, comfort bible studying, finding comfort in talking to a friend about our difficulties.
  6. Sin is fundamentally destructive. Satan is a liar. So we need to trust in God’s truth. God loves us, and will always provide. God always provides the strength for those who trust him.
  7. The devil wants you to believe that once you’ve sinned, once you’ve given into temptation that’s it. You’re done. You’re guilty. But the cross tells a different story. It tells us that we are forgiven, that we are redeemed. No sin is too great to remove us from God’s love. So when we do fail God is not finished with us. The cross is the power of God to remove sin, to remove guilt, and restore us.

The hymn Before the Throne of God Above has a great verse that reminds us of this:

When Satan tempts me to despair,

And tells me of the guilt within

Upward I look and see him there

Who made an end to all my sin

Because the sinless Saviour died

My sinful soul is counted free

For God the just is satisfied

To look on him and pardon me.    (Charity Lee Bancroft)

So in conclusion, Jesus has left us the tools, the sword to fight back the devil’s lies. We need to believe and trust in God, and in his character and his loving purposes. The devil chose what he thought was Jesus’ weakest moment. But spending 40 days in his Father’s presence, devoting himself to him, resting on him, listening to him, meant he was in the perfect condition to resist the devil.

Jesus has won the ultimate victory against sin, evil and the devil by dying on the cross for our sins. He has won the ultimate victory. And it’s not our strength that defeats temptation, but the strength which God gives us through his Holy Spirit. Jesus has gone before us, so trust in the way he leads us. He is able and will help those who are being tempted.

A drive-by lesson in love

So, this week I was on my way to church for a funeral I was conducting. I always try to leave enough time to be there at least 20-30 minutes early, just so I can prepare myself for the service. By the time I left home, I was just about ‘on time’ by my schedule.

However, as I was driving through the village, I noticed a van in the middle of the road, broken down. It was a milk-van (yes we still have milk delivered here!) As I waited in the road to get past, the driver, with some effort, started pushing the van back into a side road. It looked hard work.

I drove on.

But as I drove, I couldn’t help feeling guilty for not stopping to help. The more I thought about it, the more clear it became to me that I could have got out and helped him move the van. It must have been pretty heavy.  Okay, he looked fit, but a helping hand probably wouldn’t have been refused.

But I didn’t; I drove on. I told myself that I didn’t have time, I didn’t want to be late. Now, I had a a good reason. I was on my way to a funeral, after all. Surely that was important. But it probably would have taken no more than 2 minutes to get out of the car, push the van and be off. I had time. Actually, he probably would have got it out of the way quicker with a bit of help.

I started thinking about the parable of the good Samaritan,

There is the man, attacked by robbers, lying injured and bleeding on the side of the road. For hours he lies, weakened and half-dead in the scorching heat. He’s in desperate need of help. And then a figure starts coming into sight.

“A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.” (Luke 10:31)

Maybe the priest thought he was dead, and didn’t want to get himself ritually unclean by touching a dead body. Or perhaps he was on his way to the Temple to fulfil his religious duties. Maybe he was running a bit late, and didn’t have time to stop. But he should have.

And it occurred to me that I was the priest in the parable of the good Samaritan.

Okay, so the situations are nowhere near the same. But I used the excuse of not having the time to be a help to someone. The point is that it’s so easy to allow our own agendas, our own schedules to get in the way of love and compassion.

“I don’t have time to help.” “It’s not convenient right now.” “I’m too busy; I’ve got a lot on.”

The point of the parable was to teach what it meant to love your neighbour as yourself. The reality is that the needs of the world, and the people we meet around us, are never convenient. They don’t wait until we’re ready for them. We have to be prepared to stop and be the one who can make a difference, and not just walk on by leaving compassion to someone else. Let it be us.

“The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion.” (Psalm 116:5)

So, to the milkman, whoever and wherever you are: Sorry.

Following Christ

This is a sermon I preached on Sunday on discipleship from Matthew 9:9-13, the calling of Matthew the tax-collector. I hope you find it helpful.

Politics has been very much in the news this last week. And when you’re running a political party, or launching a movement for change, the kind of people you attract to follow you is important. Scotland voted to stay part of the Union, but there was plenty of feeling on both sides.
People with friends and relatives in Scotland were telling me about banners being defaced, people being spat at, and bricks thrown through windows because they were voting the other way to them. Are those the kind of supporters you want? Would you want to attract supporters who do that?
If we were Jesus, launching a world-changing movement, who would we want following and supporting us? The most respectable, well-behaved, people? Thankfully we’re not Jesus, and the kind of people Jesus attracted tells us what we need to know about what it means to follow him. The gospel is not just good news – it’s the best news. And we’ll see why!

Condemn, condone or call?

Jesus doesn’t just wait for people to come to him. And he doesn’t wait for the right kind of people either. Jesus has just come from healing a man who was paralyzed. He was brought for healing, and Jesus told him his sins were forgiven. And healing him showed he had the power and the authority to forgive. So Jesus has already shown that he’s in the business of changing people – from the inside out. Physical healing here was a sign of God’s greater work in healing the soul.
And so, as Jesus is walking through Capernaum, he sees Matthew sitting at the tax-collecting booth. Capernaum would have been a hub of activity, as goods came through into Herod’s territory, either by land or across the Sea of Galilee. Matthew was almost certainly collecting the duty on those goods.
We may not think much of taxes and tax-collectors today (though there is nothing wrong in being a tax collector, it has to be said!), but then they were pretty low in people’s opinions. Not only were they seen as traitors for collecting taxes for the occupying Romans, but they were viewed as thieves too. Tax collecting was a profitable business, and there was always some profit to be skimmed off the top for yourself. So Matthew would have been wealthy, but despised.
And Jesus walks up to him, and says, “Follow me.” Now, we have no idea what contact Matthew had had with Jesus before now – he knew who he was, because Jesus was based in Capernaum, and had probably heard him speak. But now, Jesus gives him the chance to do something about his life.And not only does Jesus call him to join his disciples, he goes and eats with him – and his friends. It was a pretty scandalous thing to do, and the Pharisees knew that, which is why they reacted so badly. But we’ll come on to them in a moment.
Jesus doesn’t condemn Matthew. There would have been a lot of fingers pointing at Matthew, but Jesus’ wasn’t one of them. But Jesus doesn’t condone Matthew’s lifestyle either. Eating with Matthew doesn’t mean that Jesus is turning a blind eye, or saying in effect, what you get up to isn’t important to me as long as you come along and be my disciple. That is, I think, a real misconception among a lot of people who think they know something of Jesus.
“Jesus didn’t judge people”. That’s true. Jesus didn’t. But he didn’t come to just love people and leave them as they were. Jesus didn’t condemn, or condone – he called. He called people to follow him. Look at what Jesus says, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” There is no doubt that Jesus saw Matthew as a sinner. Just as I am; and you are. And he was called not in spite of his sin, but because of it.
Jesus met Matthew where he was, but didn’t leave him there. It’s the same now: Jesus takes us as we are, but never leaves us as we are. There is the call to repent, to turn away from our rejection of God, and the life that says ‘I will do what I want’, and to follow.
We rightly remember John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
But we need to remember John 3:17 too: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
And as Christ’s disciples, that ministry is extended to us: not to condemn, not to condone, but to call people to Jesus.

How to spot your inner Pharisee

But there’s a problem immediately after Jesus calls Matthew. The Pharisees. They come to Jesus’ disciples, and they know that Jesus has been eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners. And they’re not happy.
Why aren’t they happy? Well, because if Jesus really was a prophet, doing the works of God, then he should know what kind of people these were. To understand their problem, we need to think a bit more about the Pharisees.
They were the ruling class in Judea, and they controlled much of the interpretation of the Law. They were ultra-zealous when it came to ceremonial cleanness. Having anything to do with Gentiles, non-Jews, made them unclean. So tax collectors and sinners were always personas non grata, partly because of their lifestyles occupations, but also because those occupations put them in too close a contact with unclean people. Strict obedience to the Law was everything. And so they created laws around the Law to ensure that they didn’t break the Law – like the layers of an onion. Anybody who didn’t live up their standards was a sinner.
But don’t we all do that. I know I do. It’s easy, isn’t it, to judge others by our own standards rather than by God’s. There is a Pharisee in each of us.
But that’s not the problem. In lots of ways, the Pharisees were right. Tax collectors and probably a lot of these sinners were living in a way that would have grieved God’s heart. In the same way that much of the world has still rejected God’s loving purposes for them. Here was, I think, the problem. The Pharisees saw these people existing in sin, and couldn’t care less about them. All they wanted to do was point the finger at them, and justify their own upstanding ‘righteous’ behaviour. If they knew the Law, if they really loved God, they should have been doing everything they could do reach them, to draw them back to God. Instead, they just built up more and more barriers, shut up shop, saying ‘no entrance’. They neither loved God nor loved their neighbour.
How often do we pray for others to repent and turn to Christ? The Pharisees knew their Scriptures really well. They recited them, learnt them, obeyed them. But Jesus reveals their hearts: they didn’t know them at all. “Go away and learn this,” In other words, read it again, and this time with your heart. Don’t just read it, seek to understand it. The Lord God says, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice”. And here’s the headline reason.

Sacrifice is safe, mercy is messy
This is a quote from Hosea 6. Hosea was looking around, and seeing what was going on. People were paying lip-service to God. They would make their way up to the Temple to make their sacrifices, to do their religious duty; but their hearts – and their attitudes to others – were a long way from God.
When we base our faith on simple religious observance, then there is no need to love others, certainly the ones who might ‘contaminate’ us. Sacrifice, religion, seen like this, is safe. Here are my boundaries, here is my comfort zone. But Jesus showed that while sacrifice – religion – is safe, mercy is messy. It brings us into contact with people who are outside our comfort zones; it means loving people in a radical way; it will mean calling people to follow Christ. Whilst the Pharisees effectively wore rubber gloves around people, Jesus got his hands dirty. And he got his hands dirty for us, with hands outstretched on the cross, dying for our sins. My sins. Our sins.
I wonder what this will mean for us as a church? Perhaps this is something we can put some prayer into. What it doesn’t mean is that holiness is unimportant. Our personal walk with God is vital; our church life should be marked by godliness, love and acceptance. But not at any price. Not without the challenge to change, to follow Christ and leave everything that separates us from him behind. And to call by our example that we have followed him the same way.
Part of the problem is that for some, church feels like the waiting room for a job interview. You have to be well dressed, on your best behaviour; you have to put on your best face, and need to remember to say the right things. You’re on show.
But in reality, the church is more like the waiting room to a doctor’s surgery. We’re all sick – spiritually – in one way or another; we all need healing. There is therefore a humility there – we follow the same healer-saviour. No room for pride. We leave that at the door. Jesus neither condemns, or condones. He calls us to leave all that sin behind and follow him.