Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Sunday, 1 March 2020 12:00

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1)

There was a man who was overweight and he decided that he had some excess pounds to lose. He was very diligent and stuck to his diet very strictly. He even had a new route to work so that he wouldn't drive by his favourite bakery in the morning. However, one day, he came into work with a big coffee cake. His coworkers started to scorn him and he said that he could explain. He said "you see I "accidentally" drove past my favourite bakery today and I saw all these delicious coffee cakes out on the display case. So I prayed. I prayed to God and said, 'if you really think I should have this delicious coffee cake, have an open parking spot right in front of the bakery.' And soon enough there was one on my 8th time around!”

It’s the first Sunday in Lent, so we have the temptations of Christ. Like the Transfiguration we looked at last week, this appears in all three Synoptic Gospels. Mark simply says that Jesus was tempted while Luke and Matthew give the details that we heard this morning. Again, this was a very important passage to early Christians - so much so that they made Lent forty days long to reflect the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert. Again, though, it’s important to us right now in the twenty-first century.

Let’s go back to that coffee cake. You don’t get more everyday than a coffee cake. I suppose we all know that temptation - even if we are on a diet. So you pass the cake shop and you’ve got a bad case of the munchies. And it’s sitting there in the window lathered in thick, sumptuous cream whispering promises of sweetness and soft, yielding sponge. I hope none of you have given up cakes for Lent, because this will not be helping.

What I’m getting at is that temptation is one of the most common experiences we have as human beings. That voice in the back of our minds whispering, “Go on. You know you want to” - we all know that voice, don’t we? That’s why it runs all the way through the Bible - a collection of writings that are often painfully honest about what it’s like to be a human being. It’s right there in the first story of the first book of the Old Testament when Eve is tempted to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and when Adam follows her in that temptation.

It runs like a thread through scripture. You’ve got David tempted by Bathsheba. You’ve got the kings of Israel tempted into following the gods and goddesses of surrounding nations. You’ve got Peter tempted by fear to deny Christ and Judas tempted to betray him. This is why there are no superheroes in scripture. None of the figures in the Bible are any more fallible than you are or I am. All of them can fall prey to temptation of one kind or another just as you can or I can. 

It’s easy to turn this dialogue between Jesus and Satan into some kind of cosmic battle between good and evil. I think that misses the point. It’s easy to imagine Jesus out in the desert, perhaps in a cave, and Whoomph! the Devil appears in a cloud of sulphurous smoke and, tossing his horned head and swirling his pointed tail and offering temptation. We all know that temptation is more subtle than that and none of that would make sense to the First Century writers of the Gospels. Instead, let me describe a painting called “Christ In The Wilderness” by Ivan Kramskoy.

In this painting Christ is alone- no diabolical figure -sitting on a rock, looking a little gaunt. And there, on the ground, right in the foreground, is a stone. He’s so hungry. Surely it wouldn’t matter if he turned it into bread. Surely, just this once, he could break his fast. Surely that wouldn’t be so terrible. Right there is Christ’s coffee cake. And I’m not being facetious: it’s exactly the same temptation. The other temptations, too, have modern-day equivalents - especially the one about leading great armies. There are plenty enough folk out there who have been persuaded that they can make the world a better place by enforcing their view of the world on everyone else through force of arms.

The thing about talking about Satan here is that we conflate Satan with Lucifer - maybe rightly - but  for a Jewish Christian like Matthew who had never read the Book of Revelation Satan was a somewhat more ambiguous figure. He was the Tester - the one who had tested Job and stood witness against  the Kingdom in the Book of Zechariah. In these temptations Christ is being put to the test - as we all are sometimes.

I’ve often wondered about that line in the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation”. Why would a loving God who wants us to live the best lives we can do that? It’s like the idea that some young-Earth Creationists have that God created the Earth in six days but put ‘dinosaur fossils’ into the ground to tempt people away from belief in the purity of Scripture. Why would a loving God do such a thing?

The Greek words are, perhaps, better translated as “Don’t put us to the test” - don’t let us be tempted, because we know how powerful, how subtle and convincing temptation can be. This is why this passage was so important to early Christians and why it’s so important to Christians. God doesn’t lead us into temptation. In Christ he leads us through temptation. He’s right there with us when we feel tempted offering us strength. He knows exactly how difficult for us to resist. That’s why this story is the beginning of Lent - the period that ends with Easter, the Cross and the Resurrection.

Yes, we know exactly what temptation is like - some people face it every day - and sometimes we fall for it. God knows that. He exactly knows that - that’s what this passage is telling us. That’s why the Gospel of Jesus Christ is so important - the Gospel that tells us that all those times we’ve succumbed to temptation; all those times we’ve reached for that coffee cake or sometimes much, much worse - are forgiven. Forgiven out of nothing more than compassion.

You know an irony? Christianity is so often characterised in the media as “judgemental”. I look around and I see folk being judged for their opinions when they’ve been fed a whole pile of lies and half-truths from this or that newspaper or social media platform. I see folk being judged because they have succumbed to the temptations of drugs or because, sometimes, they’ve just put on some weight. I see folk being judged because they gave way to some of the most powerful drives that exist within us as human beings.

And then I think, even Jesus was tempted. Sure, he passed the test so maybe it’s possible. But I’m sure I’ve failed it often enough. So maybe the message of this passage is this: if we rejoice that we are forgiven all those times we have been led into temptation, all those times we have been put to the test and failed, then maybe we can try to be more forgiving of all those others who haven’t hit the mark either.

Maybe we can offer a wry smile when someone makes our lives difficult and think, “Yeah. Maybe I might have done that too.” Maybe we can shrug our shoulders when someone offends us and think “Yeah. Maybe I see how they came to think that.” Maybe we can offer the things that this passage actually reveals as the qualities of God: compassion and understanding of human failure. 

Lord, we know that we will face times of trial - when temptation will test us. Be with us in those times and lead us through them. Give us grace to support those who are facing their own times of trial

Preached at Gretna Old parish church