“Temptation vs Grace”

Matthew 4:1-10, February 26th, 2023

Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard

Hear now from the Gospel account according to Matthew, chapter 4 verses one thru ten.”

Matthew 4:1-11

1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “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, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

“Having heard this accounting regarding the temptations and how Jesus handled them, let us consider how we deal with temptations.”

“Temptation vs Grace”

Many of you might remember my friend from Zambia, Africa, Reverend Winston Matafwali. Do you remember what I told you about what Pastor Winston said when he got up to preach. It was his first sermon as my Intern, while I was the pastor at our sister church in Sebastian.  Some of you may have heard me tell this story once before. But it is worth repeating. I believe the point he was making as he began was that we are all the same.  As he went into his sermon Winston wanted to be sure we all got the ‘bare’ truth about his point.  He broke it down to one very exposed certainty: Pastor Winston said to us “doesn’t matter the color of your skin, nor does it matter what country you are born in, or if your parents are (Christians, Muslims, or Hindu; or conservatives or liberals,) rich or poor; we are all born naked!  That word naked just hung in the air as you could almost touch the stunning impact his words had, as his congregation sat up straighter in their chairs… waiting for the next point he was going to make.  Many perhaps praying he would offer something to cover up this blatant and stark honesty, of our common humanness!

He did not give into that temptation. Winston let his words reverberate until you could hear a pin drop. Are we willing to accept the truth when we hear it? Or do we give into the temptation to take the easier softer way?

Rather, we could allow God’s grace – to save us from our humanness.

Temptation is another of those all too real human realities!  One pastor, Larry Broding, said it this way: “What little delights in life tempt you?  Are they hard to resist?  Why?” If you truly have never been tempted, nor have ever, on any occasion, found it hard to resist something you truly were attracted to, or you were never drawn by its lure, then perhaps you are in denial or you are – a truly blessed individual. For God’s grace has surely touched you.  If this is you I do pray you will be patient while I discuss temptation with the rest of us sinners here this morning!  Temptation to most of us is like a bowl of scrumptious milk chocolates sitting within your reach, or a bowl of fresh delicious potato chips after you have eaten just one!  Have you ever been low on funds and paid for something and been given back too much change, knowing you were being given an extra dollar or two?  Did you immediately give it back, or did you consider your choices first?  Be truthful now… did you keep the extra change and walk away?  If you were asked to answer this question out loud how many of you would be compelled to tell just a little white lie?  Have you ever whispered a prayer asking God for something for yourself, rather than the selfless prayers that Jesus suggest we ought to ask?  Being human is tough, isn’t it?  Just like knowing you were born naked seems embarrassing and a bit too exposing.     

David Lose a theologian I often quote, points out this about temptations.  “…it’s important to recognize that temptation is not once and done.”  Just as covering our nakedness is not a one-time event, neither is temptation.  Each day brings its own temptations.  Most of which are not as trivial as a piece of chocolate or a bag of potato chips.  Temptations of food are real and if you are hungry enough you will cheat, steal and do just about anything for some food… if you get hungry enough.  Prayerfully, most of us don’t need to go to these extremes for food. Yet consider the homeless, the street people who live in abandoned buildings and in our deep tropical overgrowth.  Possibly, just beyond our view – on our own church property.  Have you ever considered what you would do, if the cupboards were bare and you knew not where your next meal was coming from?

There are other types of temptations, several of which Jesus deals within our scripture lesson this morning.  Power, wealth, and prestige.  These are big ones!  They start small.  You are invited to run for the school board or be an alderman.  Or perhaps you are asked to be the chairman of a committee at your church or take the lead on a project at your firm, where you work.  There are no sins associated with the small steps up the ladder of power, respect and status.  But, one day, the next step up you are confronted with a situation or an opportunity that causes you to consider making the move, a move on the ‘back’ of someone else’s pain or demise.  They will get offered another opportunity you muse, but the taste of newfound recognition can be intoxicating and the spiral of that first temptation, to take short cuts at the expense of others, prompts more and more.  Temptations that cause others harm do not seem to coincide with the virtuous and moral life of which the teachings of Jesus point us in.  Jesus declined the temptation, yet, the mere fact they wrote this passage suggests Jesus’ humanness caused him to wrestle with this temptation – just like all humans do.  If you identify with any of what has just been said, don’t condemn yourself, you are just human, born naked like all the rest of us.

The third temptation Jesus is confronted with is this business of testing God.  In the deeper analogy, this probably was a reference to his having the temptation to call on a legion of angels, to carry him to safety, rather than to go to the cross.  Yet, what about you and me, what about us modern Christians.  Do we give in to testing God, by putting ourselves in harm’s way and not for the good of others either?!  Rather, we are talking about dangerous unhealthy choices for the sake of nothing!  When we do not take care of ourselves, are we testing God to see if God will fix us, every time we repeatedly do foolish things.  Things like the poor addicted man or woman in the streets do?  There are many ways for us to give in to temptation, while trying to justify it because of our human plight or condition.            

We are faced with a crucial question which we need to ask ourselves.  It is a question which brings together all this talk of temptations and our basic humanness.  It forces us to focus on the truth of our existence and the conflict we have ‘as believers’ in a God whom loves us all, in the context of the life which tosses us about in the circumstances and situations we find ourselves in.  And I quote, Jirair Tashjian, at The Christian Resource Institute: “Will I walk with God whether I get that job, whether or not that cancer is healed, whether or not my loved one pulls through a life-threatening situation? Or, am I going to put God to a test and say, if you do this for me, then you’re my God, but if not, I will have nothing to do with you.  The Spirit-filled life which Jesus lived was a life that was unconditionally surrendered to God regardless of the outcome.” Wow… do you feel as stripped naked as I do right now?  Can’t we go back to discussing chocolate and potato chips?  The author of this question lays it on the line.

          We humans, that is you and it is also me, we are weak in the flesh, and we are prone to give in to our temptations; much like the alcoholic is drawn to his or her next drink.  Therefore, we need to build up some defenses against temptations, at least the more serious ones which carry moral, ethical and social ramifications!  A pastor by the name of Cheryl Kirk-Duggan speaks of the way forward from here.  “This text teaches us to celebrate the power of embodying the gift of being children of God, realizing a spiritual life that daily prepares us to recognize temptation and having the tools that will allow us to see and transcend them, before they morph into addictions.”  Whether it be here in church, or at a place of business or work of any kind, and most certainly in the realm of our families: both young and old, we must be diligent in our efforts in being present to our convictions surrounding our understanding of what it means to walk with God.  Walking with God, hand in hand, striving to live a Christ centered life, believing always that God loves you: yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  Being eternally reminded: we do not walk alone!  Therefore, please understand, this is why we form congregations… families of faith.  We must constantly jog our memories to not be tempted to go it alone.  Clothe yourself in a suit of armor made up of the families and the individuals who make up your system of support, alongside the hand of God.  

I am not sure where I heard this but, it gets to the point. “How will your life be defined?” Are you defined by the sins, the all too human failures surrounding temptation?  Or shall you be defined by the good you have done?  We all know the story of Jesus as told in the scriptures.  We will be revisiting some of the highs and lows of the end stories of Jesus’ journey here on earth.  But, what about yours and mine?  What about our stories?  The next chapter has not yet been written.  What about this our church?  There are still pages to be turned, budgets to be balanced and souls to be saved.  How will we move forward?  Will the temptation story of Jesus, just after his baptism, be helpful as we struggle to stay on the right path and focus on the right issues?  What about our community?  Is it heading in the right way, or have we seen a shift away from what we believe is the correct way? 

What temptations do we face as a church?  How will the life of the Riviera United Church of Christ be defined?  Will folks remember one or two of the big social justice issues we have undertaken in our history, and the lives which were then reshaped and restarted, setting them on new pathways?  Or shall we be remembered for our failures as we ultimately give in to temptations, the hidden temptations urging us to just give up?  The naked truth is there are lots and lots of small churches struggling with the same basic problems and issues which we face.  What will the historians write down?  As we gather together, during this season of lent, let us be reminded what Jesus did and why he did it. Thankfully, Jesus never gave in to his human temptations! 


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