Sunday, March 07, 1999

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, March 7, 1999
Text: Matthew 4:1-11 and Deuteronomy 8:1-9

I know that this may sound a bit neurotic, and maybe I am somewhat paranoid, but I believe the world is out to get me! I want to give you the evidence of that: this past week I went to a drugstore (as you can tell I have a nasty cold) and bought up every supply known to God and man to help knock this out of me and when I had my Echenacae and Tylenol and all manner of tinctures to keep me going, I came with my cornucopia of drugs to the counter and there, right before my eyes, was nothing less than a huge array of Mars Bars, Snickers Bars and O Henry Bars! What's more, I had decided to give those things up for Lent and to live a life of complete sincerity and purity and put into my body only the best of things. Not only are the drug stores out to get me, they even exacerbate the problem by putting a sign up "2 for 99 cents," give me a break! Of all the places that try to increase health and welfare they put Mars Bars right under your nose. It's shameful.

I find it difficult at times to resist temptation. I like the words of Oscar Wilde who said, "I can resist everything but temptation." So many of us find ourselves tempted by many little things in life and depending on the nature of our weakness we can succumb to a variety of things that we know are not in our best interest. We somehow do not have the power to resist.

At times we often trivialise temptation. The modern mind defines temptation as simply a few little seductions along life's road. The little seductions that quietly we might giggle about with our friends. The somewhat minor things we do in our lives, the excesses here and there and we think nothing of them. We don't look at them as real temptations, they're just the little things in life that are the subject of humour. The great Shaw writing to a friend of his once said, "I can never resist temptation for I've found that all things that are bad don't tempt me." Sometimes only the things that are good actually tempt us but we have too much of them at times and that is the nature of the temptation.

In the scriptures, temptation is not trivialised in the way that we often do it as little seductions rather, temptation has profound theological and spiritual implications. Temptation in the scriptures goes right to the very heart of our relationship with Almighty God and even with ourselves. For as we look throughout the scriptures there are a number of things that characterise the importance of temptation. One of them is that God actually allows us to be tempted. You can see in many different places throughout the scriptures where God has actually opened the door in order that people can be tempted and tested in their faith. The most profound example in the Old Testament is the story of Job who started out with a great deal, lost it all, was tempted by his friends in many ways to turn his back on God, but in the end maintained his faith and in so doing received even more than he had lost in the first place. Now the story of Job is not just a historical story of a man who wins and loses, it is a profound story of the wisdom of faith that even in the face of temptation that is allowed by God, still good things happen.

One of the other facets of temptation in the scriptures that we must never be confused about is God is not the author of the evil things that tempt us. It's not as if God allows us to be tempted in order that we might fall but God allows us to be tempted in order that we might confirm the very faith that we have in the first place. God is not evil, God is not the author of evil. God allows evil but it affirms in the scriptures over and over again, that God is holy, righteous and just. So at times when we feel tempted, let us never see God as the author of that evil. Nevertheless, sometimes good can come out of that testing. Even if you look at your own lives is it not sometimes in the moments of the greatest hardship, the moment when you can turn your back on God, that it is precisely having come through that, that you are stronger in faith and person for having gone through it? So you see, temptation is not a trivial thing. It is not a thing over which we giggle as a simple little seduction. It goes right to the very heart of our faith and our existence in God and God allows us to be tempted.

You can see that in the unique story that was read from Matthew 4 where we see Jesus himself being tempted. The temptation is a central moment in the life and ministry of Jesus. He has just come from his Baptism by John the Baptist and the declaration from heaven, "Thou art my Son in whom I am well pleased." Jesus had just received the ultimate moment of confirmation that he was the Messiah and that it was his role to carry out the mission of God in the world and that his role was to be the saviour.

Following that came a temptation. Right after the temptation comes none other than the beginning of Jesus' actual ministry in Galilee. Jesus' ministry began right after the temptation, so the temptation existed between the moment of the confirmation of his call and the moment in which he goes out and begins his actual earthly ministry. Why? Because this was a time of testing; this was a moment for Jesus really to find whether or not the rubber hits the road, whether or not he was willing to live by the very call that he had received at his Baptism and whether or not he now has the faith in his Father to go into the future. He needed that, because after the temptation there were so many moments in his life when he could have turned his back on the Father's will, when he could have said, "I'm not going to Jerusalem," "I'm not going to be crucified," "I am not going to love the sinner," "I am not going to embrace the Samaritan," "I'm going to take the easy road." But because of the confirmation of his messiahship through the temptation he was strong enough to embark on his ministry with vigour and power and strength. That is the wonder of temptations.

The temptations of Jesus Christ, however unique they might be for him, nevertheless speak to us also. You and I don't spend forty days and nights in the wilderness with no food or water; none of us face the temptations that Jesus was to face in his life or the end that was to befall him. However, there are profound lessons from how Jesus dealt with the temptations for the way in which you and I deal with the temptations that come about in our lives. Today I want to look at the first two temptations that we find in Matthew's Gospel and next week the third one for last.


The first temptation seems most apparent and simple: it is the temptation to declare our independence from God. The tempter comes to Jesus and Jesus is vulnerable, hungry and weak. The one thing he would have wanted after being in the wilderness after forty days of fasting would be food. The tempter comes to him and says, "If you are the son of God (notice how he baits him!) then you turn those stones into bread." You declare your independence from God and use your power that you have been given and you seize it to meet your appetite. Never mind that you are in a period of preparation in the wilderness, depending on God. No. You must now seize the power yourself in order that you can declare your independence. Show us who you really are, reveal to us your true power, make that stone turn into bread.

This was also the great temptation for Jesus to turn his back on the provision of God. The reason Jesus had gone into the wilderness in the first place was to rely on God; to be completely at one with the Father in order that his ministry might reflect the Father's will. But, had he seized that moment, had he taken the bread, he would have denied God's provision and support and strength for his life. There are times when we are tempted in many ways to doubt the goodness of God and that's what was really at the heart of this. To seize things for ourselves, to grasp everything by our own power and not to rely on the presence and power of God.

This became evident some years ago after my first two months in my pastoral charge after I was ordained. I received a call in the middle of the night from the local police asking me to go to the scene of an accident where members of my congregation had been killed. For me, as a young ordained minister, this was a frightening and daunting task. What had happened was particularly egregious and awful: a young man had tried to rob a corner store in the town and as he was speeding away with the money, the police found him and embarked on a chase with the young man. The faster the police went the faster the young man went. He had a black TransAm and he went as fast as he could at night along a twisty country road to escape the police. He came to a bend in the road, but he was going too quickly to manoeuvre it and launched off the corner of the road and actually crashed into a house. He knocked down the outside wall, went over the landing of the house and landed right on top of a bed in which a man and woman were sleeping and killed them instantly. In the next room was their eleven year old son, their only child. I was called to go and see the grandmother of the young boy. As I went into the house I honestly expected to receive a hug and a kiss and to hear, "Oh Reverend Stirling it's so nice to see you, I'm glad you are here." Instead this woman ran up to me and started pounding on my chest with her fists. She said, "Why have you and your God done this?"

When I went back and looked at the message I gave at the memorial service some days later I couldn't help but think that this anger that this woman had in blaming God for what happened was the greatest temptation. So many of us face that. So many of us, when at our most vulnerable as Jesus was in the desert, actually question the provision of God. Never mind the fact that it was a drunk man driving too quickly who was solely responsible for this taking place, nevertheless in that moment of weakness we often turn to God as if God was some robot in the sky moving us all around without any free will whatsoever and then we blame God for things that happen. This is a temptation to deny the very goodness of God. That's what that woman was doing. By seeing me as a minister I was vicariously representing God.

I didn't mind when I went home and thought about it, to be the source of her abuse and anger. I'd rather she take it out on me than take it out elsewhere. But when we're at our most vulnerable sometimes, like Jesus, there is this temptation to see God as the author of evil and question God's provision. It's at moments like that that we want to declare our independence from God and say, "Yes I will just do whatever I need to do and I will be so tempted because I have come to the point of doubting God and I will now seize the moment for myself."

In responding to this temptation Jesus gave us all a great insight. He said, "It is written 'Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'" For Jesus, there was more to lose in seizing the bread to feed his immediate hunger. What he would lose is the very power of the word of God. What he would lose is the spiritual relationship that he has with his Father. What he would lose are the spiritual things that give life its meaning, strength and purpose.

It might seem all right now to seize those things that tempt us and fill our appetites in the here and now but often those can be at the expense of the thing that really does provide for us. That is why I include the text from Deuteronomy from which this came. That was a moment when Israel was in the wilderness and again was having to rely on the power of God and had they decided to turn elsewhere, they would have lost the source of the strength in their lives. So it is with us when we're tempted to deny God by declaring our own independence.


The second temptation gets right to the heart of so many of us. It is the temptation to put God to the test. I couldn't help but think back to when I was a student in Bermuda. At this time of the year, the March Break, students from the United States and Canada would go to the island. We who lived there, thought that this was the greatest time of the year, particularly for the young men, for the most beautiful girls come from Canada! We just thought that we as the local boys could really impress the lights out of some of these visiting girls. We did all manner of things to impress them. One day I was tempted to do something: I thought I would show my prowess as a swimmer and diver. At the Elbow Beach Club, there was a very high diving board and I thought with all these impressionable young women around that I would fly from this beautiful board and show them just what a great diver I was. I climbed up slowly making sure that everyone could see me and I stood high above the adoring fans below and I dived off that board, soared like an eagle and landed like a pot-bellied pig! Rumour has it that the noise of my landing was so great that it put people off their meals in the neighbouring restaurants. I have never been so sore and humiliated in my life! Oh, how we are so foolish at times. We lift ourselves up to the highest places and we come down all the harder. That is pride.

Pride is one of the things that Jesus was tempted with. The Devil said, "I will take you to Jerusalem and I will put you on the top of the pinnacle in the Temple and if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from this Temple. For it is so written in the Scriptures." At the most central and highest place in Israel, in that spot Jesus was being tempted to throw himself down. Had he done so it would have been a case like Jonathan and Saul, 'how are the mighty fallen?' Had Jesus succumbed to that temptation, had his ego been so great that he put God to the test, at that moment the whole of his ministry would have come to an end for he would have elevated himself above everybody else. He'd have elevated himself even above the will of the Father for the sake of his own aggrandisement and for the sake of his own pride. So often we get caught up with that same thing and put God to the test. We elevate ourselves and think more highly of ourselves than we ought. When we do that we sow the seeds for our own destruction. William Barkley once wrote that "the devil raises us up in order that he might bring us down where God brings us down in order that he might lift us up."

Here is the difference. The life of Jesus and his ministry, was one of humility and servitude. That is why Paul, in writing to the Philippians, said that Jesus did not claim equality with God but humbled himself, taking the form of a servant. Had Jesus succumbed at this moment to elevate himself into the highest place and launch himself off, no matter what would have happened he would have denied the whole nature of his ministry which was to end up on a cross between two thieves as a servant of humanity and for the sake of good. All too often that will to power and that pride of status gives us the thought that somehow we are above God and we put God to the test.

I was speaking to a group this week and I told the story of George Bush (of course it is not true) who dies and goes to Heaven. Peter allows him to have one request when he arrives in Heaven. His request is to see Moses. Peter thought about this and said, "I hope you realise that Moses is one of the most important people up here. Not just anybody gets to see Moses." George Bush said, "Oh I'm sure he'll see me. You tell him George Bush wants to see him, the President of the greatest country in the world, the man who had the power to destroy the whole world with the pressing of a button that I'm the winner of the Gulf War. You tell him George Bush wants to see him. He'll be wowed!" Peter goes away and returns to say, "I've got bad news for you. Moses says that the last time he saw a bush he spent forty years in the wilderness and he doesn't want to do that again!"

Sometimes we elevate ourselves and we think we're so grand and great and we're not willing to go into that wilderness, that place of subservient obedience to God and Christ. That is why Jesus said to the tempter, "You do not put God to the test." Unfortunately sometimes we do and we put God to the test by putting ourselves in positions where we ourselves are tempted. We put temptation before us and then think that somehow God is automatically going to turn a switch and we're not going to succumb to that temptation. Surely there is something that we must do to prevent ourselves from being in the position where we are so tempted.

Late last night I went out for yet another elixir to keep my voice going. I went into a corner store and there I saw three young boys standing at the counter of the store. All three were reading pornographic magazines and chuckling and laughing to themselves. I couldn't help but think to myself, 'is it any wonder why in our society women are sometimes degraded by the images we have of them that are perverted? When we see them as objects and not subjects? Is it any wonder when we provide that kind of thing for young eyes to see? Where will their minds be in twenty years time when they are men? I wonder.' That's what I mean by putting God to the test, by simply saying that here we have something that can tempt us to think in all manner of wrong ways about other human beings. But somehow we think that God is automatically going to save us from its influences. Oh, how foolish we are to put God to the test.

When you are so tempted just remember that God allows you to be tempted, but remember that God is not the author of evil but if you have faith will see you through it. Next week: The Will to Power and its ultimate seductions. Amen.