Friday, March 19, 1999

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, March 14, 1999
Text: Philippians 2:3-11 and Matthew 4:1-11

This is the second and final sermon in a series on "The Temptations" and I have been using the passage from Matthew 4:1-11 as our text. This is now the final temptation of Jesus Christ. We looked at the first two temptations last week and concluded a number of things. God allows temptations (they are part of God's sovereign will) but that God is not the author of the evil that comes and tempts us. God is the one who, through that temptation, can make us even stronger through faith. The final temptation is recorded as follows:

"Finally the Devil took Jesus up on a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms on earth and their power. The Devil said to him, 'I will give all this to you if you will bow down and worship me.' Jesus answered, 'Go away Satan. The Scripture says worship the Lord your God and serve only Him.' Then the Devil left Jesus and the angels came and ministered to him."

I have a proposition for you this morning. You do not need to verbalize your response, just seek your souls. If I were to say to you that I would like you to come and worship my two Cocker Spaniels, Wally and Monty, and place those two cuddly little dogs right up there on the communion table and ask each of you to file down the aisle and bow and kneel down before my dogs, would you do so? If I were to entice you and say that if you would do so I would give you a free holiday in St. Moritz, the usage of a Rolls Royce, dinner at Spagos, would you do so? Are you now suitably enticed? If I told you that these are the two most beautiful loving dogs that unconditionally embrace you even at four in the morning, would you come along and worship them? If I then appealed to your sentimental religious heart and quoted the great St. Bernard (I mean the real St. Barnard, not the dog!) of the eleventh century who said, "If you love me you love my dog also." True quote. Would you then, with that religious impulse, come down and worship my dogs? I don't think so! I would certainly hope you wouldn't because I don't think there is much alluring about worshipping objects. I think most people in their heart of hearts say that they find all sources of idolatry to be reprehensible. But even in the secular world in which we live, if you asked the average person in the street, even if they were not of great faith, I think most of them would find that idea just outrageous. I think many people would understand why one of our great forebearers in the Protestant faith, Oliver Cromwell, went around England stripping the sanctuaries of any pretense of idolatry, any statues, icons that might have been there. He was driven by a passion to simply expunge these from people's religious views. He felt that if you removed these you would remove the seduction of idolatry.

There's only one problem and it is that idolatry is not just a matter of one's formal allegiance. It doesn't just relate to how you worship physical objects or give them your devotion. Most of us find that reprehensible and would never dream to countenance such a thing. The reality is that idolatry is much more seductive than simply bowing down before an object or a god of our own making. Idolatry is a matter of the heart depending on one's allegiance and faith. It tells you where you place your greatest value and virtue. It reveals to us the very nature of the gods that we make ourselves. Sometimes they're so subtle, so unobvious to the eye, they become a matter of the allegiance of the heart.

When Jesus was up on that mountain it was the seduction, the ultimate temptation. It was a real test to Jesus as to where his ultimate allegiance lay. It questioned his orthodoxy; it questioned his calling. Everything was on the line when Jesus was taken up onto that mountain. I want to look at the temptation of Jesus because I believe it is not only a story about the temptation of the Son of God but there is a message to everyone of us about the dangers of idolatry in our own lives and how seductive and tempting these idols can be.


First, idolatry and this temptation is ultimately about allegiance. The Gospel writers Matthew and Luke have Jesus, in this third temptation, being taken to an exceedingly high place. It is probably a metaphorically high place because from this point of view Jesus could see all the nations of the earth and their splendor. The tempter comes to Jesus and tempts him by saying all these will be yours, all the political power you crave are there simply for the asking. All you have to do is bow down and worship me and the whole world is yours. If you analyze what the tempter was doing here you see there was something profoundly absurd about the temptation. The tempter is no more than a sham or a con artist, someone trying to sell you swamp land in Florida when they don't have that land to give you. The scriptures make it abundantly clear in Psalm 24:1 "the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." Unlike some agnostic religions, Judaism and Christianity believe that the earth isn't inherently evil but belongs to God and is good. It is fallen but is created by God. So what Satan was doing was offering something that he never had in the first place. Furthermore, the absurdity is enhanced by the fact that in many places in the scriptures it shows that Jesus himself, the pre-existent Christ, was there at the beginning of the world as the creator of the universe. So the tempter is merely giving Jesus what was already Jesus' creation in the first place.

That is one of the great seductions of idolatry, the great sham, offering us something that really cannot be offered at all. Often we're offered ease and power and glory and wealth and are given these things as if somehow they are to be given to us by the power of evil when it is evil that takes away from our lives. Evil doesn't give us anything. The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof. That is the absurdity of this situation.

But that does not mean that there wasn't an attractiveness for Jesus in this temptation. As absurd as it was, was there not really within Jesus' heart and soul, this fully human person, just that inkling that said, "I could have everything that I dream of; I could fulfill my whole calling by taking the short cut?" The attractiveness to Jesus in this temptation is that while the Father had planned that all the kingdoms of the earth would bow down before him, they had done so on the basis of his suffering not on the basis of him grasping for power. That is why that great passage from Philippians that was read speaks so clearly to us today. Jesus humbled himself, took the form of a servant, did not claim equality with God, but emptied himself. If Jesus had, at that moment of temptation, succumbed to the attractiveness of this, it would be to bypass all the suffering that was to come. The nature of his ministry, the moment of the cross, the coronation with the thorns, the death and dying for the forgiveness of others: all of these could have been bypassed with one fell swoop for the sake of a grasp of power and glory.

We're often seduced in similar ways that Jesus was. The quick and easy way to make our money, the quick and easy way by the spin of a wheel or roll of a dice or the pull of a lever just to get instant wealth and success. We are all seduced by that type of thing in our lives, to take the easy way to get to the right ends. But the ends do not justify the means. The means are important. The means of God's salvation of the world was through a cross, through a suffering servant. Had Jesus bypassed that and simply grasped the power of the earth everything would have been lost.

The third point is just this: everything was at stake here. Had Jesus just selfishly taken the whole world as it was offered him and the splendor and glory of all the nations, the losers would have been you and me. The losers would have been humanity. Jesus Christ did not elevate himself for his own self-aggrandizement. Jesus isn't Lord simply because he claims that Lordship in the world. Jesus is Lord precisely because he humbled himself to his Father's will and thereby was lifted up. That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow is precisely because of the bowed head on the cross. That is the nature of God's salvation, that is the way God does things and any other way is a sham. Any other way is fraud, falsehood and idolatry.

The temptation for Jesus wasn't just unique to himself. There were times when Israel had found itself similarly seduced by being offered worldly power and prestige and might. There was a moment when Israel looked around at the rest of the world and saw that it had all these mighty monarchs and kings and said, "Oh, if only we could have a king like that, if only we could have that kind of military power to unify us, just think how great and wonderful we would be!" So God allowed Israel to have its kings and some of the kings did the work of God and some did not. When the people came to worship the kings rather than worship their God, all manner of problems beset them. In the 9th Century, King Ahab wanted power and peace and the nations around to love Israel. He wanted prosperity. He brought in false gods: Baal, Ashera, and others to appeal to the nations. It was these idolatrous gods that became the downfall of the nation. That is the seduction of saying, "We will have our God on our terms." As soon as that happens we fall into the supreme pit.

John Bright once said, "As long as men and women take on the character of the Gods they serve so long it matters whose God it is." When we imitate other gods and choose other gods before whom we bow down (even if it's not just physical ones but ones of the heart) then we follow the seduction of that god. That is why I believe Satanic worship isn't about the occult; it's not about running around different things. True Satanic worship is setting up things that demand our allegiance other than God. It can be anything. It can be the lusts of the heart. One of the great temptations in our society is to play on the lusts of the heart. Every magazine you open, television programs ... there it is. Cocker Spaniels are not going to be able to drive too much lust in your heart! The seduction is the lusts that are all around us. Yet we see the outcome of that destroying lives and relationships. We see the gods of materialism which really is a serious problem. It is when we elevate the accumulation of things above the goodness of God, when we make the things that we have the idols of our eyes and minds rather than the God who gives these things in the first place.

You can see this affecting Christians. Where we put our time, money and energy reveals a great deal to us about the nature of our own idolatry. I read the story of two bills (before the introduction of the Loonie) that came out of the mint on the same day. One was a hundred dollar bill and the other a one dollar bill. They went out into their lives on the same day and finally they were retired by the mint and brought back in and when they compared notes they looked at each other and the one dollar bill said to the hundred, "What sort of life have you led?" The hundred dollar bill said, "I've had a wonderful life! I've been to the Ritz, I have been a down payment on a home, I have been spent in the finest restaurants, I have had a superb life. I'm sorry it's over." He said to the one dollar bill, "What sort of life have you had?" The small bill answered, "Oh, I've had a boring life. I have gone from church to church to church......" The idolatry of the heart is a matter of allegiance, a matter of commitment, a matter of who you are.

That was the great challenge for Jesus. He had to either assert his own authority and power, of which he had plenty, or to be obedient to God the Father and his will. I can see the signs of this seduction to seize that power even in politics. I can see it even in the politics of the Church for Church is one of the most political of bodies where people sometimes seize power for power's sake rather than for the good that they can do with that power for the sake of the kingdom.

I've been rereading a book by Jaques Ellul entitled, The Politics of God and the Politics of Man which is about the story of II Kings. The case is clear that many people use political power and are given the freedom by God to use that power but for their own means. However, the true freedom comes when you use that power only for God and for his son. We can see the wrecks of the abuse of power throughout the history of the church. Just recently I spoke with two young men who have walked from England and France to Istanbul and Turkey. The reason they did so is to appear before the mayor of the city and council of that city and apologize for the Crusades in the eleven hundreds. The Christians marched in and used their military power on their way to Jerusalem. They ransacked the country and many of its religious leaders and what was then Constantinople and is now Istanbul became a place of bloodletting. These Christians have said that they went back 800 years later simply to say that this was not the way of Christ.

Even power itself can be seductive; it can cause one to create an idol of one's own self in the mind. It is a tempting and dangerous thing. The way of Christ is so clearly opposite.


How did Christ respond to this challenge? He quoted Deuteronomy 6:13, that you should worship only the Lord your God, that there can be no other source of worship. That is the ultimate allegiance. The worship of God demands openly and publicly "I am God's, I belong to God. There are no others for me."

This past week I went to Beth Tzedec Synagogue and in a very moving moment one of the Rabbis invited me to walk around the sanctuary on my own. The lights were dimly lit and it was a magnificent evening of dialogue between Christians and Jews but for awhile I was all alone in this place that seats two thousand. I was struck and moved as I looked around the Synagogue. I realized that there was not a single symbol anywhere. As you walk down the center aisle there is simply one pulpit from which the Torah is read; the word was central. There were no other gods, no other means of false worship. Here was the simplicity of being in the House of God. I couldn't help but think that that's what Jesus was getting at! "There is but one and it is my father and I can only bow down before one. Never mind what the world offers me; I belong to God." By taking that stand he paved the way for us to say, "through him I therefore have only one God."

Some years ago, when I lived and studied in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I read a frightening story in the paper one Monday morning. A young woman had attended church on Tremont Street in Boston (probably Park Street Congregational Church). After the evening service she decided to take the shortcut to the bus station because it was a cold night. She cut across the corner of the Boston Common at night, something she knew she shouldn't do. As she walked, two young men came out and landed on her, wrestling her to the ground attempting to sexually assault her. This young woman who had just come from worship screamed from the depths of her soul, "Get your hands off me. I am God's property!" The two men got up and left her alone.

I cannot explain what happened that night but when I read this in the Boston Globe that morning I could not help but think that that is exactly what we need to do in our lives. We need to verbalize it. " I am God's property no matter what temptations come my way. No matter how many false gods might be thrown at my feet, no matter how seductive these things may be, I belong to God. I have been paid for and I have been paid for on a cross by the one who resisted temptation."

There is one final note - one little phrase at the end of this whole story which says it all. When Jesus, exhausted after this temptation, came down from the mountain, it says, "and the angels ministered unto him." God allows us to be tempted. He allows the doors of freedom to open wide as he did with Job, but God is always there even in the midst of that temptation. God is there to minister to us by the power of his spirit. So when we're tempted we're not alone, not powerless, not resourceless; we have God, the beginning and the end. Just like the people of Israel when they were tempted to turn back, manna came from heaven. Just when Jesus was tempted to have the whole world before him fall at his feet, he proclaimed the word of God and therein was his strength. That is why temptation, as John Bunyan rightly said, "causes us to look upward unto God."

Whenever you are tempted may you do so and declare the allegiance of your heart. Amen