First Sunday in Lent

 

Do you have faith? Perhaps this is neither the time nor the place to ask. After all, why else would you be here at church on Sunday morning?

 

The word “faith” is ambiguous in meaning. Consider how we use the word. We say, for example, I profess the Christian faith. In this sense, faith refers to a set of doctrines, which we hold to be true. But we also say, for example, “I have faith in her.” In this sense, faith refers to trust. To say: “I have faith in her” means “I have confidence that she will come through for me.”

 

Have you ever been let down? Several years ago, I planned a trip with friends. We made accommodations at a resort in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. One of our friends, whom I was eagerly looking forward to seeing, was coming out from the East Coast. We agreed to meet at a rendezvous point in Chicago. I arrived at the location on time. One hour passed, then two. She didn’t show. After three and a half hours, I gave up and drove to Lake Geneva by myself.

 

We all know how it feels to be let down. Indeed, some of us have experienced far worse disappointments than that of a friend failing to show up for a vacation trip. Our trust has been betrayed. If it’s been betrayed too deeply or too often, we shut down, unwilling to open our hearts again.

 

Jesus is alone in the wilderness. After 40 days of fasting, he is hungry. Now Jesus trusts in God. Indeed, he will teach that God is a faithful provider, to whom we can bring our needs as do children to their father. But where is this God now?

 

Indeed, is this not a question that we all have raised at one time or another?

 

Here we have to talk about temptation. Again, it is one of those words that needs clarification. We use the word in our everyday speech. For example, let’s say we have been dieting and making progress. Then one day a colleague brings a plate of brownies to an office party. She offers one to us. We want one badly, but we refuse, saying: “don’t tempt me.”

 

Obviously, we are using the word flippantly here. Our world would not come to an end if we had a brownie, even though we may be disappointed in ourselves for our lack of self-control.

 

But temptation can be soul-crushing, because it opens up the very real possibility of breaking faith with God, and thus with ourselves.

 

The tempter comes to Jesus: “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.” The subtext is: “Obviously, the God on whom you depend to provide for your needs is a no show. He is not there for you when you need him most. You are on your own. It looks like you have to take matters into your own hands.”

 

Temptation comes to us in moments of weakness. This certainly applies to Jesus in the desert. In those moments of weakness, the tempter appears to us as a realist who appeals to our reason. “Come on, you believe that God is good. Therefore, how can God want you to starve? How can God want you to be unhappy? How then will you be able to realize God’s purpose for your life?” Author Mary M. McGlone writes that the trickiest thing about the temptations is that they come to us in the camouflage of good ideas, even as ways to advance the purposes of God. “The tempter is an expert at disguise: slicker than fake news and much subtler than ads.”

 

But note that Jesus does not argue with the tempter; instead, he relies on God’s word. This offers us a lesson. At our weakest moments, it is easiest to rationalize our choices. But in this we are almost always deceived. It is when we find ourselves ready to entertain lies that we fall into temptation. We should not listen to these voices; instead we should call to mind God’s word. The word of God is the means by which we come to know God’s will and direction.

 

Here it’s appropriate for us to remember that one of the Lenten disciplines is meditation on the scriptures. Jesus is able to withstand the tempter’s attacks and discern God’s will and direction in the situation in which he finds himself by calling to mind and applying God’s word.

 

We should have scriptures in our arsenal so that when the tempter comes to attack, we have a weapon with which to fight him. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians instructs us to take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (6:17).

 

This past week the Journal of Religion and Health published an article titled “Perceptions of Accountability to God and Psychological Well-Being among US Adults.” Researchers from Baylor University, Westmont College and Hope College (here in Holland) used two simple statements from a survey to assess whether a respondent is accountable to God.  

 

  • “I decide what to do without relying on God.”
  • “I depend on God for help and guidance.” 

 

They concluded that those who responded “no” to the first and “yes” to the second embrace accountability to God. They found that those who do so experience higher levels of three of the four variables of psychological well-being, including mattering to others, as well as having a sense of personal dignity and meaning in their lives.

 

The study also found that this relationship is stronger among those who pray more often, suggesting that accountability coupled with communion with God may be a powerful combination for well-being.

 

This study is obviously of interest for its own sake. It’s one among many in recent years that show a positive correlation between faith commitment and psychological well-being.

 

But we can also find in it something practical for us in our battle with temptation. The best strategy, as we know, is to avoid those situations in which temptation is likely to arise. It’s not for nothing that Jesus teaches his followers to pray: “Lead us not into temptation.” For this purpose, we should keep short accounts with God. “Should I watch this show?” Or “Should I visit this website?” Or “Should I go to this person’s place?” “Or should I say these things about this other person?” These are the sorts of questions that we should first bring to God in prayer, depending on him for help and guidance.

 

Author Jim Wilder relates that as he searched for what it means to believe in Jesus, he discovered three essential things: (1) talk with God about everything; (2) do nothing out of fear; (3) and love people deeply. If we practiced these things consistently, would we not be more immune to temptation than we are?

 

But the tempter does not give up. If at first he does not succeed in his attack against us, he tries again. We learn that he brings Jesus up to a high mountain and shows him in a flash all the kingdoms of the world. He promises that all their authority and glory will be his, if only he is willing to bow down and worship him.

 

Note that the tempter targets in him his most vital concern, his deepest desire. He goes straight to the heart. To be king—this is the very purpose for which God sent him into the world. Jesus is already aware that as the Son of God he is the heir of all things. No doubt he knows the verse from Psalm 2: “Ask of me I will give you the nations for your inheritance, and the ends of the earth as your possession.” But here it is made available to him immediately, if only he transfers his devotion from God to the tempter.

 

What is our deepest desire? Power, status, possessions? Something will offer it to us—a partner, a group, a movement. It will promise to fulfill our desire, if only we make it the center of our life. We must give all our devotion to it; we must submit to its authority.

 

My friend, who was a world class economist, was familiar with the world of financial markets. He said that hedge fund managers who dedicate themselves to the financial markets will tell you that money promises great reward but that it also makes great demands. Perhaps especially in American culture, people will change who they are, betray their beliefs, and sell out their friends and family because of money. But in the end they experience the ruin when this idol crumbles and falls.

 

The tempter must face the fact that Jesus is unwilling to compromise his devotion to God. He must acknowledge after this second temptation that Jesus is faithful. That is why he changes tactics. He takes Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem. Scholars suggest that he has Jesus facing southeast, where he can see the Kidron Valley 450 feet below. The ancient historian Josephus mentions that just looking over the edge gave people a sense of vertigo (Antiquities 15.11.5 §§ 411 – 12). The subtext here is: “you consider yourself faithful to God. Here is your chance to prove it!” The tempter even quotes a Psalm that he believes should appeal to Jesus’ sense of himself as faithful to God. Author Darrel Bock writes that such “wonder working-protection will demonstrate Jesus’ unique dependence on God as he flings himself into his caring arms.”

 

But Jesus doesn’t fall for it. To demand that God act is to put God to the test. Even after the people of Israel saw all the miracles of provision that God performed on their behalf, they put God to the test, demanding that God act on their behalf. They taunted him, saying: “Can God really spread a table in the wilderness?”

 

Darrel Bock notes that we show a lack of trust in God when he try to force him to act on our behalf. In the test we set up, we want to see if he is for us or against us. For example, we may walk into situations, and then say: “God, if you are really on my side, then things will turn out my way.” Bock points out that this kind of testing is an attempt to control God, not submit to his leading. God did not lead Jesus to perform this acrobatic feat from the pinnacle of the temple. To fling himself from there would have been a flagrant act of self-will, not an act that demonstrates his dependence on God and on God’s guidance.

 

The devil cannot get Jesus to break faith with God and has to leave him until an opportune time.

 

What do we make of all this? We have seen how subtle the tempter is. We have seen how easy it is to be deceived and thereby to fall into temptation. The goal of the tempter has always been the same: to make us break faith with God, to withdraw our trust from God, to conclude that God is untrustworthy, and that we should therefore live our lives without God, as do so many around us today.

 

But Jesus did not break faith with God. He did not withdraw his trust from God, but enjoyed uninterrupted communion with him, through both the good and the bad times, through all the experiences of human life.

 

We may ask: “What does that have to do with me? I have fallen into temptation more times than I can count. And I have many regrets.”

 

The good news is that Jesus did not resist the tempter for himself alone. He resisted him on behalf of us all. For this reason, God made this Jesus our merciful and faithful high priest, who though tempted in every way that we are, was without sin. Because he shared in our weakness and therefore knows what’s it like to suffer when tempted, he can relate to us in our need. For this reason, we can, through him, approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our need.

 

So, when we are tempted and fall, we do not have to stay there. We can pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and next time stand firm against the attacks of the tempter, armed with the strategies that we have already discussed: Always looking to God for help and guidance, always keeping short accounts with God, and reading and meditating on the Scriptures, so that we may know God’s will and direction for our lives.

 

Let us be sure that we practice these things, not only during this Lenten season, but throughout the year. Amen.

 

 

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