It’s hard to do the right thing sometimes, you know? That’s the reality of being human. And so often we lose our way… we humans get it wrong again and again. This morning, this story of Jesus’ temptation is about the very human struggle we live between good and evil.
From the book of Hebrews 4:15-16
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are…” Jesus may be our high priest…the one who connects us to God. But he’s not some priest that has no idea how hard life is…how much evil surrounds us and pulls us down. No. Jesus knows exactly what we’re up against in this world…how easily we get messed up…because he’s been there. He gets it. That’s what today’s story is all about. This story of Jesus’ temptation…is about Jesus facing the struggles we all have. It is about Jesus standing up to all the ways evil gains a foothold in our lives.
So what pulls us down? Well, the first temptation is simply to make bread out of stones. Basically, Jesus is tempted to satisfy his hunger, his desire…his appetite. He’s been in the wilderness for days, eating almost nothing. He’s human…so he’s hungry. So there’s no question whether he wants bread. Of course he wants bread. A loaf of bread looks like heaven to him by that time, after subsisting on what he could scavenge in the desert for 40 days. And folks, there’s nothing wrong with bread…it’s good. The bread isn’t the problem. The problem is that the whole reason Jesus has gone into the wilderness was to fast and pray. He’s out there to take time to prepare for what’s ahead…to spend time with God. So, what the devil is doing is tempting him to appease his appetites when it goes against the very thing Jesus went out there for. He is tempting Jesus to do what would feel good for a moment, even though it is exactly what is not good…what is not right for Jesus during his time of fasting.
And how often is that the way evil takes shape in our lives and in our world — by us appeasing our appetites and desires, without worrying about what is right and good? Appeasing our appetites for stuff, for sex, for comfort, for money….without considering what is right and good. I mean, like bread, none of those things are bad in themselves. Sex is good. But when we seek it in ways that hurt or denigrate others, that violate them or violate our promises of faithfulness to the ones we love — it is evil. Comfort is good….but when our comfort means we turn a blind eye to the injustice suffered by others — it is evil. This is the temptation to simply get what we want, and not pay attention to where it came from…whether it is really what is good for us and for others. It’s basically what Adam did in the garden. Eve gave him the fruit and he just ate it, not caring or paying attention to whether it was right or good. Because he wanted it.
The second temptation Jesus faces is to be impressive. He is tempted to use his power to show how much better he is than everybody else…because he could throw himself off the temple pinnacle and he’d be fine. The rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to him, after all. He’s the Messiah. And there it is again…evil creeping in. Yes…this is how we are so often tempted. Every time we think the rules don’t apply to me. Every time we think we’re better than others. The evil of those in power who do as they please, while making others suffer. This is the evil that so easily infects lawmakers and police departments, CEOs and religious folks. People in power who use that power to hurt others…to tear them down. This second temptation is to believe that we are somehow on a different plane than others. That we are more important. That we get to be the arbiters…the judge of good and evil. That we get to “play god” with their lives. And this…this is more like Eve in the garden….wanting to be like God. That’s why she ate the fruit….she wanted to be in charge.
The third temptation Jesus faces…and we face… is to believe that the world belongs to anyone but God. The devil offers to give him the kingdoms of the world, if Jesus will bow down to him. As if the devil could hand over the kingdoms of the world? Pfft. This world is God’s. All of it. And any time we begin to think that it doesn’t …that all this God stuff about forgiveness and grace and sharing is well and good, but you know, it doesn’t apply to the “real world”………every time we deny that the “real world” IS God’s world, evil gets a toe hold. The fact that Eve and Adam listened to the serpent at all, as if the serpent was in charge…that’s exactly how we so often lose our way. Instead of remembering that everything belongs to God. Instead of trusting God and remembering that the truth of this world has nothing to do with nations or borders or kingdoms or political parties….but is found in healing and redemption, goodness and love. Believing that there is a “real world” that doesn’t belong to God? That is the third temptation.
Yes…Jesus is tempted as we are. He can sympathize with us, with the evil that pulls at us, tugging us down. But he comes exactly for that reason…that we might know we are not alone when we struggle to do what is right and good. When we struggle to trust God, Jesus comes to give us mercy and grace. Jesus comes that we may know we are not alone when we stand against evil and strive to love. Jesus is our “high priest”….who takes care of us, walks with us, sacrifices for us, so we might know we belong to God. And gives us all the grace and help we need.
This weekend, we remember Martin Luther King and his call for the beloved community to stand together against evil and strive to love one another. As I was reading this week, I came across one of his sermons…I thought it fit for today. He says:
“So in a sense, the whole history of life is the history of a struggle between good and evil. There seems to be a tension at the very core of the universe. All the great religions have seen this tension at the center of life. Hinduism called it a conflict between illusion and reality; Zoroastrianism looked upon it as a tension between the god of light and the god of darkness; Platonism called it a conflict between spirit and matter; traditional Judaism and Christianity called it a conflict between God and Satan. Each of these religions recognized that in the midst of the upward climb of goodness there is the down pull of evil.
The Hebraic Christian tradition is clear, however, in affirming that in the long struggle between good and evil, good eventually emerges as the victor. Evil is ultimately doomed by the powerful, insurgent forces of good. Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the drums of Easter. A mythical Satan, through the work of a conniving serpent, may gain the allegiance of humankind for a period, but ultimately he must give way to the magnetic redemptive power of a humble servant on an uplifted cross. Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but one day that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Biblical religion recognized long ago what William Cullen Bryant came to see in the modern world: “Truth crushed to earth will rise again;” and what Carlyle came to see: “No lie can live forever.”
Jesus, our high priest, is tempted as we are….but he tells us once and for all that God wins. Love wins. What is good and right will prevail against hatred and greed and prejudice and all the powers of this world. And when we are facing our hard times…when we are in the wilderness of grief and our broken bodies and broken hearts have left us exhausted. When we do not have any strength to face the tempter — Jesus takes us by the hand…and says, “I’ve got this”. I know this one. Just let me handle it. There’s grace for you whenever you need it. And I have you and hold you and I will never, ever let you out of my hand. Amen.
God hath not promised skies always blue,
Flower-strewn pathways all our lives through;
God hath not promised sun without rain,
Joy without sorrow, peace without pain.
But God hath promised strength for the day,
Rest for the labor, light for the way,
Grace for the trials, help from above,
Unfailing sympathy, undying love.
God hath not promised we shall not know
Toil and temptation, trouble and woe;
He hath not told us we shall not bear
Many a burden, many a care.
God hath not promised smooth roads and wide,
Swift, easy travel, needing no guide;
Never a mountain, rocky and steep,
Never a river, turbid and deep.
Annie Johnson Flint