It was around this time of year in 2011 that I joined up with a small group of 5 other people and we hiked across the West Bank of Palestine from Nazareth in the north to Bethlehem in the south. About 100 miles of walking through farmland and desert and small villages. We stayed in people’s homes, in hotels, refugee settlements and with Bedouin shepherds. Yes, it was safe. I never felt unsafe. Lots of people only get the sightseeing that the tour buses show them. But we were experiencing what it was like to make this journey in the much the same way Jesus did with his people. At least, we were seeing much of the countryside the way he saw it. During Lent, I’ll try to describe it as best I can (and show you) whenever it helps the story you’re hearing.
One of the places where we stopped was the Mount of Temptation, the traditional spot where Jesus was tempted. Like so many of the stories in scripture, there are actual places where things happened, especially around the old city of Jerusalem or the Sea of Galilee – and traditional places where these things happened. The traditional place is where you go to think about a story in scripture because nobody really knows where it happened. There is a traditional spot where the temptation of Jesus took place. It’s a 1,200-foot tall mountain near Jericho in the southwest of Israel/Palestine.
About halfway up, there is a Greek Orthodox monastery. Since ancient times, Greek monks have built monasteries in hard-to-get-to places like mountains and cliffs to allow for contemplation and to honor scripture stories. On the Mount of Temptation, this is a long, narrow building on the side of the cliff, where the monks live in small cells. It’s a difficult climb to get up there, along a narrow path. Or, since 20 years ago, you can take a cable car. In this place you can contemplate the temptation of Christ with the other tourists and… have an ice cream, or maybe a large pomegranate smoothie in the Mount of Temptation restaurant. A little ironic, right? Or not. These days, you can be tempted on the Mount of Temptation!
When I say the word, “temptation,” what do you think of? We use the word temptation in worship every week. The Lord’s Prayer has us asking God not to “lead us into temptation,” (from the King James Version) but a better translation of those words is, “keep us from the day of testing.” God, please protect us from the Day of Judgment – and Jesus is the answer to that prayer. The things that would make us vulnerable to judgment are the things that died with Jesus on the cross. So that prayer is being answered – and God does not lead you into temptation. We lead ourselves into temptation perfectly well. Have you ever said, “Mmmm that’s a temptation…”?
The dictionary defines temptation as “the act of tempting or the state of being tempted, especially to evil.” Synonyms are: allurement, bait, come-on, decoy, enticement, inveiglement, seducement, snare, trap.” Temptation is the open door that leads you to the place where your logical mind knows you shouldn’t go for one reason or another. I think we know what temptation is: an invitation to become something less than what God wants you to be. It’s different for everyone. It could be a thing, a person, an emotion, a substance. Something that’s a temptation for you might not be for me. And vise-versa. It’s clear from scripture that one of the things that makes us human is that we all can be tempted and give in! We’re all in this together! The Apostle Paul said…
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7: 15, 24-25)
Not exactly encouraging, right? We all have a dark side. But keep in mind that as we walk with Jesus to Jerusalem, he is walking to the cross, where this problem of sin dies with him. There’s new life on the other side of the cross, and if you’re open to it, the gospel story from Luke can give you some help as you follow Jesus through his own temptation.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. (Luke 4:1)
Jesus has just been baptized and he is full of the Holy Spirit. He’s on a spiritual high as he heads into the wilderness, which is not a forest; it’s more like a hilly desert wasteland. He’s going off to live in a cave somewhere in Judea, like the Greek monks. No people around except for a few shepherds. He knows when he goes into this place that he won’t come out for 40 days – a symbolic number that means journey, and cleansing, and salvation. Coincidentally, that’s about how long it takes for most people to develop new habits. For most of 6 weeks, he’s with God, himself, and the devil, the evil one, in the middle of nowhere. Six weeks with this guy!
He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. (v. 2)
There were no ice cream coolers or juice drink restaurants in this place, just in case you missed that irony. But, you can find spring water. So, he’s on a liquid fast and is… famished.
This is the word you should key in on. Famished. It’s the first ingredient of successful temptation for the evil one. Tired, hungry. Famished. Have you ever been famished (root word of famine). Most people can’t think when they are famished.
The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ (v. 3)
The devil has a logical idea. Make bread. I saw a baking show the other night that you said could live on just bread and water for quite a while. Not appetizing, but you can do it.
And Jesus refuses. It’s important to see that Jesus quotes scripture when he refuses.
Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’ (v. 4; quoting Deuteronomy 8:3)
But maybe you heard that the devil, the evil one, also knows scripture. The key thing Jesus does is not to turn the rock into bread. He simply refuses to do what the devil suggested. It’s not about resisting the temptation to do a cheesy parlor trick, not about resisting the temptation to feed himself with his power. It’s about refusing to allow the evil to control anything he does – even when he is physically weak, when he knows some bread could help.
The evil will come to you and try to control you when you are tired and hungry. When you are famished. A UCC Conference person once told me that he had seen a study of clergy misbehavior which showed that those who got into moral trouble often made their first mistake on a Monday. Think about that.
I suspect that all of us have a vulnerable day, a vulnerable time. I think what God is trying to communicate is: think carefully about your decisions on that day. Might be best to save the decision for a time when you are not famished. I wonder how many bad decisions have been made by us when we were famished. Things said and done when we didn’t feel our best.
All Jesus did was nothing.
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ (vv. 5-7)
If you were a Jewish person in that time, standing on the Mount of Temptation, you would be looking back in the direction of slavery. I realize it’s a symbolic thing, and maybe it’s a stretch of the imagination, but that’s what you’re looking at from up there.
All the kingdoms of the world, the glory, the authority, the things that look so great from a distance, are over there where slavery is. And it’s a lie. None of this stuff is the devil’s to give. And those things are a mirage. The evil wants to be worshiped, to have control of you.
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here (v. 9)[and he quotes more scripture].
And again, Jesus refuses. And this time, the devil makes it personal. He goes after the spiritual core of Jesus. On top of the Temple, the house of God – come on Jesus, show the Chosen People you can fly! In the middle of the most holy place, among God’s people, do the least helpful thing. Do the thing that draws attention to you for no good purpose. Get everybody’s mind off of God and what God wants. And Jesus responds with scripture of his own: don’t put God to the test. Nah, Satan, I don’t think that’s what I’ll be doing.
The devil wasn’t done. When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. An opportune time. So, he doesn’t just go away.
Here’s the takeaway: The evil will come when you are full of the Spirit – and are famished. Plan on it. In an instant, you will be shown the wonderful things that will turn you into a slave. You will be challenged to make your faith life about you instead of about God and the people God loves.
There may be somebody here who would be helped by hearing the 12 steps of AA. I believe they can be applied to any addiction, whether it’s a soft one like food or some other habit. Maybe the way you relate to certain people. Maybe smoking. Or a harder addiction like alcohol, drugs, or sex.
Life is a continuous battle against the things that would lead you to places you shouldn’t be. God promises to be with you as you walk through the valley.
- We admitted we were powerless over our addiction–that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. (we understand him as Jesus)
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings
- Made a list of persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
O God, we might think we know our hearts desire, and we set our minds on high dreams, lofty goals. So teach us what is truly important. Help us know how to fill our souls.
And so we pray, God, that you give us good vision and open hearts to see exactly what is happening when we hear other voices calling us to walk down paths where we should not go.
Help us help each other. Fill us with yourself; give us strength. In the name of the one who resisted temptation and lives inside us now through faith. Amen.