You will have seen in IVN for this month that I asked our neighbours how they were getting on with their New Year’s Resolutions?
It is a truism that gyms get out all sorts of new equipment for January for the flood of new applications by which they are besieged, but put them away before February as those good intentions have withered away. I suggested in Itchen Valley News that the Christian equivalent of New Year’s resolutions is what we undertake to do for Lent.
But the difference, it seems to me is that Christians see those moments when we want to give up our resolution as the work of a tempter, rather than seeing the feeling which impels us to give up as a bodily thing or some character flaw; something to do with us. Christians see temptation as a voice which says, ’drink me’ ‘eat me’ or ‘give up’.
I would like to add to that line of thought this morning. I would like to suggest that the passage which we have just read in the Bible of Jesus in the wilderness sees defeating temptation as a dialogue; defeating temptation as a dialogue.
Jesus is tempted in three ways in the wilderness: firstly, the temptation of hunger. This temptation is to use the power that he has to turn stones into bread, to provide him with food when he is fasting. We might see this as a temptation to give into the screaming demands of the body; not just hunger but all of those demands which the body makes. This is a temptation of the flesh, but Matthew sees it as a voice of the devil, tempting Jesus to give up, to stop fasting.
We might experience it in this way or choose to see it as a silent voice speaking into our consciousness as a temptation to greed: ‘I would really like that cream bun’, or lust ‘isn’t he/she attractive?’ ‘didn’t you see how she/he looked at me?’
Jesus roundly condemns this temptation by using Scripture: ’Man shall not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’. In other words, man is not just about the needs of the flesh, he/she is more than that, he/she is made for worshipping God.
Jesus’ second temptation is a temptation of the spirit. The devil says to him (quoting scripture) throw yourself down from the top of the temple and God will save you…..This is the temptation to use our gifts for the enhancement of our ego; doing magic for the sake of everyone seeing how wonderful we are. Can you imagine the adulation that Jesus could have received from acting like spiderman, jumping from building to building. It is a temptation of the world; for the world to see us as marvellous.
We might experience this in a different way, maybe as a temptation to boast so that everyone knows that we are just great or to gossip about others so that people see us as ‘in the know’, someone at the centre of things or to slander others so that we look better than them or we might envy others.
All of these are are the temptation of narcissism; focusing on ourselves and our own self promotion; of seeking fame for its own sake and testing God to see what he will do to promote those he loves.
Whereas Jesus is in the wilderness so that God can test him…..
Jesus was not a narcissist; all his miracles were to help others, not for his own reputation, indeed he told so many people he healed not to tell anyone!
Jesus again turns to Scripture to see this temptation off..Scripture says ‘don’t put the Lord your God to the test’.
Jesus third temptation is a temptation of idolatry: to worship an idol is to worship the devil. To worship something other than God.
There are so many temptations for us to worship things other than God:
it could be our work
it could be our children
it could be our house
it could be our football club
it could be our garden
it could be our social standing
in the community
A good test of what we worship is when we get irrationally cross when that thing is challenged or criticised; when that idol steps in between us and other people and causes strife with someone else.
Jesus again turns to Scripture: we must only worship God; we must only serve God and not these other idols.
So, our temptations come from the flesh, the world, and the devil. But it is helpful to see all of these temptations as the voice of a tempter; of the devil in every case; all coming from a tempter.
We need to learn to recognise temptation when it comes and name it as such.
Remember there is no sin in being tempted, just in giving into the temptation or dwelling on it.
As Martin Luther said, I cannot stop birds flying around my head but I can stop them nesting in my hair. We need to stop them nesting in our hair; not dwelling on the temptation or acting on it.
But sometimes its difficult to recognise temptation as the Devil is a past master at distracting us so that we don’t see what is happening as temptation.
In the Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis writes a series of letters from a senior devil to a junior devil advising on how to tempt the human he was responsible for. (You have to remember in this book that everything is said from the devil’s perspective; from the perspective of the devil the Enemy is God, the Father is Satan).
The senior devil Screwtape writes to the junior called Wormwood:
‘I once had a patient a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day as he was reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years work beginning to totter….[but]…I struck at the part of the man which I had best under my control and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch….Once he was in the street the battle was won…and he is now safe in our Father’s house.’
So one of the ways the Devil distracts us is by the body speaking to our consciousness. It feels like something out of our bodily nature but we need to see it as the words of the devil if we have resolved not to give into a particular temptation.
During Lent, we need to be very present, very conscious of what we are doing and what we are saying, not easily distracted from what we have set ourselves to do.
But how do we deal with the temptation that we recognise we are facing?
As I said already, temptation is a dialogue and we need to respond to what the devil is saying and drive him off. A good way to deal with it is as Jesus did with Scripture. And if we are struggling to find that perfect verse of the Bible to see off our temptation, those who have been attending Valley Worship will know about the challenging language of Romans Chapter 1:28-32, where Paul indicates the consequence of sin from which we are saved as Christians by what Jesus did on the Cross by the agonies which he suffered. We have a responsibility because of that suffering not to indulge ourselves in sin because our salvation from it was bought at a terrible cost.
So reminding ourselves of what God says (through Paul) would be the terrible consequence of the sin which we have been tempted if we were not in Christ: Eternal death, Eternal separation from God and, having identified and named the sin with which we are tempted, might be the way to confront the enemy who is tempting us.
So, as far as the sins of the flesh are concerned, we should say in our hearts to the enemy:
‘greed – worthy of death’
‘lust – worthy of death’
so far as the sons of the world is concerned:
‘boasting – worthy of death’
‘gossiping – worthy of death’
‘slander – worthy of death’
‘envy- worthy of death’
so far as sins of our worship is concerned:
‘worshipping created things – worthy of death’
So, temptation is a dialogue but, as we turn to what the Bible says about the consequence of our sin, we will find that the tempter will leave us and we will have won a great victory.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’ ”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 4:1–12). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.