Lead Us (Not) into Temptation (Sermon)

“Lead Us Not into Temptation”

Psalm 32 and Matthew 4:1-11

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity
    and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

While I kept silent, my body wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
    my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
    and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
    and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all who are faithful
    offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters
    shall not reach them.
You are a hiding place for me;
    you preserve me from trouble;
    you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
    whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
    else it will not stay near you.

10 Many are the torments of the wicked,
    but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
11 Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous,
    and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

(Psalm 32 – NRSV)

The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert, so that the devil could test him. After Jesus had gone without eating for 40 days and nights, he was very hungry. Then the devil came to him and said, “If you are God’s Son, tell these stones to turn into bread.”

Jesus answered, “The Scriptures say:

‘No one can live only on food.
People need every word
    that God has spoken.’”

Next, the devil took Jesus into the holy city to the highest part of the temple. The devil said, “If you are God’s Son, jump off. The Scriptures say:

‘God will give his angels
    orders about you.
They will catch you
    in their arms,
and you won’t hurt
    your feet on the stones.’”

Jesus answered, “The Scriptures also say, ‘Don’t try to test the Lord your God!’”

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.”

10 Jesus answered, “Go away Satan! The Scriptures say:

‘Worship the Lord your God

and serve only him.’”

11 Then the devil left Jesus, and angels came to help him. (Matthew 4:1-11 – CEB)

         The gospel lesson for the first Sunday of Lent is always the story of Jesus’ temptation. The narratives of Jesus’ birth and baptism lead to this moment of testing, clarity, and commitment. It’s a watershed moment in which Jesus faces possibilities which must be, in some way, real for him if his life has the meaning and the agency of grace we proclaim. I mean, if Jesus is fully human, even if he’s fully whatever else, doesn’t he have to wrestle with the possibility of exploiting his gifts for personal gain?

I say have to because temptation exists as an inescapable reality for everyone walking spiritual paths. Indeed, the first line of the story declares that “the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert” to be tempted. While that may sound more mean-spirited than Holy Spirited, our Christian journey is fraught with decisions of whether to remain true to a Christlike ethic of love or to abandon it for paths that might appear, on the surface, to be safer, surer, and more rewarding. But those seductive and thoroughly selfish ways depend on the vices of greed, manipulation, and violent power—the very things Jesus wrestles with in the wilderness.

If you’re hungry, says the Tempter, turn rocks into bread.

And Jesus says, in effect: Look, Old Scratch, you’re not even human. You don’t understand that there’s more to our lives than eating. More than getting and owning. God understands that, though. And God has given us this earth which can bless all life with the abundance of enough.

It seems to me that when humans get greedy and confuse excess with blessing, we create the problem of scarcity. That makes scarcity more than an economic precept. It’s a creation of selfishness, fear, and idolatry.

In Exodus 16, the Israelites learn that lesson in their own wilderness. When God tells them not to hoard manna, they give into the temptation to try anyway. And they discover, overnight, that stockpiled manna becomes foul, worm-infested, inedible. It’s God whom we trust, not the “bread from heaven” itself.

Then jump from the top of the temple, says the Father of Lies. If people see you do something like that, forget feeding them bread. You’ll have them eating out of your hand! They’ll believe and do anything you say!

And Jesus says. I’m the one being tested, not God.

Ok, says the Adversary, and he whisks Jesus up to a high mountain peak from which they can see the whole world. Then he says, Look out there. Everything and everyone you see—all of it can be yours, if you just follow me. If you just commit your life to me. Put your faith and your trust in me, Jesus, and you can rule the world!

Go away Satan!” says Jesus. When God takes people up mountains, it’s not to inflate them into domination but to humble them into service. That goes for me, too. I didn’t come to rule the world. I came to heal it, to restore it. I came to love the entire Creation and to teach it how to be alive and loving. God is alive and loving in the created order, and I will not exploit or undermine the God-revealing holiness within me or anyone else.

With that, the Tempter leaves, and God’s angels, in whatever form, come and tend to Jesus.

You know, in the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “lead us not into temptation.” And none of us want to be tempted, at least not by things about which we feel ashamed and against which we feel defenseless. Temptation is part of being human, though; and, as we’ve acknowledged, it’s integral to our spiritual formation. We never know what we’re capable of, what our true spiritual gifts are, until we learn to face and overcome temptation.

Let’s go back to the benediction I used last week. To close the service, I read from the Brian McLaren book our group just finished discussing. The excerpt was a list of virtues of love, and with each virtue, McLaren includes challenges we face in learning to love as we are loved. Those challenges are, basically, temptations—temptations to avoid, deny, or withhold love. And each temptation is as real as the breath in our lungs right now. I won’t rehash the whole list, but it included the realities that:

“[We] can’t learn to love people without being around actual people—including people who infuriate, exasperate, annoy… reject, and hurt [us], thus tempting [us] not to love them.

“[We] can’t learn the patience that love requires without experiencing delay and disappointment.

“[We] can’t learn the generosity that love requires outside the presence of heartbreaking and unquenchable need.

“[We] can’t learn the endurance that love requires without experiencing unrelenting seduction to give up.”*

         Giving into temptation can do all kinds of damage to ourselves, others, and the earth. If we don’t acknowledge temptation, though, and if we don’t allow ourselves to face it, as Jesus does, what will we learn about ourselves and about faithfulness? How will we grow as Jesus followers?

I’m not going to assume to rewrite the Lord’s Prayer, but when I pray it, and when I get to the line about not leading us into temptation, I think I’ll start adding, God, thank you for my temptations. Lead me through them into deeper faithfulness.

         Temptations can be our allies in faith. The things that tempt us the most can reveal hungers and thirsts within us that only God can satisfy. So, where we’re tempted to abide violence as a justifiable means to ends, maybe God is telling us that we’re capable of trusting the more demanding ways of forgiveness and grace.

Where we’re tempted to succumb to prejudices based on race, ethnicity, political or religious affiliations, God may be inviting us to face the ways we judge ourselves, and then to begin forgiving and loving ourselves more fully and gratefully so that we can extend that love to others.

Where we face temptations of lust, perhaps God is revealing in us a capacity for the deeper and more passionate intimacies of prayer and unity with God and with the Creation.

When temptations get the best of us, God doesn’t stand back, shaking an angry finger and saying, You miserable sinner! God holds us ever more closely saying, Hey, listen! I know it’s tempting to chase after easy and feel-good fixes. But I’m right here, struggling with you. This is how you discover your best self. And I’m with you to help you learn to use all that energy, courage, creativity, reason, and passion to discover the fullness of my image within you.

You are my Beloved, says God. And you haven’t even scratched the surface of your potential for loving yourself, others, and me.

Believe it or not, says God, when you let me help you die to yourself and rise to Christ, temptation can become a door to resurrection.

*Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian. Convergent, New York, 2016. pp. 184-185.

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