Temptation. Have you ever been tempted? Of course you have. You may as well admit it. Temptations come big and small. Cheat on the income tax. Cheat in the exam. Crib the term paper. Lie about the business deal. Cheat on a spouse. Fudge the value of the property. Shave some time at work. Sleep in and skip church. Aanyone who thinks he is above temptation is a fool scheduled for a fall.
Temptation happens within us, deep within the core of our humanity, in the deep recesses of mind and spirit. It’s entertaining the possibility, turning it over in the mind. Weighing the consequences, doing the balance sheet. Is it worth getting caught? What are the consequences? Temptation is to have forbidden fruit set in front of you on a nice piece of china by soft candelight. Sweet and seductive. Go ahead, take a bite. The old Adam, the “inner brat” pushing the boundaries, testing the limits. Walk right up to the line. Nudge it, tickle it with our toe. What will happen if I step across?
Temptation is a fake rubber worm dangled in front of a large mouth bass with a big treble hook behind it. Go for it, and you’re dead. Adam and Eve went for it. We go for it too. We’re natural born suckers for the Lie. We can’t resist it. Oscar Wilde said it best: “I can resist anything except temptation.” He lived that way. At least he told the truth.
Jesus was tempted. Immediately after His baptism in the Jordan, Mark tells us that the same Spirit who descended on Jesus like a gentle dove, drove Him into the wilderness. Literally, “cast Him out” in the wilderness. What Jesus did to the unclean spirits, the Holy Spirit does to Jesus – casts Him out, headlong into the inhospitable wilderness to arm wrestle with the devil.
Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, tempted to the very core of His humanity. As God, He couldn’t be tempted. But He set aside that divine privilege. He put that power up on the shelf in the garage. This was God as Man against the devil. The Promised Seed and the serpant’s seed, a wrestling match promised back in Genesis where God said He would do battle with the devil through the Promised Seed of the woman. The head crusher vs the heal crusher. Cage match. One on one. No referee.
Jesus was tempted by the full blast of human temptation – appetite, celebrity, power. All our human buttons are pushed at once. All the things that drive us to do the evil that we do. You might say that Jesus’ temptation was concentrated and focused, the way a magnifying glass concentrates and focuses the rays of the sun. No human being was ever tempted the way Jesus Himself was tempted. Not even Job in all his misery was tempted the way Jesus was. It’s as though every temptation that has ever plagued humanity was all focused on Jesus for forty days in the wilderness.
Forty days in the wilderness echoes Israel’s forty years wandering in the wilderness. Jesus is doing a kind of exodus in reverse. Baptized in the Jordan river and then He’s cast out into the wilderness to fend for Himself. He’s a one-man Israel, doing what Israel did not do. Be faithful, obedient to the Word. Israel failed in the wilderness. That’s why the people of Israel wandered for forty years under Moses until entire generation died in the wilderness.
Jesus was doing the Israel thing all over again. And He’s more than just a one man Israel. He is humanity, a one man world. Just as Jesus embraced all of humanity in His Baptism, now He takes all of humanity out into the wilderness to undergo temptation a second time.
The first time didn’t go so well. In the third chapter of Genesis, the devil comes to Eve and speaks through a serpent. That little dialog between Eve and the serpent is the anatomy of all temptation. Listen to how it goes. See if it doesn’t go this way with you too.
First, there is doubt – doubt that God means what He says, that God is true to His Word. “Did God really say?” And with doubt there is distortion of the Word – “Did God really say you must not eat from any tree in the garden?”
That’s not what God said, but the damage is done. The moment we are drawn from the Word, we’re dead ducks in the water. You know how easily that happens, don’t you? You know how easy it is to close the book on God. Eve said, “We may eat from any tree in the garden, except that one over there in the middle. We can’t even touch it, or we’ll die.” God said “don’t eat,” He didn’t say “don’t touch.” The devil’s got her. She’s thinking on her own terms now, improvising, adding her own little bits to God’s Word. She’s a pietist, more rigorous than God Himself is! She’s religious now!
Then comes the lure of the Lie. “You will not surely die.” And it’s not just a baldfaced, barnyard falsehood. That would be easy to sniff out. It comes coated with the truth. Like fly fishing, the lure looks real. “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.” That’s tempting, isn’t it? Be like God. Some people think they are gods. Some are just divine wanna bes. Why listen to God when you can be a god? Who does God think He is, telling me what to do? You shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie? Honor parents and authorities. Honor His Word. To hell with it. Why be good when you can be God?
Eve considers it. She turns it over in her mind. She looks at that forbidden fruit. Don’t see an apple in your mind’s eye. That’s Sunday School. See idolatry, murder, adultery, disobedience, theft, slander, drunkenness wrapped up in pleasure, fame, fortune, celebrity, power. See the ultimate high, the big deal, the romance that sweeps you off your feet. And all you have to do to have it is turn away from God, ignore His Word, act on your own autonymous self, and it’s all yours for the taking. Go ahead.
She turns it over in her mind. She rationalized. It was good for food. What could be so wrong? When you take God’s Word out of something, all you have is a thing’s utility, what it’s good for. The birds probably pecked at it. The wild beasts ate it. We rationalize a lot of what we do that way. It’s an appetite we need to be satisfied, an itch we have to have scratched. People rationalize all sorts of immorality that way today. Birds do it, bees do it, why can’t we do it? “Food for the body, the body for food.” That’s the way the Corinthians rationalized their immorality. We do the same. Hey, it’s just sex, a bodily function. No big deal. (I’m quoting a twenty year old college girl on a TV interview.)
But that fruit was more than food, it was worship and sacrament. It had God’s Word attached to it.
She saw that it was pleasing to the eye. That’s the second way we rationalize temptation. Appeal to the senses – the sights, sounds, smells. It feels so right, how can it be wrong? Follow your heart, Hollywood tells us. This is where the heart leads you. Follow God’s Word.
She saw that it was desireable for gaining wisdom. That’s the third way we rationalize. We use God’s Word against God. Wouldn’t God want us to be wise? He wouldn’t want us to be stupid now, would He? So this will turn out good in the end. The end justifies the means. See how easy it all is!
She bit on the lure, and she was hooked. She gave some to her husband. Ever notice how you can always find company for just about any act of disobedience? We say, “Misery loves company,” but the actual truth is, “Sin wants a partner.” Eve gave some to Adam, and he eats it without a peep of protest. I wonder if Adam waited a split second. Would she die? I guess not. Maybe God didn’t meant what He said. Adam bit too. A partnership was forged against God. It just takes one, and many follow.
And the rest, as they say, is history – a history into which you and I were born and live. We do the exact same thing, every day, usually without noticing. Sometime we barely notice the temptation, the split second interval between the desire and the sin. James says that desire conceives sin, and often the gestation period is only a split second or two. The first bite is always the toughest, always the most anguished and guilty. After that it’s easy.
Easy, that is, until sin grows up, and gives birth to death. And then you discover that it wasn’t a “lifestyle” after all, it’s a death style. But it’s already too late. We’re born into it, and can’t get ourselves out of it, no matter how many twelve step groups we go to. There simply is no twelve stepping your way out of death.
That’s why Jesus, still soaking wet from His baptism, is cast out into the wilderness for forty days. Hungry, exposed, vulnerable. Living on nothing but bare trust in the Word of God. He must do what we can’t and won’t do. Resist temptation at its source. As God in the flesh, He takes our humanity back into the wilderness. Not the Garden, you notice. There’s no going back to that. He takes us into the harsh wilderness in His own sinless humanity. He’s the new head of humanity, the second Adam. Where Adam failed, He will triumph. Where Adam fell, He will conquer.
St. Paul caught the connection between Adam and Jesus in the fifth chapter of the book of Romans. He writes: “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin…how much more will those who receifve the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.”
“As one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”
In other words, when Adam was tempted and sinned, all of humanity was plunged into sin and darkness and death in the flesh of that one man. We have a hymn in our hymnal that goes, “In Adam we have all become one huge, rebellious man.” That’s why you can’t wipe out evil in the world by wiping out the evil doers. You’d have to cut out your own heart, and everyone else’s too. There would be no one left standing. We’d all be dead.
In Adam all sinned and died. But in Christ, the second Adam, the new Head of humanity, all are perfected, justified, and live. You see, there is way to rid the world of evil and evil doers, once and for all. Put them all to death in Jesus. Take them through baptism, temptation, death and resurrection. That’s who it’s done, and God Himself does it.
In Christ, our humanity is restored and redeemed and raised up for good. And it’s done, finished, in Jesus Christ. That’s what we’re telling the world, or at least what we’re supposed to be telling the world, if we’ve got our Gospel head on straight. The righteousness, the holiness, the perfection, life, salvation you are looking for is already yours in Jesus. So stop whatever it is you’re doing to try to get right with God, and recognize that you are already dead and alive in Jesus. “Repent, and believe the good news!”
And it is “good news,” this temptation of Jesus. He won the cage match in the wilderness. He conquered the devil. Even the wild beasts are like pussycats to Him. The Lamb scratches the lion behind the ears and tosses him a ball of yarn. There is no struggle between good and evil. There is no war between God and the devil. Jesus conquers by His death, and in Him you conquer too. He gives you His victory. You can’t fight the devil alone. You’d be crazy to try. You can’t even handle the sight of the good angels, let alone the demons. But you don’t have to, thanks be to Jesus.
Temptation will be with us every day, all our days, until the end of our days. No one’s tempted in the grave. Every day, we must pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” meaning “protect us in our time of trial, when the devil, the world, and especially our sinful flesh which cause us to doubt Your Word.” Know and trust this: Even in your temptation, even in your sin, you are held in the death and life of Him who conquered sin, death, and devil for you. You are baptized into Him. You are fed by Him, nourished by His Word, His Body and Blood. The wild beasts and the devil cannot harm you, not forever. You are safe in Jesus.
And in Him you conquer.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.