Topic: Temptation Scripture: Matthew 4:1–4:11
One of my favorite book series’ is the Chronicles of Narnia. There are plenty of moments within each book that would preach, as us pastors like to say. Undoubtedly, the most popular of the books is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And it makes sense. Not only does it give us one of the most prominent and touching embodiments of the Christ-figure in Aslan, the Lion, but it’s also the only book in the series with Santa in it. In the Pevensie children, we encounter characters we can both admire and seek to identify with. The purity and innocence of Lucy. The bravery and conviction of Peter. The gentle wisdom and compassion of Susan. And Edmund.Edmund, in case you’re not familiar with the story, is the sibling we could best identify as the brat. He’s prickly and edged. And, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe he becomes the character I believe we all sneer at the most. To be clear, Edmund is not the villain of the story. No, no. That’s the White Witch. But as ghastly and evil as she is, Edmund is the one who makes us feel the most disgusted. And that’s because Edmund does something that we can despise as much as we can relate to. Edmund is the one who gives into his temptations.
While Edmund is wandering through the forests of Narnia, he encounters the White Witch who describes herself as the Queen of Narnia. She finds Edmund cold, tired, and hungry, and then invites him into her sleigh.
Now we can all sneer at Edmund and his ridiculously selfish decision in this part of the story, but thankfully, this isn’t the end of Edmund’s development as a character. If you’ve read or seen The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, then you know that Edmund’s decision here fosters dreadful consequences. So, I’m not trying to downplay the severity of his actions. But there is also likely a shred of relatability here for us. Edmund was tired. He was frustrated with his siblings. He was lost. He was hungry. He was cold and he was alone. It’s not a stretch to say that this is the lowest point of his life thus far. And so, when these temptations are offered to him by the alluring and convincing voice of a stranger, albeit an odd and powerful stranger, we can at least grasp why Edmund would give in. Because it’s moments like that, when we are at our lowest, where temptations are their most insidious and intoxicating.
Jesus went through a very similar situation. The setting was very different. And Jesus is in no way the character of Edmund. But still, Jesus faces similar circumstances. A perceivable low point. Physical limits at their weakest. A manipulating voice that offers delights far beyond that of a sugar-coated candy. It’s a fascinating chapter in Christ’s story and one where he faces Desert Temptations. It occurs in Matthew 4:1-11. Let’s read.
As you can see, Jesus has grown beyond the infant in the manger we have been celebrating. And this chapter of Christ’s life comes at an interesting time. Matthew’s gospel jumps from the Magi’s visit to the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. No account of the in-between years at all. But after His baptism, after Jesus hears God the Father declare His love for His son, the very next moment we are brought to - is this one. The Desert Temptations. We’re told that Jesus follows the urging of the Holy Spirit as he enters into a space of temptation and testing. This time of solitude for our Savior begins with a prolonged stint of fasting and prayer. While we cannot think to discern what Jesus was feeling spiritually, we can assume that he was physically taxed. We’re told that he was hungry. He was also probably exhausted from the desert heat and worn down. And that’s when we are first introduced to the tempter. Our passage later calls him the devil and Jesus Himself addresses the tempter as Satan.
Christ’s adversary comes to Jesus at his absolute lowest point. Alone, tired, taxed, and hungry. And we all know why. Satan believed Jesus was the most susceptible at this moment. And the devil’s tactics are planned out and specific. He tempts Jesus with the very things that would erase his current conditions. Bread to satisfy His hunger. The personal attention of angels to take away his physical pain and discomfort. And finally, a place of authority over all the kingdoms of the world. No more loneliness, no more needs. And each time, Jesus masterfully deflects the advancing attacks of His devious foe, and emerges with His integrity and the work of His ministry before Him.
We’ve all survived another wonderful holiday and we are getting ready to enter into a brand-new year filled with all its own potential and richness. Just as Jesus was preparing to embark on a season of ministry and inspiration, each one of us will enter into a new season to love our God, our neighbors, and ourselves. But also like our Savior, we will inevitably find ourselves in chapters that are rife with Desert Temptations. These are times where we are taxed, stretched, wounded, weary, or broken. And it is in those vulnerable instances where our great enemy, the same enemy of Christ Himself, will seek to distract and destroy us with whispers and lies.
There are certain temptations, that I think are known to us all. Whether they be substances, images, or experiences; there are some things that entice and coax out the worst of who we can be. They might rob us of our inhibitions or strip another human being of their God-given dignity and identity. And while some temptations might be better known by the masses, it does not make them any less corrosive or deadly. I believe there are certain situations and instances where the place of healing comes from counseling or intervention from the medical community for those trapped within temptation or addiction. Relying on the God-given gifts of those individuals does not undermine the redemptive work of Christ in the slightest.
But I want us to look at the reality of Desert Temptations from perhaps a broader perspective. Whether in the case of Christ in the desert, or with any of us in the barren spaces of our lives, the temptations that are offered might address an immediate need. Hunger, power, affection, control. But the most deceptive and cancerous work of a temptation is its ability to twist, distort, and corrupt our identity.
In the case of Jesus, if He were to have given into the Desert Temptations of Satan, the result would have been a rewriting of His identity. The faith Christ had in His Father to provide for His needs would have been subverted. By leaping from the highest building for Satan’s proposed stunt, Jesus would have erased the humility that was a part of His person and would have had it replaced with the feeble and fleeting need to be noticed and fawned upon. And our Savior would have exchanged, not only our own salvation, but also His own divine identity if He had accepted Satan’s temptation to receive all the authority and splendor of this world in exchange for Christ surrendering His worship to the devil.
We too, can find our identities assailed as we waver against our own Desert Temptations. And that’s the thing that makes these temptations so insidious, they manifest against us when we are at our lowest, our weakest, are most heart-broken, and most vulnerable. Sometimes the temptation is not even to simply receive something we might want, but rather to embrace a deception whispered within our minds. It is the temptation to take those lies we are told or those deprecating feelings we are experiencing, and to accept that forgery as our true identity. Let me give an example.
The pastors that have made the greatest impact on me were the ones with the most transparency and the ones who were willing to be vulnerable. And so, I share this now even though it is still somewhat raw. A few days ago, we filled these walls with friends and family of faith for our Christmas Eve services. Our 5pm service came, and we began a wonderful service of adoration for our Savior born in Bethlehem. But there came a moment in the service, right before the candle lighting, where the train of my worship leadership was derailed. We were short-staffed in our audio-visual team and it culminated at that moment where I had lost my normal cues and hit a blank space. If you were here, you heard me apologize and I heard your laughter (telling myself it was sympathetic and not otherwise), and I recovered and went on. But I can tell you honestly, that brief collection of moments made up the most embarrassing and shameful experience of my time serving as your pastor. I tried to put on a smile, and my happy demeanor at the end of the service, but after most folks had left, I spent a good deal of time in my office with my head in my hands feeling completely defeated.
I take a great deal of personal investment into our services of worship. I care about and fixate over virtually every element and detail because I truly believe what we do here matters. Not only for us but more importantly, as an offering made to the God who loves us. And a few nights ago, after what should have been one of our most exciting and meaningful services, I was bombarded with my own malignant cacophony of Desert Temptations. Temptations to accept the things I told myself as true. That I was not an adequate pastor. That I had failed those who had come in search of a meaningful Christmas Eve service. That I had let down our team who had put in so much hard work. That I had failed, I was a failure. Those lies and temptations threatened a whole lot more than my ego. They threatened my identity. And while our circumstances might be different, maybe some of you at one point in your lives have endured those feelings and that mind space that I have described.
But, friends, those voices are liars. Those deceivers are charlatans. And our Savior has given us the victory. In fact, His experiences in the wilderness show us one effort we can make to build up an immunity to these Desert Temptations. Each time the devil offers Christ an identity-destroying temptation, he does one thing: He quotes scripture. Friends, if I could give you one spiritual goal for this new year, it would not be to read more of the Bible. It would be to hide more of it in your heart, to memorize more of it. With Scripture so easily accessible and available to us, there is no reason for us to enter into spiritual battle or weariness, armed only with our own failing strength and brittle logic. We can be like our Savior and store up the truths and assurances of our God, and have them at the ready.
And there’s another practical measure we can take so that we might not be overwhelmed by temptations and deceptions of any kind. And that is to surround ourselves with friends we trust, who have fixed their faith on Jesus Christ. This is more than just having good friends. It’s about having people in your life who will do more than pat you on the back and say “there, there.” It’s about having friends who will remind you of God’s truth. I received that gift on Christmas Eve. After the 5pm service, I reached out to 4 of my closest friends in this world, four people I went to seminary with, and I shared what happened and how I felt. And one of them, one many of you have met, Beau, responded with this: “Sorry man that can be hard when everything goes wrong. Don't let it get you down, Jesus is king, and His birth was celebrated tonight in your church!” His words were about more than lifting me up. They were about reminding me of what the Lord had done and will do. And I needed to hear that.
And so, as I finish, I want to remind you that you are not alone when you face temptations. You are not the only one who has given in to those temptations and weathered the consequences of doing so. You’re not the only one who struggles with feeling inadequate, lost, broken, or worn out. It’s one of the reasons why we need each other, why we need the church - to remind each other of the love God has for us when we seem incapable of feeling it for ourselves. And I encourage you to do what our Savior did in His own time of trial. Pray and hide the words of Scripture within your heart and mind. Have them at the ready for whatever our enemy might seek to deceive us with. Because this much I know to be true: God’s promises are sure. Christ’s love is absolute. The Holy Spirit’s presence is unwavering. And there is only deception and empty exchanges found within our Desert Temptations.