The Grimm Brothers tale of Hansel & Gretel is an age old story of temptation. Hansel and Gretel are lured by candy into the witches house. It is a cautionary tale to avoid temptation and to be wary of strangers. How does temptation play out in our own lives today?
This first Sunday in Let we explore the temptation face by Jesus. We explore the theme of temptation and are reminded of the power of the devil.
Text: Luke 4: 1-13
Professor Lori Brandt Hale tells a story of the conversation she had with her three year old son. They had returned from church and her son began to share what he learned in Sunday School. He asked her, “What do you know about the devil?” She responded in classic mother/professor form by asking her son, “What do you know about the devil?” To which the response was, “Well, the devil talked to Jesus and the devil was mean.”
Then her son continued in a hushed voice, “If I were at the store and you and Dad were in one aisle and I was in another aisle and there was candy. The devil would say, ‘You should take some!’” So she asked her son, if this was the case that you were in one aisle an your dad and I were in another ails and the devil appeared saying that you should take the candy, what would you say back to the devil?
Her son responded sweetly and without hesitation, “Oh! I would say thank you!”
Perhaps not the answer that we would want our children to give. It’s a simple, even cute story. However, it highlights the deceptive nature of temptation and the variety of forms it can take. Often when we think about temptation we think about the big things: theft, infidelity, abuse of power and the like. We don’t often put children sneaking or even stealing candy and temptation together.
However, we would do well to heed the message that is found in Hale’s story. Temptation and the work devil occurs in very subtle and often innocent ways. And to be clear the word used in the Greek here is diablou, which translates to devil. This is not one of those instances like Genesis 3, where the word serpent is often exchanged for Satan. Luke’s writing is very clear, the word is devil. It seems that temptation, like the devil, is something we should guard against. Within the Lord’s Prayer we pray, ‘and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’
Temptation, when we think about it biblically is synonymous with evil. In today’s language we often use the word temptation lightly. We will say I was tempted to have another cookie. I was tempted to watch one more episode of television. These aren’t life and death decisions, these are not life and death temptations. The danger is that we begin to turn a blind eye to the concept of temptation all together. We forget that some temptations can lead down very dark roads.
Eating an extra cookie is a temptation because we are trying to watch our weight. Staying up late to watch another TV show is a temptation because we know we should get some sleep. However, neither of these two examples of being tempted carries with it any moral weight. The consequence is we weigh an extra pound or are cranky in the morning.
It is when the temptation before us carries a degree of moral weight that we need to guard ourselves. It’s too easy to say I need the money to pay rent, I’ll pay my boss back. It’s okay to cheat on my taxes because I disagree with government policy. It’s alright if I am unfaithful to my spouse because I don’t feel appreciated. Within society there is a tendency to rationalize away the negative consequence of temptation, to the point that taking the action seems like the right thing to do.
Temptation is always in front of us. As you know I write a column in the Northumberland Today. In my first column I relayed a story about a coffee mug a friend saw in a Christian Bookstore. The mug had the following inscription on it, “Worship me and all things will be yours.” An inspiring and tempting quote. We heard those very words read to us this morning. Unfortunately, they come from lips which aren’t to be trusted. These are the words of the devil to Jesus.
A reminder that the devil will employ all sorts of tricks to overcome us. In our passage this morning we read, ‘when the devil had finished every test, he departed from Jesus until an opportune time.’ The devil doesn’t stop tempting you. The devil waits for an opportune time to tempt you. The devil waits until you are feeling your weakest.
Theologian Scott Hoezee shares this analogy of temptation, he writes about Frodo’s experience in the Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t quite go down this way in Tolkien’s book but in Peter Jackson’s film versions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, we witness the steady, relentless (but often subtle and quiet) attacks of Gollum on Frodo Baggins as Frodo attempts to carry the Ring of power to Mordor so as to destroy it. Bit by bit, innuendo by innuendo, whisper by whisper Gollum wears Frodo down, poisoning him against the truest friend anyone has ever had (Samwise Gamgee) and wooing Frodo to Gollum’s side. Seldom is Gollum overt, seldom does he make anything remotely akin to a bold or obvious move. But he whittles away at Frodo’s determination and seizes on every opportunity to make Samwise look bad in Frodo’s eyes until finally Gollum succeeds in turning Frodo against Sam. Sam is sent packing, leaving Frodo unprotected and now utterly vulnerable to Gollum’s full frontal assault in trying to get the Ring back for himself.
As the devil knows and as one can detect in Luke 4 and beyond, it’s not the big moments of life that bring us down into sin and tawdriness, it’s all the little compromises the devil makes us commit along the way that leads to destruction. – (See more at: The Centre for Excellence in Preaching)
The story of the temptation of Jesus is about choice. The choices Jesus makes while facing temptation. And we should note that the devil waited until Jesus was in the wilderness and hungry before the temptations started. The devil waited until Jesus was at his weakest. But Jesus chooses God. Jesus chooses humility over power. Jesus trusts God over the promising, yet empty lies of the devil.
Returning to Hale’s story of her son in the store. In his description to his mom, he described the devil as mean. In her commentary Hale asks a very interesting question about that description. She asks whether being mean is the same as being evil? Can you be mean without being evil? Can you be evil without being mean?
I would argue that you can be mean without being evil and that you can be evil without being mean.
The devil is evil. He does not want anything good for you. His workings are subtle and they will at first appear benign. The French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote, “The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.”
Our passage from Luke about the temptation of Jesus is a reminder to put our trust in God. Jesus put his trust in God. We too must learn dependence in God on all things. To walk with our maker trusting in God’s benevolence. The good news is that we are never alone. We, like Jesus, have the Spirit with us. To help guard us from temptation, to deliver us from evil. Amen.