Scripture Readings: Genesis 2:12-17, 3:1-7 | Psalm 32 | Romans 5:12-19 | Matthew 4:1-11
For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:19, NRSV).
How do we stay faithful when faced with temptation?
God’s people have been wrestling with this question for ages. From the beginning we have come to know that as we seek to live God’s way, we will have to face all sorts of snares, obstacles, and outright lies… which aim to distract and direct us away from our gracious LORD. So Christians throughout the ages have tried to come up with plans and strategies in order to help to keep us on the straight and narrow path. For instance:
When I was a teenager, back in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, there was one particular trend that I can remember well: does anyone else here remember WWJD? It’s a slogan often printed on bracelets or other simple objects, that stands for “What Would Jesus Do?” The idea was that when faced with a morally confusing or tempting situation, we should just ask ourselves the question: ‘What would Jesus do here?’ and our answer would help us figure out the right way to respond, to clarify for us how we too can be good, what it is that we can do to act more like Jesus would.
As well-meaning, and practical, as this catchphrase might seem to be, we are led in a very different direction by the Scriptures this morning. Instead of having us ask the question ‘What would Jesus do?’, we are being asked to reflect on what it was that Jesus actually did. We’re pointed away from ourselves, and our struggles with how to figure out right from wrong, and pointed towards the one, we are told, has come to set us free.
Let’s begin back in the beginning: with our reading from Genesis. Where we heard that originally the Living God placed humanity in Paradise, entrusting it to them and giving them one straightforward command: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden;” God says “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” All of God’s good creation stood open before them, just listen to God and don’t eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yet tempted and deceived, humans take and eat the fruit, trusting in serpent’s word they seized upon the temptation to make themselves like God, to know right and wrong for themselves. And their eyes were opened, but so was the rift between them and their Maker, with the shame and guilt of sin now cutting them off from God and the innocent life they had known with Him, instead of living in Paradise they find themselves cast out into the wilderness to fend for themselves.
As we may know this is the story of original sin: of the first and fatal fracture in all of God’s good creation, the source of every evil still at work in our world, as we humans cut ourselves off from our gracious Creator and chose to forge our own path… to do things “our way.” In the Scriptures we hear that this tragic turn was more than a one-time mistake, it becomes the familiar enduring pattern of human history as a whole.
But alongside this tragic story, beginning with Adam and Eve, running through the stories of Abraham and the Israelites, the Bible insists on offering us this hope: that the Living God has not given up on His people or humanity, but will take action Himself to break this cycle and to turn our story around. And so finally, we are told God comes to our aid through His beloved Son: Jesus, who is led out into the wilderness to bring us back to Paradise, overcoming our failures… with His faithfulness.
In our Gospel reading from Matthew we hear of this dramatic encounter between Jesus the Messiah and the tempter: the devil, who seeks to throw Christ off track through a series of three temptations: all designed to drive a wedge between Jesus and His Heavenly Father.
First: “If you’re really God’s Son” the devil says, “turn these stones You see into bread. Show your power as the Son of God and take matters into Your own hands, miraculously find a way to satisfy Your own hunger. If God really loved You, surely He would not want You to go hungry.” But Christ does not take the bait.
Next, the devil says: “Throw Yourself from the top of the Temple, prove Your faith in Your Father’s rescuing power, show Yourself and all of Jerusalem that You really are God’s Son.” Again, Jesus doesn’t fall for the trap.
Finally, the devil goes all in: “Worship me,” he says to Jesus, “and I’ll give you the world. Everything… all power and authority it all can be Yours. You really don’t need God, just bow down to me. Choose Your own path apart from Your Father.”
This is the root and goal, after all of every temptation we face: the temptation that is, not to trust God… to not trust in His goodness, His wisdom, His justice, or His mercy… to live as if we are the ones who ultimately know what’s best, and that it’s up to us to make it happen… to see our will be done.
And this is the temptation that Jesus overcame, not because He was strong or wise enough to choose to be good, and not to be evil all by Himself, but because again and again Jesus chooses to trust the will of God. As the Son of God made flesh, He specifically DOES NOT choose what is right for Himself... because His whole embodied life was about trusting His Heavenly Father: remaining completely united with the Source of all goodness and life.
As Christ’s disciples we too are not called to seek our own independent ‘goodness’, to simply weigh the good and bad in life for ourselves, or even to ask ourselves what we think Jesus would do, and then try to live up to His example as best we can. No, we are called first of all to faith: to believe in Jesus Christ, to entrust ourselves entirely to Him. To the One Who perfectly embodied the good will God, and opened up a way for us to share in it with Him. Christ lived out the prayer: “Not my will, O LORD but Your’s be done.” And led by that trust the innocent One took up our cross for us, and gave His life to reunite us with our graciously Heavenly Father.
We are all tempted daily in a variety of ways, but every temptation, at it’s root, is the voice beckoning us not to trust in God. To trust in ourselves & our own judgment, and to doubt His goodness, His holiness & grace… to doubt His love for us, a love which is shown most clearly in the cross of God’s beloved Son: the only completely faithful One who died to save the rest of us.
What Jesus did for us is our victory over temptation. It is the means by which God Himself comes to our rescue, exposing the lies that would draw us away from Him, forgiving our sins, and enabling us to follow Him in faith. Christ doesn’t simply show us how to save ourselves from temptation, He overcomes humanity’s disobedience, our disobedience, in order to set us free to be reconciled to God: inviting us to turn to Him in faith and seek His mercy, and through His Holy Spirit, at work in us even now, Christ shares His righteousness with us and helps us to be faithful.
When we’re faced with temptations, whatever they may be, we are not simply left to figure out our own way forward. We have a gracious Saviour: Jesus, the faithful One, who came to bring us back out of the wilderness and safe again in God’s arms.
Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24-25).