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when you want the world, and everything in it
When my wife Banu and I were pastors in Jamestown, the congregation was experiencing the same old story: a steady decline in membership. A sanctuary that once upon a time was filled was now, on the very best days in terms of turnout, probably at one-quarter capacity.
The only times it would now be close to a full house were funerals and weddings. As suggested, this was very far from a unique situation. Not unexpectedly, numerous ideas and would-be solutions were batted around. Upon implementation, there would be minimal success.
One of the ladies who had been a member for several decades had an idea. I’ll call her “Lydia.” She had quite a sense of humor, which I greatly appreciated. What was her proposal? “We need a gimmick.” I jokingly added, “We need a publicity stunt.” I went on to suggest a few outrageous displays, crazy enough to get into the paper or onto the local tv news.
I will confess, if it isn’t already painfully clear, I had not sought the Holy Spirit’s guidance on that!
Contrary to my oblivious motivation, Matthew 4 presents a scenario in which the Holy Spirit is very much involved, very much the motivation. Right after his baptism by John at the Jordan, Jesus is sent into the wilderness. The reason? To be tempted by the devil. Jesus is not looking to draw attention to himself.
He undergoes a fast for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards, he is a bit peckish. No, he is starving. He didn’t decide to do this all by himself. He isn’t interested in competing in the spiritual Olympics.
That time frame, “forty days and forty nights,” appears on several key occasions in the Bible. The rain that results in the great flood falls for “forty days and forty nights” (Gn 7:12). Moses is on the mountain with God for “forty days and forty nights” (Ex 24:18). After fleeing Jezebel and her death threat, Elijah wanders in the wilderness for “forty days and forty nights” (1 Kg 19:8).
It’s a symbolic reference to a long period of time, but not too long. It’s just right.
Changing gears a bit, there is a line in the Lord’s Prayer that often bugs people, and it has often bugged me.
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, / thy kingdom come, thy will be done, / on earth as it is in heaven. / Give us this day our daily bread; / and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; / and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. / For thine is the kingdom, / and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.”
What is the deal with asking God to not lead us into temptation? Please, Lord, do not tempt us!
In his epistle, James says, “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one” (1:13). That would seem to state who God is. The Lord doesn’t play the role of the devil.
That word “temptation” (πειράζω, peirazō) comes from the same root word as “test” and “trial.” God doesn’t subject us to evil, per se, but there can be testing to strengthen our spiritual muscles. We might ask, “Lord, lead us not into more testing than we can handle, but we know that sometimes you are testing us to give up what we treasure the most.” (Or at least, something we might hold on a little too much.)
It seems like Jesus could testify to that! And what would have happened if Jesus had failed the test? Could that have happened? It seems if there were no possibility of failure, those temptations wouldn’t have been very meaningful. (Just a thought.)
As for me, in the mid-80s, I was making all manner of discoveries about faith—and above all, about Jesus Christ!
Like so many other young people, I was massively into music, especially in my case hard rock and heavy metal. I can honestly say my love of music became like a religion. The records and cassettes were gifts from the rock and roll gods. The concert halls were holy temples. (And I should add there was much offering of incense at those services.)
[Yours truly, inhabiting the body of Alex Lifeson, guitarist extraordinaire of Rush]
Eventually, I was forced into a choice I had resisted for quite some time. Choose whom I will serve, music or the Lord Jesus Christ. As it turned out, I made a pilgrimage to the dumpster behind the local Kroger grocery store and deposited my hundreds of record albums, worth thousands of dollars. It all went into the trash.
I will confess, I toyed with the idea of donating them to a used record store. They would have been eagerly received. But I decided if the Lord were telling me I should be rid of them for my sake, I figured I wouldn’t subject others to that temptation.
It was a test, and one I humbly believe I passed.
(Side note: during the 90s when I was at seminary, my great love of music was reborn, though it never overwhelmed me like it did when I was younger.)
I want to focus on all three temptations, taking them one at a time.
I don’t know how often others have fasted. I will admit, my efforts have been few and far between. One thing I have noticed at those times is how often I think of food, and if I’m watching television, how many commercials feature it.
As mentioned, Jesus endures a fast of forty days and forty nights. The devil visits him with a splendid suggestion, a way to end his suffering. “If you are the Son of God,” Jesus of Nazareth, why not turn some stones into scones? He’s requested to play the role of alchemist, though he isn’t trying to turn lead into gold.
Something important to notice is that Jesus is at his weakest. He has endured hell on earth. However, as fate would have it, the devil has a plan to turn hell into heaven. Jesus has the power to feed himself, or so it would seem. All he needs to do is follow this helpful advice and act independently of God. If he has the power, why not use it?
I suppose there is the point about strengthening his spiritual muscles.
As for us, isn’t it true our greatest temptations come at a time of weakness? Haven’t there been times when we were starving, when we would have moved heaven and earth to satisfy that craving, whatever it might be?
It doesn’t have to be something large, something over the top. Just as often, perhaps more often, it is something small, something hard to notice.
In his book, The Existentialist’s Survival Guide, Gordon Marino speaks of what might be in the ordinary run of life. He speaks of the decisions we might make on a day-to-day basis. “Morally speaking,” he says, “the temptation is not just to take the path of least resistance but to convince ourselves that the path of least resistance is the righteous path. As we continue to undermine our own sense of agency, our moral comprehension diminishes bit by bit.” (187)
[Gordon Marino, Søren Kierkegaard scholar]
We can get to the scary position of giving in to temptation and not even caring—or not even knowing.
Jesus responds to the devil by reminding him of Deuteronomy 8, in which Moses tells the Israelites that through thick and thin, the Lord has guided them. He has met their hunger with manna “in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (v. 3).
All right, Satan grouses, plan A didn’t work. Let’s try plan B. This time, let’s try something exciting!
Remember at the beginning when Lydia and I were hatching a scheme for a gimmick, a publicity stunt? It appears the devil has the same idea.
He takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. We’re not told exactly how this happens. Is the devil taking Jesus on a superman ride? Is it a vision? Whatever the case, the devil sidles up to the Son of God (by the way, a title he has now called into question twice) and encourages him to “Jump!” After all, the tempter promises, angels will come to your rescue. Psalm 91 guarantees “they will bear you up” and you won’t even “dash your foot against a stone.”
So what are you waiting for? Have at it! It’s time to get noticed. You’ll make a big splash. You might get your name in the paper or a spot on the tv news.
Again, Jesus responds with another “it is written.” This time, quoting Deuteronomy 6, he lets Beelzebub know the warning of Moses, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah,” which is where the Israelites grumbled because they were thirsty. (To be perfectly honest, I think I can understand that one!)
When I was young, I thought of a quality I might desire. It really wasn’t power or riches. What would it take to really make my mark? How could I best serve humanity? If people knew my name that would do it. If I had fame. If only I were a celebrity. Understand, this is coming from someone who, on the scale of extrovert and introvert, is way over on the side of introvert.
Is anyone familiar with the movie Fame, which features some teenagers with the same dream? How about the theme song? “Fame! / I’m gonna live forever / I’m gonna learn how to fly.” Considering the devil’s invitation, that was Jesus’ time to learn how to fly!
The devil now has two strikes. One more, and he’s out. Maybe it’s time for the grand finale.
They go to a high mountain (again, no word on how they get there), and Jesus is shown “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (v. 8). It all can be yours, Jesus, if you do one little thing—bend the knee to the devil. You can have it all. Just remember who made it possible.
In the movie Scarface, Al Pacino as Tony Montana unwittingly is a fount of wisdom, provided we overlook the murder and cocaine-fueled mayhem. In a scene while driving his car, Tony is talking with his friend, Manny. He says, “Me, I want what’s coming to me.” Manny asks, “Well, what’s coming to you?” Tony responds, “The world, Chico, and everything in it.”
[There you are, Tony…]
Later in the movie, Tony apparently gets his wish granted, as he sees in the night sky over Miami, a Pan American blimp with the message, “The world is yours.”
The suggestion the devil makes is to worship creation, be it him, any object, any person, any power. We are to limit ourselves to created things. We dare not move to the uncreated—to the Creator. We who are created beings yearn to reach beyond depth, and length, and width, and time.
I would like to tell you about a dream I had a couple of weeks ago. I wrote about it in my journal, so I’m not going just on memory. Sometimes details get fuzzy, as you know. This was the dream:
“I was perched in a position and enabled to see a vast department store, somewhere along the size of a football field.
“There was a multitude of people in the checkout lines. Others were roaming around, commenting on the goods, some holding them high and praising how wonderful they are.
“It dawned on me that I was seeing a crowd at worship. They were admiring and taking their gods home with them, not unlike the pagan gods mentioned in the Bible. They were physical gods, but with the spiritual reality enveloping them, thus inspiring devotion.
“This morning my scripture reading was 1 John 5, which ends with the verse, ‘Little children, keep yourselves from idols’” (v. 21).
John is directing that to the entire church.
To this latest temptation, Jesus again responds with the word of God, and again from Deuteronomy, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’” (v. 10).
My title refers to the triple threat of Satan’s temptations, and to the triple threat of Jesus’ rebukes, his reprimands.
Matthew ends the passage by saying, “Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him” (v. 11). As opposed to the devil’s daring Jesus to jump with angels playing catch, we see those heavenly beings serving their proper role, attending to their Lord. And they do it suddenly, as soon as the tempter is out the door.
“Resist the devil, and he will flee from you”—so says the apostle James (4:7).
Sometimes it seems like we have no awareness of the devil’s temptation and/or no power to resist. That is the time to pray for strength, to pray for knowledge, to the one who faced all manner of temptation, yet overcame it. It is the time to stand and say in the power of the Spirit the Lord gives us, “Away with you, Satan!”
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