Immediately after his baptism Jesus was taken by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness area to the west of Jordan. He was then tempted for forty days by Satan. But why did Jesus need to be tempted, and how does that relate to the temptations we have to face?
Temptation is usually viewed as coming at us from three directions, the world, the flesh, and the devil. In the language of the Book of Common Prayer a candidate for baptism was asked "Do you here, in the presence of God, and of this congregation, renounce the devil and all his works, the pomps and vanity of this wicked world, and all the sinful desires of the flesh, so that you will not follow nor be led by them?" When we admit we are not perfect, it is because we are having problems in one of those directions. And it is usually the flesh that bothers us most.
THE FLESH roughly means the demands of our bodily instincts as we received them through the genes of our parents. Since the Creator invented the transmission of genes, our instincts are given to us by God. And Jesus, being fully human, must have had the same instincts as we have. Mollie and I learned a lot about instincts from our white family cat Nika. Her strongest instinct was self-protection. And all of us need that to survive. She also had her territorial instinct. No dog or other cat would dare come into the St. James' Rectory yard where we lived. Similarly you say "This is my home : you don't come in unless I invite you." You also have a space bubble, and you object to anyone standing too close to you (except in the Toronto subway).
As long as she felt safe from intruders, the next priority was food. She died from diabetes from over eating, and it was our fault. When we made tea we would pour boiling water on her kibble, and the smell drove her wild. She also had the instinct for comfort. Curling up by the fire was very important to her. And curiosity of course. In our lives there is nothing wrong with food, or curiosity, or comfort. . The problem is when these good instincts run our lives. Half of you are bothered by the flesh when you try to be on a diet.
We need curiosity to explore and learn. If you saw a handbag left in a pew, you might be tempted to open it, check its contents and read the person's date book. If you did that your instinct of curiosity has gone beyond what is acceptable and you have become nosy. Similarly there is nothing wrong with comfort. It only becomes sin when you don't get up in time to get to work, or when you feel tired and go to sleep in my sermon.
When Nika was in heat it was something else. She would go for a scruffy long haired white tom cat, and was proud to produce 32 beautiful white kittens for us. And when they were born her maternal instinct knew exactly how to care for them, feed them, and train them.
None of our fleshly instincts are sinful in themselves, but we need to set our conscience so that we do not let them run our lives and upset the lives of others. Turning the other cheek means controlling our instinct of self-protection. Going the extra mile means overcoming the instinct for comfort. In sexual matters it is natural to enjoy the attractiveness of another person. It only becomes sinful when you have decided to commit adultery if you can get away with it.
I do not think Jesus needed to be taken into the wilderness to set his conscience for controlling his fleshly instincts. He had done that long before the age of thirty when he was baptized. We will see in a moment how the temptations he faced in the desert were temptations of the devil.
THE WORLD - Nor do I think it was necessary for Jesus to learn how to deal with the temptations of the world. The world is every one else trying to fit us into their mold. "Why can't you be like us? Nobody wears that anymore. You must keep up with the Jones' and the proper lifestyle." Many young people are sorely tempted by the high school world they live in. They need to know that as children of God we are each to be different in our own way. Temptation of the world can come from very good people, who imagine they need to keep us on their straight and narrow.
In his last company our son in law constantly had to jet all over the world. It wasn't extravagant, just necessary for his work, and it was very hard on his wife and children. I know a person in another church here in Kingston who drives a pink Cadillac. At first I wondered how a dedicated Christian woman could have such an ostentatious car. But then I discovered she was given it as the top salesperson for May Kay, and she was expected to drive it.
The way we have to deal with the world is to settle what our own particular function is in the Kingdom of God. Then we order our life accordingly. That means changing our mind to run counter to some of the ideas the world has in mind for us. As Paul said, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2). And there again I think Jesus had begun to settle that when he told his parents "I must be about my Father's business."
SATAN - Jesus needed forty days in the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Another word for temptation is testing. Before a new plane can carry commercial passengers it has to be tested to show it can safely do what it is designed to do. The test pilot is not trying to destroy the plane, but to push it to the outer limits of its performance to prove it is totally safe.
Jesus is the eternal Son of God, and one of his names was the Word of God. He came into our world to make visible, make known, and explain what God was like. One of his names is The Word of God. And making the truth of God known he is opposed by a lying force that destroys love by propagating lies in our world. Jesus viewed this force as very personal. He said very bluntly "There is no truth in him. When he speaks he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies" (John 8:44).
So before Jesus was to begin his ministry of dispelling the lies of Satan Jesus was tested to prove he could discern and resist every kind of satanic lie. In Matthew's Gospel and Luke's Gospel we are given three forms of lie which were thrown at him during those forty days. They were lies about the very heart of the ministry he would engage in. The first was the idea that Jesus could create love in our world by feeding people. "You have the power to turn the rocks of the land of Israel into bread." The second suggested that he could easily get people to become loving by wowing them with miraculous powers. "Jump down into the crowd from the pinnacle of the temple and they will all follow you." And the third was that you can make people loving by political power. "Your way of love is far too slow. Submit to me, and with a few minor lies, you can become supreme dictator of the world. Then you force them to be good and loving." But it is obvious that people do not become loving by feeding them, impressing them, or ruling them.
In each of these lies Satan used a verse of Scripture out of its context. And in each case Jesus exposed the lie by a verse of the Bible that showed the falsity of Satan's interpretation. By the age of twelve he had already learned to set his conscience correctly. By the time of his baptism he had settled the course of his ministry, and the Father said "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." Now after forty days of testing in the wilderness Jesus had been proved to be totally reliable in all he was going to teach us.
The result was that "We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15). That means he understands the exact force of every kind of temptation that we face, and he knows how to help us into the perfect love of heaven.
He can help you set your conscience correctly to deal with your bothersome instincts. He can help you find your own freedom instead of being pushed around by the world. And he can show you the subtle lies that Satan has told you about yourself. "You are no good . . . you will never make it. With your bad habits there is no way you can be a Christian . . . It is a doctor's job to heal you, don't waste you time praying . . . If I could get a real answer to prayer, I would believe in God."
Having been tempted, Jesus can also free you from the lies Satan has told you about others. "She is a basically bad woman: the Holy Spirit could never improve her . . . that man failed, so you should never welcome him to church again . . . It's up to her to grovel and ask for forgiveness before you can end this quarrel."
Most important of all he can save you from Satan's lies about God. "The church has wronged you, never believe in God again . . . With some many billion people in the world, do you really think God has any time for you? When you die, that's it, you are just snuffed out . . . And if you think there is life after death, for you it just means burning in hell for ever."
A good thing to do during Lent might be to make a list of all the bad
things you say about yourself, about others, and about God, and have a
good long talk to Jesus about them. You might be very surprised.