Read Luke 4:1-13
It is easy to associate temptation with sin, and although we’re probably not entirely clear what we mean by ‘sin’ we know it means ‘something we shouldn’t be doing’ I guess. In the world out there, sin is a word that churches use that doesn‘t seem to have a clear definition and is thought of as belonging to the Victorian age.
Avoiding ‘being tempted into sin’ has probably been the theme of tens of thousands of sermons over the years, and I’m not sure we’re any clearer now than people were when the first one was preached!
We’re human after all!
Now I’m not saying that ‘distraction’ is the best substitute for the word ‘sin’, but as we look at the story of Jesus in the desert, I hope it’s a word that you can recognise and relate to in your own journey of faith.
But we also need to think about what that old word ‘sin’ actually means. Is it doing something criminally bad, stealing of someone perhaps? Is it hurting someone, mentally or physically? Is it simply letting ourselves down by our bad behaviour or thoughts?
Well, the dictionary definition of the Greek word for ‘sin’ is ‘missing the mark’.
I don’t know how good a darts player you might be? I’ve had a go, and I know a lot about missing the mark – I’m just happy if I can hit the board and not the wall surrounding it!
But ‘missing the mark’ as far as God is concerned is not about darts, it’s about when we fall short of where we ought to be in reflecting that ‘image’ of God in our lives that Genesis talks about. It’s when we fall short of being the people that God would love us to be.
And that’s where the distractions, the temptations, the sin come in.
Back to the story of Jesus. He has just had the most amazing experience, one of those mountaintop experiences that we talk about, except this was in a river, the Jordan, when John the Baptist baptises him it its waters and the voice of God confirms to all who can hear just who this Jesus is.
In the previous chapter of Luke, we can read, ‘‘21 When all the people were being baptised, Jesus was baptised too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’’
And just in case you’ve forgotten, it’s led by the Spirit that Jesus spends time in spiritual contemplation in the desert. He’s not been persuaded by tempting offers in the Sunday newspapers or even the devil, but in that prolonged period of solitude, with the sun beating down and water and food in short supply, Jesus’ concentration is distracted.
He’s there to worship and talk to his heavenly Father. He’s there to contemplate the job he knows he has to do, the one that will eventually lead to his death. He’s there to work out the logistics, to steel himself for the task that awaits.
It’s just Jesus, God and the solitude of the desert place. Perfect for prayer and contemplation.
Oh, and those distractions, those ‘what ifs?’
Like ‘how about using a little bit of your power by zapping those stones and turning them into bread, that’d be a neat trick.’
Or what about going for the full mountaintop experience and looking over the whole world stretched out in front of you and thinking, ‘All of that could be mine!’ Because it could if he led some kind of military rebellion against the Romans – that’d be popular!
Or what about checking out the whole God thing and leaping off a tall building knowing that you’ll almost certainly be rescued by angels or sprout wings or something? How much fun can one Messiah have?!
That’s not why Jesus went out into the desert – to figure out the best way of becoming popular with the world!
They’re also not the sort of temptations (or distractions) that we might get, I’m guessing…… or maybe you have!
But the important thing here is, just like David the Psalmist and Paul the apostle and Christians throughout history, Jesus was tempted just as we all are.
Hebrews 4:15 in The Message version says it, ‘We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin.’
Throughout his ministry Jesus must have faced an astonishing assortment of temptations, all of which would have distracted him from the work he had to do, all of which would in some way have diminished the power of his message to the world.
The poor were always hungry. He could have established a huge social programme to help them, a first century Food Bank maybe. Nothing wrong per se in that, but it was the spiritual message they needed to hear in the limited time he had, the charitable work could and would follow later when his work was done.
He could have risen to the expectations of a lot of Jews and raised up an army to fight the Romans, to be the avenging Messiah that they were looking for. But to raise an army big enough would have meant forcing people to follow him, and God wanted willing obedience, not forced conscription or grudging acceptance.
Or he could have performed miracles just for the sake of it, almost for entertainment, raise a few more bodies from the grave, lots more wine from water, bread from stone, healing for all, and become a ‘Pied Piper’ sort of Messiah, a wonder-worker dazzling the crowds with his supernatural powers. But those followers are like the seed sown in shallow ground, and when the excitement wears off, they just wither away.
Temptations and distractions to veer away from his appointed path were with him all the way. Only in the Garden of Gethsemane did he finally, and with great difficulty overcome them all, as he made his way bravely toward the cross.
What Jesus did do, just like David and Paul, was to counter the temptations in the desert by remembering words and phrases he had learned throughout his life from the Scriptures. So, to the devil’s distractions we get “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone’, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only’ and ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’
That’s three more to add to your collection of ‘Jesus is Lord’ and ‘God is my refuge’
I encourage you to read your Bibles, and if phrases like that stand out then highlight them or write them down and commit them the memory. You never know when the next temptation or distraction to your own spiritual journey is coming. Always useful to have those words of Scripture to cling to, to truly believe in your heart, to counter the temptation and encourage you to move on in faith.
Just remembering of course, that as the distraction passes, someone’s probably whispering behind you, ‘I’ll be back!’