the trouble with temptation

preachinga sermon, based on Luke 4.1-13 and Psalm 91.1-2, 9-16, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 1st Sunday in Lent, February 14, 2016

Jesus was baptized. The heavens opened. God’s Spirit visibly descended upon him. The vox Deus, the voice of God proclaimed, “You are my Son, with whom I am pleased.”[1] All divine confirmations that Jesus is the Messiah. Then came the initial test of his devotion to his cause, his calling as God’s agent of redemption.

So, for Jesus, so, for us. Testing is embedded in the fabric of human existence. Once we declare, “I believe…” or make a commitment to something, a promise or pledge to someone, then, sometimes immediately, sometimes gradually, but always inevitably, the circumstances of life will conspire to challenge our integrity (Did we mean what we said?) and our fidelity (Will we do what we said?). If we desire to live risk-and-worry-free, untroubled by conflict, then let us as nihilists believe nothing or as narcissists claim no responsibility for anyone or accountability for anything. For, again, once we do, the tests of temptation always come.

So, for us, so, for Jesus. The devil, personified evil, all that defies God, tempts Jesus to satisfy his desires, as I interpret it, cleverly camouflaging the enticements as service for others. The desire of self-indulgence: “Turn stone into bread and feed the hungry!” The desire of self-attainment: “Worship me and I grant you earthly power and authority to do good for others!” The desire of self-glorification: “A dramatic display, throwing yourself unharmed from the temple pinnacle, will amaze the crowds, verify your identity, and spread your message to others!”

The Temptations of Christ, 12th century mosaic, St. Mark's Basilica, Venice

Jesus declines every inducement, in each instance, responding to the devil with scripture. But that is not enough, for the devil knows scripture.[2] Jesus does more. For what Jesus says, in reciting scripture, he will do in his life and ministry; disavowing self-reliance, which is the standard lure of the devil, and devoting himself to God upon whose word he relies, the worship of whom he renders, the testing of whom he refuses.

This, again, was Jesus’ initial test. We hear the hint that more will come: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” Jesus’ temptations were no one-time-trial, no once-and-done tribulation, but rather an ongoing struggle between human desire and divine call throughout his journey from the wilderness of his temptations to the Calvary cross of his crucifixion.

During Jesus’ ministry, he heard cries for bread,[3] “Jesus, feed us!”, and encountered those amazed by his miracles who sought to make him their king,[4] “Jesus, rule over us!”, and heard appeals, demands to perform miracles,[5] “Show us, Jesus, and we’ll believe!” Each time, in turn, Jesus with the words of his lips and the deeds of his life revealed to all that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord,[6] appealed to all to “worship the Lord your God, serve only him,[7] and admonished all “do not put the Lord your God to the test.”[8]

So, for Jesus, so, for us. All of us are tempted again and again. The reason? We’re human. Thus fundamentally, manifestly self-interested. We long to satisfy ourselves, which makes us receptive to temptation’s siren call: “Self-indulgence, self-attainment, self-glorification, self-reliance.” Even when we desire to satisfy some greater calling to serve not self, but the needs of others, it is difficult, at moments well-nigh impossible to discern how much of our motivation is philanthropic, expressing our love of humankind, and, on the other hand, prideful self-gratification. Herein is the real trouble with temptation. It is ever-present and incessant.

If or as temptation is inescapable at all times, then what do we do, what can we do that we fall not prey to its clutches? I offer one way. Let us continue to follow Jesus who said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”[9] For Jesus, in response to temptation’s call, knows how to disavow self-reliance and to devote himself to God upon whose word he relies, the worship of whom he renders, the testing of whom he refuses. The God of whom the psalmist sings who is: Most High, Almighty, LORD, and God in whose shelter, under whose shadow we find our refuge and our stronghold.[10]

In the fall of 1527, German reformer, Martin Luther, meditating on Psalm 46, wrote a hymn in praise of God’s sovereign power o’er all earthly and spiritual forces and our saving hope in Jesus. This Lent and beyond, in response to the constant siren song of temptation, may these words be our supplication:

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;

Our shelter He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.

For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;

his craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,

On earth is not his equal.


Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;

were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing.

Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;

Lord Sabaoth His name, From age to age the same,

And He must win the battle.


Illustration: The Temptations of Christ, 12th century mosaic, St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice


[1] See Luke 3.21-22

[2] See Luke 4.10-11

[3] See John 6.24-26.

[4] See John 6.1-15.

[5] See John 7.3-5.

[6] Deuteronomy 8.3

[7] Deuteronomy 6.13

[8] Deuteronomy 6.16a

[9] Luke 9.23

[10] A paraphrase of Psalm 91.1-2

2 thoughts on “the trouble with temptation

  1. Paul,

    Oh Lordy….. Temptation!! And an amazing topic on Valentine’s Day, when so many promises are made that may not be kept, OR things are done and gifts are given that are simply self-serving. I’m guessing you probably didn’t intend for your readers to go there, but my mind just instantly went to the many temptations that happen on this day.

    I think I’m of the age now where I absolutely ask myself, WHY am I doing what I’m doing?? I hate for it to be about money …. or future jobs..or whatever else I may get in return. I want it to be about love of service based on my faith. I still have much to do to improve, but I hope the temptation doesn’t overcome me too often.

    Yesterday I had an afternoon with a group of seniors where we created art with LEGO bricks. I know some of them very well and some I hadn’t connected with until yesterday. I received no fee or promises of anything, YET I received so much more than I could have ever thought. it was snowing and zero degrees outside, yet more than 40 people came out to be with me. We laughed and hugged and admired the masterpieces we all made. I thought about it all last night, about how much we mutually gave to one another. I never once thought, I wish I had gotten paid, but in truth, I received a true fortune – just not in money. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re right, Loretta, I didn’t think about Valentine’s Day! As for readers “going there”, well, we both know we never can predict where folks minds and hearts will run! I appreciate your sharing your story of working with the seniors to create LEGO art. What you say about receiving more than you could have imagined and your sense of the mutual giving among all of you truly resonates within me. Also your word, “I want it to be about love of service based on my faith”, is what I want, too, and where I want to be with my service, truth to tell, my living. Thanks for that!


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