You know, of course, that most of us operate on one calendar, but the people whose business is Christmas operate on another, toy manufacturers, for example. They are making toys right now, I suppose, that will be popular next Christmas. There was a story the other day about one toy company that specializes in educational toys. They decided that they would put out this toy that teaches children how to live in the modern world. No matter how you put it together it won’t work.
You remember Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.” It is the story, as so many of Frost’s poems are stories, about how one day while traveling alone he stood at a fork in the road, undecided which way to take. He does not make himself out to be a hero for the choice he made but there is something sort of heroic in these last lines: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
Consider this poem by Stephen Crane:
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
“Ha,” he said,
“I see that none has passed here
In a long time.”
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
“Well,” he mumbled at last,
“Doubtless there are other roads.”
Now that’s the greatest temptation. It has little to do with making good and bad choices. It has everything to do with abandoning hope, and surrendering to the devil.
It is traditional on this first Sunday in Lent to read the story of the temptation of Jesus:
1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[a] by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” 4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
Our forty days on the Lenten Season imitate his forty day test. I do not want to call you to courage this morning, I want to offer you grace. Where is God in this story? Where is God in our time of temptation? He is where he has always been, nearer than hands and feet. He is tempted like as we are. Our hymn this morning is not “Yield Not to Temptation”, but “In the Hour of Trial, Jesus Plead for Me.”
Let’s talk about the temptation to turn the stones into bread. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with feeding yourself when you are hungry? Albert Outler tells the story of the biologist who tried to see if he could create a mutation in some laboratory rats. He wanted to see if he could breed rats that had no tails. He began cutting the tails off one pair of rats. The next generation was born with tails, so he cut the tails off those. When the next generation was born he cut the tails off those. Every time a new generation was born he cut their tails off until the 239th generation was born, still with tails. At that point he decided that no matter what he did those rats were going to be born with tails. His conclusion was that Shakespeare was right, “There is a destiny shapes our ends, rough hewn though they be.”
What’s the harm in bread? None that I know of. What’s the harm in feeding ourselves when we are hungry? None that I know of. What’s the harm in living lavishly if we have it to live off of? What’s the harm in 19% of the population of the world consuming 85% of the world’s resources? The harm comes when we think it is our destiny and that we neither can nor ought to do anything about it. The harm is in the notion that we deserve to be rich and the poor nations deserve to be poor because God has shaped it that way.
Here we are entering into the Lenten season, the season of fasting. Our father in faith, John Wesley, recommended fasting. Why don’t we fast? Well, we do go on diets, but fasting is not to lose weight. Fasting is for spiritual purposes. Why don’t we fast? Well, we will give up a meal occasionally and use the money to feed the poor and that’s good, but fasting is not for pragmatic purposes it is for spiritual purposes. Why don’t we fast? It can be only because we have decided we don’t have to, that it is not our destiny.
The story says that Jesus was out there in the wilderness forty days and forty nights, fasting. How could he do that? Did he just do without chocolate for forty days? It says he fasted. Was it really forty days? That’s what it says. How could he survive a forty day fast? He said it. He answered the temptor and he said, “It is written, what keeps you alive is doing the will of God, not bread.”
I don’t want to call you to courage this morning. I don’t want to call you to be strong and give up something for Lent. I want to call you to grace. For the meaning of the story is that in Christ, God has become like as we are, to deliver us from death by bread alone, as Dorothee Solee puts it. Our Hymn is not “Yield Not to Temptation”, but “In the Hour of Trial Jesus Plead for Me”.
All right, let’s talk about the temptation of the pinnacle of the temple. Luke closes his story of the temptation saying that the devil departed from him, until an opportune time. My guess is that there were many opportune times when Jesus thought about the pinnacle of the temple again. If the devil uses visual aids, can’t you imagine the video tape recorder turned on and the fantasy playing on the screen: “Look up there. He’s not going to jump is he? He jumped, oh my. He’s safe! He’s unharmed. He must be the Messiah.” Don’t you suppose, that when they were on the road to Caesarea Philippi… you remember? They were walking down that hot dusty road on their way to Jerusalem. It was so quiet you could even hear the soft pad of their feet in the deep dust of the road, and Jesus said, “Who do they think I am?” And they talked about that for awhile. Then after another long silence he said, “Who do you think I am?” And Peter said almost under his breath, “You are Messiah.” So Jesus began to tell them about Jerusalem and the cross and Satan said, I mean Peter said, “I’ve got a better idea. You climb up on the pinnacle of the temple and jump off and…” Or when that cold night he stood before the Sanhedrin while they trumped up charges and finally someone said, “If you are the Son of God let’s go up to the pinnacle of the temple…” Or when he stood before Pilate and Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Right there across the way he could see the pinnacle of the temple. And while he hung on the cross the devil whispered in his ear, “You didn’t have to suffer like this.”
The temptation of the pinnacle is the temptation to take the easy way out. It is the temptation to choose the appearance rather than the reality. It is the temptation to political expediency rather than the decision that means something. It is the temptations to pass expensive wire-tap laws instead of doing something about crime. It is the temptation to fight in the courts rather than build the jail and juvenile detention facilities this county needs. It is the devil that whispers in our ear, “You don’t have to suffer. Doing the right thing won’t cost you anything.”
I don’t want to call you to courage this morning. I want to call you to grace. In Christ God has become like as we are not to deliver us from suffering but to deliver us from the death of the easy way out, our hymn is not “Yield Not to Temptation”, but “In the Hour of Trial, Jesus Plead for Me”.
Now, let’s talk about the temptation to abandon God. Does it surprise you that the devil promised Jesus that he would give him all the kingdoms of the world… as if they were his to give? They aren’t, you know. Do you remember the old story of “The Devil and Daniel Webster”? It is the story, like so many other stories with the same theme, about a poor man on the frontier of America, whose hardships were so great that he sold his soul to the devil. It is the story, really, about how he engages Daniel Webster to be his attorney and to plead his case so that he can get his soul back. But it is also the story that the devil always makes promises that he can’t keep. He promises you happiness in exchange for your soul, but he never delivers because happiness is not his to deliver. “You will be like God”, the serpent whispered in Eve’s ear. Any con man does that, and the devil is a con man and a liar.
The greatest temptation of all is the last, to abandon God for what looks like a better idea but isn’t.
It was one afternoon, as I recall. Even though I grew up in the city of Dallas, in those days there were lots of woods in easy walking distance of our house and many times we would go walking there or camping there after school or whenever we could. So it was after school one day and there must have been half a dozen of us, maybe ten years old or twelve. There was an old pond, a tank as we called it. It was a beautiful warm spring day and somebody found an old boat at the edge of that tank and four of us decided to take it out on the water. We were about half way to the other side when the leaky old boat began to fill with water faster than we could bail. At that point , my best friend Richard said “I’m going to get out of here and he jumped over board and swam to shore.” Me too, I said and followed him in. The only difference was he could swim and I couldn’t. The water was easily over my head, and I suppose that I could have drowned if someone hadn’t pulled me out. “Doubtless there are other ways” the poet said, “but they are the ways that lead to death.”
You see, it is not a story of courage… it is a story of grace. Jesus did not resist temptation to show us that it can be done. He is not like as we are just to prove how wrong we are. We already know that. That would be like shouting to a drowning boy, “You should have stayed in the boat!” He already knows that. What he needs is somebody to jump in and pull him out. Jesus is the one who has jumped into the dangers and difficulties of our life to pull us out.
Where is God in this story? Where is God in the temptations of your life? Right where he has always been, nearer than hands and feet, tempted like as we are . God Has entered into our life to deliver us from evil. Our hymn is not “Yield not to Temptation”, but “In the Hour of Trial Jesus Plead for Me”.
Several persons intend to join this church this morning. I ask them to come as we sing. But let’s talk about the invitation to Christian discipleship for a moment. It is the invitation to cast your burdens and your temptation on Jesus, to open your life, once more to the self-giving love he gives to you. Our hymn is ”In the Hour of Trial Jesus Plead for Me.”
- In the hour of trial,
Jesus, plead for me,
Lest by base denial, I depart from Thee;
When Thou seest me waver, With a look recall,
Nor for fear or favor Suffer me to fall.
- Should Thy mercy send me
Sorrow, toil, and woe;
Or should pain attend me On my path below;
Grant that I may never Fail Thy hand to see;
Grant that I may ever Cast my care on Thee.
- When the last hour cometh,
Fraught with strife and pain,
When Thou, Lord, returneth To the earth again;
On Thy truth relying As that hour draws near,
Jesus, take me, waiting, To Thy presence dear.
This sermon was preached by Bill Crouch on March 8, 1981 at First United Methodist Church in Denton, Texas. The scriptures for this first Sunday of Lent were Genesis 2:7-9, 15-17, 3:1-7 – Romans 5:12-19 – Matthew 4:1-11