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February 29, 2004
I now invite you to turn to the gospel of Luke, chapter 4, and follow along as I read verses 1-13. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
1 And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,
2 Being forty days tempted of the devil. And in those days he did eat nothing: and when they were ended, he afterward hungered.
3 And the devil said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread.
4 And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.
5 And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, showed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.
6 And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it.
7 If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine.
8 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.
9 And he brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, and said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence:
10 For it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee:
11 And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.
12 And Jesus answering said unto him, It is said, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
13 And when the devil had ended all the temptation, he departed from him for a season.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
The old saying is: “You can’t herd cats.” Well, any poultry farmer will tell you that you can’t herd chickens, either. You can herd pigs; You can herd cattle, but not chickens. Chickens will not only not cross the road, they won’t even cross the barnyard in an orderly fashion. So, a career field has been established. Poultry farmers hire specialized laborers called “chicken catchers.” Their task is to run around inside chicken houses, grab all the crazed chickens they can, and then stuff them into cages. These chicken catchers capture 8 billion chickens a year, but it is a rough job, rough on both chickens and their catchers. The birds get roughed up as they are violently grabbed, and the catchers get scratched and dirtied by the flapping chickens. Most catchers quit after a few months and head for better jobs, and they say that practically any job is a better job.
For years, inventors have tried to replace the chicken catcher with some kind of automation. Someone invented the “chicken vacuum.” It sucks the chickens up with a whoosh, but it kills too many of them to be feasible. Now, after a period of intense research and development, it seems that the industry has finally come up with a winner. It’s called the PH2000. This state-of-the-art mechanical chicken harvester can capture 150 birds per minute, rivaling the best work of eight skilled human chicken catchers. The PH2000 is a nine-ton contraption that looks like a combo airport baggage carousel and Army tank. It employs a mechanical ramp, conveyor belt, chute and set of cages to capture chickens painlessly, without the panic that comes from being grabbed by a chicken catcher.
Poultry farmers love it, and even animal-rights groups approve, since the machine is so kind to the birds. The only problem is the price of the PH2000: which is $200,000. At that price, the human chicken catchers do not need to worry. They will have jobs for a long time to come.
Now I realize that most of you are not worried about catching chickens. The pieces of poultry we want are easy enough to grab in the refrigerated section down at Bi-Lo. But there are certainly some other pesky little critters in our lives that we have a tough time capturing, controlling, and conquering. These pesky little critters are called temptations, and some of them are not so little.
The problem with temptations is that they are tough to grab, control and cage. For example, food is good, and eating is good, but we are easily tempted to overeat. Again, doing things, achieving things, is good, but we fall quickly into destructive ambition and self-gratification. It might be a good thing for a young person in school to read a novel, but then they might be tempted to read that novel when they ought to be doing homework.
Temptations is always with us. Have you seen the TV commercial (I think it is for Southwest Airlines), where the young woman is visiting in the home of a friend? She is in the bathroom washing her hands, when temptation overtakes her and she sneaks a peek in the medicine cabinet. Snickering at the bottles and tubes she finds on the shelves, when she puts one of them back, the shelf comes crashing down and all the contents of the medicine cabinet fall to the floor. The commercial then says, “Ever feel like getting away?” We would all like to get away when we are caught yielding to temptation.
It is of course far better not to yield at all, and Jesus gives us a lesson in controlling temptation in today’s passage from Luke. He shows us how to respond to temptation successfully. His answer has three parts. Rely on the Scripture, stay true to God and do not put God to the test.
Our text today opens with the announcement that Jesus was led “by the Spirit” into the wilderness (4:1) to face 40 days and nights of temptation at the hands of the devil (4:1-2).
Note the similarity between Jesus’ sojourn of 40 days and nights in the wilderness and the 40-year sojourn of the Israelites in the wilderness before they entered the promised land. The similarity is certainly not accidental. Just as the 40-year time of preparation in the desert preceded God’s fulfilling of the promise of the land to the Israelites; so, too, Jesus’ 40-day period of spiritual battling will result in his being able to bring God’s promise of a Messiah to fruition. Jesus’ emerging from the wilderness will set in motion a “new exodus” for God’s people. At the end of this 40-day period, the devil makes three attempts to incite Jesus to falter in his steadfast commitment to his mission.
Rock to Rye
The first temptation (Chicken No. 1, if you will) is the temptation to turn a rock into a loaf of rye (Luke 4:1-4). The devil knew what he was doing with this one, since he was well aware that Jesus was famished, and that God himself had provided bread for the Israelites when they were in the wilderness. God provided the Israelites with mana, so the devil says, “It makes perfect sense for you, Jesus, to turn that stone into mana, or into a fresh loaf of hot homemade bread.”
That is the way that temptations can be—logical and reasonable. In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s great novel Crime and Punishment, the poverty stricken Raskolnikov, a talented student, devises the theory that extraordinary people are above the law since in their brilliance they think new thoughts and so contribute to society. Of course, he thinks that he himself is such an extraordinary person so he sets out to prove his theory by murdering and robbing a vile, cynical old pawnbroker and her sister. He thinks about all the good he can do with the pawnbroker’s money. He thinks about how he is ridding the world of an evil spider who preys upon other people’s misery. Of course, as an extraordinary person, he is not bound by ordinary morality, and so he reasons himself into killing two people with an ax. So temptation can bend and twist reasoning and can make the most outrageous sin appear logical.
But Jesus grabbed this foul flapping fowl and quickly caged it. “One does not live by bread alone,” he said to Satan, remembering the guidance of Deuteronomy 8:3, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” Jesus relied on the guidance of Scripture, not his stomach. He realized that his calling was to feed others, not himself, and he refused to draw on his divine power to perform a miracle that would serve only his own selfish interests.
This first response to temptation needs a lot more stress that it has been getting lately in our society. Many studies have shone that Christians do not know much about the Bible. They do not know what the Bible says, and so they do not rely on it. They believe the Bible in some sense, but the Bible that they believe in stays on the shelf and never gets opened. Jesus is just the opposite. When tempted, he cites scripture. He knows the Bible and he accepts the authority of the Bible.
But the devil does not quit yet. There is a second temptation. There is always a second temptation. Another chicken is always flapping around our mental barnyard. The devil used the temptation of ambition. He showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and then said, “It will all be yours … it will all be under your control … if you worship me” (v. 7). Notice that the devil claims to have authority over all the nations of this world, but he says that he has this authority because it “had been given” to him (4:6). Thus, Luke makes clear that the devil holds such power only because God allows it.
But, let us think about this temptation. How easily Jesus could have reasoned himself into it. He could have said, I can use all this power to do good. I can use all this power to bring about world peace, universal employment, eradication of hunger, protection of human rights, the establishment of true justice. I can make the world a great place to live. Notice again how attractive and reasonable temptation can appear to be.
But there is a catch. With temptation, there is always a catch. The devil says: You must worship me.
That is the problem with ambition. It requires that we worship someone or something. To get ahead, we must worship the company, or the cause, we must have a willingness to “kill to get the business,” a demonic disregard for people as we claw our way to the top. The kingdoms of the world cannot be gained without cutting some corners, breaking some commandments, drawing some blood. And so, when you think about it, the devil is absolutely right when he says that all the nations of the world will all be yours, if you worship me. In order to have the world, in that way, in the devil’s way, Jesus would have to think like the world and act like the world, and had he done so, he would have worshipped Satan.
Jesus’ unwillingness to take the devil up on his offer suggests that Jesus’ authority over the kingdoms of the world will come in a different manner. Rather than serving as a deputy for the devil, Jesus’ death and resurrection on the cross will result in his deposing the devil from his kingship over the world.
Jesus says, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’” (v. 8). No goal is so noble that it is worth abandoning God along the way. No ambition is so pure that it can achieve a godly end without having God in the process. Moreover, God never calls us to any task that requires the destruction of others through selfish actions.
Besides, raw ambition does not work; It often succeeds only if other people fail, James Autry, in his book Love and Profit (1991), encourages us to abandon the old definition of ambition, which is based on the myth of the “self-made man.” He points out that no one achieves success in isolation, whether they are business managers, generals, presidents, or kings. No one really gets ahead without the hard work and commitment of other people. Autry likes a line used by Larry Wilson at his Pecos River Conference Center: “I have to do it by myself, but I can’t do it alone.” James Autry goes on to write. “In the community of work, if some fail, most fail, and all become victims.” It is far better, says Autry, to take people along with you, because “the more people you try to take along with you, the faster you’ll get there and the longer you’ll stay there.”
Take people along with you, instead of stepping on them on the way to the top. That’s what Jesus did, and it’s what he calls us to do.
Take a Flying Leap
The final Temptation, the final chicken, involves putting God to the test. The devil invites Jesus to take a flying leap off the temple wall and cites a little Scripture of his own. He points out that in Psalm 91:11-12 God’s angels are described as protecting those whom he loves (4:10-11). Again, that is a lovely thought. Temptations always appear so lovely, that is why they are so “tempting.” We cling desperately to the conviction that God will protect us, bear us up, shield us and save us.
And God will, but not in this way. Jesus curtly dismisses this challenge, citing Deuteronomy 6:16, which forbids “putting the LORD your God to the test” (4:12). Jesus certainly believed that God would protect him, but he refused to put God to the test. In other words, Jesus will not presume to call on God’s protection at a whim. For us today, this means we do not test God’s constant care by driving down the interstate at 110 miles per hour the wrong way. We do not test God by showing up for exams without studying. We do not test God by abusing drink or drugs, or engaging in promiscuous sex.
Let me give a specific historical example. In the year 1212, France and Germany were swept up in “The Children’s Crusade.” Earlier crusades to liberate Jerusalem from the Muslims had failed. So thousands and thousands of children from all over Europe began marching to the port city of Marseilles, in southern France, where they would take ship for the Holy Land. Most of these children were poor. They were caught up in stories of visions and promises of miraculous success. Once in the Holy Land, they believed that the Muslims would throw down their arms in the face of this divine army of children.
You can imagine what happened. The children who survived the journey were sold into slavery upon their arrival in North Africa. There was no miraculous deliverance of the Holy Land from the Muslims. The children’s crusade was mass religious hysteria. It was a testing of God. People said, “If the children go, God will grant victory to them.” They were trying to control God. They were trying to manipulate God. What does Jesus say? You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.
When I was in seminary back in the 1970’s over at Holy Erskine, there was a church in Anderson, SC that practiced snake handling, and as you might imagine, several articles appeared in the local papers about this church. The folks who went to this church said that if you only had enough faith, God would protect you from poisonous snakes and you could handle them however you liked. I thought at the time that such talk was nonsense. I still think it is nonsense. As far as I am concerned, God has taken care of the snake-handling issue. He has given me enough sense to know that I should not handle poisonous snakes. And I am not going to deliberately stand in front of a speeding train or leap off a tall building and expect God to save me from my own stupidity. That is what Jesus is saying. It is not a sign of sincere faith to behave in self-destructive ways and then expect God to save me.
So let us conclude. It may be true that cats cannot be herded, and chickens are hard to handle, and temptations continue to flap around us everyday. All of that is true. It is also true that if we want to manage temptation, no better approach exists than doing what Jesus did: relying on Scripture, staying true to God, and refusing to put God to the test. Amen.
Autry, James A. Love and Profit: The Art of Caring Leadership. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991, 63.
Kilman, Scott. “Poultry in motion: With invention, chicken-catching goes high-tech.” The Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2003, A1.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 03/23/04