Matthew 4:1-11 (NRSV)

Lead us not into temptation. I’d be willing to bet that at least some of you, when you looked at that title in the bulletin, thought to yourselves, “Uh oh. Maybe I should have stayed in bed this morning.” Temptation is that kind of word. It can mean a whole lot of things, but when it appears in a sermon title, it usually means trouble. Actually though, it’s there today in response to a question. Someone asked me, not too long ago, if I could explain why Jesus put that line into the Lord’s Prayer. Lead us not into temptation. It is a little curious when you think about it. Our usual understanding presumes that God is good and temptation is not? Why, you might wonder, would we need to pray that a good God refrain from leading us into a bad situation? It’s an interesting question.

Part of the problem comes from the fact that in the ancient Hebrew mind, there was actually no conflict here at all. The idea that God could lead into temptation and still be good didn’t present a problem for the Israelites. God, in his divine goodness and sovereignty, was free to do whatever was necessary, and the Israelites were free to understand that it was good, even if it didn’t seem like it at the time. In psalm 90, for instance, we find these familiar words: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” But a few verses later, it also says; “Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you. Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us.” In the Hebrew mind there was simply no conflict here. God was good, and in God’s goodness, it was entirely possible for even the chosen people to be afflicted. If you have any doubt, I suggest you reread the book of Job.

However, when we get to the New Testament there are signs that people were beginning to have trouble reconciling God’s leading into temptation with God’s goodness. The writer of James says flat out, “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’ for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.”  We can’t be certain that James was responding to questions about the Lord’s Prayer, like the one I got. But it certainly sounds possible doesn’t it. I can easily imagine someone in the early church, after learning the Lord’s Prayer, asking James for an explanation. And even though James refuses to lay the responsibility for temptation at God’s feet, he does see a place for it in the life of the church. “Blessed is anyone who endures temptation,” he says. “Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life.”

That’s the key. When wethink of temptation, we usually understand it as a chance to do something wrong. When temptation carries that meaning, the bible usually assigns it to the Devil. But the word we translate as temptation can also mean a time of testing or trial, something God might very well be invested in. This is the meaning it has when Jesus goes out into the wilderness. Before he could be ready to take up his public ministry, his faithfulness had to be tested, it had to be proven against the greatest temptations the dark side could throw at him. The Devil invites him, in three different ways, to use his vast spiritual powers to feed his own ego and avoid the painful and difficult ministry God had called him to. “Turn these stones into bread.” “Throw yourself down from the temple.” “Fall down and worship me, and the powers of darkness.” In each case Jesus resisted temptation and thereby proved himself worthy of his calling.

This was a painful, but necessary experience. If you’re going to be successful as a great spiritual leader, there is simply no way around the trials that assail your faith. It’s no different than a great athlete having to overcome the desire to not work so hard, not practice so much, not maintain such a rigid schedule. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “lead us not into temptation,” we can rest assured that it arose from his own experience of having known such temptations personally. His faithful response can be seen in his prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, “My father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not as I will, but thy will be done.”

Well, that was then. These days, our culture has a hard time taking temptation seriously at all. We often think of temptation as an opportunity to live more fully, to “take a walk on the wild side,” to throw off our moral shackles and restraints. The message behind much of our advertising is that temptation can be a good thing. We are urged to give in to our temptations at every turn: eat things we know aren’t good for us, buy things we know we can’t afford, and generally live our lives as though there are “no boundaries,” as one recent ad put it.

Do you remember Fruzen Gladje? Fruzen Gladje was one of the premium ice creams available back a few years ago. Their website described it as “an unusually smooth ice cream that was made by whipping before it was frozen.” It was really good ice cream, but unfortunately not a commercial success. However, the ad for it was brilliant. It opened with a woman sitting in her kitchen eating the ice cream right out of a little pint container. She’s obviously in seventh heaven. Slowly, she finishes off the whole pint and places her spoon in the empty container on the table. Just then, she hears a door open off screen. She turns around to someone we don’t ever see, maybe her husband, and with a very guilty expression on her face she says to him, “I ate all the Fruzen Gladje.” Then, with just the slightest defiance in her voice she adds, “And I’d do it again.” At the end, a tag line pops up. It reads, “Fruzen Gladje. Enjoy the guilt.”

Of course, ice cream isn’t the only way to enjoy the guilt. In our market economy, temptation is used routinely as one of the engines of commerce. In fact, if people were suddenly to become immune to temptation our economy would probably collapse. But there’s no fear of that, is there. Temptation is so deeply embedded in the human psyche, I doubt whether you could consider anyone completely human without it.

Why is that? Well, it’s partly because to be human is to be born into an essential paradox. We are, at one and the same time, both infinite and finite. We have finite bodies, we live in finite circumstances, we are given a finite number of days to enjoy in this life. Everywhere we look in life we find ourselves surrounded by the limits of our physical existence. Yet, we are not only physical. Within each of us resides a spirit which is both our own and God’s. At the very core of our being, we already are and always were, one with the infinite, one with the universe, one with God. That is the paradox of our human lives; we are always both finite and infinite.

What that means is that part of who we essentially are, can never be satisfied by finite things. We can make all the money we want to, buy fancy houses, boats, jewelry, what have you. We can become famous or infamous in a wide variety of ways, plaster our names and faces on magazine covers, get listed in who’s who. Yet, no matter how great a pile of stuff we manage to accumulate, it will never, ever, be enough. The only thing that can satisfy that infinite part of who we genuinely are is to be reunited with the infinite.

The problem is that most of us, most of the time, don’t know that, and even those who do know it spend much of their time acting as though they don’t. All we know, most of the time, is that we are unsatisfied. We have a hunger in us, a longing that nothing seems to reach. We want more. We want more stuff to fill up the holes in our hearts. We want more activities and entertainments to keep ourselves distracted. We want more power to influence what goes on in our lives and the lives of others. But underneath it all, very often, the more we have and the more we do, the emptier we feel. Spiritually speaking, the reason is simple. No amount of finite stuff can ever fill up an infinite space. But most of the time, we’re not in touch with the root of the problem. All we’re aware of is our hunger, our longing, and our loneliness. That is what makes us susceptible to temptation. Believe me, our modern corporations know very well how hungry and lonely we are. They spend a great deal of time promising to fill a hole that they can never fill.

Now, one of the common tricks in all this is to make temptation seem like it’s no big deal. In the public mind, people who try to lead a Christian life can seem so moralistic and fearful of temptation that they end up leading dull and joyless lives. But, just because avoiding temptation can seem ridiculous at times, people have come to believe it is safe to ignore it altogether. When you associate temptation and sinfulness with ice cream, the underlying message is, these are things we don’t need to take seriously.

Sometimes that’s actually true. Sometimes teasing about temptation can bring some needed relief from the heaviness of life. There’s a wonderful old story, for example, that’s been popular in churches for a long time. But maybe you haven’t heard it recently. It seems that there was a very powerful, very spirit filled worship service going on one Sunday morning down at old First Church. The whole congregation was filled with energy and praising God. The choir was singing from the balcony. One young woman, a very attractive young woman, became so caught up in the excitement that she leaned a little bit too far forward. Suddenly she fell over the balcony rail toward the main floor, but her dress caught on the rail and she was left hanging helplessly with her dress up over her head. There she hung exposed for all the world to see. The minister, who was very quick on his feet, jumped up and shouted at the congregation, “The Lord will strike blind anyone who dares to turn around and look at that woman.” At which point a man in the front pew slaps a hand over one side of his face, jumps up, turns around and shouts, “I’ll spare one eye!!!”

Now, let me ask you. Why is that so funny? Well, I think it’s because it captures our human experience so well. We’re all caught up in this web of temptations. Something in us very much wants to have and do things we know are wrong or even dangerous for us. But temptation is not just a threat. There’s an attraction here as well. If temptations were only threatening they would be easy to walk away from. The problem with temptations is that they are tempting. We certainly know that, in many cases, we are tempted by things that are not good for us. Still, it doesn’t take much encouragement to get us to flirt with danger just a little bit, just enough to see what we can get away with. We would prefer not to suffer any permanent consequences, but sometimes it can seem worth it to “spare one eye.”

That’s where the real problem of temptation begins. Temptation is ultimately a liar. It dangles a promise in front of our noses. If we just give in to our desires, it says, we will find some of that satisfaction we’re always longing for. Surely one little cookie can’t hurt, but what about one little drink, one little theft, one little affair. “I’ll spare one eye,” if only I can have that satisfaction for which my heart aches. Temptation is a liar. It is the ultimate bait and switch con artist. It promises a satisfaction that it cannot deliver. The truth is that most of the things that tempt us don’t actually have satisfaction to give. When we give in to our desires, what we actually get is a momentary thrill, followed by a deeper, more inflamed desire. That’s when the cycle starts to become vicious. We give in to temptation, only to find ourselves caught in a web of increasing hunger, increasing longing for something that satisfies us less and less every time we get it. We need only look at the current opioid crisis to know how true that is.

Maybe you don’t experience a lot of temptation. There are times in our lives when temptation seems more of an issue than at other times. When we are tempted though, it can be a painful and frightening experience. C.S. Lewis once said that the words, lead us not into temptation, are actually a prayer that God give us the strength not to yield when we are tempted. Temptation is a fact of human life. We are going to be tempted. The real issue is how will our faith and our strength of character hold up when it happens.

Lewis says something else about temptation that I find very interesting. In a passage from his book,Mere Christianity,he says, “A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is…. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means.”

Personally, I’m not real comfortable with Lewis’s language about bad people and evil impulses, but if we can get past that for a moment, there is a very real insight here. The heart of the matter is this. Temptation is closely related to Aspiration. What is it in life that we aspire to? If we aspire to nothing, temptation probably isn’t going to bother us very much. There is a wonderful illustration of this from the musical, My Fair Lady.Alfred, the ne’r-do-well father of Eliza, at one point sings a song that perfectly captures this philosophy.

The Lord above made liquor for temptation,
To see if man could turn away from sin.
The Lord above made liquor for temptation-but
With a little bit of luck, with a little bit of luck,
When temptation comes you’ll give right in!

We can’t be tempted if we have no aspirations. And, things we don’t aspire to aren’t normally tempting either. You could never tempt me to swim across the Atlantic Ocean. That is not something I have any desire to do. But there are many things to which I do aspire. I aspire to be a loving and faithful husband and father. I aspire to be an inspirational preacher and a loving pastor. These have always been the things the temptations in my life have shaped themselves around. What are your aspirations? Do you wish to be a good person, loving, trustworthy, faithful? Are there things you want to accomplish in your life? Habits you want to form … or break? Whatever our aspirations are, it is always in relation to them that we are most vulnerable to temptation. The greater our desire is to be a particular kind of person, the more we will be tempted to violate our own best intentions.

That’s why I know that today’s story of Jesus being tempted is a true story. He had the highest aspiration of all. He wanted nothing less than to be one with the will of God, to save God’s children. Believe me; he knew what it meant to be tempted. More importantly, he knew what it meant to draw upon the truth, power, and grace of God to survive in the face of those temptations. He knew what we sometimes forget. That regardless of what we may aspire to, we can never achieve our own highest calling apart from God’s Spirit of Grace. Lead us not into temptation. That’s what we would prefer. But when our times of trial do arrive, we need to bear in mind that we are never abandoned to face them alone. Whatever may be the temptations of our lives, if we are to face them with integrity, what we need most is the power and encouragement, and yes, often, the forgiveness and grace, of God.


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