Princeton University Religious Life

What Tempts Us

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
February 10, 2008
Matthew 4: 1 - 11

A number of years ago, at the beginning of Lent, I resolved to give up chocolate. This was a very significant decision for me – I love chocolate. I have some every day, in some form. I can go to an ice cream shop that has 300 flavors and I will only ever order chocolate. Or deep chocolate. Or triple chocolate fudge brownie – whatever is the most chocolaty. During this particular Lenten season so long ago I was an exchange student in London, enjoying my junior year abroad. Cadbury bars in dozens of varieties were everywhere – at every corner newsagent, the underground stops, my landlady’s cupboard. Temptation was everywhere. After a week I was desperate and I came to the gleeful conclusion one afternoon that my Lenten pledge applied to milk and dark chocolate – but not to WHITE chocolate! A loophole! I bought hug bars of white chocolate and savored every bite. I think I made it through Lent without eating any of the other kind, but what did it matter. I’d created a shallow technicality so I could get around the challenge I’d set up for myself. In all honesty, that challenge hadn’t been about spiritual discipline in the first place but rather was an attempt to drop a few pounds. My loophole, of course, had prevented that as well.

On this, the first Sunday in Lent, many churches turn to the Gospels to read about Christ’s temptations in the wilderness. It can provide stamina to those whose Lenten discipline includes giving something up or taking something on. For all of us it’s a valuable opportunity to consider what it is that really tempts us. We realize that the chocolate bars or reality TV or web-browsing we do aren’t real temptations and certainly not sins; they’re the fluff that provides some escape to demanding lives. Genuine temptation is a lure to sin, often in small ways, so that we can advance ourselves. Genuine temptations call us to redirect our path, however slightly, from what we know to be the Way of Christ. 

That’s the devil’s great temptation to Jesus – will he continue with the mission that God has given him, or will he abandon it for the immediate welfare of others with honor and glory for himself? Satan doesn’t muck around. He does not appeal to Jesus’ weaknesses but to his strengths. The first temptation is social: Will Christ’s ministry be about turning stones to bread? The millions and millions of hungry people around the world might hope it would be. Satan tempts Jesus with the reminder that he has the power to end human suffering in a split second. No one need ever be hungry again. Forty thousand children die each day, now, from hunger-related causes. We see the photos of distended bellies. We read of famine; they seem to rage in multiple places at any given time. Just as Christ healed the suffering of so many during his ministry – raising the dead, driving out evil spirits, restoring withered limbs – imagine how his love for all people would tempt him to wipe out human suffering with a wave of his hand.    Satan knows how to go for the jugular. But ending physical misery is not what God has called him to do, and so Jesus resists the temptation to do it. 

The second temptation is religious: Will Jesus, in throwing himself down and being caught by angels, avoid death with a very public display of supernatural power? Those of us longing for proof positive of God’s existence or Christ’s Lordship might hope he would. How many billions of people in the past, present or future yearn for conclusive answers to our struggles of faith. There would be no questions of faith anymore, no doubts, just rock-solid evidence, documentable proof. A display like the one Satan suggests (and a few more when skeptics are around) and the world will fall at Jesus’ feet. Jesus has the power to win the world any time he wants to. He doesn’t need to go to the cross, he doesn’t need to suffer, and meanwhile everyone will believe he is the Son of God. It’s a great deal. Except that it subverts God’s plan for the salvation of all humankind – salvation by grace through faith. In Satan’s scenario no one needs true faith, just common sense. Faith is belief in things unseen, unproven by the world’s standards. Satan tempts Jesus with the honor and glory of having the whole world at his feet. Jesus knows that would no longer require faith. Jesus knows that this is not how we are saved. He cannot be tempted

The third temptation is political: Will Jesus submit to the ruler of this world in order to achieve good for the people of this world? The millions who are oppressed at this moment might hope that he would. Their necks under the boot-heel of the greedy, the power-hungry. Living in squalor, watching their children die, fearing a knock on the door at night. Gone would be the dictators of the world, the ruling juntas, the presidents-for-life. Gone would be the strongmen, the secret police, the fanatical religious leaders, the sham, powerless parliaments. Think of the billions of people throughout time and now who could come out from under the long shadow of oppression, the fears and rights abuses that have warped their spirits and constricted their lives. Jesus can bring political justice to this world with a nod of his head. He who loved us so much as to die for us could make the victimization that pains him and us the stuff of distant, past nightmares. But even this is not what his ministry or purpose is.

No, the just world that Jesus lived and died to create – where all are fed and living in peace – this can’t be made by submitting to Satan, or else we will never be saved. We will belong ultimately to Satan and not to God. Jesus knows that a just world can be born, but only if we will be transformed in spirit and build it ourselves. Our inheritance is the Kingdom of God, which is a heavenly realm certainly, but it is also to exist “on earth as it is in heaven.” We cannot be transformed nor can we be saved if Jesus snaps his fingers and improves the material conditions of our lives. 

Jesus Christ is not about surface changes, faith made documentable and easy. If he had given in the world would not change, and if we give in it won’t either. “Give in to what?” you may ask. Power, honor, glory – Jesus was tempted with these things, and while they sound like lofty stuff, way beyond our humble lives, they are not. Jesus asks us to envision a world, a social order, that shares none of the boundaries of the present one. He didn’t come to touch things up or put them under new management, but to reorient the world in a totally different direction, the impetus for change and renewal not being applied from without but evolving, being born within from faith.

Jesus was offered total power over this world, but how could he take Satan up on it? Ours is a system where billions of silver coins are spent on bombs that the makers promise they will never use. But they do go off in the faces and lives of the millions and millions of people who have no food, shelter, health care or education because the funding for these things went to weapons. Jesus will not be Lord of this but of a world to come, to hatch from the center of this and born of our faith, full of justice, integrity, dignity, mercy and faith.

So the real temptation for Jesus – and for us – is a beckoning to do something about which a lot of good can be said: feeding the hungry, swelling the ranks of believers, administrating power with mercy but for the wrong reasons. There is nothing rotten here – at least on the surface.  No self-respecting devil would approach a person with offers of personal, domestic, or social ruin. That is the small print at the bottom of the temptation. This devil (and our own devils) has no pitchfork, red suit or horns. They care nothing for our chocolate bars. And they do not tempt us to do anything that will make us look or feel bad, or anything that we cannot do. We are tempted not to fall, but to rise. We are tempted to do what is in our power. The greater the strength, the greater the temptation. Jesus, who had the power to do so much good, must have been struggling! And our Bible verses this morning show us how deceptively attractive temptation really is – and how close to our hearts. It was not to a crafty enemy but to a very close friend that Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan!”

I’d like to interject a little aside into this sermon – a brief tangent. As I read this passage I was struck by one phrase – I wonder if it grabbed you, too. In two temptings Satan begins If you are the Son of God… .”   I’ve heard before that conditional, testing provocation. How many people use this same evil tactic of the devil: If you loved me…,”If you were a Christian…,” “If you really cared you would… .”   That manipulative tradition comes from the tempter. Jesus didn’t need to prove his Sonship, and if your love, your faith, your care, whatever is at issue, has integrity, then you don’t need to prove it either. And perhaps the person who is testing you is revealing a shallowness of love or a desire for self-promotion by pulling this stunt in the first place. OK – end of aside, but I hope you keep it in mind.

Jesus endured his profound temptation in the wilderness. We are in our own kind of wilderness, as individuals with our various challenges and as a world with so much injustice. Jesus had the Holy Spirit present with him, throughout his trial.    We do, too. The presence of God and of the Spirit does not mean exemption from the struggle – we see that right here with Jesus. But the Holy Spirit is the available, ever-present power of God in our contests, too – in our own wilderness experiences. Whatever our temptation we are not alone. That is the Good News of Jesus Christ for us in this Lenten season and in every season of our lives, and thanks be to God.




 Fred Craddock, Luke, (Louisville: WJK Press, 1990).

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