It all starts in our minds, a little thought, a little idea that flies around inside our minds while we are doing something else. At first, it seems harmless, just one more of a million things that our minds try and come up with each day. But then, without warning, it comes back, a minute or an hour later. Now you feel as though it is something familiar, and perhaps even a little enticing. If I claim travel expenses for that trip, even though I had a ride from a friend… if I had a chance to say that really cutting remark to the man who’s always been mean to me… if I played my cards right, I might persuade my friend’s spouse to spend an evening with me, and then maybe…
We have all been there; we have all faced thoughts or ideas that tempted us in one way or another. These are very human interactions we have with ourselves and in and of themselves are harmless, until we act upon them. So how to do we resist them and where do they come from?
The Scripture lesson today places Jesus in the wilderness. This wilderness was between Jerusalem, on the central plateau which is the backbone of Palestine, and the Dead Sea. The Hebrew Scriptures calls it Jeshimmon, which means the Devastation, and it is a fitting name, It stretches over an area of thirty-five by fifteen miles. It is an area of yellow sand, of crumbling limestone, and of scattered rocks. The hills are like dust heaps; the limestone blistered and peeling; rocks are bare and jagged; often the ground sounds hollow when a foot falls upon it. It glows and shimmers in the heat like some vast furnace. It runs out to the Dead Sea, and then there comes a drop of 1,200 feet, a drop of limestone, through crags and corries and precipices down to the Dead Sea. This is the wilderness that Jesus chose to go to be alone prior to the start of his ministry.
All three Gospel writers that include this story place it right after the Baptism by John in the Jordan. This is the time in Jesus’ life when he was going to start the mission he had come here to do, and he needed to be alone to plan out what he was going to do and how he was going to do it. Jesus often retires, by himself, when he needs to think and to plan. Advice is a good thing, but sometimes we just need to be alone with our thoughts and our mind where we can listen and ask God what we are to do next.
But, as the Scriptures also tell us, Jesus was not truly alone or was he.
The first clarification that has to be made is the phrase “to tempt.” In English the word tempt usually has just one meaning, it means to entice to do wrong, to seek to seduce into sin, to try and persuade to take the wrong way. But in Greek this phrase has quite a different meaning, it means “to test” far more than it means “to tempt” as the English sense of the word.
One of the great stories in the Hebrew Scriptures is the story of Abraham narrowly escaping sacrificing his son Isaac. In Genesis 22:1 we read, “And it came to pass after these things that God di tempt Abraham.” The word tempt here cannot mean, to seek to seduce in evil. It is unthinkable that God should try to make anyone a wrongdoer. But the point is very clear when we understand that it means “After these things, God tested Abraham.” The time had come for a supreme test of the loyalty of Abraham. Just as metal has to be tested beyond any stress and strain before it can be put to use, so people have to be tested before God can use them for his purpose. A less extreme example of this is when I was called to the Ecclesiastical Council where I was tried and tested, in this very place, to ascertain my suitability for the ministry I was called too. God called me, but the Church verified and authorized that call.
Now here is the great uplifting truth, what we call temptation is not meant to make us sin, it is intended to enable us to conquer sin. It is not meant to make us wrong; it is intended to make us good. It is not meant to weaken us; it is meant to make us stronger and finer and purer from the ordeal. The temptation is not the penalty for being human; temptation is the glory of being human. It is the test to those that God wishes to use. So, we must think of this whole incident as being not so much the tempting as the testing of Jesus.
As I have already mentioned, the three Gospel writers that include this story has it taking place right after the Baptism in the Jordan by John. It always seems in life that right after we experience a high moment, that moment on the mountain top as I mentioned last week, and our spiritual resistance is at its highest that suddenly, and without warning, it takes a nosedive and we are at our lowest. This is when the tempter comes in and attacks.
Now let me just say that I am a firm believer in the spiritual both with heavenly mountain top experience spiritual and the spiritual warfare kind when we wrestle with the evil one. Make no mistake about this, evil exists in this world and is around us all the time. When we profess we are Christians, when we experience the mountain top, the tempter is right there telling us we are not good enough and this is exactly what was going to happen to Jesus, but we know that is not the end of the story for Jesus conquered the tempter and so can we.
As we read the story we think of this as an outward experience of Jesus, but this was a struggle that went on in his own heart and mind and soul, and that is the same for us. The proof of this is found in the Scriptures itself; there is no possible mountain from which all the kingdoms of the earth could be seen, this was an inner struggle.
It is through our inmost thoughts and desires that the tempter comes to us. The attack is launched in our own minds. The very power of the tempter lies in the fact that our defenses get breached, and we are attacked from within. The tempter finds allies and the weapons used against us are our very own inmost thoughts and desires.
So how can we overcome this, well the first is by prayer. We have to adopt a habit of prayer, not just on Sunday but every day. I have said this before; we need to start and end every day with prayer. It does not have to be some long and involved prayer that takes hours, start each day off with the Our Father, the very prayer our Savior taught us. This is the perfect prayer, and since Jesus taught it to us, it is all we really need. Start and end each day with this prayer.
The second way is forgiveness. Again, as I have said before; forgiveness, or the lack of forgiveness, will eat away at our very souls. Not forgiving someone gives them power over us and allows them to control a portion of our lives, but when we forgive, we take that power back, and we regain control over our lives. The tempter will tell us that we should not forgive the other person or persons that harmed us, that if we forgive they win. But Jesus tells us that when we forgive, we are forgiven. Again in the prayer that he taught us, forgive us our trespasses, sins, debts whatever word you wish to use, as we forgive those who, sin, trespass, against us.
The third way, and I think one of the most important, is to have a spiritual guide. I don’t believe that we talk about this enough in our Reformed Protestant Theology, but a spiritual guide is critical in our lives. I like to think of this in the sense that the ancient Celts used it as an Anamcara our Soul Friend. Not a director but a guide, a fellow traveler on the spiritual road. This is the person who we get to know, and they get to know us over time. We share our inmost thoughts and desires with this person, so we are not alone with them, and in turn, they guide us along the path.
I have been blessed to have several Soul Friends in my life, and I have been doubly blessed to have been, and continue to be, Soul Friends with several people. If you lean into the relationship, it can be an excellent experience.
But the message I want us to take away from all of this is that we are never alone. Jesus never promised that our life would be easy. He never promised his followers that if they followed him their life would be without temptation, persecution and all the rest, heck 10 of his 12 died in unspeakable ways. But the one thing he does promise us, that he covenants with us, is that we will never be alone he will always walk with us, right beside us, and yes, sometimes he carries us.
I cannot say this enough; God loves each and every one of us in good times and bad, and there is nothing we can do that will ever cause God not to love us, nothing. I am not sure about much, but I am confident about the absolute love of God for all of us.