Monday, February 11, 2008

The Temptation of Self-Reliance (Luke 4.1-4)

February 10, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Today we begin a new series, to run through Lent and up to Easter. We will be focusing on the humanity of Jesus. To be clear, Jesus is fully God and fully human. But, the days leading up to Easter are one time when we see so clearly the humanity of Jesus.

Our theme verse for the next six weeks comes from Hebrews 4:14-17, which reads:

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

We will be looking at passages that describe Jesus as the high priest who does sympathize with our weaknesses and temptations, but who doesn’t sin. Today we will be looking at the first of three temptations Jesus faced during forty days in the desert at the beginning of his ministry. The Devil came to him at the end of that time to try to tempt him into sin.

Tempting Jesus

The first temptation Jesus faced in the desert was that of self-reliance. It may not seem on the surface like that was the temptation, but I think that gets at the heart of it. He had been praying and fasting for forty days, something beyond imagination for most of us. I don’t know if you have ever fasted for spiritual reasons, but it’s not easy. The longest I have ever done it was for approximately 30 hours with my old youth group in Lenoir. We did the “30 Hour Famine” like the youth group does here. There were parts of that fast that were pretty tough! Another time, after my sophomore year in college, I got Typhoid Fever on a summer-long mission trip, and couldn’t eat for about two weeks (and then another four of only chicken broth). That wasn’t on purpose, but I did learn some important spiritual truths during that time.

What I think most of you could identify with is trying to do something spiritually beneficial and running up against resistance. Maybe you decided to start reading your Bible again or praying more regularly. And it’s like someone slipped you a sleeping pill… you just can’t keep your eyes open. As Jesus once told his disciples, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Well imagine the intense spiritual discipline necessary to fast and pray for forty days in the desert. It wasn’t any easier for Jesus than it would be for you or me! That’s the point of his full humanity. He didn’t get to try out being human like God dipping His toe in the pool of humanity; he dove completely in. I don’t know or understand the mechanics of that, but I believe the witness of Scripture that it is true. God became human in Jesus Christ. And so, after forty days fasting and praying in the desert, he would have been incredibly weak and hungry.

And the Devil speaks these insidious words, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Not, “Here’s some bread; why don’t you have a bite?” But, “You have the power and authority to satisfy your human needs; why don’t you use them?” More subtly, the question underneath the Devil’s words, “Why do you need to fast and pray when you are the Son of God?” The assertion was, “Use your name; use your power; accomplish what you want because you can.”

And listen to Jesus’ reply, quoting God’s Word from Deuteronomy: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’” We heard the rest of that verse earlier in the service, “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.” (Dt. 8:3) Jesus’ point, doubly underscored by quoting God’s Word, was that he did not come to assert his own will, but to serve the Father’s will. Accordingly, in his humanity, Jesus fasted and prayed to seek the will and Word of the Father, in order to submit himself to that will and Word.

One Woman’s Story

What Jesus faced in that temptation was more common to us than you may realize. Of course, we don’t struggle with the temptation to turn rocks into bread, but that was not the underlying temptation. The underlying temptation was to turn to our own plans because we are too impatient or unwilling to seek God’s words on the matter.

Before giving some examples from our lives, my thoughts ran to another biblical story (from John 4). In it, Jesus encountered a woman drawing water at a well in the middle of a Samaritan town. She is shocked when he, a Jewish man, appears and begins speaking to her. A number of significant things come out in the conversation, but the one that is pertinent to our discussion today is how close she came to missing Jesus’ offer of living water.

It comes out in the story that she has been married four times and is now living with a man who is not her husband. It is likely that she has chosen the noon hour to draw water so that she will not have to interact with the women of her town, who would have drawn water at dawn or dusk. In other words, she had tried to make bread from a rock. The modern version of that is, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” She had messed up or been messed up by multiple failed marriages and in the absence of a healthy marriage, had found something that “worked” for her. She would just avoid people and get along the best she could.

That story gets remarkably close to the real-life temptations we face. Many would praise her for “making lemonade,” for not giving up and for being a strong, independent woman, however she had to do that. And I resonate strongly with that! My parents raised me to be self-reliant. But there is an important distinction between being resourceful, strong, and resilient, and seeking God’s Word in and through life.

So Jesus offered her something more than what she had made for herself. He offered her “living water” that would mean she wouldn’t have to keep returning to this well again and again. Did he mean literally, magic water? No; he meant a way out of the fixed patterns she had constructed for herself – a life of obedience and trust in God’s promises. It was “living by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” And she did listen and act; she went into town to those she avoided so diligently, and she brought them back with her to meet Jesus.

Temptation to Self-Reliance

The story of the woman at the well demonstrates the real temptation to self-reliance. The temptation isn’t to make the most of an education or take care of one’s health, or any number of other good practices. Rather, the temptation is to relegate God’s Word to the equivalent of a fortune cookie. If it encourages me, then good enough; if not, I will disregard it as outdated and foolishly superstitious. The temptation in today’s text is that of turning to oneself in the need of the moment rather than asking God for help and direction.

And here’s the real trap of that. If we have cut God out of the loop, then what we come up with may well look like the best we can get. Some are falling behind on bills and it becomes so easy to sweep the dirt of immediate bills under the rug of a credit card. Some are depressed and despondent at home and “make the best of it” by drinking or staying out more and more. Some feel out of control and turn to self-destructive behavior to try to create a sense of control. The Devil has whispered that we can take these rocks all around us and make bread to satisfy our hunger, but like the woman at the well, we keep coming back day after day to something that does not answer our need. Consider what that may be for you.

There are two really significant things for you to hear from God’s Word today. For one, God has offered what we need through Jesus – living water, bread of life, real hope and real direction. And second, Jesus knows exactly what it is to face this temptation to solve the immediate problem without God and to run the risk of getting trapped there. And as a human being tempted to self-reliance, Jesus made the right decision and put his trust in God the Father. He has shown us the way and he is the way.

Mercy and Grace

Hebrews 4:16 says, “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

That’s the Good News you need to hear today. God’s help isn’t for those who think they have their act together or those who pretend to be super-spiritual; God’s help is for those who are trapped in debt, in addiction, in depression, in self-destructive behavior. God’s help is for you because Jesus knows intimately what you are facing and has shown the way of trusting God’s Word over your own rescue plans.

Put your trust in Jesus, the one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet who is without sin. In doing so, God invites you to draw near to him with confidence, and to receive His mercy and His grace. Amen.

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