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Monday, February 25, 2008

The Temptation to Test God (Luke 4.9-13)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
February 24, 2008

We’ve been considering the full humanity of Jesus, our Great High Priest whom Hebrews says fully sympathizes with us because he has been tempted in every way like us, but has not sinned. We’ve looked at the temptations Jesus faced in the desert, when Satan came to him. The first temptation was to self-sufficiency: looking to his own strength and power rather than first seeking God’s will and Word. The second temptation was to idolatry: offering obedience, service, and worship to someone or something other than God. Today we consider the third temptation, which was to test God. We’ll try to understand what that means and how we can follow Jesus’ example and keep from succumbing to that temptation.

The Third Temptation

Satan challenged Jesus to throw himself off the top of the Temple in Jerusalem, saying, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.” It wasn’t to take his life, but to show His power. Satan continued, “For it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning you to guard you… on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Though Satan is quoting scripture (Psalm 91), he mis-applies it. That Psalm is an affirmation of God’s sheltering and helping hand for those who trust Him and are hard-pressed and in need. It is not a formula for hurling oneself into danger. It is no wonder that Jesus responds by saying, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” But there is more to this temptation than the obvious correction to the mis-use of Psalm 91.

For one, this temptation anticipates the crucifixion. While Satan would not have known the details of Jesus’ obedience and yet-to-come crucifixion, he could imagine how to get Jesus off course. To take advantage of the position of Son would be to follow the path of Satan’s own sin. Satan was cast out of heaven for seeking to elevate himself rather than to serve God. If Jesus would do the same, surely he would thwart God’s plans significantly. In some ways, this was a re-play of the temptation of Adam and Eve, but with even more at stake, if that is possible. While Adam’s sin led to the downfall of the human race, now the redemption of humanity is at stake.

Even at the end of this passage, when Satan leaves, it is only until he can return at “an opportune time” to continue his efforts at sabotage. There is a cosmic battle being played out here, and Jesus proves faithful again and again.

While all that is true, I’d like to focus on the human part of this. What does this temptation have in common with us? And how can we follow Jesus’ example and not yield to this temptation?

Jesus’ quotation of God’s Word points us in the direction we need to go. He quotes again from Deuteronomy 6 (as he did with the second temptation). The rest of that passage reads as follows:

You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested Him at Massah… you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord… (vv. 16-18)

Jesus is again affirming obedience to God’s will and Word. This has been his response to all three temptations, and it is our way out as well.

But let’s track down the reference to Massah – that is where God’s people were said to have tested God. Let’s see what they did.

Testing God at Massah

This story comes from Exodus 17. It is the first of two stories of water from the rock. In this story, the people are in great need, desperate for water, and they complain to Moses, who prays to the Lord. God provides water through the obedience and faithfulness of Moses. So in what way did the people test God?

I ask this question because it is not immediately clear what it means to test God. After all, there are examples of testing God in scripture: twice Gideon put out a fleece to verify what God was telling him to do. And here, is it not okay for the people to call out to God and ask for water, which they need to live?

The key to understanding what is meant here is in verse 7, in the explanation for naming the place Massah, which means test:

[Moses] named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us, or not?”

They tested the Lord by questioning whether the Lord was with them or not. They did not go to Moses and say, “Will you ask God to help us, to give us water?” They argued with Moses and demanded that he provide water. They no longer believed that God was with them.

The difference between what the Israelites did and what Gideon did with the fleece is that Gideon was seeking God’s will and Word. The Israelites had given up on God altogether and were beginning to turn on their leader, Moses.

This was the choice Satan put to Jesus. Throw yourself off the Temple and we’ll see if God is really among us or not. Certainly, God could have proven Himself that way, but Jesus took the route of Gideon, not the faithless Israelites: he continued to seek, listen, and obey God’s will and Word rather than make his own way apart from God.

The Temptation to Test God

This is a very real temptation that we face. And the heart of it is not just doubting God or having periods of struggle with faith. That kind of struggle and doubt can find resolution. This particular temptation is to pin our faith on God’s coming through for us. It is the prayer that says, “This is what I need, and if God doesn’t answer this, then I’m giving up on God.” That’s the kind of temptation that can ruin us and take us down for a long time.

One of the reasons I hear often given by people who no longer attend church is something like this: “One time there was this horrible situation; I prayed to God to fix it and He didn’t, so I don’t believe in God any more.” That’s where Satan longs to go with that temptation – to have people’s prayers not be about seeking God’s will, but about fulfilling our wishes and grading God on the results.

One of the defining moments for me personally was when I was twelve years old. My best friend’s three year old sister was rushed to the emergency room as a matter of life and death. I prayed hard all night while she was in the ER, as did many in my church. It would have been easy to pin my faith on God’s answer to those prayers, for it to become a matter of life and death to my faith. She did not die, but it didn’t turn out the way I had hoped either… trying to understand that was when my faith grew up.

Listening to God: the way to freedom

Hebrews says that Jesus is the Way and he is the way through temptation. In each case where he was tempted by Satan, he faced temptation and did not sin because he looked for God’s will and Word. God’s Word is my ultimate sustenance. Worshiping God is my greatest joy. Praying for God’s will to be done – and for mine to line up with that; that is the way through.

The Good News is that this is not about us being sinless like Jesus. Jesus did what we cannot do. The Good News is that he did, and he has made a way for us to be restored to a right and lasting relationship with God. Along the way, he has demonstrated the way to resist temptation without sinning, and has provided a way of hope and peace in this life.

Put your trust in Jesus Christ and follow diligently after him. He will show you the Father and give you what you need. Amen.

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