Sermon by: Robert Austell
March 9, 2008
play - "It is Well" sung by Maddie, Katie, and Robert
We have been looking at the temptations of Jesus for several weeks. We’ve been doing that because Hebrews 4:14-16 tells us that Jesus, our great high priest, has been tempted in every way as we have, yet is without sin. We have seen that this has two key implications for us: that Jesus is the Way and the way through. Though fully God, he was fully human so that, as the one and only perfectly faithful human, he might be the Way of salvation. As the one who has faced everything we might face, he also shows us how to seek and live within God’s will, the place of blessing and peace.
Today we are going to see what happens when the heat gets turned up even more, when temptation turns to trial. Last week we saw that Jesus prayed that “this cup” would be taken from him, but wrapped up those desires in the prayer that God’s will would be done. Today we see him begin to drink this cup – to experience the beginnings of the trial and suffering that will end at the cross.
We continue to ask, “What are our choices when facing temptation, and particularly when we are undergoing trials?” We will see again that Jesus is the Way of salvation and the way through all that we might face.
From Temptation to Trial
We heard two passages today. They are separated by a third that we didn’t read, the story of Peter’s denials. I simply want to note several broad patterns of behavior and response that happen in these passages.
The setting is what I am calling trial. By that I mean that Jesus and the disciples have moved beyond temptation, where the matter at hand is yet to be acted out or decided. You can be tempted to steal without stealing – it’s just the thought or the potential. For Jesus and the disciples, it’s beyond temptation now. The events – the action – is upon them. Jesus is being betrayed and Satan is physically acting against Jesus through the soldiers and others who show up.
What this might look like for you and me is more than a hypothetical or potential temptation in our head, but being in the midst of an actual situation that tests us. It might be an inappropriate situation with a member of the opposite sex. It might be being surrounded by those who have already chosen the wrong thing and being forced to make a choice yourself. Teenagers find themselves in that position all the time, but so do we adults – more than we realize! It may be that we are under attack – from those who would do us harm or from disease or depression.
The point is that this text speaks to our choices in the midst of things – a step past temptation. That’s what I mean by trial.
Fight or Flight
Broadly, the disciples demonstrate two wrong choices in response to this particular trial. Interestingly, these are two of the responses that have been described by social scientists as the most basic human instincts: fight or flight.
In the garden, the disciples geared up for a fight. One attacked the slave of the high priest, who was probably leading the group as the on-site representative of the high priest. The disciple cut his ear off – probably not what he was going for! Jesus ordered him to stop and said, “No more of this.” The point here isn’t a teaching on pacifism, but on being in step with God’s will. Jesus fully intends to be arrested and go with them, and the disciples are actually the ones getting in the way of God’s will!
How would they have known to do otherwise than defend their beloved Master? Consider the preceding passage. They were to pray against temptation and presumably to seek God’s will as Jesus did. And they fell asleep, at perhaps the first opportunity to get in step with God’s will. Then, in the midst of betrayal, they call out to Jesus, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” But they didn’t wait for an answer. We talked in previous weeks about not running ahead of God and that’s just what they did.
In the next scene, which we didn’t read, we find another typical human response to trial and testing: flight. It is the story of Peter denying Jesus. From what we can tell, most of the other disciples fled altogether. Peter was lurking around, but when questioned, he fled direct association with Jesus by denying more and more vehemently that he knew Jesus. This, too, is a natural reaction to a difficult situation. In terms of the analogy of not running ahead or lagging behind God, remember the story of Jonah. He had a very clear message about what God wanted him to do and he literally tried to run in the other direction. This, too, is not faithfulness. For that, we will have to turn to Jesus as our example.
Faithful Obedience in Trial
The second passage we heard, from verses 66-71, recount part of the actual trial of Jesus. This is the religious trial, where the Jewish elders – chief priests and scribes – gathered to examine Jesus. They are questioning his claim to divinity as grounds to accuse him of blasphemy. In a clear combination of telling the truth and obeying God’s will, Jesus tells them who he is and confirms their charges.
As with the earlier temptations, Jesus could easily have stepped off the path God had laid before him. Here and again before Pilate and Herod, he could have denied the charges and gotten off with a warning or a beating. The government officials did not want to arrest or kill him. But Jesus would not deny who he was, nor would he abandon the course God had set for him.
So, just as he did in the face of Satan’s temptation, he does now in the face of trial, suffering, and death – he seeks and follows God’s will for him.
It is important to seek and follow God’s will when we are tempted. It keeps us from sinning. It is all the more important to seek and follow God’s will when we come under fire, are hard pressed, are being crushed. God is our “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 42:1)
Basically, what Jesus demonstrated and what the Bible teaches us is that when we are in the midst of a trial, faith (and obedience) are more important than fight or flight. Now, I’m going to qualify that before we’re done, because sometimes God says, “Run for your life!” And sometimes, God calls us to stand and fight. But the important question is what God wants us to do. We may run ahead of God and blunder into the right course of action, but if we are following God’s will, we will always be right where we should be.
God’s Provision in Trial
What does this mean for us on a practical, day-to-day level?
Does all this mean that we have to go to our death as Jesus did? No, that is not the point here, though there is a biblical sense of “taking up our cross” daily to be considered. But the point here is that whatever we face, whether it be life and death, testing by God, tempting by Satan, a mess we create all on our own, difficult circumstances with no apparent rhyme or reason, or more trivial day-to-day matters… the point is that we do our best to talk to and listen to God and follow the path He sets before us. The point is that if we do that, God will provide what we need when we need it most. Remember, Jesus is our way through temptation and trial. We have his example to get through all that we will face in life and death.
More importantly, Jesus is our Way of salvation for what we could not and cannot do on our own. One of the most difficult passages to understand is at the very end of Jesus’ life, when he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At that point Jesus faces the full consequence of human sin so that we will not have to. He obediently followed the path God set out before him, not so that he would die, but that he would be judged on our behalf. Jesus is God’s ultimate provision for us because that is a trial we could not survive.
Because of that salvation, God’s promise to us to never leave us and never forsake us takes on new significance. Whatever we may face or struggle with, we are never alone! As I read of Jesus’ faithful progression to the cross, I am reminded of the 23rd Psalm, which we used as a Call to Worship today. Among other things, I believe it chronicles God’s shepherding presence with His Son, Jesus, as he moved toward the cross. Note particularly verse 4:
He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me…”
I believe this is exactly what the Father was doing for the Son, and what He promises us when we seek Him in faithful obedience.
What does God promise to those who seek Him and obey Him? He promises His presence and peace. Listen to this verse from Isaiah 26:3. We sang this earlier in the service:
The steadfast of mind you will keep in perfect peace, because he trusts in you.
The Bible consistently reaffirms the principle of seeking, hearing, obeying, and following God’s Will. Sometimes God may have us fight; sometimes, flee; sometimes stand firm. We’re not always going to hear God perfectly, but we can avoid the mistakes of the disciples: falling asleep, not waiting for the answer, running ahead or falling behind.
The key question is, “How can I be faithful?”
Let me end with one short story as application.
One of my dear friends at my previous church was a lady named Millie. I think Millie was in her 80s, but I’m not sure – we didn’t talk about it. Millie was a widow and dearly missed her husband. Millie was in constant pain, with ulcerative colitis, arthritis, and numerous other debilitating health concerns. Several times over the six years I was there, I was called to the hospital because she had passed out from the pain. And Millie loved the Lord and the Church. If she could have, she would have been there every time the doors opened. But, she simply wasn’t able to do that. I know that she would have been happy to go on and be with the Lord, but apparently it wasn’t her time. I remember her sitting me down one time to tell me about how the Lord was using her. I think it probably took her a while to come to this understanding, but she figured if there was anything she could still do for the Lord with all her limitations, it was pray. She wore out the church prayer list praying for it. She prayed morning, noon, and night. She prayed for me and my family specifically each morning. She read the church newsletter and the newspaper and called the pastors and prayed for everything she could think of. If you’ve ever heard the term “prayer warrior” – that’s what she was. A five foot tall, grey-haired, 80-something year old warrior.
I don’t know if Millie ever prayed for healing or for the pain to go away. I’m sure she must have. I think she probably also prayed for the Lord to take her home. But I know that in the midst of her life, which just about anyone would admit was a trial of significant proportion, she knew God’s peace and presence because day after day she sought God’s will and followed after it.
In temptation, Jesus has shown us the way and he is the Way.
When temptation turns to trial, Jesus has shown us the way and he is the Way.
May God give us ears to hear! Amen.