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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.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Temptation to Idolatry (Luke 4.5-8)

February 17, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell

play - Maddie Shuler's song, "Life"

play - John Shuler's testimony

There is no sermon manuscript this week. I arrived at church Sunday morning and was just not at peace about the sermon I had written. I spent some time in prayer and went in a different direction (on the same text) along another thought line I had been having. This doesn't happen often, but when it does, it usually seems to be the Holy Spirit's leading. In this service, this proved to be very clear, when several components, from the children's sermon to a newly written piece of music (by Maddie) lined up perfectly with the new version. God knew what He was doing!

Monday, February 11, 2008

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

February 10, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

--KNIT TOGETHER Index (Ephesians 1-4)--

During January of 2008, we looked at the opening chapters of Ephesians and considered some of the ways that God has knit us (the Church) together for service and His glory.

[click on individual sermon for link to streaming audio]

02-03-08 Dressed for Going Out (Ephesians 4:20-32) mp3

01-27-08 Grow Up! (Ephesians 4:14-16) mp3

01-20-08 Presents for You (Ephesians 4:7-13) mp3

01-13-08 Life and Death (Ephesians 2:1-10) mp3

01-06-08 Open the Eyes of Our Hearts (Ephesians 1:18-23) [audio not available]

Monday, February 4, 2008

Dressed for Going Out (Ephesians 4.20-32)

February 3, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell

Last week we looked at the nature of being the Church. The Apostle Paul compared us to a human body, all the parts being knit and held together by what the connecting tissue supplies. Just as God made the human body to grow, He has made the Church to be a living, growing, healthy body. Out of that analogy we realize that church is not something we belong to but something we are. And this body needs each of you. Without any one of you here, we are not a work force diminished by one, but more like a runner with a broken leg. And Paul challenged us to grow up, to find our place in this body so the whole might mature and function as God designed it to function.

Paul continues these thoughts in today’s text, exploring in more depth that process of maturing in Christ. Whereas he focused on the whole Church last week, he turns to individuals this week, to help us think through how we may ourselves grow up spiritually to better encourage, support, and build up the whole body. He frames all of this conversation in verses 22 and 24, where he challenges us to grow up in Christ by “laying aside the old self” and “putting on the new self.” Notice that Paul still begins with words describing our identity – he doesn’t start with laying aside our old ways, but our old self – who we used to be apart from Christ. Notice, too, that while Paul and Scripture claims that in Christ we are a new creation, we still must make the daily choice to live that way. That’s why Paul can talk about “putting on” an identity. Like an abandoned teenager adopted into a stable and loving new family, sometimes we wrestle with accepting our new identity and would rather remember old and familiar habits, even if they are no longer consistent with who we are.

So, with this framework, Paul proceeds to give a series of examples of behaviors that reflect whether we are “wearing” our new identity in Christ. Hear this clearly: in Christ you are a new creation. And so Paul writes, if you know Christ, then attend to these matters and put off what is old so that you may put on what is new.

There are a number of these “wardrobe changes,” if you will, and they continue on into the next chapter. We’ll focus on five that are contained in our text and move through them rather briefly before making some overall applications for our life together as the Body of Christ. In each case, Paul gives a reason for making the change.

1. From Lies to Speaking Truth (vv. 25)

The first exchange Paul lists is speaking truth rather than lies. Look at the reasons Paul gives for this. First, he uses the word neighbor, bringing to mind Jesus’ summary of the Greatest Commandment, “Love the Lord your God (with all you are and all you have) and love your neighbor as yourself.” Why (and this is not the only reason) should we speak truthfully? It is because speaking truth is linked to our neighbors. Who is my neighbor? Jesus spent significant time answering that question. It is each person with whom I speak, because with each one I have the opportunity to show the love of God. Paul not only focuses outwardly, but also inwardly, reminding us that we are “members of one another.” We are to speak truth to one another because of the bonds we talked about last week. While it is critical for the health of the body for you to be here and be part of this body, we now see that it is also critical for you to be a healthy part of the body. I need my liver to survive, but I also need a liver that isn’t poisoning my body. So, even as we need each one of you for this church body to survive and thrive, we also need you to speak truth to one another.

Is it as simple as “the truth is always right” and “lies are always wrong?” I think so, almost. I do know that truth can be wielded to hurt, so I would remind you of Paul’s words from earlier in this chapter, words we looked at last week. We are to speak the truth in love, for the sake of building up one another. Really, that is the context for all of what we are looking at today. These attitudes and behaviors are not isolated and abstract, but to be used inside and outside the body of Christ for the health and growth of the Body.

2. From Sinful Anger to Self-Control (vv. 26-27)

A second exchange is self-control and trust in God for nursing anger. Interestingly, Paul writes (and quotes Psalm 4:4), “Be angry.” It is okay, or at least expected, that we get angry! But Paul immediately qualifies that with, “but do not sin.” I searched the whole Bible for “anger” and the only examples I could find where it was not sin were when God or someone speaking for God, like a prophet, faces unrighteousness, injustice, or sin. I also found instruction for us, like Psalm 37:7-8, which says that we should trust in the Lord rather than let our anger consume us. And James 1:19-20 is very clear, “Let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” Indeed, God achieves the righteousness of God! We participate in that righteousness through trust, obedience, and worship rather than through anger.

What all that points to is that it is a human emotion to be angry, but it is an emotion with little productive outcome. So Paul, perhaps intuitively knowing what psychologists would later discover, would say, “Don’t pretend like you’re not angry; don’t just stuff it down and bury it.” We know that doesn’t work. But also, don’t nurse the anger. Throughout the Old Testament, the word for anger is always associated with burning. Don’t stoke the fire. Rather, let it signal our need to trust in God and go to God in prayer.

For those who need practical guidelines, Paul says, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” This isn’t a super-technical or legalistic guideline. If you get angry at 5:30 p.m., you don’t have less than an hour to resolve it. And if you get angry at 8:00 p.m., it doesn’t mean that you have 23 hours to nurse it. His point is, you’re going to get angry at stuff. Be honest about that, then release it to God and with God’s help as quickly as you can. Otherwise, he warns, you will give the devil an opportunity. And if you have any experience with anger, you know the truth of that warning. That’s where the sin enters in, when we hold on to anger and nurse it and allow it to grow more destructive.

3. From Stealing to Productive Labor (v. 28)

A third exchange – laying aside the old and putting on the new – is work for what Paul calls “stealing.” This is simply an appeal to one of the first purposes God created for humanity. We’ve talked before about how work is one form of serving or worshiping God and was established in Geneses 2-3 when God put Adam to work cultivating and keeping the Garden of Eden. We were made to work! We sometimes think that is part of the curse given to Adam and Eve after they sinned, but the curse was that work would be extra difficult because of the Fall. But work itself is part of God’s perfect design in Creation and is part of our faithful life before God!

Paul doesn’t go into all that, but it underlies his theology. Here, in verse 28, he simply says that we must each seek to live fruitful and productive lives. The point is not just so we will have enough for ourselves, but so that we will have something to share with one who has need. What a practical application of the Great Commandment. Our love of God compels us to work, because God has designed us to do so. But like Jesus did, Paul links love of God inextricably with love of neighbor so that even our work is explained in terms of thinking of and caring for others!

4. From Harmful to Helpful Words (vv. 29-30)

A fourth exchange is helpful words for harmful words. This exchange is similar to truth and falsehood, but covers a wider range of situations. We can help and hurt each other apart from truth or falsehood. Or perhaps this is where the in love part to speaking truth in love fits in best. The translation “unwholesome” is helpful. Jokes, stories, gossip, innuendo, and other destructive talk comes to mind. Paul elaborates in two ways: our words should build up (edify) and they should offer grace to the hearer. Remember, grace is a free gift. It reflects God’s great gift of life and it is not given for what will be received in return. So often, we reserve our so-called “kind words” in order to manipulate or get something out of a situation. We can be pretty stingy with unsolicited and no-strings attached words that build up others. I’m not talking about flattery; that seeks something in return. I’m talking about encouragement, comfort, and even exhortation or rebuke, when necessary. This is the essence of speaking truth in love. We must look out for the health and well-being of one another, and often our words are the front-lines of that mission.

5. From Bitterness to Love (vv. 30-32)

A fifth exchange takes off bitterness and puts on love. In verses 30-32, Paul writes that holding on to the old and destructive patterns “grieves the Holy Spirit.” Paul goes on to list bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice, and says, “Put them away!” In their place, we are to “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, [and] forgiving each other.” Now, we probably could have figured out that God was against slander, malice, and the like, and for kindness and forgiveness. But note Paul’s reason in verse 32. We are to do unto others as has been done to us.

We have known God’s kindness and forgiveness. Jesus told several parables about those who had been forgiven, but then did not extend that grace to others. The reason we can put on this new way of life, in general, is because it has been modeled and extended to us in Jesus.


Why is Paul going through all these comparisons and urging us to lay aside the old identity and way of life to put on the new?

Remember where we started. God has called this group of people together to be the Church here. We are His body and each one of you is necessary for us to survive, thrive, and grow into the mature and healthy body God intends for us.

The first thing each of us must understand is that we need each other here to be whole.

But what Paul has taken up in today’s text is that it is not enough just to show up or even show up a lot. We must also accept the identity God has given us in Jesus Christ.

So, again, that means trying to understand your role and purpose in Christ’s body here. It is the very least and minimal application for you to hear me saying, “Don’t fade away; stick around; we want you here.” Please do hear that! We need you to survive.

But hear God’s Word to you today. Find the ministry and mission God has planned and designed for you. I’ve had several people speak to me since last Sunday about how they see themselves responding to God’s invitation and mission. I want to hear from more. In fact, I want to hear from every one of you.

If you can’t get out and can’t be active, I can’t think of a more important thing we need right now than faithful prayers. I would love to talk to you and provide you with some key prayer requests for our church, church family, neighborhood, and mission.

If you can pull weeds, come talk to me. If you can use a computer, e-mail me. If you travel a lot, let’s talk about how God could use that.

If you stay at home with little ones, there are some amazing ways you can minister. If you have some free time and a car, there are folks who can’t get to church. If you like to bake, we need you.

We need people who have put on truth and love and who want to work for God and help others.

God uses writers, thinkers, doers, and goers.

God also uses doubters, questioners, strugglers, and stragglers. (I can show you those in the Bible!)

You’ve heard me say that it’s time for us to get up and get out. Paul has told us how to dress for outside weather. Let’s put on Christ and get going! Amen.