Temptation – How do we respond?

Matthew 4:1-11

Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Temptation is an evocative word which perhaps brings to mind the power of our advertising industry to persuade us that whatever they are offering is something we should not and cannot resist. Paula Gooder writes that for some Lent is all about resisting temptation by giving up something, to hone our skills of resistance, so that when a bigger more powerful temptation comes our way we are able to keep strong and refuse to give in. We are learning to be content with what we have and who we are.

If we understand this as the meaning of temptation it is not so easy to equate that with what was happening to Jesus during his 40 days in the wilderness. Certainly after forty days and nights of fasting the thought of bread may have been a great temptation but what of the other two challenges the Devil puts before Him?

The wilderness is a place of struggle, and testing. Just as the Israelites came out of Egypt and for forty years were tested in the wilderness, so now Jesus experiences his own exodus, passing through the waters of baptism, and into the desert to be tested for forty days. But it is worth noticing that the Spirit led him into the wilderness so this was part of God’s plan for Him, rather than the Devil randomly appearing with his temptations. This suggests that this was a time of testing for Jesus which would show what kind of Son of God he would be and how His ministry would be lived out.

The story of the temptation of Jesus is told in the form of a dialogue between the devil and Jesus which makes use of quotations from the Book of Deuteronomy. In Matthew’s account we are given a glimpse of the inner struggle of Jesus as he faces the issue of how to accomplish his ministry but again notice that in two of the encounters the Devil starts by saying “If you are the Son of God” At this point in his Gospel there is little doubt that Matthew thought Jesus was the Son of God and how the Devil fronts his questions implies that he also acknowledged this to be the truth.

Jesus had been fasting for forty days and nights when he is asked to command the stones to become loaves of bread. The contrast with Israelites’ testing in the wilderness is evident. In Deuteronomy the Israelites had barely fled Egypt through the miraculous parting of the Red Sea before they start complaining about not having food to eat and God provides for them. Yet despite being told not to keep the manna overnight as God would provide new each day, some did, choosing to rely on themselves rather than totally on God. Jesus on the other hand counters the devil’s temptation with words from Deuteronomy 8. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Rather than using his miraculous powers to satisfy his own needs he will trust God to provide for him.

Focusing solely on bread or today’s equivalent encourages us like the Israelites to focus on our own desires and concerns rather than those of the people around us. We become inward looking worrying about ourselves and our needs in that moment.

Jesus here in the wilderness is himself on the verge of starvation and he will live among people who are in extreme need. The struggle for him in this temptation is how can he be compassionate with needy people and provide for their needs and yet present to them a life of discipleship that calls for wholehearted seeking after the kingdom of God rather than just satisfying physical needs.

In the second temptation the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, and tells him to throw himself down, quoting a promise from Psalm 91 that God would command his angels to protect him. The psalmist writes in this psalm about God being our refuge providing us with safety and security. At the end of the psalm God says Those who love me I will deliver I will protect those who know my name” God is ready to help whenever we need it and the Devil wants Jesus to place himself in danger to simulate that need and see if God really would help. Jesus’ response shows that He is aware that he is being invited to do exactly what the Israelites did –not to trust that God is who He says He is and force Him to act according to their own demands. God loves us and wants us to ask Him for what we really need but it is so easy to test God trying to force Him to respond to our agenda and not to trust that He knows what is best for us and the world.

Jesus would, of course, perform many miracles of healing and other powerful signs. But here, he faced a struggle as he came to terms with the meaning and intent of such ministry. It will not be to amaze people. Throughout his public ministry he carefully avoided publicity by urging those whom he healed not to make him known. He did not need that kind of acclaim He just wanted people to trust in God’s provision and protection.

The third and final temptation or test sees the devil take Jesus to a very high mountain. He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and promises to give him all these if Jesus would only fall down and worship him. It is noticeable that this time the devil does not say “If you are the Son of God. He wants Jesus to give up being the Son of God and swear allegiance to him. The corrupting influence of power and glory is pervasive in the world. The devil wants Jesus to enter that world over which he appears to have some authority otherwise he wouldn’t be offering it to Jesus.

The irony being that later in Matthew’s gospel Jesus stands on another mountain in Galilee and proclaims that he had been given all authority in heaven and earth.

The devil could only offer authority in this world and this age but because of Jesus’ obedience and faithfulness to the task that God has set before him no matter what the cost He was given authority over all creation and even over death. 

Jesus then dismisses the Devil because the worship and service of God is at the core of who He was.

In this temptation account the reader sees into the mind and heart of Jesus as he begins to make decisions that will set the course of his life and work. The temptation story ends with the ominous statement that the devil departed from him, but not for long. Temptation would come again when people demanded signs to prove that he was who he said he was. And ultimately it would come again in Jerusalem when he was on the cross.

By definition temptation is something that appeals to us. Spirit-filled, vibrant Christians are still subject to temptation. All of us have certain desires, wants, needs, both physical and emotional. We crave food when we are hungry. We need companionship, acceptance, approval of others, love and appreciation. The devil is often viewed as the source of our temptations, but we need to understand something about ourselves. The source of our temptations is almost always our own legitimate, normal, natural desires.

For us the question is what kind of disciples are we? How do we respond when we are tested? What will we do and who will we be? If we can come to the end of this Lent with clear answers to these questions – as clear as Jesus’ to the Devil then we will have spent Lent well and be confident in our call to discipleship trusting in God for all our needs and growing into the people He calls us to be.


On Recognition – Jesus and the Wilderness…

 On Recognition – Jesus and the Wilderness in Mark’s Gospel

(This talk was given in 3 parts at our All Age Service)

Introduction – Repentance

Later in our service today we will be looking at a passage from the gospel of Mark in which we encounter John the Baptist in the wilderness telling everyone to ‘repent of their sins’….

And each week in church we always say a confession – some words which help us repent of our sins.

But what does that word ‘repent’ mean? Any ideas?

  • Saying sorry for wrong, admitting we’ve made mistakes, recognising that at times we hurt other people, we’re selfish, we do unkind things.

Now the Hebrew word that is used for repentance is the word ‘shub’(shoob). Now this word means turning…. To turn around and face a different direction.

And so, repenting isn’t just about saying sorry but it’s about us choosing to turn around, to deliberately turn our hearts and minds and lives so that we’re facing towards God his love and truth.

And so, in just a minute we’re going to share some words of confession – some words which help us to say sorry to God but also allow us to turn around, to leave behind the past, the wrong and instead face towards God to his mercy and love.

And so, I thought very simply – we could act this out….
If you’re able to, please stand and we’re all going to face this way….

And we begin by recognising that at times this week we’ve made mistakes, we’ve hurt other people, we’ve said unkind things, we’ve been selfish, we’ve not loved others as much as we should have, and we’ve not loved God with our whole hearts and minds.

Words of Confession…..

And then can I encourage you to turn and face this way…. To face again towards God and his love…. That in our hearts and lives we would be open and ready to follow him.

Words of Absolution

Ok – please be seated again.

Family Time 1 – Promises

Now who here has ever made a promise? Promised to do something for someone?

Or to give someone something special?
And I wonder how good are you at keeping promises?

Well in the Bible God makes, and keeps, the most amazing, incredible promises.

The book of Malachi, the last book in the Old Testament, ends with a promise from God that he would send a messenger before him to prepare the people to receive their God. This messenger, the new Elijah, would make them ready for when God came to his people as he had promised he would.

But for a long time, nothing much seemed to happen….the people waited and waited and waited for years, and years and years. Many people forgot God’s promise, others lost hope… for some the promise became like a distant story… maybe even a fairy-tale.

However, then comes the testimony of Mark… who immediately begins his account not as a whole new story, but rather the next chapter, the next page in the unfolding story of God’s love for his people.

We’re going to listen now to both our readings from Malachi and Mark.

Family Time 2 – Wilderness and Redemption

And so, Mark picks up just where Malachi had left off….

Mark begins by picking up not just on the promise of Malachi but also promises made in Isaiah and Exodus, promises from God, which promise a secure and glorious future for his people.

Putting them altogether Mark states as clearly as he could that the time of waiting was over.

The long-awaited moment had come…. God was on the move again. The promise was here…

Mark introduces us first to John the Baptist and then to Jesus.

John the Baptist appears as one in the wilderness, a messenger who cries out ‘prepare the way of the Lord.’

John calls out, urging the people to repent, to turn away from their sin, to turn towards God, to get ready for the arrival of Jesus.

John’s appearance in the wilderness, dressed in camels’ hair, eating locusts and wild honey, reminds us of Elijah.

And the wilderness John occupies isn’t any old wilderness, rather it is the wilderness around the Jordan, the place where God’s people had first entered the Promise Land hundreds of years earlier.

This is a hint that in this place, one again, God will birth a new freedom, a great escape, deliverance and healing.

And then Mark introduces Jesus. Jesus comes from Nazareth in Galilee to be baptised by John.

And as Jesus is baptised, the Spirit descends on him like a dove and a voice from heaven says, ‘this is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.’

But then, straight away, Jesus is driven out deeper into the wilderness… this place of danger and redemption, desolation and hope, despair and new life.

And here, in the wilderness Jesus is tempted.

Now Mark doesn’t give us any more detail…he simply says that for forty days Jesus was in the wilderness, he was tempted, and that the angels waited on him.

And so, Mark has taken us by the hand, showing us sign after sign of hope and redemption.

The backdrop of this narrative is the wilderness, the place Isaiah declared to be where people should prepare for God’s return;

Jesus coming had been announced by and Elijah-type figure as Malachi had stated it would be;

his identity and calling were proclaimed by God from heaven
and then Jesus was tempted by Satan and ministered to by the angels.

There is little more that Mark could have done to indicate that the long-awaited moment had come and that the world was about to change for ever.

Here in the midst of wilderness – a promise has arrived… a gift – the One who will bring redemption for everyone, freedom, healing and new life.

And so, for us today, we no longer wait quite like the people of God were waiting in Mark 1. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection changed the world for ever,

but it can often feel like we are still waiting.

Lent is a time to remind ourselves, now as then, that God is on the move…. God is at work, and even in the darkest times, there is hope… there is healing.

Sometimes in the busyness of life, the demands and pressures of family and friends, the stresses and strains within and without, we get lost, our vision is clouded.

Lent is a time for us to make space, to take time out, to find five minutes of quiet, to get out for a walk, to sit quietly in peace without putting the tele on, or looking at Facebook, to find a space that enables us to journey into the wide open places of wilderness, so that our senses can re-adjust and we can feel once more that gentle but insistent love of God.

Lent is a time to recognise God’s presence with us – to open our hearts and minds to his love, and his ways.

And so can I encourage each one of us this week, to take some time, to meet with God. Amen.

The Wilderness – Desolation and Redemption

Paula Gooder – Let Me Go There – the Spirit of Lent – Chapter One

When I say the word ‘Wilderness….wilderness’ I wonder what springs into your mind?

I wonder what do you think of as I say that word? How do you respond?

What images do you see? Somewhere dry, deserted and hot….. and lonely….. a wide expanse of nothingness.

Maybe you’ve once visited a wilderness or desert and can remember what that felt like. Or perhaps you’ve never visited such a place and so you imagine what it must be like.

Or perhaps as I said that word, it evoked an emotional response. A time in your life where you experienced wilderness….How did you feel then? How does it make you feel now?

Or maybe you feel like you’re in a wilderness now, a place of desolation, fear, anxiety or pain?

Maybe you think of a personal relationship, an experience, past or present or something happening in the news here or overseas, an everyday experience or something happening in the church or this community or our nation.

I have to say I’ve never been to a physical wilderness, although I did once fly over the Sahara Desert and I was shocked by how big and large it was. In many places it is bare and empty with limited signs of life.

“How much longer…how much longer?…”

But in my own life, there have been times which have felt like a wilderness…. Times when I felt lonely and scared…times when life felt dry and flat. Times of depression and anxiety…of uncertainty and fear. Times when I’ve had to wait….and been able to do little else but cry out to God in despair…. How much longer…how much longer.

But, in those times… and I say this with hindsight, God always heard my cry and met me in the wilderness. Bringing me comfort, hope and peace, even though circumstances didn’t suddenly change.

As we begin our Lenten book, ‘Let Me Go There’ written by Paula Gooder we find ourselves this week exploring and thinking through the reality of wilderness…

both physical and emotional.

In future weeks Paula will turn our attention to Jesus…whose ministry was birthed out of wilderness. Jesus who after forty days and nights in the wilderness resisted the devil’s temptations.

But before we get there, Paula wants us to explore this theme of wilderness and consider how it relates to our lives.

The wilderness appears many times in the Bible.

shaped by the wilderness

Time and time again in the Old Testament stories, events, and characters like Hagar, Moses and Elijah are shaped by the wilderness and their experience thereof.

The first thing to be noted is that the wilderness if often a place of ambiguity. In the Old Testament the wilderness is a pace of terror and shelter, of death and redemption, of despair and hope.

Now Paula cannot cover all the references to wilderness in her first chapter, and I certainly cannot this morning.

But we are going to take a brief wander through some of the main passages,

the most powerful passages that encapsulate and embody the essence of the wilderness in the Old Testament.

We begin with the character of Hagar.
Now Hagar’s story is interwoven with Abraham and Sarah.

God promises Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation and that his descendants will be as many as the stars.

However, Abraham and Sarah don’t have children, and so after waiting and waiting they decide to try and solve the problem themselves.

And so, at the suggestion of Sarah, Abraham sleeps with Hagar (Sarah’s servant) and she becomes pregnant with Ishmael.

And twice Hagar ends up in the wilderness… the first time she runs away from Sarah, who has grown very jealous…but while in the wilderness she meets an angel of God… and she knows she has met with God…she calls him El- Roi… the God who sees all.

The second time is after Hagar has given birth to Ishmael, and Abraham sends them away as they no longer fit in with his plan….

In the wilderness Hagar confronts great terror. Hagar believes that both her and her son will die for they have no food or water… and Hagar watches in fear as her son grows weaker and weaker.

She cries out to God in terror…. And the God who is all seeing, hears her cry and appears to her.

Hagar who has been rejected and cast out by Abraham and Sarah and doubts her very self, finds in the wilderness a God who sees her, and loves her, and cares deeply for her.

And this God who sees everything clearly remains the same today…and in our wildernesses still sees and hears us even when we feel that no one else does.

Now Hagar was driven into the wilderness to die, our next story recounts how the people of God escaped to the wilderness to find freedom.

The story of escape from slavery in Egypt through the Red Sea is one of the big stories of the Old Testament.

It speaks of freedom, new life, faith and release from oppression. It tells of a God who will always free people from slavery. Over the centuries this story has inspired and given hope to many….. and so, it is quite striking that those least inspired by their escape from slavery where God’s people themselves.

They’ve barely left Egypt when they start to wish they hadn’t left at all. They begin to wish that they were back in the safety of slavery.

Back in Egypt they had food to eat and water to drink, even if their overlords beat them to death!

Somehow, although their bodies were free, their minds were still stuck in the past….

And of course, we can understand their fear of the wilderness. It was a vast, unfriendly expanse where many easily die of hunger and thirst.

But what they forgot was they hadn’t got there alone….in the most amazing way God had led them to freedom.

And God was still with them, would still provide for them, showing them the way and giving them manna and water as they needed it most.

It took the people of God years, maybe even more than the forty years they had to wander the wilderness, to understand and realise that the only way to navigate the freedom of the wilderness was to place their hand in the hand of God.

They had to learn to trust God, to allow God to be present with them. And I think the same is true for us, our wilderness situations may not change…. but we can choose to trust God, to trust his leading and provision.

Our reading we shared together from Psalm 107 is just the first section of this Psalm and throughout this Psalm the same repeated refrain runs over and over…

O Give Thanks to the Lord for he is good; for his steadfast love endure for ever.

Psalm 107 contains a catalogue of what God has done but it is a catalogue designed to teach us about the character of God.

If God saved his people in the past we can be confident that he will do so again and again….because he is good, and his steadfast love endures.

And so, this Psalm is one for the wilderness, in rehearsing God’s deeds in the past,

we don’t do so to lock us into history but to lift our eyes from our current despair to hope, and to give us confidence that God will act in the same way again.

The other refrain that also runs through this Psalm is ‘they cried to the Lord in their trouble and he delivered them in their distress.’ God hears our cry….but we need to cry out first….

Often when we feel like we’re in a wilderness we curl up, whimper or feel that we are too angry, too miserable to address God.

But as we saw when we looked at the Psalms last summer, there is nothing to shocking, too rude, too miserable, too angry that we cannot speak to God.

God wants us to cry out to him from whatever wilderness we find ourselves in.

God does intervene; he wants to intervene in our times of wilderness….our first step is to cry out to him in the first place.

The prophets particularly Jeremiah and Isaiah regularly mention the wilderness…

both recognise the reality of wilderness, the desolation, the terror, the fear, the unknown but what makes the wilderness ambiguous for them is God’s presence within it.

The life-giving, hope-bringing, loving presence of God brought grace and undeserved generosity into the desolate plains of the wilderness.

In very simple terms….where God was, the wilderness was wilderness no more.

Isaiah talks of rivers springing forth and gushing through the wilderness and desolate places becoming rich and fertile.

Jeremiah speaks of grace in the wilderness not death….of hope not despair and all because God loves his people with an everlasting love and is faithful to them.

And the word which Jeremiah uses for faithfulness, ‘hesed’ in Hebrew, has a broad range of meanings, it encompasses goodness, kindness, loyalty, steadfastness and love.

God’s presence will provide
hope and grace and steadfast love…

For both Jeremiah and Isaiah wilderness experiences will come…but whatever form that wilderness takes, God’s presence will provide hope and grace and steadfast love….

When we find ourselves in an emotional wilderness, either individually or as a community or nation, the temptation is to hunker down as despair sweeps over us.

But Jeremiah and Isaiah would remind us to look up, to wait expectantly for the God who has, since the dawn of time, transformed chaos into creation, the empty void, the waste into joyous hope.

God’s people have always found hope and grace in the midst of wilderness, there is no reason for this to stop now.

And it is in the context, with this backdrop of wilderness thinking that we will next week begin to consider, the work of John the Baptist and, to a greater extent, the ministry of Jesus who both began their days in the wilderness.

For now, we have seen that the wilderness is a place of ambiguity, simply because in the midst of desolation and despair, time and time again God met his people there. The wilderness never changed. It was bleak, barren, scary, a place in which death and hunger and terror lurked. What transformed it was the presence of God….

Where God was, the wilderness became a place of oasis, rest, refreshment. Where God was grace and love reigned and hope became possible.

The message of the Old Testament is that God never changed, he will not change, and as he has met people in the wilderness in the past, he will continue to do so for us today.

Ash Wednesday – Be ‘Heart Ready’

Paula Gooder – Let Me Go There – the Spirit of Lent – Introduction

Luke 4: 1-13

Today traditionally has always been a day to remember that we are but ‘dust and ashes’, a day to look our mortality in the face. We do so, not to make us miserable or morbid.

The reason is actually just the opposite, we do so embracing the love that was given, the life that was broken, the death of Jesus Christ, in order that we might live in freedom and know the gift of new life.

It seems quite appropriate that for the first time in over 70 years we mark also today Valentines…. For the cross is costly, it demanded everything, it was and is, always will be the greatest love story ever told.

Tonight, as we enter Lent, we are beginning to read and study together Paula Gooder’s Let Me Go There. Paula over the weeks that lie ahead, will take us to the place of desert and wilderness, exploring through several passages from the Old and New Testament the reality and ambiguity of the wilderness.

For the wilderness is a place of abandonment, fear, hunger, danger, toil and challenge but it is also a place of refuge, salvation, protection, homecoming and great joy. Paula will take us on a journey through the wilderness – an adventure in which danger and hope, jostle side by side.

And of course, wilderness is a place of vulnerability, it’s not safe, there will be lessons to be learned, challenges to face – there is no short cut. But the journey is a journey well worth taking, for it will strengthen us, show us new things and open to us a wide-open space of God’s grace and love and mercy.

This spaciousness summons us to lift our eyes from the humdrum ordinariness of everyday living, it invites us to strip back our cluttered existences to a bare minimum, so that we can discern more fully what brings us life, it will challenge us to look deep and hard at those things we try to avoid, and from there learn who we really are.

As we explore these wilderness themes, we can be confident that they will change us. But most of all, Paula wants us to reflect on Jesus’ own time in the wilderness. A time when Jesus was tempted, but choose not to give in.

Rather Jesus choose to do the right thing…to take the long patient road, put the needs of others before his own, and stay faithful and true to his calling as the Saviour of the World. He gave his all for each of us, that costly, cross shaped love.

And as Paula considers and unpacks Jesus’ wilderness experience she asks us to consider our calling as those who are called to take up our cross and follow him? To examine ourselves – what does it mean for us to follow Christ faithfully and steadfastly as a learner, a disciple, as a Christian living today.

These questions form the backbone – the focus – as this wilderness journey unfolds.

And so, we explore wilderness and the call to discipleship this Lent, not as a season of restriction, but rather with a wide-open spaciousness, in which we invite and welcome God to work by his Spirit, that we might learn new lessons, grow in faith and allow God to meet us in new ways. That bit by bit, day by day, we might learn and grow and become more and more like Jesus.

This Lent be Heart Ready…… to return to God.
Be heart ready… allow God space to work in and through you.

I finish with the words of a prayer attributed to Sir France Drake…. Paula quotes it in her introduction… it is a striking and bold prayer. It is a prayer I came across about 10 years ago, I’ve often pondered on it and even dared to utter it on a few occasions…..

Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves, When our dreams have come true
Because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely

Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity And in our efforts to build a new earth, We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show Your mastery; Where losing sight of land,

We shall find the stars.
We ask You to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

(attributed to Sir Francis Drake -1577)