Unbound: Temptation - Rev. Louis Timberlake

Unbound: Temptation
Matthew 4:1-11
Rev. Louis Timberlake

March 5, 2017

4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”

11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Ed Sheeran’s new album came out on Friday. I’ve told you before that I have to listen to music when I work on sermons. So, this sermon may or may not be influenced by the fact that I had his album on repeat. Now, I know it isn’t church music. But, you know, even pastors can’t listen to hymns 24/7. And, it was really interesting how many of the songs connected with our topic this morning. There was one about an ex-girlfriend who finds a new guy who seems great on the surface, but the love isn’t there. And the girl changes everything about herself to be with this guy, but loses herself in the process. There’s a song about Ed’s rise to fame and the temptations that come with it. There’s a song about childhood, reflecting on the different ways that life has unfolded for a group of friends; the joys, pains, failures, successes. Songs about love. Songs about something that isn’t really love.

Good music resonates with our lives. Now, I can’t really relate to songs about meeting people at a club, because I don’t have enough rhythm to dance, I go to bed before most clubs open, and I married my high school sweetheart. But, good music resonates with those tightropes that we find ourselves walking. We want love but can find ourselves drawn into a poor imitation. We want satisfaction, to feel like our needs are met, but we can find ourselves trying to meet needs through things that don’t really satisfy but just mask a deeper hunger. We want security, but that desire can so often breed fear, suspicion, and division. We want to belong, to have worth in the eyes of others, but can end up trying so hard to fit an idea of what it means to belong that we lose ourselves.

It is significant that Jesus’ ministry begins with this story, because once you start wading into the profound teachings and stories of miracles, you start to focus on Jesus’ divinity, not his humanity. But, his humanity is right here at the beginning, and we need to be reminded of his humanity. We need to remember that the same battles that we fight–either out in the open or behind closed doors–are not foreign to God. We need to remember that God understands the confusion and struggles that we face.

Now, I’m going to be straight with you this morning. We’re not very good at this topic. You know, I grew up in Methodist churches. 90% of the churches in which I’ve worshiped or worked have been Methodist churches. And, we are not very good at this. We don’t like to talk too much about temptation, or sin, or the devil. Some of our Christians friends love to talk about these things, sometimes to a fault. But, we don’t. Because, you know, it just doesn’t make people feel very good.

It is much easier to focus on the things that are fun to talk about. Love, justice, peace, hope; the good things that God has done in your life. You can preach a lot of good sermons on those topics. But, I think we miss something when we don’t talk about sin or temptation, because it’s there. Because there are things in our world and in our hearts, that if we give them control, will drive a wedge in the middle of our relationships with others and our relationship with God.

Part of being a parent means I have to make sure that when I’m packing Felder’s lunch, I’m giving him a balanced meal. He needs fruit, veggies, proteins, and whole grains. Now, there are certain things that he loves. But, if I sent only applesauce every day because I know he likes applesauce, he’d be missing out on some vital nutrients. It’s the same way with our spiritual lives. If we only talk about the topics that are easy or pleasant for us, we end up with an unbalanced diet.

And so, it is important to read about the temptations that Jesus faced and consider where we face temptation in our lives. The temptation to take paths that may seem appealing, but ultimately, don’t offer the substance and the life that we crave.

Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church in Atlanta, frames this really well. He wrote a book called The Best Question Ever. Now, that’s a pretty bold title, but it’s a pretty good book. He wrote it because, as a pastor, he has encountered countless people who have ended up somewhere in life that they never intended to go. People struggling with bankruptcy, going through divorce, stuck in a lawsuit, dealing with kids who have made exceptionally bad decisions, you name it. And, no one intends to end up in a bad situation.

In working with people who ended up somewhere they never intended to go, he developed this principle called the Principle of the Path. Here it is, “Direction, not intention, determines your destination.” Think about it as if you're driving to Disney World. If I set my gps to take me to Disney World and follow the directions, I’ll eventually get there. But, if I just get in my car and start driving, with the intention of going to Disney World, but with no clear direction, I could just as easily end up in New York.

The same principle applies with other areas of your life. If you intend to have financial success, but have no clear sense of how you get there, then chances are you won’t. If you intend to be a great basketball player, but don’t have a clear sense of what you have to do, the skills you have to develop, then you probably won’t make it. If you intend to have a good relationship with someone, but don’t seek out the direction you need to make that a reality, then it’s hard to reach that goal. “Direction, not intention, determines your destination.”

So, Andy developed “the best question ever” to use as a guide for the decisions we make. And, it’s this: “In light of my past experience, my present circumstances, and my future hopes and dreams, what’s the wise thing to do?” It’s so simple, it’s almost a little anticlimactic. But, there’s a wisdom to that simplicity. It challenges you to make wise decisions based upon what you’ve learned, where you are, and where you hope to be. It’s not rocket science, but when you process decisions like that, the chance of you making an unwise decision is greatly reduced.

What if we approached the decisions we make in life with that kind of wisdom? “In light of my past experience, my present circumstances, and my future hopes and dreams, what’s the wise thing to do?” Some of you with teenage or young adult children are probably thinking, “Gosh, I wish I could stamp that on their foreheads.”

The reality is, life is full of temptation. And temptations are tempting because they don’t seem innately wrong or bad. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression of a “fork in the road,” as a way for describing the choices we face. You come to a fork and you can choose one way or another. I don’t know about you, but my experience of life hasn’t been that simple. The decisions aren’t usually that cut and dry.

I’m from Atlanta and, in Atlanta, there’s a place called Tom Moreland Interchange, where a number of roads and interstates come together. But, no one calls it Tom Moreland Interchange, they call it Spaghetti Junction, because there are so many overpasses and underpasses that you almost can’t tell which road leads where. So, you just pay really close attention to the signs and follow their directions, so that you end up at your intended destination. That’s what life is really like. Not a fork, but a tangle of potential paths.

So, how do we figure out which path is the right path and then stay on that path, even in the midst of a tangle of options? Good directions. It’s interesting that before Jesus gets to this time of temptation, he prepares himself. By the time he has this exchange with Satan, he knows scripture, he has just completed a time of prayer and fasting. He is ready. He has direction.

How equipped are you to navigate the spaghetti junctions of life? How clear is your sense of direction?

So, this is the season of Lent. It is a time for us to take stock of where we are and whether where we are is where we ought to be in our walk with God. And, we all need that. Just like we need an annual physical, just like our cars need an oil change, our spiritual lives need regular maintenance. So, let me encourage you to take advantage of this time. Don’t rush past it. Don’t waste it. Embrace it. Spend time in prayer. Connect with a small group. Come to worship. Study scripture. This is a time to refocus, to reset your sense of direction. And we all need that, because direction, not intention, determines your destination.