Unbound: Temptation - Rev. Michael F. Bailey

Unbound: Temptation
Matthew 4:1-11
Rev. Michael F. Bailey
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.

I wonder if in your life experience if you ever had or were one of those children who read voraciously! I was one of those in our home. My reading was broad but probably not very deep. For some reason, after reading a biography, I became fascinated with Harry Houdini! Houdini was a magician of the early 20th century who touted himself as an “escape artist.” No matter how you bound him, chained him, or tied him, Houdini could escape! In one of his acts, he would be suspended by a fire department ladder truck, upside down, and escape from a straight jacket. Often, he’d travel to a city and be locked in a maximum confinement cell and escape in minutes. In perhaps his most famous act, he was handcuffed, leg shackled and suspended upside down, in chains, in a tank of water. He’d wait minutes until the tension was greatest and emerge unharmed. This led to many days as a wayward child trying to pick locks and even owning some handcuffs. And now, ironically, there is an amusement in nearly every city called an “escape room.” A scenario is set and a group of people are locked in a room filled with clues to escape. I was given a gift certificate to the Greensboro location for Christmas and can’t wait to use it; I can’t say my bride is as enthusiastic as I am. 

Perhaps a fascination with an escape artist and escape rooms is rooted in the fact that so much bounds us in life. Think of it! We’re often bound by our poor attitudes, prejudices, anger, grief and so much more. And yet, God in God’s grace has sent the One to unbound us, namely, Jesus. Over the next few weeks we’ll explore together being “unbound” by Jesus. We’ll look at how Jesus can reshape the boundaries of our social orbit through the transformation of the Pharisee, Nicodemus. The Pharisees were the exclusive, religious ones of ancient Palestine. We’ll look at the passage where Jesus uses the words, “unbound him” after he raised Lazarus from the dead all foreshadowing our unbounding from death in the Resurrection; we’ll consider how to become unbound from the failures in our past.

Today, though, we start our series considering together how we may become unbound from temptation. Now, a word of explanation: while we can avoid some situations they “lead us into temptation” we can’t completely avoid such. Temptation, which is not the same as sin, is a fact of life. Our passage shows clearly that even Jesus, without sin, was tempted. And yet, it would seem that Jesus, in our passage and in his life, has guidance to become unbound from succumbing to temptation. 

We need to start with a basic fact: to avoid succumbing to temptation and falling into sin, we have to be able to recognize when we’re being tempted.

Sun Tzu, an ancient Chinese military tactician who wrote, the Art of War, still studied today has as his foundational principle: know your enemy. Now, we might be tempted (pun intended) to say, “that’s easy, I know temptation when I encounter it.” But is it really that easy?

I seem to remember the preacher of old, Boston pastor Phillips Brooks of the late 19th century once writing of temptation by proposing the “test of the public square.” He opined that if we won’t do something on the public square, then it’s temptation that will lead us into sin. Put in more modern terms, Brooks would have us refrain from anything that we’re not ashamed for all to know; family, friends, neighbors, fellow church members, indeed a feature on the 6pm news! And that’s good advice as far as it goes. 

You see, in our times, that which was once considered wrong might now be considered so “ok and right” that it wouldn’t bother us a whit if it were broadcast! 

Ralph W. Sockman, the great Methodist pulpiteer of NYC in the 20th century spoke directly to this in a meditation he once wrote on the words of the traditional prayer of confession where the people of God confess: we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. Sockman maintained that the greatest pressure of contemporary living is to follow the “herd.” We have a herd mentality he stated, “keeping our heads down and grazing, following the herd” wherever it went, never looking up to see where we are headed or whether we are following the ways of the Good Shepherd. One of the greatest dangers is that we’ll go along with the crowd, never considering what we’re tempted by is contrary to God’s desire for our lives! Temptation can sometimes be hard to recognize, because its so popular!

More, temptation can be hard to recognize, because it’s often beautiful and alluring. I so appreciate the privilege of getting to know our Dean at our nearby local UM seminary at Duke, Elaine Heath. Elaine, by the way, has been to CUMC twice and here all day Thursday in a meeting and is so coming to appreciate you as a leading congregation in our connection. In a blog Elaine wrote about our passage today, Dean Heath described a painting by an Australian artist friend of hers, Jane Lyon. Jane painted the entire temptation depicting Jesus lying haggard and starving on the desert floor, looking almost like we think his body may have looked taken down from the cross. In contrast, the tempter, Satan, looks so handsome in a royal, ermine robe almost like “a Prince Charming in a Disney movie.” One point of the art is the alluring, attractive nature of temptation. While much temptation is repulsive, ugly and unbearable, some temptation may come our way as beautiful, attractive and alluring. 

With temptation sometimes so well described, what are we to do? What may we “lean” on to protect our souls? It is here that scholarship regarding our passage has helpful guidance. You see “devil” is the English translation from Greek of the original word for the passage, Satan. “Satan” actually described a role in the ancient Persian empire. A “satan” was an undercover, secret servant agent with one mission: to ascertain the loyalty of the citizenry. A “satan” would move among the populace and perhaps befriend a citizen, get their “real” opinions about the King to see if they were open to rebellion or sedition. If they were, the “satan” secret agent would turn them in! A “satan” was, and is today, all about loyalty. And that’s the key to our whole passage and our discernment regarding temptation in our lives: it’s all about our loyalty to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Jesus shows this. Think of it, secret loyalty agent Satan was saying: Jesus will you be loyal to using your power to meet the spiritual, eternal needs of the human soul or the physical, short-lived needs of turning stones to bread? Jesus will you be loyal to the way of the cross, or will you float from the pinnacle of the temple to the popular acclamation of all? Jesus, will you worship evil and become a temporary earthly king, or will you worship God and usher in an eternal Kingdom? Jesus litmus test was loyalty, and the same is true for us! When faced by anything you believe may be temptation, ask, “what is loyal to God, to God’s desires, will and way for may life” in this choice. Doing so quickly reveals temptation and often the right course to take. 

How then, did Jesus overcome temptation, and what might we learn?

For one thing, Jesus was grounded in the Word of God. Note that even the tempter can quote the Word. But, Jesus, grounded in the Word, knew its depth and real meaning. And so we must be grounded in the Word. 

An old pulpit story tells of a boy given a dollar at a flea market with which he set out to get a birthday gift for his grandmother. He wound up at a used book stall and found an old Bible for a dollar. Knowing how faithful his grandmother was, he bought the book. Now, he had often seen inscriptions on gift books he had no idea how to write one, so when he got home he browsed the book shelves until he found and copied what he thought were just the right words. Grandma got the package, opened it and looked on the fly leaf. Imagine her surprise when she saw the words written in the old Bible, “with compliments of the author!” The Word is indeed, given as a precious gift, compliments of the author, to guide, protect and direct our lives, even in and especially in times of temptation. It worked for Jesus and will work for us!


Then, Jesus defeated temptation with trust in God’s persistent, patient, loving Presence.

You see, Jesus was in relationship with God, and we can be too!

Think, if you will, of one of the most important facets of relationship – you’ve got it – communication. Conversation. And conversation with God is prayer. And never forget, communication is always a two way street. And relationship with God cultivates trust in God’s care, guidance, protection and love even when, and especially when, we’re tempted. This means we can depend on God’s strength in our weakness.

Faye Suetzly in Life at Close Quarters tells a story that reflects God’s persistent love. A mom was in a doctor’s waiting room with her highly inquisitive 6 year old son. He was one of those kids who asked a thousand questions, one after the other, non-stop! Mom: Why is the sky blue? Why is grass green? How do birds fly? Do fish drink water? And on and on; I’m sure you know the score. The people in the waiting room were amazed at how she patiently answered the questions; that is, until he asked a question about God. “Mom,” he said, “ Why doesn't God just get tired and stop?” She lovingly answered him, “Because God is love, and love never gets tired.” 

That’s it, isn’t it? When you’re too tired to fight, when you’re weak, when you can’t go on, when you’ve asked God a score of questions and for a score of things, God never tires of loving you, supporting you, protecting you and encouraging you. 

This means our role is to remain as close to God as we can. Max Lucado in his little book, “Eye of the Storm” tells of preaching in West Texas. While there, he met Paul and asked him about being raised in those flat plains. Paul began speaking of the frequent tornadoes. He recalled a time from childhood. He said something like, “Once as a child, a twister was headed our way. Dad made us gather in the center of the house and put a pile of mattresses on the family. I peeked out and saw dad standing there in the living room, watching the twister. I wiggled loose from my mom’s arms and ran and clung to my dad’s legs. Something told me that the safest place to be in a storm was right next to my father.” 

That’s true for us isn’t it? Especially when we’re in the storm of temptation. And with the blessed Trinity with us, we can make it! 

Jim Moore tells of a little boy in the first grade. The teacher found him standing, poking his little tummy out as far as it would go. The teacher asked him, “Why are you sticking your tummy out like that?” He answered, “Well, I had a tummy ache this morning, and the nurse said if I just stick it our till noon, I’ll be ok.” With Jesus, even in the storm of temptation, if we’ll just stick it out by God’s grace will make it and even if we falter, his valuable, cross-priced grace will forgive us and give us a new beginning.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Discussion Questions for March 5: Temptation
What do you consider to be some of the major temptations in our society?
How has prayer has helped you be “unbound” from temptation?
How has the support of Christian friends helped you be “unbound” from temptation?
How has scripture helped you be “unbound” from temptation?