As we begin the season of Lent, Pastor Roger Barkley reflects on the wilderness temptations of Jesus from Luke 4


The Tempter
Luke 4:1-13  March 10, 2019

Psychologists did a study in which they left four-year-olds alone in a room sitting in front of two or three M&M candies.

The children were told that they could eat the couple of M&Ms now, or they could have a whole package of M&Ms if they waited for a bell to ring in five minutes.

Their mighty struggle of temptation was videotaped, showing these poor kids twitching, fidgeting, and contorting their faces trying not to grab those M&Ms.

One girl turned her chair around to face the wall and sang to herself as a distraction.

But about half the group couldn’t wait, surrendering to the impulse “I want what I want when I want it!”

Each of us faces temptations, some of which we know have devastating consequences.

A lie can get us out of a tough spot for the moment but, if revealed, taints our relationship.

That extra hundred bucks feels great, but falsifying the expense report might get us fired.

The short-lived emotional relief of anger can lead to the destruction of a relationship.

Yet, like the four-year-olds, we sometimes give-in, “I want what I want when I want it.”

  1. Scott Peck wisely said that the greatest gift a parent can give their child is to learn delayed gratification.

Maybe you’ve heard this prayer: “Lord, thank you so much for being with me today.

“I have not spoken ill of another, I have not been angry, sarcastic or impatient.

“My thoughts have been on You and I am thinking of the people in my life with love in my heart.

“Now, please help me as I get out of bed this morning.”

To live is to be tempted, and how we respond to those temptations determines who we become.

Jesus was God in the flesh, fully divine, and also fully human.

Being fully human, he was subject to every craving and temptation we face.

Jesus was no Clark Kent who only appeared to be a mild-mannered person but who underneath was impervious to bullets.

His wilderness tempting is retold in each of the three synoptic gospels, and one or the other is the topic for the first Sunday of Lent each year.

If Jesus squared off with Satan for forty days, then likely there was a whole slew of temptations thrown at him.

So, why did the Gospel writers choose to tell these three specific temptations?

First, because these particular temptations were each a challenge to his identity … what kind of Messiah would he be.

In Luke’s version, Jesus is led by Satan into the wilderness after his baptism where God announced from the heavens, You are my Son with whom I love; with you I am well pleased.

Right after that, Luke gives Jesus’ detailed genealogy tracing his family tree through many of the key players of the Hebrew faith.

Through the baptism and genealogy, God had established who Jesus is but before he can call a single disciple, preach a single sermon or heal a single person, he has to stand up to Satan who will challenge him to be something less.

If Jesus fails any of these tests, there will be no Christian faith.

Instead, Jesus would become just another worldly king who enforces his ways with external power, rather than growing it in each soul.

This will be a cosmic struggle with invisible powers that continues throughout his ministry … and in our lives as well.

Out in the wilderness, Jesus was vulnerable – alone, hungry and tired – which is often when forces of darkness and temptation come at us.

“Hey, Jesus, you can have it all! Forget the rejection, humiliation, the cross.

“You can feed yourself – feed this entire generation if you want – using just a smidgen of supernatural power.

“You can rule the kingdoms of the world – while you’re here – in exchange for a little act of worship to me.

Satan targets us when we feel vulnerable, but he seeks to take from us what we are most capable of doing.

New Testament scholar Fred Craddock writes, “If anyone is having trouble believing that Jesus was really tempted, then he or she needs to keep in mind that temptation is an indication of strength, not weakness.  We are not tempted to do what we cannot do but what is within our power.  The greater the strength, the greater the temptation.”

C.S. Lewis once said that only a person who never yielded to temptation knows the full strength of temptation.

If a hurricane roars ashore, which person will be in the best position to talk about the strength of the wind:

the one who was blown over immediately, the one who managed to stay on his feet until the wind hit 75 MPH, or the one who never was blown over, not even when the wind topped out at 130 MPH?

So also with temptation: Jesus was the greatest threat to Satan, so Satan attacked him with everything he had, but Jesus never wavered, which means that Jesus alone knows the full fury of temptation.

Because of that, Jesus knows better than anybody how much strength we need, and by his Holy Spirit, he gives it.

Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.

Of course, Luke’s first-century audience had different expectations of what that Messiah would be like, so he shows, through his sparing with Satan, that Jesus demonstrates how God’s way is not theatrical demonstrations of power or power politics.

The work of the Spirit – for Jesus and for us – first of all requires personal integrity.

Neither compromise with Satan nor concession to popular demand could be allowed.

I want to share a slightly off-color joke because it illustrates this so well … and because I like telling jokes.

An attractive woman was sitting at the bar and was approached by a wealthy gentleman.

He said, “Look, I want to get right to the point.  You’re attractive, I’m on the road most of the year, and I have more money than I know what to do with.

“I’ll give you $50,000 for a night with you.”

She thought it over . . . $50,000 could pay off her student loan, be a down payment on a reliable car . . . and he looked like a nice guy.”

So, she agrees.

Then he replies, “Okay . . . but how about $50 instead.”

She astonished and offended, “What do you think I am? A prostitute?”

He said, “We’ve already established that.  Now we’re just negotiating price.”

That’s how Satan works.

The first reason we read these particular temptations is that they were challenges to Jesus’ identity.

Second, the temptations identify Jesus with the heritage of Israel.

Satan’s temptation to make bread from stones recalls God’s provision of water and manna in the desert during Israel’s exodus from Egyptian slavery.

In addition, the three scriptural quotes Jesus uses against Satan are all from the Exodus as well.

If he survives Satan’s tests, Jesus will bring new freedom to the world – freedom born of sacrifice and integrity, not political power.

Third, Luke tells about the wilderness match as if Jesus and Satan are two boxers in the early rounds of a fight, dancing around each other,  trying a few jabs, testing the style and strength of their opponent.

That’s because Jesus’ entire ministry will be a continuation of this conflict with Satan.

Luke concludes this section, When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time

For example, in The Parable of the Sower, some people do not understand God’s Word because the devil snatches it from them.

When Jesus sends out the seventy missionaries, he describes their success as precipitating the fall of Satan from the sky.

The take-home lesson is that we, too, are engaged in a life-long battle between the forces of Light and Dark.

If you can identify your weakness when you are feeling strong and grounded, then you can be aware and can protect yourself when you feel weak.

I just read a group of studies analyzing cigarette smokers to understand the psychological mechanisms at work when they surrender to their cravings.

One of the things researchers observed is that as our cravings intensify, our brains become increasingly powerful masters of rationalization that totally convince the smoker that it’s okay to light up this one time.

The key is to get in front of the temptation before the rationalizations take over.

A famous study with monkeys at Emory University gives clues to what triggers irrational consumer behavior.

In this study, two groups of monkeys were given cucumbers for completing simple tasks, like handing a stone to a researcher.

Everything was fine until the reward for just one of the two groups was changed from cucumber to grapes.

Immediately, the cucumber group, which had been perfectly content a minute earlier, went wild – kicking, screaming and baring teeth when they saw the others getting grapes.

It was the comparison of rewards that led the cucumber group into irrational behavior.

Guess where I learned about this study?

If you guessed in an article about marketing consumer goods you are right.

Marketers know that they can trigger our irrational impulse to buy more and spend more by showing people we can identify with owning something better than what we have.

How many credit cards have been maxed out when people bought something they hadn’t known before that the “needed”?

And you can apply the same dynamic to job dissatisfaction, damaged relationships, and discomfort with our own bodies.

All unhappiness is caused by comparison.

The next time temptation sneaks up on you – and it will – turn immediately to the One who has survived what you are going through.

Having been there, Christ not only understands, but he is also able to guide you through the time of trouble.

1 Peter 5:7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

The for Greek word “cast” is the term used for throwing a blanket onto a horse  … so it’s saying the Jesus will carry your temptation and anxieties for you.

And every time you do, your faith becomes a little deeper.

It’s building spiritual muscles, but as a society, we are getting spiritually flabby.

National surveys show 92% of Americans believe in God, but only about 18% of those actually attend worship on any given weekend.

And that should concern us because as people and as a society we can get conned by power brokers who say they represent Christian values but don’t behave that way at all.

And if we or our people aren’t learning the faith and strengthening their integrity, then we will get lost and our integrity erodes.

Just like Jesus’ wilderness tests determined what his ministry would become, how we handle our tests of integrity determines the kind of people we will become, both as individuals and as a nation.