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The Last Temptation of Christ

Matthew 4: 1-11          The Last Temptation of Christ      March 13, 2016

Luke 4:13 - “When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.”

 

I heard a story about a man who goes to his priest for Confession. He says to the priest, “Father, I have sinned. I work for a lumber yard and over the years I stole enough lumber to build myself a house. But, I didn’t stop there. I stole enough wood to build a home for each of my children.” “My goodness,” says the priest, “these are serious sins. Have you considered a penitential retreat?” “No, Father, I have not seen one of those, but if you give the plans I think I know where I can get the lumber.”

 

When most of us think of temptations, we think of things which are either bad for us or simply just bad, right? Too much food, too much self-pity, too much inappropriate intimacy. But, the truth is few people set out to do evil.

I had an uncle who said, “I have no problem choosing between good and evil. My problem is choosing between two goods.” Most of us want something good, perhaps something very good, the problem is we don’t realize what we are being tempted to sacrifice to get this good thing.

See, the real problem with temptations is they can all seem OK. Temptation to do evil happens when we take something good in itself and we sacrifice something more good to get it.

In the silly story, having a home or building home for our child are good things, but if this means sacrificing honesty to get them, they become evil. In more serious temptations, people still have good intentions but the Ends do not justify the Means.

In the year 1097, the Christians of Europe set out on their first Crussade. They wanted to assist God in restoring the Holy Land as preparation for the Kingdom of God: A good thing, right? After all shouldn’t we do all we can to assist God and prepare the Kingdom of Heaven? Doesn’t the Bible say, “Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior”? Well, then, they thought, we will make it our calling to make sure people’s knees are bowed and their tongues are confessing Christ as Lord. So, the Knights of the Cross raced to the Holy Land cleansing the land of anyone who did not confess Christ as Lord. One of their stops was the Turkish city of Nicea. The people there has dark skin and didn’t say, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” So, the Crusaders killed every man, woman and child - in order to prepare for the Kingdom of Heaven.

It was only after the last cries of their victims died down that the Crusaders had an unsettling revelation. They turned the bodies over to find the dead were wearing crosses around their necks. They had just slaughtered a community of Christians. The Crusaders hadn’t stopped to consider that Christ may have already been there before them. Just because the people looked different and spoke different, did not mean they also were not preparing for the Kingdom of God in their own way.

In our own nation, we have made our own mistakes in seeking the good.

Some leaders have advocated torture – something we condemn when other nations do it – but, it would seem, some leaders in our country imply torture is OK if done for the right reason. So it goes - Too often temptation to do evil will be couched in an attempt to do something good.

 

Now, of course, WE – in this room - have no intention of killing anyone for a good reason, no matter how good. Our temptations will be more subtle, won’t they? Our temptations will likely be more like the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, anger, envy, lust….We are not tempted to kill, but tempted to covet, yes. Not always easy to choose the “good” choices.

We may believe honesty is good and we want to resist the temptation to lie? But, if our wife asks us, “Do I look fat in this?” What should we say? Or, for that matter, if our husband says, “I am a great dancer, aren’t I dear?” What should the wife say?

Temptation is always couched in good. So, we will have to ask ourselves, “By making this choice are we sacrificing a greater good?” There is seldom an easy answer. If it was easy, it would not be tempting.

Which brings us to Jesus today.

When we read the temptations Satan gave Jesus and think to ourselves, “Well, those were easy choices: of course, no one should test the Lord, and of course, we should not worship anybody but God.” But, within all these temptations is something very good, which is why the choice was harder than we realized.

In the first temptation, Jesus is hungry – he has fasted for 40 days – is it bad to be hungry or want food? Of course not. In fact, later on Jesus would make sure hungry people had more than enough food. He fed 5,000 people, would it have been wrong to feed himself?

In the second temptation, Satan reminds Jesus - by quoting Psalm 91, no less - that the righteous will not come to harm. We hear that taught, don’t we? Do the right thing and God will be with us?

In the final temptation, Satan offers to let Jesus rule the world. And isn’t that exactly what we Christians want? Isn’t that what we work for – a world where Jesus is King and the Voice of Christ is heard over all the voices?

All three of these temptations are good in themselves: food, protection, a Christ-led world.

But, at what cost?

This was the question for Jesus and it is often the question for us.

What are we sacrificing to get the good thing we want?

I recall a poem which seems to go to the heart of it all:

If I could give my right, I’d say, “Take it all away.”

If I could could give my left, I’d would gladly do the same.

For the price of happiness is never too high,

The cost of life and liberty n’er too steep.

Until after all tis said and done

and realize

my soul I gave for play.

Jesus saw what we hope to see. We do not intend to do evil. The temptation to serve Satan often comes cloaked in good choices.

Jesus knew this.

 

One of the best books on the life of Christ was written by Nikos Kazantzakis (Cause-in-zakus). The book is titled, The Last Temptation of Christ.  As we read the book we see the struggle of the human Jesus trying to accept his divine call. He slowly but surely realizes who he is and what he is supposed to do. Ultimately, in the final chapter, we see the last temptation of Christ played out.

The scene is the cross. Jesus is suffering, betrayed by his friends, hung between the two thieves, and a crown of thorns on his head. He hears someone say to him, “If you really are the Messiah, call down the angels so they will lift you up from the cross!” Then, Jesus calls the angels. They miraculously take him down. They immediately cure him of his injuries. The Jewish leaders are silenced and the Romans do not know what to make of it, so they set him free. Jesus goes on to live a normal life. He and Mary Magdalene set up house. They have children. He takes on the family carpentry business. All is well.

Then, as he nears the end of this life, Jesus is sitting on his porch, watching the sun go down and listening to his children, suddenly from up the road he sees a figure marching towards him. Kicking up dust, we “a short, bald, wild-eyed man with power in his stride and God on his breath.” It is the Apostle Paul.

Paul comes up to Jesus. Paul is furious. He yells at Jesus, “What have done?” “You have given it all away?! You have sacrificed the world for the sake of your own comfort?!” Paul is then joined by the disciples, by Peter and John and Mark and all the rest. Their disappointment is like fire burning his skin. They all accuse Jesus of being a coward.

Jesus realizes they are right. He has been a coward – he choose a normal life. He by coming down off the cross, he choose the easy way. He wanted to be safe and content – like many of us just want to be safe and content – but in choosing what we so often choose, Jesus was a coward. They rail at him and walk away in disgust. As the story winds down, Jesus is shivering with despair because not only do Paul and the Apostles reject him, but so does God.

Then, just as Jesus is about to give to up hope, something happens. This is how Kazantakis ends his book:

 

He felt terrible pains in his hands and feet and heart....His head quivered. Suddenly he remembered where he was, who he was and why he felt pain. A wild, indomitable joy took possession of him. No, no he was not a coward, a deserter, a traitor. No, he was nailed to the cross. He had stood his ground to the very end; he has kept his word. The moment he had cried, “ELOI, ELOI” he fainted, Temptation had captured him for split second and led him astray. The joys, marriages and children were lies; the decrepit, degraded old men who shouted, “coward, deserter, traitor” at him were lies. All - all were illusions sent by the Devil. His disciples were alive and thriving. They had gone over sea and land were proclaiming the Good News. Everything had turned out as it should, glory be to God!

He uttered a triumphant cry: “IT IS ACCOMPLISHED!”

And it was as though he had said, “Everything has begun.”

 

Jesus resisted the temptation to just live a normal and safe life. He didn’t just choose what was good. He choose what was better. Maybe living a safe, content and comfortable life is not what God intends for us? Maybe God wants us to give up being safe and content and comfortable for a greater work of God?

May the Spirit which inspired Jesus, be the same Spirit which guides us.

Every day may we have the courage to begin again braver than the day before.

 

 TO GOD BE THE GLORY. FOREVEFR AND EVER. AMEN.