Sunday, April 2, 2017

Hope for the Tempted

Good morning, brothers and sisters! The Lenten season is finally winding down – or, should I say, ramping up to what it really points to. This Lent, we've been journeying with Jesus into the desert, witnessing him face the toughest temptations the devil could muster. It was, remember, the Spirit who led Jesus to the desert in the first place (Matthew 4:1). That's where God leads his children: from baptism to the wilderness. It's where God took Israel, the son of God he drew out of Egypt. It's where God led Jesus by the Spirit. And it's where God often takes us.

And there in the desert, God's children face some different ideas of what it means to live as a child of God. The devil taunted Jesus with one set of ideas. The devil says being a child of God means getting what you want, when you want it – so Jesus should turn stones to bread (Matthew 4:3). But Jesus has read the word of God by Moses, and Jesus sees there that children of God don't live by consuming whatever they crave; they live by trusting in their Father's word, which provides for them what they really need, day by day (Matthew 4:4).

The devil says being a child of God means being able to count on God for special treatment; that being a child of God means forcing God's hand to rubber-stamp your plans and agendas – so Jesus should throw himself from the temple roof and let everyone marvel as angels catch him (Matthew 4:5-6). But Jesus sees that being a child of God means trusting God's plan in God's time and letting God give the victory (Matthew 4:7).

The devil asks Jesus to give him one moment of worship in exchange for ruling the world, which would bring about paradise (Matthew 4:8-9). But Jesus knows that real healing for the world's deepest problems can only come from the Father, and being a child of God means loving the Father and worshipping him always and only (Matthew 4:10) – so Jesus refuses all the devil's temptations. And really, in those temptations, we encounter the most intense forms of every temptation we might come across. Pride, sensuality, hunger, arrogance, a thirst for attention, even false mercy – the roots of every temptation we face, you can probably find it in one or more of the three things the devil tries to tempt Jesus with. These temptations sum up the roots of all temptations.

When he was faced with the uncommon temptations that summed up all temptations, what did Jesus do? How did Jesus think about them? He turned back to the stories about the Son of God – Israel – in the wilderness long before. And later, when the Apostle Paul needed to teach a lesson about temptation, he did the exact same thing, didn't he? We remember how he used the same true stories, saying that they “took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they,” the Israelites of old, “did” (1 Corinthians 10:6). “These things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11).

See, Paul was faced with a nasty situation in Corinth. He heard just so many upsetting things about what was going on among the Christians in that city! It's understandable: Corinth was a wild place – it really was a lot like the ancient Las Vegas. But one problem revolved around eating food associated with idols – Paul has to spend three whole chapters dealing with it. And what we have to understand is, we live in a time when there's such a thing as a restaurant: if you want to get together with friends outside your house for a meal, you go to a restaurant. In ancient Corinth, they had places like that, too. Only, the name for it wasn't 'restaurant'; it was 'temple.' A temple was where you went – they often had places for dining, and the idol of the temple was thought of as the host. And even in the marketplace, a lot of the meat you might buy had originally come from these temples and was originally blessed in the idol's name.

So you've got these converts in Corinth who still have a lot of pagan friends. And that's good, because that's often necessary to share the gospel! But it posed a problem, because what do they do when their friends want to take them out to eat or have them over for dinner? Somebody in Corinth wrote to Paul about this problem and told him that there were some Corinthian Christians who were coming up with all sorts of rationalizations for going ahead and letting their pagan friends take them to the temples. They reasoned that “an idol is nothing,” that the so-called gods worshipped in those temples don't really exist and so have no power (1 Corinthians 8:4). They reasoned that they know better than either pagans or their conscientious fellow believers (1 Corinthians 8:1). They reasoned that they have the right to eat anything now, and nobody should limit their rights and their freedom (cf. 1 Corinthians 9).

And, apparently, they also reasoned that, even if there were some real influence attributable to idolatry or to the immoral entertainment often available at these get-togethers in temples or in friends' homes, it didn't matter, because they were protected by baptism and the Lord's Supper – it made them spiritually immune to the consequences. In the end, all these ideas were rationalizations, not so different from the ones we use when choosing our entertainment or flirting with Mammon in the workplace or the store. They masked the fact that these Corinthians were tempted: they had desires to keep partying it up with their friends, and they were afraid of the social costs – to say nothing of professional, financial, even physical costs – that might come from withdrawing from pagan social life in Corinth.

So Paul tells the Corinthians to hold up: I mean, they really think there are no consequences, that baptism and the Lord's Supper make them spiritually immune? Then for all they claim they know, they turn out to look a bit ignorant – ignorant of history. Because these Corinthians are part of the Church. And the Church is the New Israel, heir to the legacy of Old Testament Israel. And so the spiritual ancestors of the Corinthians emerged from Egypt and were “baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink” given to them by Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 10:2-4). Just like the Corinthians, the Israelites had baptism, and the Israelites had spiritual food like the Lord's Supper. So the question is, did that make them spiritually immune from consequences for their actions?

Eh, not so much! “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (1 Corinthians 10:5). Why? Because they “desired evil” (1 Corinthians 10:6). And the evil they desired was the same as what the Corinthians desired: idolatry, sexual immorality, testing Christ, and grumbling factiousness (1 Corinthians 10:7-10). Corinth may not look much like a desert, but the Corinthians turn out to look a lot like the Israelites of old after all. The Corinthians think they can partake in those four things and be just fine, because they have baptism and spiritual nourishment to protect them. But the Israelites had the same protections, yet the ones who partook in the same dangerous temptations died in the desert! So, Paul says, “let anyone who thinks he stands take heed, lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12); and that's exactly what will happen if they keep giving into temptation and unwittingly having fellowship with demons (1 Corinthians 10:20).

That's a pretty stern warning! Can you imagine how stressful hearing that might have been to some of those in the Corinthian church? Paul's threatening them with destruction – it's intimidating to hear! And some of them would then have been asking, “Well, if we're like the Israelites, and pretty much all the Israelites were wiped out and destroyed in the desert, what hope is there? How can we not fall and perish? Is there even a point in trying to live right? Isn't it too much to ask? Temptations abound; they're unavoidable.” Some might have gone further: “Now, Paul, you said that 'the end of the ages' had come upon us. And doesn't everyone know that 'the end of the ages' will bring great trials and tribulations, and temptations so severe that they're literally impossible to resist? These temptations we're dealing with are just too much! It's hopeless! Why even bother trying?”

Maybe you've never put it like that. But you've probably had a time when you thought that the temptations you were facing were just too much. They're unbearable. They're abnormal. They're beyond your ability to handle. They're hopeless to resist, because they're everywhere you turn, they're in your heart and head, and that's just the way it is. Maybe there have been times you've told yourself that. Maybe there have been times you've told yourself those kinds of stories to excuse going ahead and giving in. Maybe you've thought yourself a lost cause in the midst of all this temptation, all the trials pressing on you or the enticements pulling on you. And you've just wondered, “It's too much, it's hopeless, why bother even trying to live different?”

And it's times like that when we really need to listen to what Paul is saying here. So hear this next part very carefully: “No.” As in, no, we do not have to imitate Israel in the desert. We have their example written down for our instruction, not to teach us that it's hopeless, but to teach us a very different lesson: “Go, and don't do likewise.” Go and be different. Go and have hope. Paul admits that temptation will “seize you” – that's true, that's what temptation sometimes does: it grabs you in its clutches, like a hawk swooping down on a bunny in a field, grabbing it up in its talons. That's what temptation does, at its most extreme: it seizes you in its talons. And when you're lifted off from terra firma, when you've got no paw left on the ground, that's when you think it's really hopeless, that you have no control and no reason to resist. Paul grants to the Corinthians that maybe some of them have been caught that deep in temptation's clutches. Usually, we're dealt only a glancing blow; but let's follow Paul through this worst-case scenario.

First, this temptation you're facing is not unbearable. It is not abnormal. To kick the metaphor down another block, hawks and their talons aboundeth. They are not new on the scene. They are not native only to where you live. You may sometimes think that the temptation you're dealing with is new. So did the Corinthians. But the same kinds of temptations we face are mostly the same ones that swooped down on Corinthians nearly two thousand years ago. And those temptations were really the same ones that swooped down on Israelites still a thousand years before that.

These are the same temptations swooping down in the rugged wilderness of the desert as swooping down amid the shining urban architecture of Corinth, and so the temptations that come rushing down at you are not unique to the twenty-first century or to Lancaster County, to Pennsylvania, or to the good ol' US of A. The forms may vary, but the substance of the temptation is the same. And they aren't unique to you, either. People all around you, people all over the world, are right now struggling valiantly against the same temptation you're dealing with. You are not alone! “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man” – literally, what is just plain human (1 Corinthians 10:13a). What Paul tells the Corinthians, he'd say to you: the temptations you're dealing with are not special; they're part of the basic human experience. They come with the package of being human in a sin-damaged world.

Also, temptation is not boundless. Temptation is not infinite. It is not unbearable. By the grace of God, it has limits – it will not be a part of your life forever, and it will not squeeze you to death in the meantime so long as you resist. There is an escape route; there is rescue from the talons! Paul says as much: “Moreover, God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but will provide, with the temptation, also the way out, so that you may bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13b).

Ah, there's so much there! But think on this: when temptation comes your way, God promises to give you a way out, a way through, a limit, so that you will not be stranded in temptation, forever lost and hopeless. No, there will be an escape route. Now, that escape route may run over some pretty rough terrain! It may be a harsh mountain pass! Nowhere does Paul say that God will make the way out easy; he says that there will be one provided. Staying trapped in temptation forever isn't inevitable. You may not be invincible, but neither is your temptation. It may not come to an immediate end, but with the knowledge that there is an end, that there is a limit, that your temptation is subdued and held in check by God, you can bear it while it lasts; it won't be more than can be dealt with.

Why? Because of those sweet words, “God is faithful” – it matches beautifully with John's words, “God is love” (1 John 4:16). God doesn't want to see you fail. God wants to see you pass the test. God doesn't want to see you perish. God wants to see you survive. God is committed to walking you through, because you belong to him, and he aims to keep you. So God has counteracted each temptation you'll face. Maybe he's made it less severe than it would otherwise be. Maybe he's cut it short for your sake (cf. Matthew 24:22). But temptation is not the boss. God is. He saw temptation coming your way, he knows you, and he's taken measures to make it possible for you to get to the other side without giving in. Surrender is not inevitable.

And you see that, too, with Jesus in the wilderness. He faced the three great temptations that sum up temptation – but he stayed true. And the devil didn't just keep Jesus in the desert for the next hundred years, tempting him non-stop. There was a limit: these three, then take a hike. After Jesus repudiated the devil and passed through the temptations, it stopped: “Then the devil left him” (Matthew 4:11a). Temptation abated. You've seen that happen in your own life: a temptation you were facing, when you resisted it, eventually subsided, abated, passed – the tempter left you alone, at least for a while. Not to say he won't be back to try again later. Not to say he won't brainstorm better tactics in the meanwhile. But he'll withdraw.

And Jesus got more than that. “And behold, angels came and were ministering to him” (Matthew 4:11b). The devil had taunted him with his privilege of having the angels come to his aid. The devil had taunted him with his privilege of getting food in the middle of a desert. But instead of demanding it, Jesus waited on his Father, the God who was faithful to him. And when temptation subsided, when the devil left, when Jesus had endured completely, then that's when the Father sent his angels. And they refreshed Jesus.

In his humanity, Jesus was utterly exhausted – he was dehydrated, he was starved half to death (and then some), and then his focus and his willpower were taxed to the utmost by the devil. Jesus, in his humanity, was drained and depleted. Resisting temptation had expended his strength. But the angels came and refreshed him; they gave him food, they gave him water, they gave him comfort. And so his strength was restored, to undertake the trek back home to Galilee (Matthew 4:12). God will give the same to you: when you've exhausted yourself in resisting temptation, God will supply you with refreshment to keep going. When it comes to resisting temptation, you don't need to fear a crash-and-burn result. Be faithful and wise, and God will take care of you.

Oh, and here's another point. God says he won't let us be tempted beyond what we are able. But that ability isn't just what we naturally have in us. That ability includes the resources he's given us as believers. That's the extent of the ability Paul's talking about. We know, for example, that Jesus didn't answer the devil just by using the word “No.” That's good, but Jesus wanted to show us how it's done. Jesus exposed the thought process, the spiritual process, by which he passed the test. And you may think, “Well, Jesus is so extraordinary, but I'm just ordinary.” But Jesus successfully faced his 'extraordinary' temptations with just 'ordinary' resources available to 'ordinary' you and 'ordinary' me.

So we see that Jesus resisted temptation with the word of God. Every time he answered the devil, it was by quoting scripture (Matthew 4:4,7,10), which Jesus trusted fully because he trusted his Father fully. Jesus knew scripture, and he used it as a resource that has the antidote to any temptation we face. Well, you have a Bible, and I have a Bible. There's nothing stopping us from learning what scripture says. There's nothing stopping us from letting it work its way into our heart, storing it up there like Jesus did to use against temptation. We've got the same resource available to us – not just to learn the words, like the devil did, but to learn their context, their meaning, their application, like Jesus did. We resist temptation, not merely with a human 'no,' but by the word of God.

Also, we resist temptation by the grace of God, by the Spirit of God. When you look at this story about Jesus, there's no missing this: he was led into the desert by the Holy Spirit who anointed him at his baptism (Matthew 4:1). The Spirit didn't fly the coop once the River Jordan faded from sight. Jesus continued to have the Spirit's presence. Jesus continued to have the Spirit's power available to support him in this battle royale. And so do we. When Paul talks about the level of temptation we're able to face, he isn't talking about natural human ability. He's talking about graced human ability – what we can do when we rely on God in faith.

There was a time – Paul writes this to the Corinthians – when Paul was at the end of his rope. During a portion of his ministry, he was persecuted so severely, afflicted and injured so grievously, that he nearly crumbled under it. “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). God promised not to give us unbearable temptation, but there is such a thing – an uncommon thing – as humanly unbearable suffering. Paul was in a situation that, as a human being, he was unable to endure. He was completely and utterly broken under the weight of the suffering he was facing, and within his human power, he had no chance whatsoever of clinging to life.

But,” he goes on, “that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again” – and in light of it all, he still calls God “the Father of all mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4, 9-10). Paul couldn't endure, so he relied on God's endurance. When you face a temptation you can't endure, do the same thing – rely on God's endurance.

But, third, that's no reason not to prepare. God asks us to be wise. When the Corinthians mouthed off to Paul about their rights, he told them he has plenty of rights, rights as an apostle they couldn't even dream of – but he has “made no use of any of these rights” (1 Corinthians 9:15). He has radically curtailed his own rights, opting to live as “a servant of all, that I might win more of them” (1 Corinthians 9:19). To do that, he has to “exercise self-control in all things,” like an athlete (1 Corinthians 9:25). In order to qualify for a heavenly reward, says Paul, “I discipline my body and keep it under control” (1 Corinthians 9:27).

And that's what the Corinthians, with all their rights-talk, have been missing. They were so addicted to their low-conflict social lives, to the taste of fine-dining at the temples and the relaxed enjoyments of the entertainment, that they didn't have discipline. Discipline means weaning yourself from those things that temptation can most easily exploit against you. Jesus disciplined his body drastically in the desert, and temptation never got a good grasp on him. If the Corinthians could learn to be more like Jesus, and more like Paul as he imitates Jesus (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:1), maybe they'd find themselves a little slipperier when temptation tries to close its talons around them in the first place!

So our 'ability' includes plenty of resources. We have the word of God as our weapon against temptation. We have the grace-giving Spirit of God to supply us with God's endurance where ours falls short. We have the gift of discipline to train our endurance and remain slippery to temptation's grasp. And what's more, we have each other. Jesus went solo into the desert, but we travel together. We can encourage each other when we're tempted – we can seek to have our brothers and sisters in Christ hold us accountable. Instead of (like some Corinthians) insisting on our individual rights to do as we please, we can hold together, care for each other. We share in one another's sufferings and in one another's comfort (2 Corinthians 1:5-7).

And with that ability, we have the promise of our faithful God, the Father of mercy, the God of all comfort, the God who even raises the dead, that we can bear and survive temptation. When temptation swoops our direction, even when it grabs and grips us, God will make a way out from all these common temptations. You aren't alone in facing them. They are not unbearable, though they may be taxing. They are not irresistible, though they may be enticing. And they are not hopeless.

So “therefore, my beloved,” Paul writes to the Corinthians and to us, “flee from idolatry” and from every other sin to which you're tempted (1 Corinthians 10:14). Don't rationalize it away. Don't make excuses. You don't need excuses when you have hope. And you do have hope. Temptation will abate or subside, and relief will come. There is hope, even hope for the tempted – because God is faithful. Thanks be to our faithful God, who comforts us in affliction and charts our way out of temptation. Amen.

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