Obstacles and Opportunities

Delivered March 4, 2001 by Rev. George Antonakos.
Theme: The ultimate temptation: to stop depending on God (stated positively – dependence on God and God’s Word will help us resist temptation).

Sermon Text:
Matthew 4:1-11
and Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

As I was coming in today from parking the car and coming in the door I heard as soon as I got out a flock of geese going overhead. And they were just honking and all, and I just thought of that verse, “Let everything that has breath, praise the Lord.” And then I thought that “Well, they’re not just praising the Lord they are encouraging one another too.” I thought, “What a great image for Sunday morning,” to come and praise the Lord and to encourage one another through the Word of God, through the music; the music team always does such a great job, so the geese were ahead of us today but we can catch up to do the same thing. And the other thing is, this is our fifth week into our three service experience and we know that as a result of this shift we’re fewer in number in this service even though we have a very comfortable number and I like that because it seems so much more intimate to me to be able to communicate with you all and for us to communicate with each other. And there will come a time when all these pews are filled again, so let’s enjoy this time while we have it and keep encouraging one another, not being in any way discouraged.

The New Testament text today is from Matthew, chapter 4: verses 1 through 11. It’s the well-known passage of the temptation of Jesus. So, if you will turn there, or look to the screen, whichever you prefer, we will read the text.

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After Fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’ Jesus answered, ‘It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ Then the angels came and attended him.

In ancient times, a King had a boulder placed in the roadway and hid himself to watch and see if anyone would move it. Some of the King’s wealthiest merchants and citizens came by and simply walked around it, many loudly blaming the King for not putting their taxes to good use by keeping the roadways clear. But none of them did anything about getting the boulder out of the way. Then a peasant came along the road carrying a load of vegetables. Upon approaching the boulder, the peasant put his burden down and walked around to the other side of the boulder. Then he put his shoulder against the stone and started to push. After much pushing and straining, he finally succeeded in moving the boulder to the side of the road. As the peasant picked up his load of vegetables, he noticed that in the place where the boulder was, there was a purse. The peasant opened the purse and found gold coins and a note from the King indicating that the gold was for the person who removed the boulder from the roadway. The peasant learned what many people never understand: That every obstacle presents an opportunity to improve one’s condition. Now, in the two passages that were read for you today, we see that God is the King who puts a boulder in the path of Adam, and in the path of the second Adam, Jesus Christ. God places obstacles in their path to test them. And if God will do that for them, or to them, or with them, God will also place obstacles in our path as well. Now somebody might ask, “Obstacles in our path? God puts obstacles purposely in our path?” Matthew 4:1 says that Jesus was “led by the spirit into the desert to be tempted by the Devil.” That shows us that the temptation in the desert is the obstacle in the path and then the question is “How does that square with Jesus’ teaching in the Lord’s prayer, ‘Lead us not unto temptation.'” Well, you have to think of the word “tempting” in two different ways. It’s like thinking of the word pressure. If I say “put pressure on that cut.” That’s used in a very positive sense. But if someone says “you’re pressuring me.” That’s using the same word in a very negative sense. Well the same thing is true with the word tempt in Greek. The Greek word “Perazo” translates in a positive sense “to make a trial of, to test.” Now the flip side of that word, the negative sense is to tempt or to entice to sin and disobedience. And so when Jesus says, “Pray, ‘lead us not unto temptation,'” the prayer is, “Lord don’t lead us to a place where we might be enticed so much that we would never even be able to tell the way of escape. Lord don’t lead us to a place of irresistible succumbing to evil, because we know how strong evil can be.” And so in that sense it’s different from the positive side of the word “testing.” For instance, the purpose of an obstacle course is not to make you fail, but to draw out your strength, to help you go to another level. And it’s to improve who you are and your condition. So when the King of Glory puts boulders in your path, you have a choice just like the people in the little parable that I started with. You can end run them, you can curse God, or you can say this is an opportunity that God has given me to grow as a person. It’s an opportunity for spiritual strengthening. Now, that’s not to say that every negative thing that happens to us is a test from God, I would never want to say that, because there is so much human sin in the mix. But God does test us as he tested the Saints of Old, not that we’ll fail, but so that we’ll pass, and so that we will grow.

The other thought to keep in mind as we go through this text, is that the obstacle of temptation is a testimony to strength, not to weakness. And the greater the strength of the one tested, the greater the testing or the temptation. The temptation/test in view of Eden in the wilderness is not about small stakes. You know, when we think about the word temptation, we normally think about maybe, petty theft or being tempted to grab something when nobody’s looking, or to resist office flirtations, things like that. It’s to bad that we always think of temptation in those terms. Temptation is these texts voices something much, much larger of which everything else is symptomatic. We’re talking about issues like becoming like God. We’re talking about issues of whether we will trust God when the chips are down. We’re talking about whether we will become God’s servant or just serve ourselves, those are the temptations that drive all the other ones. Again, before we get into it, there’s another key word that I want to show you Matthew, Chapter 4, Verse 1. It says, “Not only was Jesus led by the spirit into the desert to be tempted by the Devil,” the word desert there would better be translated wilderness. Jesus was led in the wilderness. And remember last week I mentioned that the interpretation of New Testament passages often hinges on understanding Old Testament images. And the word wilderness, or desert in this case, carries an awful lot of theological freight. You see Matthew was writing to a community that was predominately Jewish. Not only converted Christians, but also those who hadn’t been converted. And so he’s got his audience in mind as he writes. Only Matthew makes the point about the holy family going down into Egypt when King Herod was still threatening all the children of Nazareth and surroundings. Only Matthew says in Chapter 2, Verse 15, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” Again, that’s a heavy theological thing. Out of Egypt I have called my son. Where did the people of Israel come from? Obviously they came out of Egypt. And so out of Egypt, Jesus was led into the wilderness, there he fasted 40 days and 40 nights, again echoing what Moses was doing on top of the mountain. So Jesus is not only the second Adam, who is tested in a similar way to the first Adam, Jesus is also the true Israelite who passes the test in the wilderness that the nation of Israel failed. And everything for Israel, for Adam, for you, for me, centers around Israel’s national purpose statement. You know we in organizations, businesses, churches, everybody talks today about how “you need to have a vision statement, you need to have a purpose statement, you need to have a mission statement,” people need to know what you’re in business for. Well, do you know what Israel’s purpose statement was? Would their mission statement have been engraved on a plaque in Moses’ house? Here it is. Deuteronomy, Chapter 6, Verses 4 and 5. Here’s Israel’s purpose statement. “Hear Oh Israel, The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (We are not polytheistic like all the people around us–the Lord is one.) “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” There it is. That’s the mission statement. And that purpose statement encapsulates everything. Encapsulates the first commandment, you will have no other God’s before me. Encapsulates all the commandments. It shows us that to love God, is to trust God, to obey God, to treat God’s children as we would wish to be treated. And every single one of us is faced with a temptation every day to disregard this singular call from heaven.

And I would dare say that every single one of us probably blows it every day. Every day we are tempted to become like God, we’re tempted to go away from God, we’re tempted to use God for our purposes. It’s like Juan Carlos Ortiz said one time. He said,

“The scripture talks about the kingdom of darkness, and the kingdom of light. The kingdom of darkness is if this room got dark, so dark like an inner cave where you couldn’t see a hand in front of your face, and you had no clue where you were, and everybody would try to do their own thing. We would panic perhaps, if somebody yelled fire in that kind of situation, we wouldn’t know which way to go, if we were unfamiliar with the room. That’s the way it is in the kingdom of darkness, everybody does their own thing in the kingdom of darkness. Everybody tries to find their own way. But the kingdom of light, where God is king, where we listen to the purpose statement of Israel, and of Christians, God is ruler.”
And so when we are in that kingdom, we see what we wouldn’t see when we try to life on our own. And even in the kingdom of light, just by virtue of living in this world, we go down our road and we run into boulders every single day, and some of those boulders look an awful lot like people. Some boulders look an awful lot like the people who you work with. Or maybe who live right in your living room with you. Some boulders are circumstances like job loss, or a blocked promotion. Some boulders are strong internal desires like lust and greed, and people pleasing and difficulty getting over a critical spirit. These are all boulders. And so in the time that I have left, I want to share with you how Jesus faced the boulders and how he responded. Obviously, I’m not preaching just to say that people ought to be like Jesus, we know that unless Jesus is living inside of us we can’t do it. But with His help, we can learn. So here’s the first test. Here’s obstacle number one. You already know it. It’s the hunger test. Jesus is starving. He fasted for 40 days and he was hungry, the NRSV translation says that he was famished. That means really hungry, okay. The NRSV says famished, that’s really a better word. He’s completely famished. And it’s interesting when you think about how the fall of humanity centered around eating something, about ingesting something. And again this obstacle goes back to Deuteronomy 8:2-3. Deuteronomy, 8:2-3 says remember how the Lord your God led you. I will just read if for you. “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these 40 years to humble you, to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you causing you to hunger, then feeding you with manna, which neither of your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Will you trust God with your hungers? That is really the issue here. Because we have so many hungers. We have emotional hungers, we have relational hungers, we not only have physical hunger, but spiritual hunger. We are hungry for love. We are hungry for companionship. Some today may be here today feeling very, very lonely, very isolated. That’s a hunger. We hunger with a sense of worth. We hunger for a sense of security. We hunger for meaning and we even hunger for rest. Some of you again, and I’m talking to myself to, sometimes we go so hard that we hunger for rest. Some are hungering for freedom from pain, and I will tell you there is no greater testing than when you are in pain. And some people in this congregation are in constant pain, physically. And that is hard. There’s a lot of emotional pain too, like a loss of a loved one. If God would take my child, or if God would take my son, or if God would take my daughter, or my friend or my brother, I’m not going to believe in a God like that. That’s really what is at stake here. Hungry, tempted to do it our own way, to go away from God. And so Jesus is famished, the tempter comes and says, “Look at these stones, look at how round they are, Jesus. Look how smooth they are. They look just like the loaves that came out of your momma’s oven. Can you smell it Jesus? Come on, go ahead, turn one into a loaf of bread. What’s wrong with that? If you had the power to do that, what’s wrong with that?” Jesus would have become the source of his own sufficiency if he had listened. He would have become the source of his own sufficiency, which would have translated into; I really don’t need God to meet my hunger needs. I will find my own way to satisfy my hunger. But our Lord, quoting from the very text of Deuteronomy 8, says that all the testings, every single testing, and I know you’ve heard this before, Jesus says, “It is written. You’ve got to have the word of God in your head in order to resist these testings.” And knowing the word will help us pass the test. Don’t be like the people who came to the pastor inquiring as to the baptism of their child and the pastor said to them, “Have you decided on a name for your child?” And they said, “Oh yes pastor you will be very happy.” They were trying to impress the pastor–you know, we really want you to baptize our child, “We’ve gotten a name for him right out of the Bible.” And he said, “Wonderful, what name? Abraham, Joshua, Matthew, Peter or what?” “Oh no, we’ve named him Genuine Moroccan Leather.” Get it? That’s a joke, you know like some Bibles have leather, and inside that’s what it says. I know I’m not using that the next few sermons. Okay. My point is this. If you don’t know the Word, or if that’s the best you know the Word, then when testing comes, you won’t have anything to fight with. Jesus said, “It is written, humans shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from God.” The implication is that anything we choose contrary to God’s word will leave us hungry. We can try to satisfy our hungers all we want, but if we go against God’s word we will always be hungry. We will always be wanting, which is why Jesus said, “I am the bread of life, he who comes to me shall never hunger. He who believes in me will never thirst.” And that’s where the boulder analogy breaks down. We can’t move these boulders by our own strength. We need to hear the hymn writer. “I need thee every hour, stay thou nearby. Temptations lose their power when thou art nigh. I need thee, O I need thee every hour, I need thee, bless me now my Savior, I come to thee” Apart from that union with Christ, we will always look to satisfy our hungers in our own way. Jesus refused that. With his help, we can refuse it too.
Obstacle number two: I call this the faith test, or the prove it test. The devil takes Jesus to the holy city, has him stand at the highest point of the temple and says, “If you are the son of God,” that’s the second time he says that, always with that doubting tone, “throw yourself down for it is written he will command his angels to bear you up, etc.” So now Satan turns religious and he starts quoting the Bible, which is another reason why we have to know the Bible, because people can take the scriptures and twist them and take them out of context. We all know that–like cult leaders–they do this all the time. Satan is basically saying, “Get God to prove his love to you.” And Jesus is answering, “I’ll not demand proof, I will not test God, I’ll not compel God to act through the power of my faith.” It’s a fascinating thing if you just think about it for a minute. The temptation is to make God act on the basis on my faith and so really I become the Lord of you. I become as God. Because I’m trying to manipulate God to act on my faith. Which then puts more faith in my faith than more faith in God. It’s a dangerous deception. We hear it in the news from time to time, a little child refused medical treatment, because his parents think the child’s going to get healed without a blood transfusion, then the child dies. Those parents are jumping off the pinnacle of the temple. They are basically saying “God, I want my faith to be the real power.” And you know what the ironic thing is? When that happens many times, people will bail out on their faith. “God let me down.” I’m not going to believe any more. And really what they have been trying to do is to become like God. And Jesus says, “We’ll have none of that.” You know about Israel and the wilderness despair when there was no miracle. In Exodus 17, the Israelites tested God and said “Is the Lord among us or not?” They didn’t trust in his saving power. And we needn’t ask that question; “Is God for me or not?” It’s already been answered in Romans 5:8: God clearly proves His own love towards us and “that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” It’s proved in Romans 8:31-32. “God has freely given us all things, God is for us. Who can be against us? He who did not spare his own son and delivered him up for us, How will he not with him give us all things?” God’s given us the package. Why would he deny us the ribbons? And so in that sense, Jesus was led up to a cross, see it says here in the beginning of the text: “Jesus was led up into the wilderness to be tempted.” In Matthew 27, “he is led up to the cross by God.” And there from the cross he hears people saying “If you are the Son of God, come down from there.” It’s like–jump off that temple. If you’re the Son of God, come off the cross and prove it and save yourself. And Jesus, because of you and because of me, said “No, I will submit to God’s will. I won’t make God prove it.”

The third obstacle is much more brief, as in verses 7 and 8. It is also written, again in Verses 8 and 9. “The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world. All this I will give you if you bow down and worship me.” Jesus said, “Away from me, Satan, it is written, worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” Now Satan is no longer saying, “If you’re the son of God,” Satan’s pulling back all the deception and saying “Look, here are all the kingdoms of the world, I want to give them to you.” And Jesus says “No, I will have the kingdoms of the world and so I will not grab what God will give me already because of my obedience.” God will be my fulfillment of all things, is basically what Jesus is saying. “I’ll not take a shortcut to glory.” And we see in all three of things, again, these temptations, there’s this great major temptation. Break your dependence on God. Getting us to say, “I don’t need God every hour.” Don’t listen to that lie. And Jesus quotes the purpose statement of Israel. “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” To love means to worship. To love means to serve. So the word today is “Hang tough.” Because the text ends, then the Devil left him and the angels came and attended him. When we reject all those lies, and we reject the world in a negative sense, all of heaven comes to our aid.

Few captives in war have ever suffered more than Vice Admiral James Stockdale, a heroic survivor of 2714 days in a POW camp in Vietnam. On one occasion, the North Vietnamese handcuffed Stockdale, put his hands behind his back, dragged him out of his prison cell where he had been in darkness for days, and set him in the middle of a courtyard where the sun just beat down on him. They were trying to make an example of him; this is what will happen if anyone will refuse to cooperate. According to the Navy’s official report of the episode, Stockdale stayed in that position for three days. Since he had not been in the sun for a long time, he felt weak but the guards wouldn’t even let him sleep, they beat him repeatedly. After one beating, Stockdale heard a particularly sweet sound, it was the sound of a towel snapping. Now you wouldn’t normally think that a towel snapping has a sweet sound, that has a different image for us, but this towel wasn’t making a random noise, every episode of captivity in American history, POW’s have come up with ingenious ways to communicate with each other. And what they were doing was snapping out, like Morse code, letters by the sounds of the towel. And what James Stockdale heard as he was sitting in that prison courtyard that day, was a towel snapping out the letters, G, B, U, J, S. God Bless You, James Stockdale. He said that in all his pain and all his misery, it was those simple letters, that simple act of communication that kept him going. In a quiet, subtle, almost indiscernible way Christ is speaking to each of us today. And to some of you He is saying, “You hang in there now. Don’t you give up. You keep going because you have My strength and through Me you can overcome any obstacle.” And to some of you, He is saying that you’ve got to make a change. You’ve got to change this now. You know what it is-“I have been speaking to you about it for a long time, I want you to change it. Don’t worry I will help you. No temptation is taking you, but such as in common; I will not allow you to be tested beyond your ability to endure. I will provide a way of escape.” (1 Corinthians 10:13) But the important thing is that we have to trust Him. And stay close to Him. Which is why the writer, the Apostle John said, “Brothers and sisters, do not love the world or the things that are in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the father is not in him. For all that is in the world the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life is not from the father, it’s from the world. And the world is passing away.” Now listen. “And the one who does the will of God, abides forever.” (1 John 2:15-17)

Lord Jesus, we ask that You would seal this word into our hearts. We pray that You would help us to see in a new way Your great power. Help us also to see, Lord, and admit that we often fail to overcome evil. But You tell us we can overcome evil with good. We can overcome evil by being in union with You. And so we give You thanks that we can come and celebrate again this supper, that reminds us where our strength comes from and reminds us that You’re the vine and we are simply the branches. Even in this remainder of our worshipping, we pray that You would touch us very deeply and strengthen us. For we ask it in Christ’s name. Amen.