Showdown in the Desert
Showdown in the Desert
The story behind the sermon (Bryan Wilkerson)
This was the twentieth message in a 40-week journey through the Bible called Living God's Story. It was the first message on the life of Christ, and I wanted people to understand from the beginning that Jesus lived God's story with the same resources available to us—prayer, Scripture, a will trained by spiritual disciplines, and the empowering work of the Holy Spirit.
The temptation narrative provided a dramatic and engaging vehicle for teaching that truth, while at the same time speaking to a real, felt need. The message was preceded by a simple video, or drama, of two demons in power suits discussing best practices for tempting humans—much like The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. The message could work with or without the drama.
While I exegeted the three temptations in a classic manner, I deliberately avoided three P words—or, First John's the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—for the sake of freshness and immediacy.
Listeners always seem to connect with messages on temptation since it is a daily and discouraging reality for every believer. By tapping into that urgency in the first part of the message, listeners were eager to hear about anything that might help them gain victory—even fasting and prayer! This was not our first go-round with the spiritual disciplines or with Dallas Willard's concepts, so I didn't need to offer a lengthy apologetic for either.
Since it was the Sunday before Lent, it was an opportune time to challenge people to try one or two of the disciplines that might not be familiar or comfortable to them. We made sure we offered them simple and practical ways to engage those practices, since many people are intimidated by them. We offered a 40-day reading and listening tool that would take them through the New Testament during Lent. (Many have taken the challenge, and it has led to wonderful conversations in small groups and helpful biblical context from the pulpit.) We offered a half-day soul-care retreat on campus halfway through the season, as well as a self-guided journey, called Sacred Spaces, through some devotional stations that we offer on campus during Holy Week.
After the practical instruction in the middle of the message, I wanted to get back to Jesus' story, and to leave them with a compelling vision for pursuing these practices and overcoming temptation. As always, that element was right there in the text, and it brought an intellectual and emotional lift to the conclusion of the message.
Wouldn't it be great to be so connected, so grounded, that when temptation came your way you'd be able to stand your ground? There's a lot we don't know about Satan and demons and temptation. For instance, does every human being have a demon assigned to him to try to trip him up? C. S. Lewis imagined such a scenario in his book The Screwtape Letters. Does it help to picture demons as well-dressed account executives carrying smart phones and talk shop in the elevator? Or should we picture them as little devils sitting on our shoulders and whispering into our ears? How much power do Satan and his minions have? Can they really manipulate events? Or can they just manipulate us? There's a lot we don't know about the underworld, and it's healthy not to get too enthralled with it. What we do know is that we have an enemy, the devil, who prowls around like a lion looking for someone to devour. What we do know is that you and I are tempted every day to break away from God's story, to go our way instead of his way. And we know that every time we do that we bring harm to ourselves, the people we love, and the gospel of Christ.
Wouldn't it be great to be so grounded, so connected that when the moment of temptation comes you'd be able to stand your ground? Well, this morning we're going to learn how to become that kind of person, how to find the strength to live God's story.
John the Baptizer prepared the way for God's Messiah and told people to get ready for the coming kingdom of God. The Bible tells us that soon after John appeared Jesus came. Jesus was baptized by John. This affirmed John's message, that he was in line with God's agenda. The Bible says that as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and landed on his shoulder. Then a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son in whom I am well pleased." It was a great moment for Jesus. It marked the beginning of his public ministry. But, to our surprise, instead of seizing that moment and launching a preaching and miracle tour, Jesus disappeared into the desert for 40 days, alone.
Let's look at the beginning of Luke 4. "Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry" (4:1-2).
It's important that we are familiar with the Old Testament when we journey through the Gospels. The imagery and symbolism of the Old Testament are important to Jesus' message and ministry. But we often miss them. For instance, notice that Jesus' story begins the same way the human story begins in Genesis, with a temptation. As soon as Adam and Eve were blessed by God, Satan shows up in the form of a serpent and tempts them. Luke chapter 3 gives us the genealogy of Jesus, and the last line in that genealogy tells us that Jesus was the son of Adam, the son of God. Jesus is a Second Adam. Now we know that encounter in the garden ended badly for the human race. How will this encounter end?
But that's not the only parallel. Notice where this encounter takes place—in the wilderness. What else happened in the wilderness? Israel wandered in the desert. God led Israel out of Egypt through the Red Sea, across the wilderness to the very threshold of the Promised Land. He invited them to go in and take the land. But what do they do? They refused. They turned back towards the wilderness where they wandered for 40 years.
So now Jesus is in that wilderness for 40 days. He too has a choice to follow God's leading or to turn back. What will he do? It's not coincidental that Jesus' ministry begins with temptation in the wilderness. This is nothing less than a reenactment, a redo of Israel's failure, their wandering.
One of my favorite movies is Back to the Future. It's great storytelling, and it's great movie making. Marty McFly is a 1980s teenager growing up in a loser household. His father is a buffoon. His mother drinks too much. His siblings are classic underachievers. And it all started back when his parents were teenagers, when his father was humiliated by a school bully, Biff. When Marty is accidentally sent back to the year 1955, he arranges circumstances in such a way that his father is the one who humiliates Biff. Marty's dad knocks out Biff in front of Marty's future mom. That twist in the story rewrites history. When Marty finds his way back to 1985, he finds his family living in a sprawling mansion. His father is a famous wealth author, and Biff is out in the driveway waxing the family's cars. Spielberg and friends came up with a great storyline, but it had been done before.
After thousands of years of humiliation at the hands of a bully named Satan, Jesus came back to rewrite history. Jesus came to face the bully. He came to show us how to live God's story. The Old Testament tells us that human beings cannot live God's story by themselves. Jesus had to come to show us how to do it.
So let's take a closer look at this showdown in the wilderness to see what we can learn about overcoming our own temptations. First, I want us to notice how vulnerable Jesus was. He was physically depleted. He didn't eat anything for 40 days. Forty days is at the outer limits of human endurance. Satan will come at us when we are physically depleted, when we are most vulnerable, when we are tired, hungry, and so forth. But Jesus wasn't just hungry; he was also alone. He had no one to lean on. No one was there to encourage him. We become more vulnerable when we are alone, when we isolate ourselves from other people, physically or emotionally.
So, he was hungry, he was alone, and he was far away from home. The Judean wilderness was barren and remote. He didn't have cell phone service in that wilderness. Folks who travel for business will tell you they become vulnerable when they are away from home, when no one is watching, when there is no one around to remind them of who they are and what their life is about. This is a dangerous moment for Jesus and for God's story.
Notice how crafty Satan was. He came to Jesus three times in three different ways. He tempted Jesus in ways he tempts us. First, Satan tempts us to have something we're not meant to have. Luke 4:3-4 says, "The devil said to him, 'If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.' Jesus answered, 'It is written: "Man does not live on bread alone."'"
Satan tempted Jesus with the most basic and immediate need—food. Is there anything wrong with food, with eating bread when we're hungry? Of course not. It's just not what God had in mind for Jesus at that particular moment. Jesus was fasting. He was abstaining from food to focus on God. It was not time for him to eat bread. Satan will tempt us along those same lines—to have things we're not meant to have, or to have them when we are not meant to have them.
Sometimes he tempts us with food—too much food, the wrong kind of food, food for ourselves instead of food for the hungry. But he can tempt us to have just about anything—nicer clothes, a newer car, cooler technology. Now, there may not be anything wrong with these particular things, but they might lead us on a detour from God's path. We might have to compromise our integrity to get some of those things. We might have to work too many hours to hang on to some of those things. We might have to give less to God and to others so that we can have more to spend on ourselves. Even if we can't have those things, the mere desire for them can sometimes rob us of joy. It can stir up jealousy and greed in our hearts.
Are you tempted to have something you're not meant to have?
Secondly, Satan will tempt us to be someone we're not meant to be. Luke 4:5-8 says:
The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, "I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.'"
Satan invited Jesus to become an earthly king, to have all the cities and nations of the world bow down to him. To be clear, Satan did not have the ability to offer Jesus the kingdoms of the world. Lying has never been a problem for Satan. The problem, of course, is that this is not the kind of king that Jesus came to be. The Father didn't send him to set up an earthly kingdom; he sent him to establish a heavenly kingdom.
Satan will come at us in the same way. He will tempt us to be something we're not meant to be—to be popular, to be famous, to be powerful, to be married, to be successful, to be comfortable. Of course, God's story may include some of those things along the way, but Satan comes along and tells us to be them now, before God's perfect timing. And so we run ahead of God or we work around God or we walk away from God.
Are you tempted to be something you're not meant to be?
Satan also tempts us to do things we're not meant to do. Luke 4:9-12:
The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down from here. For it is written: 'He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully, they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'" Jesus answered, "It says: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"
This time Satan throws Scripture at Jesus, twisting its meaning. This is an old tactic of his. He used it on Eve back in the Garden: "Did God really say?" God did say he would protect his children, but he didn't say he would protect them from every single thing, especially not from every reckless and presumptuous act that tests God's provision.
Satan will tempt us to do something we're not meant to do—to go off on our own, to live carelessly or recklessly, presuming that God will catch us when we fall. That's a dangerous assumption to make.
Pigs were not meant to fly. If they tried, it wouldn't end well. We were not meant to abuse our minds and bodies with drugs and alcohol. Men and women were not meant to give themselves away sexually outside the safety of marriage. We weren't meant to let our anger explode. When we do those things it ends badly. We hurt ourselves and we hurt others. Are you tempted to do something you weren't meant to do?
So Jesus was tempted along these three lines—to have something, to be somebody, and to do something other than God intended. In other words, Jesus was being tempted to break away from God's story. Satan offered Jesus a different storyline without hardship, without suffering, without the Cross. That's the same thing he offered Adam and Eve—a different storyline. It's the same thing he offered Israel in the wilderness—a different storyline. It's the same thing he offers you and me every time he suggests we be, do, or have something contrary to God's intent. Adam and Eve fell victim to that temptation, and the people of Israel fell victim to that temptation time and again. You and I fall victim to that temptation all the time. But Jesus didn't fall. Jesus stood the test. He looked Satan in the eye and said: My life is about more than food. It's about more than power. It's about more than safety. It's about doing my Father's will and fulfilling his purpose.
Jesus' victory over temptation
Jesus faced the bully. Three times he came at him with his worst stuff, and three times Jesus fended him off. How did he do that? If we think Jesus did it simply because he was Jesus, we are mistaken. We sometimes think of Jesus as some kind of a superhero disguised as a mild-mannered rabbi, that beneath that tattered robe he had a special suit that gave him supernatural powers. That's not what the Bible tells us. Hebrews says, "Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity … For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way … Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted" (2:14, 16, 18). All Jesus was wearing under those robes was skin and bones like you and me.
Now we can get into a long and lively debate about whether Jesus could have or couldn't have given in to this temptation. On the one hand, Jesus is fully human. So if it was a real temptation he must have been able to give into it. On the other hand, he's fully God. And how could God violate his own nature and sin? Now, theologians can argue both sides of that question pretty persuasively. As I see it, the important point isn't whether Jesus could or couldn't have sinned. The point is Jesus wouldn't have sinned, not because he had some special power that you and I don't have, but because he had so strengthened himself spiritually that in the moment he was able to say no to temptation. And that same spiritual strength is available to every Christ follower, to you and me, if we're willing to live the way Jesus lived.
We find strength to live God's story when we order our lives around the practices of Jesus.
Look again at the opening lines, verse 1: "Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit … was led by the Spirit into the desert." Notice that Jesus was already full of the Spirit before he even got into the desert, that in the desert he already had the power of the Spirit within him. And what did he do once he was in the desert? He fasted. He abstained from food so he could focus on his heavenly Father, on his relationship with him. What was he thinking about while he was in the desert? The Scriptures. Jesus probably didn't carry a bunch of scrolls with him out into the desert. He had these Scriptures at his disposal because he had memorized them. He understood their meaning because he had been reflecting on them. And that makes sense, because if you take a careful look at the Scriptures he quotes, you notice that all three come from a small section in Deuteronomy that deals with Israel's time in the wilderness. It seems that while Jesus was out in the wilderness he was reflecting on Israel's journey in the wilderness.
So who did Jesus talk to when he was in the desert? He talked to his heavenly Father. There was no one else to talk to. Why did he go to the desert in the first place? To retreat, to find some silence and solitude, to pull away from the noise and the crowds telling him who he should be and what he should do. He went there so he could train himself to hear his Father telling him who he should be and what he should do.
Jesus didn't overcome temptation because he had some special power that you and I don't have. Jesus didn't overcome temptation because he tried harder than you and I might try. Jesus overcame temptation because he had trained for it. For many years, for his whole life, he had ordered his life around some practices that strengthened him spiritually.
Now, we traditionally call those practices spiritual disciples. And we typically put them into two categories. The first is abstinence—fasting, we refrain from good things; silence, we refrain from speaking; solitude, we refrain from human company; secrecy, we refrain from telling people everything we're doing; chastity, we refrain from sexual relationships. We refrain from various things for a season in order to make space for God in our lives.
But there are also disciplines of engagement—prayer, Scripture reading, reflection, worship, and acts of service. Jesus had been doing these things since he was a boy. Why do you think he knew those stories so well? He learned them in the synagogue. He had them ready because he had memorized them. He knew their meaning because he'd been reflecting on them. He understood the importance of worshiping God alone because he had been worshiping God every Sabbath for his entire life. He was able to hear his Father's voice because he had trained himself to do that. Since he had ordered his life around these practices, he was able to live every moment of his life in fellowship with his heavenly Father and in the fullness of his Holy Spirit. In other words, he was so grounded, he was so connected, that in the moment of temptation he was able to stand strong.
Our victory over temptation
That same spiritual strength is available to you and me.
Dallas Willard has done some great thinking and writing on this subject. His book The Spirit of the Disciplines changed my life 20-some years ago when I read it. It revolutionized my understanding of the Christian life. This is the sum of Willard's approach to living the Christian life: Stop trying to be like Jesus. Now, that doesn't sound like very good advice. He says it a little better: "If you want to keep all of Jesus' commands, don't try to keep his commands. Become the kind of person who would easily and routinely keep all of Jesus' commands." In other words, don't try to be like Jesus. Train to be like Jesus. There's a big difference between trying and training.
If the average person decided to run a marathon next Saturday he wouldn't be able to do it. He could try. He could push himself to the limit, but the simple physiological fact is that the average person doesn't have the mental and physical strength to run 26.2 miles without stopping. But the average person can train to run a complete marathon by running a certain amount each day. And by gradually increasing that amount over a period of weeks and months, the average person can increase their mental and physical strength so that they can run 26.2 miles without stopping. I know because some years ago I did that. I can assure you I'm an average person. And here's the interesting thing about running a marathon: If you're training for a marathon, you never actually run 26 miles. It would so wreck your body that you wouldn't be ready to run for a month, at least the first or second time. But if you can train yourself to run 20 miles, then you can certainly run 26 miles.
And that's how you overcome temptation—not by trying, but by training, by building spiritual strength that will enable you to do the things that you want to do, that God's put on your heart to do. You can't overcome temptation by gritting your teeth and willing yourself to overcome. You can only do it by becoming the kind of person who normally and routinely does what God wants. And spiritual disciplines train you to do that.
Normally, we think of fasting as giving up food to focus more on God. But the truth is you can give up anything to focus more on God. A few years ago, for the season of Lent, I gave up coffee. Now, there's nothing wrong with drinking coffee, but I discovered that I had become dependent on it. I arranged my days around my Dunkin' Donuts medium coffee with cream and extra sugar. I got to the point where I felt as though I couldn't write a sermon unless I had a cup of coffee nearby. And so, by fasting from coffee, I freed myself up to order my day around more important things—I reminded myself to rely on prayer when I write sermons instead of caffeine.
Another year I fasted from the car radio. Again, there is nothing wrong with listening to the radio in the car. But for those 40 days, I felt like I was able to let God fill my mind with whatever he wanted, instead of filling my mind with worldly talk. I had some very meaningful car rides. More importantly, I tuned my ear to hear God's voice throughout the day. That's how spiritual disciplines work.
You might be wondering what drinking coffee and listening to the car radio have to do with living God's story. With these practices, we develop spiritual muscles and find the spiritual strength that will help us live in line with God's story. If you can say no to a cup of coffee when you desire it, you can probably say no to pornography or to sleeping in on a Sunday morning. If you can learn to connect with God every morning, you will probably be able to connect with him throughout the day, even when your boss is on your back or your kids are testing your patience. If you can learn to be silent for an hour or for an entire day, then you will learn to hold your tongue when you feel like lashing out at somebody.
If Jesus had not ordered his life around these practices, the story would look different. When Satan showed up, Jesus was ready. He was ready when temptation came, and he was able to stand strong, even when he was hungry and alone and far from home. He was ready because he trained himself.
That same strength is available to us. We find the strength to live God's story when we order our lives around the practices of Jesus.
Steve Macchia wrote a helpful book called Crafting a Rule of Life. The idea of having a rule of life is simply this: selecting a series of spiritual disciplines that bring order to your day and to your relationship with God.
Overcoming temptation is not a matter of trying harder; it's a matter of training yourself to become the kind of person who normally and routinely does what God wants.
Jesus won this showdown in the wilderness. He delivered a roundhouse punch to his enemy that sent him staggering off, licking his wounds. Luke tells us that when the Devil had finished tempting Jesus, "He left him till an opportune time." Now Jesus would meet this enemy again, many times during his ministry, right up until the end. Jesus sweated great drops of blood as he wrestled in the Garden of Gethsemane, resisting temptation. Jesus stood the test. He faced the bully and won. And so can we, if we order our lives around the practices of Jesus.
God's story for Jesus was way better than the story the Satan offered. Satan suggested that Jesus make himself a few loaves of bread. But with the Father's help, Jesus was going to make enough bread to feed thousands of people. Ultimately, Jesus is the Bread of Life that feeds the world. Satan offered Jesus the opportunity to rule the kingdoms of this world. But the Father made Jesus king of the cosmos, with everything in heaven and on earth and under the earth bowing down to him. Satan dared Jesus to throw himself from the Temple to see if God would catch him at the last moment. That was child's play. Jesus threw himself to the very gates of hell, only to have the Father grab him, raise him up, and exalt him to heaven. God's story for Jesus was far better than the story Satan offered. And God's story for your life is far better than what the enemy offers. God's story for your life is far better than any story you could come up with, the world could offer, or Satan could slip into your mind. It's not necessarily an easier story, but it's a better story. And we can live it. We can find the strength when we order our lives around the practices of Jesus.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.