Trials in the Wilderness

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4-1-11, Romans 5:12-19 – March 1, 2020


When I was about to retire after 40 years as a Presbyterian pastor from my church in Baytown at the time we were hosting the weekly Rotary International luncheons.  The Wednesday before my last Sunday I stood up and said, “After 40 years in Promised Land I’m about to head into the wilderness.”  I stopped short and realized what I had said….and everyone laughed.  I got it backwards.  I meant to say was that I had spent 40 years in the wilderness and was headed to the Promised Land (you know, of retirement). But upon reflection, in getting it wrong I think I actually got it right.  I spent 40 years in the Promised Land knowing who I was and what I was called to do.  I had a regular paycheck, (except for the years when I started a church in Pearland with 3 families and no salary.)  I knew where I was going and what I needed to do.  Now I was heading into the wilderness of not knowing where I was going or what I was going to do…    

My last Sunday as a Presbyterian was December 31, 2018.  On January 17 of 2019 I started as the Interim Pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Dickinson. It was a short wilderness.

My last Sunday as the Interim Pastor at Faith Lutheran was January 5, 2010.  My first Sunday here was January 19, 2020. So far, my wildernesses last 2 weeks.  

Moses and the children of Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness and some say that’s because Moses was a man and didn’t ask for directions.  Last Sunday we read about Moses spending 40 days on Mount Sinai receiving the 10 commandments. Last Wednesday we began 40 days of Lent preparing our hearts to draw closer to God as we think on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. This morning we look at Jesus spending 40 days and nights fasting in the wilderness. 

Immediately following his baptism Jesus is led into temptation. The issue was not whether He would rule the world, but how He would take it. So, out there in the wilderness of those barren Judean hills Jesus struggled with what He would do and how He would do it. 

Sometimes we may not take this very seriously. We may not think Jesus was really tempted, not the way we are tempted, not our Jesus. But we need to understand that the temptations of Jesus were real temptations. Matthew tells us plainly that Jesus was in the wilderness tempted by the devil. He did not say Jesus wondered, imagined, was charmed, or that He considered his options. He tells us He was tempted.Indeed it says the Spirit LED him there for the purpose of being tempted.  That’s not exactly the first thing on my list when I think of people being led by the Spirit. 

The prayer our Lord taught his disciples to pray says, “Lead us not into temptation.”  I’ve always wondered why Jesus put that in there.  Maybe the reason Jesus put this line in the prayer he taught his disciples to pray is because he’s trying to say, “I was led into temptation and believe me, you don’t want to go there.” 

Everyone who has ever lived has been tempted. Each of us at one time or another has been tempted to do something we know we shouldn’t do.  Each one of us at one time or another has been tempted to stand by and not do what we know we should do.  Some of you may be tempted at this very moment to…take a nap. It’s not a sin to be tempted.  The sin comes when we give in to temptation.  James 1:13 says, “When someone is being tempted he should not say, “God is tempting me.”  God does not tempt anyone.  It is the evil that a person wants that tempts him. His own evil desire leads him away and holds him.” 

Jesus came to redeem us.  He came to deliver us from bondage to sin.  He came to undo what had been done.  To do that, he had to face down every temptation we humans have ever faced and not give in. Hebrews 14:5 says “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been temptedin every way, just as we are-yet he did not sin.” 

Let‘s consider for a few moments the nature of the temptations Jesus faced and see how they apply to our lives as well.

First of all, BEFORE Jesus is tempted he spends 40 days and 40 nights without eating.  This is the only time we know that Jesus fasted for 40 days.  Indeed, during his public ministry the word on the street was that Jesus was more into feasting rather than fasting.  His opponents accused him of being a “winebibber and a glutton.”  

One of the most understated passages of scripture comes next.  Verse 2 says, “After that he was hungry.”  No kidding.  One time I was put a clear liquid diet for 2 days and I was hungry.

Jesus faces these temptations in probably the weakest physical shape of his entire life.  And he did it before he had done any miracles.  He did it before he had a track record to look back on to build his confidence. 

1. The first temptation was the wrong use of power. There’s no question that Jesus could have turned stones into bread. On at least 2 occasions he turned a kid’s happy meal into a feast for thousands.  But Jesus knew who was tempting him and why. Jesus quoted scripture in response to the devil’s challenge, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus is saying is that there is more to life than having a full stomach.

One of the great temptations we face is the temptation to always have more. Happiness is just around the corner if only we have more—more things, or more wealth, more of the finer things of life. 

Jesus overcame his first temptation by putting his complete trust in God. That’s a good example for us. We’re so concerned about “having it all.” The wise person trusts that God will provide all that he or she needs. 

2. In the second temptation, Jesus was tempted by the wrong way to popularity. This time the devil took him to the “pinnacle of the temple.” Again the devil says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God…,” as if there was some question of Jesus’ identity. The devil wanted Jesus to throw himself off of the temple. This time, to make the temptation even more appealing, the devil quotes scripture: “He will command his angels concerning you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” 

Jesus once again countered the devil’s temptation by quoting scripture, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Of course, Jesus could have leaped from the temple and angels would have rescued him. He could have won the gold in pinnacle jumping and he would have won an instant following. People from all over would want to see him to jump from the temple again and again. I saw on TV last night that Kiki Wallenda is going to walk a high wire over an active volcano and people are going to tune in to see that.  (and then they’ll want him to top that next).  When my daughter was little and I would pick her up and throw her up in the air and catch her and put her down she would lift her arms and wiggle her fingers and say “Do me!. “over and over and over. 

If Jesus had jumped I think some entrepreneurs would have figured out a way to sell tickets and make a pretty penny.   But pretty soon, they would get tired of seeing him jump from the temple and would want him to jump from higher places. Jesus resisted the devil’s second temptation because he knew that faith could not be built upon the sensational. 

That’s good advice for you and me. God is not to be found in the sensational, but in His everyday faithfulness. 

3.  Finally, Jesus was tempted by the wrong kind of partnership. The devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and promised, “All these I will give, if you will fall down and worship me.” 

All Jesus had to do at this point was to compromise his mission and his ministry. The devil was handing Jesus the whole world if only he would worship him. If Jesus would have given in to this temptation, he could bypass his suffering and death on the cross. This would be a short cut for Jesus, and it would be much more pleasant since it involved no pain. Jesus could have the whole world without having to suffer and die for it. What a temptation! Jesus, though, would not compromise. Again he quoted scripture, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” 

There is no compromise in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus resisted the devil’s third temptation. Jesus said, “Away with you, Satan!” 

These three temptations were to try to get Jesus touse his gifts for his own selfish purposes, to base his witness on the sensational, to compromise his ministry and mission. It occurs to me that these are the three most enticing temptations that any church faces as well. 

1. We could use our gifts only for our own satisfaction. We could spend all our money on ourselves and worry just about meeting our own needs by putting Joyful Life Church first.

2. We could make our service a sideshow and seek to win people with a superficial witness to the Gospel.  We could fashion our worship to meet the esthetic tastes of those who come. “You know, communion has been the same menu for 2,000 years. Why not spice up the bread by having pizza and Bud Light?  

3. We could compromise our ministry and our mission. Let’s get people in here by soft pedaling the cost of discipleship and lowering the standards for membership.  You don’t have to believe Jesus is Lord.  You don’t have to try to live in a way that’s pleasing to God.  But we are the church of Jesus Christ. Jesusresisted those temptations, and so shall we. 

How did Jesus do it?  Did he call down fire to turn Satan into a crispy critter? No. Jesus faced and defeated temptation using the one weapon that is available to each of us–the scriptures.  He countered each temptation with “It is written.” 


Lent is not only a time of confession and repentance, but also an invitation to lay bare to our Lord all that we most want to hide from God, ourselves and others. I need to know Jesus can handle my shame and guilt, my pettiness and anxieties, my dashed dreams and my secret fears. I need to know Jesus is with me, utterly, completely and unequivocally in the most terrifying wilderness of my life. I need to know that when I give in to temptation, Jesus will, in fact, deliver me from the evil he survived and defeated.

So I want to remind us today that in those times when we find ourselves trying to find our way through our wilderness, and when temptation comes and offers us the wrong answer, the wrong choice — the wrong use of power, the wrong way to popularity, the wrong kind of partnership –God will give us the power to face and be victorious in our fight against temptation and trials in our … wilderness.

And the people said, “Amen.”

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