“Why Temptations Become Useless”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – March 5, 2017

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 32:1-11; Matthew 4:1-11


    The first Sunday of Lent presents us with the opportunity to put our lives under the microscope during a fixed period of time.  This period of reflection helps us to figure out who we are, where we are going and what kind of results we are generating with our activities and attitudes.

    When we examine the temptations that Jesus faced after his baptismal experience, we find that most of these urges have entered our minds at one time or another. We know our need to satisfy our hunger.  We have known since we were children what it feels like to test our boundaries.  We have also known the drive for personal power that comes from our achieving popularity, developing our talents and soaring in our accomplishments.  Most people enjoy recognition and applause.

    The temptations that came to Jesus were not the product of some insane evil-being that is relentlessly lurking around the margins of our lives offering us sabotaging tools for our self-destruction.  We are the only one responsible for our lives even though the urgency of some desires may try to convince us otherwise.  This sense of urgency happens because our thoughts and feelings grow larger the more we energize our desires and fears.

    This morning we are going to consider why it was relatively easy for Jesus to be dismissive of these urges.  We are also going to examine what else was going on inside of Jesus during those 40 days that went way beyond these temptations.

    Jesus had just experienced a virgin birth at his baptism. The Greek understanding of a virgin birth had nothing to do with the physiology of a woman. In Jesus' world, the Greeks understood a virgin birth as describing what happens to people when they grow beyond their animal urges, urges that are often the source of most temptations.

    Once people evolve beyond these needs, they discover the qualities of the heart.  Many of these qualities are listed in one of Paul's letters. (Galatians 5:22)  Experiencing a virgin birth enables men and women to grow up.  Eventually, they reach a state-of-mind where the material world produces tools for growing and learning rather than valued objects that people want and feel they need to possess. 

    Jesus used this concept of the Greeks when he told Nicodemus that he must be born again.  Translated this means that he must experience a virgin birth that would help him organize his life around the matters of spirit.  (John 3:5)  Jesus' own rebirth happened during his baptism.  It had such a profound affect on Jesus that it influenced his message.

    There was far more going on inside of Jesus during those 40 days than our lesson indicates.  We know this because of what resulted from his baptismal experience. Jesus abandoned totally the duties and disciplines associated with the practice of Judaism.  Jesus learned to embrace individual choice over following the Laws of Moses.  Jesus associated the pearl of great price with the development of attitudes of being. (The Beatitudes, Matthew 3:1f)  What was it that caused Jesus to depart from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? 

    Jesus knew his people's history.  He could not remain associated with the claims made by the keepers of his heritage and traditions of the war-god that showed no mercy on the Hebrews' enemies, particularly when Jesus would never dream of behaving this way himself. 

    The savagery of King David, for example, rivals the atrocities of ISIL in today's world. Last week our Bible Study class considered this passage, "Then David defeated the Moabites.  He made his prisoners to lie down on the ground.  Two out of every three were murdered as they lay there." (II Samuel 8:2)   David had developed his skills as a warrior-king from what he believed God was asking him to become. "The Lord made David victorious everywhere."  (II Samuel 8:6b) 

    A BIG question is: Where did Jesus get the substance of his new message?  Jesus had reached a state-of-mind where what allures many people no longer attracted him.  The temptations in the wilderness had no meaning.  It no longer mattered to Jesus that he was homeless.  (Luke 9:58)  He no longer needed to conform to the duties of the eldest son that were prescribed by his heritage.  He left his trade and family to become an itinerant teacher and healer.

    These quantum leaps that Jesus made separated him from his parents' religion.  Jesus always had a curious mind.  At the age of twelve, Jesus sat with priests as he pondered the religious beliefs that his parents had taught him.  (Luke 2:41f)   We can picture him asking, "If God created everything and called it 'good,' why would God need to kill everyone with a flood when most people did not know what God wanted from them?" 

    It is quite possible that during his earlier travels Jesus heard stories of another teacher that provided better answers to many of his questions.  The followers of Siddhartha Gautama had a large colony of followers in Alexandria, Egypt.  The opportunities were numerous in Jesus' world to hear the story of Gautama's spiritual awakening and his teachings that resulted from his virgin birth.     

    Could it be that these stories became a blue print for Jesus' new message that came from a teacher that had nothing to do with Judaism?  From Jesus' exposure to the teachings of Gautama, he may have realized and accepted an entirely different orientation toward God and toward others. The only way that God's nature changes is when people choose to describe their Creator differently. 

    Jesus' new ideas, however, were readily accepted by his listeners.  (Matthew 7:29) Almost immediately, Jesus began to change the narrative of his people's religious beliefs.   

    Even the Apostle Paul understood the Greek meaning of experiencing a virgin birth. (Romans 12:2)  Paul had his own experience that changed his destiny. He had everything anyone could dream of having in his world, e.g., Roman citizenship, wealth, education and the mastery of four languages and was a high class Pharisee. Paul was so spiritually moved by his experience that he walked away from all of it. Paul's message after his virgin birth took his life on three missionary journeys. His former temptations had become a muted voice within him.

    One of my former parishioners had reached this level or orientation with his own life. He was chosen for a high position in a Federal Government agency.  He knew that he would be greeted with resentment because he was brought in from the outside rather than being chosen from among those that had risen within the agency. In Bermuda we know how this happens when people see another job going to an outsider when the position could have been offered to a Bermudian.

    To prevent being perceived as a threat to the others, he began his first day on the job by brewing Starbucks coffee for everyone, replete with assorted sweeteners and real cream.  His acceptance by the others was greeted warmly.  He made people feel safe and valued. 

    Some weeks later, someone came into his office and said how nice it would be if the office staff also had some doughnuts to go along with the coffee.  So he brought in doughnuts and thanked the person for the suggestion.

    As the months went by, someone else asked, “Do you think it would be possible to get some doughnuts that are cream filled?”  Of course, he readily complied even though he was personally paying for these creature comforts. 

    What gave him great pleasure was watching people being people.  I asked him if anyone ever expressed gratitude for what he was doing.  No one had and then he added, "This is the way it must be for God. Our daily free gifts are in the thousands.   Are those gifts matched with an equal number of expressions of our gratitude?"

    Think about this:  Who was growing during this office experience, the one giving and not counting the cost, or the ones whose requests continued to grow from receiving?  While no one expressed any appreciation for what he was doing, resentment never entered his mind.

    He was waiting for some health-conscious employees to come into his office and say, "Would it possible that we might get some whole grain granola power bars and fresh fruit for those of us that do not care to eat doughnuts?"  To my knowledge this never happened.  Where do all these responses have their origin?  How do we slowly slide into being so insensitive to each other that gratitude is often one of our last responses in our quiver.

    People often appear quite unaware that they are the ones that generate the urges to attack, blame and point fingers.  The adult world regularly practices labeling, criticizing, scandalizing and spreading gossip. These responses do nothing more then indicate what is going on inside of those speaking.  There is no devil forcing us to engage in these activities or to say words that contain more hostility than value.    

    Gautama was one of the first teachers to instruct his listeners that attitudes are what determine the qualities found in human life. Jesus' contact with Buddhism is a distinct possibility.  Jesus once asked his listeners: "Why do you look at the speck in your neighbor's eye while paying no attention to the log in your own eye? First, cleanse your own inner world and then you will see clearly how to correct the lives of others."  (Matthew 7:5)

    This teaching comes directly from Buddhism.  In fact, when scholars placed the teachings of Gautama and Jesus side by side many of them are identical.  Jesus may have blended the best qualities of Judaism and Buddhism to create what later developed into Christianity.  (Acts 11:26)

    Jesus understood that everything that occurs in our lives is interpreted through the vision created from our emotional and spiritual maturity.  Gautama used the word Nirvana to describe what people can experience in this world. Nirvana is a Sanskrit word.   Jesus used words that described the identical experience.  He called it living in The Kingdom of God, a context that the Hebrews would understand.

    During our Lenten walk, we have the opportunity to become even more accountable for the quality of our lives in all our environments and circumstances.  Jesus was interested in one mission -- to teach people to bring loving energy into every moment.  (John 18:37)

    When we examine what our temptations are asking us to do, all of them are designed to fasten us more securely to some outcome in the material world.  Jesus taught how a virgin birth can transform and liberate all of us from such confining desires.  It does not matter where our numerous skills of spirit have their origin.  What matters is how we live them.

    Lent is an excellent time to examine how we are in living what we know.  We need to humble ourselves by remembering that we will always remain students for the rest of our lives.



Merciful God, we cannot experience the Lenten season without reflecting on the number of times we take for granted what comes to us without our asking.  When we are eager to learn, understanding comes.  When we extend ourselves in love, we are never without receiving it.  Yet, we are also mindful of our mistakes, our hasty judgments and our need to cast blame. Kindle in us, O God, our desire to stretch beyond the areas of our weaknesses.  Help us to learn that our finest moments are when we find ourselves walking on the road less-traveled because we are following the Master.  Amen.



    Loving God, how grateful we are that Jesus came into our midst to teach us why it is so important to become more loving, patient and peaceful men and women.  In spite of all the truth he taught, it was you, O God, who chose to grant us free will.  Even though our thoughts and actions frequently do not serve us, you gave us free will to become what reflects the desires of our hearts. 

    In the drama that life represents, you have allowed distractions to intrude on the teachings of your son.  You have allowed tantalizing alternatives to parade in front of us. It is we who must choose between the pearl of great price and the idol. It is we who must select between what will enhance our spiritual skills and what is only an imitation that pretends to offer us what we fear we are lacking.  

    Thank you, God, for being so confident in us.  We live with fears.  We make mistakes.  We frequently forsake the substance for the shadow.  Yet, O God, we understand that this is how you created us. You want us to come to you unencumbered.  You want us to learn that all that glitters is not gold. You want us to choose wisely, once we have learned that all other alternatives are only invitations of what could never enhance your Kingdom on earth.  What a joy it is for us to know that your love is so encompassing that it surrounds us and protects us even when we are too blind to acknowledge your presence.  With grateful hearts we pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .