Every Day Temptations Abound
Bruce Springsteen sings about temptation as a fire which is only put out by giving in. We're surrounded by things that can light the fire of temptation in us. You aren't daily praying "lead us not temptation" either because you think the answer is to give in or you don't think there are that many things that tempt you. Our Lord thinks differently on both counts.
By teaching us to pray so indefinitely "lead us not into temptation" our Lord is teaching us an important point. Everything can become a temptation to us. You think it's only evil, foul, vile things that can tempt us: illicit sex, juicy gossip, stolen merchandise at a good price. Tempt these may, but if you understand "A Mighty Fortress" this is not where Luther saw the great temptation. No, the great temptation was to preserve at all costs "our life, goods, fame, child, or wife" against the devil and the world who threatened them because our sinful flesh lives in dire fear of losing them.
Think back over the Passion readings. Where's the temptation coming from to betray Jesus, flee Jesus, deny Jesus, give up Jesus in favor of Barabbas? No one's tempted to do that in exchange for illicit sex, and is even monetary gain an issue? Judas got 30 pieces of silver which was what you paid in the Old Testament if you accidentally killed a slave. Remember what induced the Jewish leaders to decide to kill Jesus in John 12? The fear of losing their privileged places.
What but fear of losing life, goods, fame, child, or wife could've moved the disciples to run so easily from Jesus? Fear of poverty or dependence on others, loss of reputation or public scorn, a destitute wife, a hungry child, or a long life are powerful temptations. And do you really think the crowd wanted a murderer rather than Jesus? No, they wanted to please the church leaders who were the first to cry for Jesus to be crucified and were the ones in last week's reading who persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas.
Everything can become a temptation in the hands of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature. We see in our text how the sufferings of Jesus were a temptation. The women were tempted to mourn and wail for Jesus. "How sad His suffering was. How horrible to see Him driven to the cross. How bad, how painful, how pitiful for Jesus." But Jesus wanted no pity party in His honor
You don't see the abundance of temptations around you because you don't see that everything can become a temptation and because things don't tempt outright, they deceive and mislead you. But neither the devil, the world, nor your own sinful nature try to deceive you or mislead you into outright unbelief. Rarely does the temptation come as boldly as it did to Job, "Curse God and die," or as it did to Joseph, "Come lay with me." No, it comes the way it did to Eve, "Did God really say?" Or the way it did to Jesus, "If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down for it is written, 'He will give His angels charge over Thee.'
Things tempt by leading us to false belief. Eve was led to the false belief that God was holding back on her by not allowing her to eat from that one tree. Spouses in a troubled marriage are led to divorce by the false belief that God wants them to be happy above all else. Young people are led to premarital sex by the false belief that it's not sinful if you love each other. All of us are led to thinking that the different Christian denominations are God pleasing by the false belief that truth can't be known absolutely.
The false belief is only the beginning. By false belief the devil, the world, or our sinful nature get the wagon leaning away from God. False belief leads to the cold malaise of despair, the "what does it matter" that afflicts and infects the soul. Couples despair of marriage being anything but fighting. Young people despair of being able to wait till marriage. People despair of being sure of any Christian truth beyond there is a God who sent His only Son to save us.
Despair is a grievous temptation, but it's not yet sin. Jesus despaired, didn't He? What else do you make of His words in Gethsemane, "My soul is overwhelmed to death?" What else is that forlorn cry from the cross that none of us ever forget, "My God, My God why have you forsaken me?" Jesus despaired alright, but we also know that Jesus never sinned, so despair is not sin. It's bitter, it's ugly, it's painful, and left untreated it leads, according to our catechism, to "other great shame and vice."
Despairing over God ever being able to help much less fix your marriage leads to divorce. Despairing over God's gift of marriage being anything worth waiting for leads to giving into lust. Despairing over their being one, holy Christian truth leads to saying it doesn't matter what church you go to. Judas despairs of Jesus being the kind of king he needs and so betrays Him. The disciples despair of Jesus protecting them in Gethsemane and so flee. Peter despairs of a bloody, beaten, broken Jesus and so denies Him. All but the women and the youngest disciple, John, despair of seeing a helpless, crucified Jesus, so they don't even go with Him to Golgotha.
The devil, the world, and our sinful nature constantly try to deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair and ultimately to taking the forbidden fruit, fleeing from our Savior, betraying our salvation, and denying the Lord that bought us. So we pray daily and always, "Lead us not into temptation," so "that we may finally overcome them and win the victory." This can only happen in Jesus, by Jesus, with Jesus.
First, Jesus teaches us that to be tempted is no sin. Jesus was tempted in all the ways we are, yet He was without sin. Therefore, the fact that you are tempted is not a sin. The fact that your flesh wells up in you all kinds of lust, greed, despair, worry, fear, is not a sin. You're not guilty at all as long as the temptation is against your will and you'd rather be rid of it. Luther said such temptations can harm no one. So don't conclude you're a sinner, much less lost, because you have all manner of temptations swirling about you. I think young people who keenly feel their flesh need to hear this. I think old people who keenly feel death stalking them need to hear this. I think Christians who keenly smell the devil's stench, which is guilt for forgiven sin, need to hear this: having temptations doesn't equal having sins.
Second, Jesus gives us pure Gospel when He teaches us to pray against temptation. This is totally lost on much of Christianity today which believes Jesus taught us to act or think against temptation. Yes, it's true the Bible teaches, "Resist the devil and he will flee from you," and, "Flee youthful lusts." But in Gethsemane how did Jesus tell the disciples to deal with temptation? "Watch and pray that you enter not into temptation." The devil has a beachhead in you already called the sinful flesh, so you can't withstand him on your own strength. Prayer flees to the One stronger than him, to the One he failed to overcome with temptation, couldn't defeat, couldn't lead to "great shame or vice."
Pray against temptation don't act, and by all means don't think against it. O, you've tried that, haven't you? You've dialoged with the devil, the world, and particularly your sinful nature. You answered every temptation. You concentrated on not giving in to your pet sin, but in the end you yielded. That's because all the good thoughts, strong thoughts, determined thoughts you can muster only lead to one place: despair. You know why? Luther says why in the Large Catechism, "If you venture to help yourself by your own thoughts and counsel, you will only make the matter worse and give the devil more space." And in that space the devil works his specialty: Despair. If all our thoughts are sin, as Scripture teaches, then every thought gives the Devil one more thread to weave ever thicker the web of despair.
Our thoughts invite the Devil in. "But prayer," says Luther, "Can prevent the Devil and drive him back." Why? Because prayer is so holy, powerful, and certain as the Pentecostals would have you believe? No, because prayer calls on God. The prayer "lead us not into temptation" admits that we can't stand. Left to ourselves we will only end up in temptation and giving in to it. God must guard and keep us or we fall. God must send His Son and Spirit to our aid or we will be caught in this hopeless cycle. False belief, gives way to despair, and despair to sin and sin testifies we are separated from Christ, without salvation, so we eat, drink, and be merry any way we want today because tomorrow nothing waits for us but everlasting death.
But when the prayer goes forth "lead us not into temptation" Jesus enters the battle on our side. He proclaims, Our sins shall not stand. Our sins will not separate us from God. Why? Because He has forgiven them. He has paid for them. He has suffered, sighed, bled and died for them. Though we have given in, He never did. He fulfilled the Law we can't, and He paid the full price for our breaking it. It is not sinful people who are separated from God, but unforgiven ones. It is not sinful people who are separated but people who defend their sin and peacefully co-exist with it.
Bruce Springsteen describes temptation as someone having taken a knife edgy and dull and cut a 6 inch valley through the middle of his soul. This leads to him waking in the middle of the night soaking wet with a freight train running through the middle of his head and to the conclusion that only by giving into temptation will he find relief. You won't answer a burning temptation like this by acting like the 6 inch gash isn't there or by thinking I won't find relief by giving in. No, the answer is the blood of Christ the crucified flowing into that 6 inch valley filling it up by forgiving your sins. "Evil passions," says Luther, "are extinguished only by the heavenly dew and rain of divine grace." Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek Vespers V (20060329); Lord's Prayer VI Petition