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Those Inevitable Tests
January 18, 1976

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

MATTHEW 4:1-11

An old hymn written by Andrew who lived between the years of 660 and 732—“How the powers of darkness rage thy steps around. Christian, dost thou see them, feel them, hear them? Striving, tempting, luring, goading into sin.” There is a testing, a tempting, alluring, enticing, seducing, a tendency within all of us to evil. This morning, let’s look at testing. We will not look at the tester—Satan or the powers of darkness. That’s a huge subject in itself. 

Let’s look at the testing which is inevitable, testing which we experience constantly and which we will always experience for life is made up of choices. Day by day, we are making choices and those choices determine the direction in which we are going to live and what kind of people we are going to be. Life is a choice. Life is one test after the other. 

Even Jesus was not exempt from testing. After his baptism, Jesus went into the wilderness where he engaged in an inner struggle. It’s interesting that after high, exalted, exhilarating moments, there often comes periods of depression. We’re all keyed up for the event and then we get tired. Our resistance goes down. We are vulnerable. We are depressed or anxious. Jesus had such an experience. After his baptism, which was a high and holy moment where the very sky opened, they heard a voice and a dove came, the Holy Spirit. What a day It must have been in Jesus’ life! 

Then immediately, the Spirit led him into the wilderness. Immediately! How fast things change! How fast the mood changes from exaltation to inner struggle, to tempting, to testing. Jesus handled this moment by going off to be alone. He went to be by himself, alone with God. Jesus left his family, his friends. He left the world and went off into a barren place called the wilderness. Sometimes you and I need to go alone. Sometimes we need to stop acting, and start thinking, sort it all through.  Jesus struggled in the wilderness with his value system. What kind of a person am I going to be? What kind of ministry am I going to have? What kind of campaign am I going to run? What methods am I going to use to bring the kingdom of God to this earth? 

Those are very basic questions. Who am I? What am I about? Where am I going? No one can answer those questions for you. No parent, no teacher, no preacher, no one but you. It is you who decides who you are going to be. It is you who decides what kind of a life you’re going to live. It is you who decides what direction you’re going, and that better be decided all alone between you and God. 

Jesus was not exempt from this struggle. Jesus was not exempt from the devil who tested him, enticed him, seduced him. No doubt Jesus wasn’t tested only once. No doubt it was a constant struggle through his life, through his ministry as it is with us. But this one incident is lifted out for us and placed in the gospels so that we can look at it and learn from it. The tests, the temptations, were directed to his gifts, to his talents, to his power. He had psychic powers of keen insight and understanding. And he had superhuman powers. He had three temptations but test is a better translation than temptation. He had three tests. The first one was when he got hungry. The devil said to him, “See all these stones lying around, why don’t you turn them into bread? You have the power to turn them into bread, why don’t you eat?” Jesus was tempted to use his miraculous powers to satisfy a need. 

The second test, the devil said, “Why don’t you jump off the high pinnacle of the temple? Why don’t you jump off and let God take care of you? Then the whole world could see how God takes care of you, how God protects you.” 

The third test, the devil said, “Why don’t you exert your military power? Why don’t you exert your political wisdom? Why don’t you take all the kingdoms of the world and why don’t you be the king.” All these tests were directed at his power, the talent he had to effect miracles. 

You and I are tested at the point of our talents, at our strengths, where we are the strongest. Be aware and watch out for there you will be tested. You will be tested at those high exalted moments of life when everything is going beautifully. When the world is at your fingertips, watch out because immediately you will be cast into the wilderness—depression will come, anxiety will come. And you will have to struggle with who and what you are, and where you are going. 

Let’s look more closely at these tests. The first test the devil gave him was to tempt him to use his miraculous powers, to use his talents to satisfy his own needs. The temptation was to use his talents selfishly, to turn the stones into bread so he could eat, so he could satisfy his hunger. The temptation was, “You can do something unique and gifted. You have a great gift for the world. Use it for yourself.” There are two questions that constantly confront us. What am I going to do with what God has given me? Am I first of all going to use it for myself, what I can get out of it? Or, what can I give to the world? What can I share? How can I use it to serve God and people? The two questions are: what can I get? Or what can I give? If you have a musical talent, If you can sing, the temptation is for you to use that singing, that gift for what you can get out of it. How rich can you get? What kind of glamour, what kind of fame? How can you get your ego fed, how can you get people to praise you and say, “My, what a wonderful musician!” 

Or is that talent given you to serve God and make this world a better place, to use your music to bring happiness and joy into the lives of people? Whatever your talent—can you speak, can you write, can you think, can you organize? Do you work well with people? Whatever God has given you to do, the test is, the temptation is to use it to get something out of it for yourself. You say, “Well, I don’t really have much to give. The Lord didn’t give me much.” Last night the Wranglers heard beautiful words of witness from two people who run the Stockton Gospel Rescue Mission. The Ellisons, Mrs. Ellison especially, told us a beautiful story of how when she was age 35, got polio and lost the use of her legs. As she struggled over what that meant to her, she heard the Lord say to her, “For 35 years you walked on your legs, and you never thanked me.” She began to take inventory of her body. She looked at her hands. What a gifted instrument are the hands! And she could see, she could hear. She inventoried all that God had given her. She thanked God and used her hands to take in sewing to earn a living for the family. Then she decided to give all that she had to God in the service of the world, in the service of people. She said, “I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t play, I really didn’t have any talent. I figured my best talent was that I could make smooth gravy.” So she became a cook. She came to Stockton to cook in the rescue mission down on Skid Row. And now she and her husband are the superintendents. She could cook and even with that talent, “Do I use what God has given me to satisfy my needs, or to serve?”

God has given us all resources. Every one of us sits here today with good clothes. We’ve had breakfast. Every one of us have had jobs or are in jobs that pay us well. God has given us resources. And the temptation? What am I going to do with them? Are they for me? Or, does God give me resources to serve Him and to make this world a better place? Do I first of all, give 1/10 to the work of the Lord? Does 1/10—the tithe—come off the top to support God’s work in this church, in charity and good works across this world that he may be glorified, that people may be served? Is that what God gave me my financial resources for? Or first of all, do I pay my bills? Do I buy what I want? Do I get what I want? Do I do what I want and then what’s left over, I’ll give a little bit here and I’ll give a little bit there? That’s the test. 

Our church gets to face this test in two ways. This week when the Board on the recommendation of the Finance Committee sets up the budget, we will be faced, we will be confronted with the question of how much, what percentage of our church’s income goes to benevolences? What percentage of our income is going to go outside this building, outside this congregation for missions? What percent? Or do we first of all think of our own needs? Do we first of all use it selfishly? How will we pass that test? 

In a few months, we will struggle as a congregation with what to do with the Simminger Bequest. What a beautiful bequest has been given to us. We will ask the question, do we use it selfishly? Or is our first obligation to give part of it to missions, to least tithe it for the world? And then secondly, take care of our building? Take care of our needs? 

We have tests coming at us all the time. What do you do with what God has given you—what you get out of it or what you give? 

The second test Jesus had was very subtle and very dangerous. Jesus was tempted to use his miraculous powers to be a miracle worker. The devil seemed to say to him, “Why don’t you turn stones into bread? Why don’t you feed the world? You want to bring in the kingdom of God. You want his will to be done. You want people to follow you. You want people to be your disciples, turn the stones into bread, give people bread, feed them, give them Cadillacs, give them beautiful houses, why your churches will be full! You want people to be your disciples, jump off the pinnacle of the temple and show the whole world who you are. Let the whole world see your great power. You want people to be your disciples, use your might, use your power. Take over the kingdoms of the world by force if necessary, and be king. 

But Jesus rejected these temptations for they are shortcuts. The ends do not justify the means. Sure the churches would be full if we were fed, if we were promised material rewards. But Jesus knew such discipleship would be very superficial, very shallow, that people wouldn’t follow him out of free choice. People wouldn’t follow him out of love, people would follow him out of what they could get out of it. There are huge temptations always facing churches, as to what our strategy should be. We could fill this church three times on Sunday with gimmicks. We could bring in magicians. We could give easy preaching, promising you wealth, promising you good health, promising all kinds of rewards, peace of mind. We could have all kinds of arm twisting, all kinds of mass psychological techniques, all kinds of fancy invitations, emotional invitations to get you all stirred up and get you converted. We could do all kinds of gimmicks that are dishonest and that lack of integrity. But God calls us to go the hard way. Jesus rejected all those shortcuts. Jesus rejected all those bypasses. Jesus chose the way that led him to the cross. 

The temptation for each one of us is to go the easy way. Why add up all those columns and go through all those multiplication tables, why don’t you just use the calculator? Why do you practice the piano so hard? Why don’t you just play records? Why do you study so diligently, trying to learn? Why don’t you just cheat a little bit? Look on your neighbor’s paper. Why are you so conscientious in your job, especially when the boss isn’t looking? Why don’t you just gloss things over and take the easy route? Why don’t you do it the easy way. Why? Because of character, because of integrity, because of who I want to be in this world and what God calls me to be. When I go into a new venture, things are glamorous for a while; and then immediately, I’m sent into the wilderness. I get discouraged, bored, it gets tedious. It requires hard work to set a goal and work for it. The temptation is to take the easy way. 

Be on guard when you’re tested. May the experience of Jesus in the wilderness inspire you. When you are tested to use your talents and resources selfishly, when you’re tested to go the easy way, may you with Jesus say, “Begone Satan, begone!” I shall worship the Lord and him only will I serve.

© 1976 Douglas I. Norris