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Stay the Course Through Temptation
March 8, 1992

MATTHEW 4:1-11

“Just a closer walk with thee. Grant it Jesus is my plea.

Daily walking close to thee; let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

Through this world of toils and snares if I falter, Lord, who cares?

Who with me my burdens share? None but thee, dear Lord, none but thee.”

That old gospel song sets the stage, defines the context and celebrates the hope that is inherent in the theme we are developing this Lent— Stay the Course. Life is a journey. Faith is a walk. And when we ask, Jesus will walk with us, pointing and leading us in the right direction, helping us to avoid the potholes and the dead-end detours. The choir sang about ships this morning. Stay the course is a nautical term. Perhaps the image of sailing appeals to you. Perhaps you'd rather sail through life than walk. But sailing ,however, is fraught with difficulties. Don't let a picture of blue skies, calm waters and bright sunshine be your only image of sailing.

In our staff meeting on Tuesday, Susan Matheson gave us an update on her nephew's plan to sail to Australia. It had long been his life's ambition to build his very own sailboat. And now in his late thirties, he literally spent half his life building his sailboat. He even on one occasion went to the Bahamas to get just the right piece of wood. Well, last year he and a friend set sail from Florida for Australia. And just at that time, there was a TV movie depicting a true life story of an Australian family who sailed from Australia and whose boat was attacked by whales.They spent three weeks on a life raft. We joked with Susan about her nephew's daring expedition; little did we know how closely he would repeat their experience. She gave us the update on Tuesday what happened.

While in the Caribbean, her nephew Douglas and his friend encountered severe storms. When they reached Panama, the friend had had enough and he left the boat. So Douglas recruited another friend. Along with Douglas’ two older children, both in their early teens who had flown to Panama to join the excursion, the four of them left Panama. They sailed down the South American coast with few problems, reached the Galapagos Islands and then set sail into water where they would see no land for six weeks. Forty miles from Galapagos, the boat began to unaccountably sway. They found a hole in the boat which may have been caused by a whale, but there had been no sign or sound of the impact. The boat began sinking rapidly. All four of them jumped into the water. Without any gear or oxygen, Douglas dived down to the sinking boat and landed on the deck. His first task was to find the knife, and providentially he was standing on it. He grabbed the knife, cut the ropes which held the life raft and allowed it to float to the surface. He reached around grabbing a jug of water in one hand, found the walkie talkie with the other hand and swam to the surface. The four of them got into the life raft. And there they sat. No food but a jug of water and the walkie talkie turned off. They floated for three days until finally, thank God, Swiss divers heard the signal, rescued them and took them to Ecuador. Imagine how Douglas kept his head and while holding his breath, was able to find the knife, cut the ropes, find water and a walkie talkie. Isn't that an amazing story!

Sailing through life similarly is not always fair skies and balmy seas. “Through this world of toil and snares” goes the hymn. This journey we are all on involves hard work and is fraught with snares of traps, attacks by whales, the weather, pitfalls, disappointments, frustrations, failures and temptations. If you falter does anyone care? And who will help you with grief and snares? “None but thee, O Lord, none but thee.” Jesus can help us because he has walked where we walk. He has sailed where we sail. Jesus’ journey is everyone's journey. Jesus, the ultimate human being, struggled, suffered, endured and conquered. What Jesus went through the last week of his life will be presented in physical form on March 29, when the choir, orchestra and soloists will perform the masterpiece by Johann Sebastian Bach, The Passion of Jesus according to St. Matthew. We will experience Jesus’ journey in a profound way. Our God became one of us. Our God is not isolated, removed, unaware, inactive, indifferent. Our God has walked the human journey and sailed the human sea. Our God knows, understands, helps, encourages and empowers. In that confidence we begin our Lenten journey.

Jesus’ journey was immediately interrupted by a time of testing. He barely had been baptized to begin his ministry when the Spirit led him into the wilderness. The wilderness is a foreboding, mountainous area just outside of Jericho. All sand, rock and sun with no food and no water. There Jesus stayed for forty days—deliberating, meditating, praying, making important consequential decisions about his journey, about the course he was taking, about the methods he would use. There in the wilderness Jesus was tempted just as you and I are tempted. Jesus himself was not exempt from temptation. Even Jesus’ journey was fraught with snares. Jesus was asked hard questions and made hard choices.

Perhaps it bothers you to be reminded that the snares you encounter on your journey are not just outward snares like whales, storms, earthquakes, recession or taxes, but inward snares as well. Perhaps it bothers you to be reminded that you have a dark side, that you are not all sweetness and light, sugar and spice, that you are not perfect. And your motives are not always perfect. Perhaps that bothers you. One man said, “Show me a perfect church and I will join it.” A friend responded, “If there were a perfect church, they wouldn't ask you to join. And if you did join, it would no longer be a perfect church.” Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, in his book Passion for Pilgrimage, wrote, “The more we are able to face our own capacity for evil, the less likely we are to spread the disease.”

Notice the word “through” in the Lenten theme. Stay the course, God's course, “through” temptation. Stay the course all the way “through” temptation. Go “through” temptation, and be victorious. But “through” has another meaning as well. “Through” also means by way of. So stay the course by way of temptation. It is by way of temptation and struggle that we become strong. C. Curtis Jones in Strongly Tempted writes, “Everyone must face and conquer temptation. No one knows whether he is honest, until he has opportunity to be dishonest. No one knows whether he is moral until he triumphs over the many guises of immorality. No one knows the depth of his devotion until he has established values and declared personal priorities. No one knows his strength until he discovers his weaknesses.”

Jesus was also tempted. Jesus also struggled with his dark side, or the devil if you prefer. Jesus motives were questioned. His methods were tested. The three temptations Jesus struggled with are prototypes for us. They are universal temptations and snares with which you and I struggle constantly.

Let's look at the three temptations of Jesus. The first temptation is security. “Turn the stones into bread”, the devil tempted. What a temptation for the hungry Jesus— forty days without food! What a temptation it must have been to turn stones into bread. How easy it would have been to recruit followers if Jesus could promise them bread. If people were assured of security, they would follow. But Jesus rejected security as a method by which the kingdom of God would come to this earth. Jesus wants people who freely choose to follow, not seduced by security. Jesus wants people who will risk, who will take chances, who will venture on faith.

The second temptation is power. “You can rule the world”, tempted the devil. The devil showed him the kingdoms of the world and said, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority”. If not power over the world, wouldn’t be nice to at least have power over your job, or power over your family or power over your future. Or how about finances—to have power over your finances. Some people, many people really want control, to be able to control their situation, to control their life, to control conversations, to control decisions. How frightening it is for some people to be in situations where they are not in control. But the opposite of control is faith. Jesus rejected power and control as methods by which the kingdom of God would come to this earth. Jesus will not coerce. Jesus will not control. Jesus wants people who will trust not in their power to control but who will trust in God. It's a risky way to live but it's the only way to live.

The third temptation is privilege. The devil took Jesus to the top of the temple, told Jesus to throw himself down and let God take care of him. “Don't test God” was Jesus’ reply. Jesus rejected miracle as a method by which the kingdom of God would come to this earth. Jesus wants people who will freely choose to follow, not seduced by miracle or preferential treatment. Do not expect God to treat you differently than anyone else. Jesus said the rain falls on the just and the unjust. Sickness, grief and death happen to the good and the bad. As you walk life's journey or sail life’s sea, don't expect preferential treatment. Don't expect miracles. But when they happen, be grateful. Be grateful when you are unexpectedly blessed, blessed not because you deserve it, not because it is expected but blessed because of God's grace.

Jesus rejected security, power and privilege, tempting as they are. Stay the course, hold to the course by faith. Don't be tempted to follow those who promise security, power and privilege. Ask Jesus who has walked where you walk, to walk with you and to stay with you.

© 1992 Douglas I. Norris