Creekside Church
Sermon of February 14, 2016

"I Can't or I Don't"
Luke 4:1-13

Elizabeth Kelsey


When I saw the lectionary text for this Sunday, I sighed. Who wants to talk about temptation? And what more is there to say? It may seem odd that this text pops up over and over on the first Sunday of Lent. But maybe not. We begin our Lenten journey by remembering who and whose we are. We affirm that God alone is our God and him only shall we serve.

I started preparation by identifying my own questions about temptation.

  • What is temptation?
  • Who or what tempts us?
  • Was Jesus really tempted?
  • Why does the Lord’s Prayer say, “lead us not into temptation.” Does God tempt us?

And in my research I found some answers that enlightened me.

Looking at the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness we start with the conundrum that Jesus was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” It sank in that “the Spirit” was responsible for this confrontation with the Evil One, and that the temptation lasted 40 days. That’s a long time! It makes the focus of Satan’s temptations even more difficult. The Spirit knew what Jesus needed to learn in order to begin his ministry as a Messiah of the people. The Satan/Jesus dialogue reflects the real source of help:

Satan: If you are God’s son, make some bread out of this rock and feed yourself.
Jesus: It is written, we don’t live by bread alone.
Satan: I own all the kingdoms of the world (lie). I’ll give them all to you, if you worship me.
Jesus: It is written, worship and serve the Lord your God alone.
Satan: If you are God’s son, throw yourself down from the pinnacle of this temple. It is written, the Lord will command his angels to protect you so you won’t dash your foot against a stone.
Jesus: It is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Are we tempted by the same things? Hunger? check! Temptation is strongest when we feel empty. Popularity? check! We like being well thought of. Power? check! Who wants to be powerless? In every case Jesus combats these temptations by quoting scripture. Finally in the third temptation, Satan gets wise, and quotes scripture himself. He references Psalm 91:11-12 and Jesus responds with Deuteronomy 6:16: Don’t tempt God.

“Left to ourselves,” David Brooks says, “we often desire the wrong things. Whether it’s around the dessert tray or in the late-night bar, we know we should choose one thing but end up choosing another.” Paul said something like that, too. We understand what our long-term interest is, but end up pursuing short-term pleasure. Even good things such as friendship will leave us unsatisfied if the friendship is not attached to something higher. Jesus shows us the things worth finding and what we should be willing to lose.

1 Corinthians 10:13 is a familiar “temptation” verse with lots of promises. It says, 13” No temptation has overtaken you except what is (1) common to mankind. And (2) God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted (3) beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also (4) provide a way out so that you can endure it.” Paul is referring to God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, dwelling on the theme of God’s faithfulness. “God continues to provide paths of deliverance when we are tested. Whatever the temptation, it can be thought of as a test of one’s strength, the verse says, and God has built us -- made us -- in such a way so that it’s possible to not yield to it.”

The Journal of Consumer Research shows that some ways of saying no to temptation are more effective than others. Researchers took two groups of 60 undergrads. One group was told that each time they were faced with a temptation -- such as to eat ice cream -- they were to tell themselves “I can’t do X.” The second group was told to say “I don’t do X.” All the students were then asked to answer a set of questions about healthy eating. As they handed in their answer sheets, thinking that the study was over, they were offered a complimentary treat -- either a chocolate bar or a granola bar. After each student exited, their snack choice was recorded.

The researchers found that of the students who told themselves “I can’t eat X,” 61 percent chose the candy bar. Of those who told themselves “I don’t eat X,” only 36 percent chose the candy bar. Evidently this terminology improved the odds that each person would make a more healthy food choice. The researchers theorize that saying “I can’t” reminds us of our limitations, while saying “I don’t” reminds us of our power of choice.

One little word -- don’t. Martin Luther spoke of “one little word” in the third stanza of “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” “The prince of darkness grim, / we tremble not for him; / his rage we can endure, / for lo, his doom is sure; / one little word shall fell him.” The word Luther had in mind is “You lie.” Calling the tempter a liar might be helpful as well, reminding us of the costs of yielding to temptation itself.

Henry Nouwen comments that our most significant encounters with Christ often come not before or after or beyond the struggle, but in the midst of the struggle. Christ comes at that moment and says, “As soon as you turned to me again, I was already beside you.”

An anonymous writer gives us important understandings about temptation.
1. Temptation is part and parcel of the human condition. If we could vaccinate ourselves against temptation, would that be a good thing?
2. We need to distinguish between being tempted and yielding to temptation. Anger is a common emotion that can tempt us to strike out at someone, but it isn’t a problem until we yield to that impulse.
3. Temptation is a road with forks in it. These forks force us to make decisions. Sometimes they are major intersections, other time minor detours. In 2 Corinthians 12:9 Paul says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” The forks in the road are good places to remember that. We can ask God for grace and power, not only at the onset of a temptation, but also beforehand in our regular life of prayer. That may be why “lead us not into temptation” is one specific petition that Christ included in his model prayer.

A father had been teaching his 3-year old daughter, Caitlin, the Lord's Prayer. For several evenings, at bedtime, she would repeat after me the lines from the prayer. Finally, she decided to go solo. I listened with pride as she carefully enunciated each word, right up to the end of the prayer:
"Lead us not into temptation," she prayed, "but deliver us from e-mail. Amen." Some of us who are swamped with junk advertisements would agree!!

There is a temptation to categorize sins. Did you notice that anything having to do with sex is at the top of the list? There are also addictions -- smoking, drinking, drugs, porn, gambling, etc. The answer seems simple -- just say no -- but addictions by definition require more than sheer personal willpower.

We all experience the “softer” temptations. Like working too much, neglecting the family, spending too much money, chocolate, spreading gossip, undermining a coworker, neglecting a prayer life, chocolate, reading everything but the Bible, spending too much time on Facebook or the iPad, needing the latest technological gadget. And did I mention chocolate? Mae West says, “I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.”

We’re talking about behaviors that in and of themselves are neither good nor bad, right nor wrong. The goodness or badness is determined entirely by motivation, intention and attachment. When we give even the softer temptations priority in our lives, God gets shoved aside. Here are some self-determiners of right or wrong:

  • Are you retreating within yourself, ignoring others?
  • Is it a compulsive behavior?
  • Do you have to excuse and explain yourself?
  • Do you attempt to hide the behavior?
  • Are you trying to avoid feeling?

If you remember nothing else from this sermon, here is some profound wisdom that Paul himself would have understood. Judith Wright calls it “the math of more.” By adding real, life-enhancing, nourishing activities to your life, you will naturally subtract the need for a soft temptation, literally pushing it out of the way. The “math of more.” You need to add to subtract.

We can remember that, no matter what wrong thing we are tempted to do, those temptations can never separate us from God’s love. True love and authentic actions require free choice. Jesus wants us to love and obey him FREELY -- not because we’ve received a spiritual vaccination against being tempted, but because we choose to love God.

The last phrase of the Lord’s Prayer was added years after Jesus taught his prayer to the disciples. But it serves to remind us why we should resist temptation. “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For yours, God, is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.


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