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Sermon for Sunday 21 February 2021

First Reading: Genesis 22:1-18

1After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” 3So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. 5Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” 6And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. 7And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. 9When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” 15And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”

Psalm 25:1-10

1To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you; let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me. 2Let none who look to you be put to shame; let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes. 3Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. 4Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long. 5Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting. 6Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord. 7Gracious and upright is the Lord; therefore he teaches sinners in his way. 8He guides the humble in doing right and teaches his way to the lowly. 9All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies. 10For your name’s sake, O Lord, forgive my sin, for it is great.

Second Reading: James 1:12-18

12Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. 13Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. 16Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

Gospel: Mark 1:9-15

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” 12The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him. 14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Temptation Happens

A man went to his counselor about a personal problem.  He said to the counselor, “I’m really struggling here.  I feel like I’m violating my conscience.  I’m not being completely honest with myself.  I’m living a broken life.”  The counselor said to him, “Well, would you like to see me about strengthening your will power?”  The man thought for a moment and replied, “No, what I’d like to talk to you about is weakening my conscience.”  Sadly, this little story reflects our age, more than we’d like to admit, doesn’t it?  Our world today isn’t so much interested in what’s right or wrong, as it is in finding a way to live the way we wish, without feeling guilty.

Let me share another example with you.  An extremely depressed man went one day to see a psychiatrist.  His eyes were sunken, and his cheeks were hollow.  His back was stooped, and his body was emaciated.  His hands trembled and his face was unshaven.  He told the doctor that he had lost the zip in his life and that he didn’t feel like he wanted to live anymore.  The doctor said to him, “I have the solution for you.  You need to go and look up Tom, the renowned playboy.  He knows how to have a good time.  He knows how to get the most out of life.  He’ll show you how to start living again, and how to really enjoy yourself.”  After a rather long pause, and with incredibly depressed eyes, the man looked up at the psychiatrist.  “Doctor”, he said very quietly, “I am Tom, the renowned playboy.”

Those two anecdotes tell the story of our human and sin-filled predicament.  We’d like to live as we please, but the truth is, we can’t.  That is, we can’t, because we were bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20).  We cannot live for ourselves if we wish to have meaning and deep joy…if we want to please God and inherit the eternal life He promises.  But there always seem to be one thing standing in our way of living as God intended, temptation.  St. James in our epistle reading for today speaks to the issue.  Temptations are part of life, but there’s one thing we need to understand, God doesn’t allow temptation in order to threaten or destroy our faith, but to deepen it.  

Now before we go further, we need to make sure we understand the difference between testing, as God did for Abraham, and temptation.  Temptation is something we all face each and every day.  Temptation in and of itself is not sinful, temptation only becomes sin when we decide to accept it, act on it or even when we try to justify the action in our minds.  Temptation is a tool the devil uses to trip us up, to get us to sin.  Temptation’s focus is on satisfying the self, rather than to better our relationship with God.  God uses testing to reveal various aspects of Himself and to increase our faith in and dependance upon Him.  James is clear, God does not temp us, but He does allow it to happen, in order for us to learn and grow.

Understanding this, we also recognize that how we approach, and master temptation is of paramount importance to Christians.  Testing has a purpose: as we grapple, we grow.  Listen again to verses 13-16, “remember, when someone wants to do wrong it is never God who is tempting him, for God never wants to do wrong and never tempts anyone else to do it.  Temptation is the pull of man’s own evil thoughts and wishes.  These evil thoughts lead to evil actions and afterwards to the death penalty from God.  So don’t be misled, dear brothers (James 1:13-16 TLB).

Again, God is not the source of temptation, but God does allow it in order to strengthen us as Christians and to better our relationship with Him.  The good news is we’re not alone in our struggles, Jesus too faced temptation.  After His baptism, Mark records that “the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by satan” (Mark 1:12-13a).  When we examine Luke’s account of the temptation, we find an intriguing thought, Luke says, ‘And Jesus, being full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness’ (Luke 4:1).  Then later, in verse 14, it says that ‘Jesus returned, in the power of the Spirit, to Galilee’.  When Jesus went into temptation, He went in ‘full of the Spirit’.  When He came out, it was ‘in the power of the Spirit’.  The key to facing and overcoming temptation is to be filled with God’s Spirit.  In the life of Jesus, all that temptation could achieve was to turn fullness into power.

Dr. G. Campbell Morgan, in his book, The Crises of the Christ, claims that we ought to make a clear distinction between the two words ‘fullness’ and ‘power’.  The ‘fullness of the Spirit’, he argues, ‘is what happens when the Spirit is bestowed upon us [in Baptism]; the ‘power’ of the Spirit is what happens when that fullness is tested through the process of temptation.’  It’s in these passages that we begin to get a glimpse of the underlying purpose of why God allows us to be tempted – it’s a testing ground by which God turns fullness into power.

As we seek to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we must learn that the power of the Spirit is never fully realized except through trial, tribulations and personal conflict with our adversary, the devil.  When temptations come, God uses that situation to strengthen us.  And even as we pray the 6th petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation”, what we’re praying is that during the times of temptation, God will give us strength to endure and prevail.  Still we want to know why God allows us to be tempted and the answer can be found in the meaning of the Greek word for temptation, “pier-as-mos“.

Pier-as-mos means to test, to try, or to prove.  The biblical use of the word, unlike the modern use of it, doesn’t contain the thought of seduction or entrapment, but rather the putting of a person to a test for the purpose of deepening personal qualities.  This then is the purpose behind allowing temptation – it’s God’s way of helping us deepen our inward qualities and develop our character.  Dr. Oswald Chambers says, ‘God can, in one single moment, make a heart pure, but not even God himself can give a person character.’

It’s essential for our growth as people and Christians that we’re subjected to testing, for character cannot be molded and shaped properly, without effort, without struggles and without contradictions.  ‘Virtue that has not been tried,’ said one great theologian, ‘does not deserve the name of virtue.'” (Hughes, Ibid., p. 121).  Now we do need to recognize that as we dig deeper into this subject, the word for temptation, as used in the Bible, can mean two different things: 1) “to put to the test” or “to go through”.  2) To entice, essay, examine, or try.  Temptation, then, means “a putting to proof – that is for good”, or “an evil solicitation – that is for bad”.  So, temptation can be used for our good, this is what God does, or for it can bring about spiritual harm, which is what the devil wants.

This certainly harmonizes with James’ word in verse 12: “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him.”  Gerald Manley Hopkins was an English poet who became a Jesuit priest, was sent to Dublin to teach in the University College.  He wrote a marvelous poem entitled “Long Live the Weeds”.  In this poem he confirmed what we’re talking about here.  

Hopkins penned: “Long live the weeds that overwhelm my narrow vegetable realm The bitter rock, the barren soil that force the Son of Man to toil; All things unholy marred by a curse, the ugly of the universe.”  The rough, the wicked, and the wild, that keeps the spirit undefiled.  With these I match my little wit and earn the right to stand and sit.  Hope, love, create, or drink and die: These shape the creature that is I.”  This is a beautiful exposition of the Biblical understanding of life.

We don’t always understand the presence of weeds in our lives nor the bitter rock, or the barren soil.  But the truth is, the barren soil, weeds and rocks are the result of our sin.  The good news for us is, the witness of the scripture is clear.  None of these things — none of these sufferings — none of this absurdity — is able to defeat us – nor is able to overcome God’s will in our life.  In fact, the Bible assures us that God is able to use the barren soil, the weeds and rocks themselves for our good and His glory.

So, even in temptation, God is working in us to bring us to full maturity in Christ.  Temptation, testing, and trials — and how we endure them — may be used by God to grow us up into Christ.  Look again at the temptation of Jesus.  Certainly, that experience in the wilderness served to strengthen Him and bring Him forth in the power of the Spirit.  Moffat’s translation of Jesus’ rebuttal of satan’s temptation in the wilderness, (as recorded in Matthew), reads: ‘Begone, satan! it is written, you must worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone!  At this the devil left him’ (4:10-11).  

The way Moffat translates this passage seems to suggest that when Jesus used the word ‘alone’ the devil left him.  One commentator says of Moffat’s translation, ‘Satan could not stand that word “alone” and when Jesus uttered it, he turned and left because he knew, that to tempt a man who stands on that word “alone”, in a single-minded allegiance to God, is only to strengthen that man and deepen rather than destroy his confidence in the Almighty.'” (Hughes, Ibid., pp. 118-119).  This also suggests another reason God allows temptation, not just to build character, but to also produce in us a single-minded allegiance to God.  Trials, testing, and temptation can also play a major role in developing our prayer life. 

New Zealand, I’m told, has no dangerous animals and no dangerous reptiles native to it.  It’s also the home of more flightless birds than any other country in the world.  Some scientists believe there’s a close connection between these two facts.  As food was always abundant — and no natural predators, the birds have no need to spread their wings and fly.  With no need to escape, they soon lost their ability to fly.  No need — no ability.  Isn’t the same true in human life?

The very temptations we dread are what compels us to seek God’s help and guidance by going to our Lord in prayer.  Isn’t it true that we pray the most when we’re in need the most?  If there was no temptation, no dark valleys, no pressure from the evil one, then perhaps we might not use the faith God gives, and our appearances before the throne of grace might be few and far between.  Martin Luther claimed that his temptations were his ‘Masters of Divinity’ which taught him more about prayer than all his formal training as a priest.”  (Hughes, Ibid., pp. 122-123).  God allows temptation and trials to develop our character, to bring us to a single-minded allegiance to God; and to develop our prayer life.

Finally, God also gives us a promise when it comes to temptations: yes, God allows temptation, but He promises to never allow us to be tempted beyond the point of no return.  This is the way St. Paul wrote, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.  “God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, for with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (I Corinthians 10:13).  Even in the throws of temptation, God is with us and gives us the strength we need to overcome.  God will not allow us to be tempted beyond the point of no return.

In the novel, Patience of a Saint, Andrew Greeley has a character named Red Cain. Red is a rough, hard-living reporter in Chicago.  Cain undergoes a dramatic conversion experience which he described as being zapped by God.  After his shattering spiritual breakthrough, instead of things getting better for him, they go from bad to worse.  His family turns against him.  He loses his job.  A novel he has written is rejected.  Frustrated and disgusted with what he considers as being let down by God, he goes to his pastor and seeks assurance that God is going to reward him for changing the direction of his life.  But his pastor tells him, the Lord offers no guarantees.

The pastor tells Red, your novel may be rejected again…you may not find another job.  And reconciliation with your family may take a long time.  Afraid that he might lose everything, Red Cain says to himself, “If God expects that kind of courage from anyone, then God should provide some guarantees.”  The fact is, God does!  But these probably aren’t the kind of guarantees most of us wish for.  The guarantee isn’t that the trials won’t come; the guarantee is three-fold: first, “Every temptation that we face is common to others.”  God is faithful.  He is always with us.  “Next, we can trust Him.  God will never allow us to be tempted beyond what we’re able to stand.  In other words, His strength is greater than the enticement of satan’s bait.  And finally, God will also make a way of escape so that we will be able to bear the temptation.

Yes, trials and temptations are part of life and we cannot avoid them.  However, God uses these difficult times and circumstances for our good.  God uses times of testing to build our character, to reveal Himself to us, to show us that He is faithful and dependable and to strengthen our relationship with Him and encourage us to come to Him in prayer.  His promise is true, “He will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, for with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”  St. John said it best, “greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).


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