Sermon delivered January 11, 2009.
Today there exists many false teachings and lies about who we are as human beings including our value, how we work, and how we are to relate to one another. As well, there are lies about the existence of evil and the devil and how he works in the world. If someone tells you it's not important what you believe as long as you believe, don't believe them. There is no such thing as each person's own religion and spirituality that he/she can make up on his/her own. There is one person, Jesus Christ, who is the Truth. We are to believe in Him and follow Him only, not anyone else. One of the best gospel passages for us to learn about the devil, evil and temptation is yesterday's reading for the Saturday After Theophany (Matthew 4:1-11). It is about the Temptation of Jesus. Allow me to read it now.
What are the lessons we can learn from Jesus' temptation?
First, after Jesus' Baptism and Chrismation by John in the Jordan, He is led by the Spirit (v.1). It is our baptism that unites us with Christ and it is our Chrismation in which we receive the gift of God's Holy Spirit. From this point forward the Spirit leads us and guides us. Some may say, "I don't feel like God's Spirit is leading and guiding me. Sometimes I feel abandoned." Well, we must renew our Chrismation, which some call it our personal Pentecost, each and every week at the Divine Liturgy. During the Epiklesis, we pray that God send His Holy Spirit upon the gifts of bread and wine to change them into His body and blood. At the same time, we pray that He send the same Spirit upon each one of us. The Holy Spirit of God can descend upon us each day in prayer, but we must pray and must ask for God's Spirit. God does not leave us to fend for ourselves. He provides the Spirit for guidance to lead us on the path of His will.
Second, where did the Spirit lead Jesus? He was led into the wilderness, which is an icon/symbol of the world-a battleground. That's why the Epistle for the Saturday after Theophany is Ephesians 6:10-17 where St. Paul teaches about the Armor of God and fighting the forces of evil. Thus, being baptized and chrismated, worshipping in church, receiving the Eucharist, and praying daily, are no guarantees of living an easy, pristine life. In fact, it might be the opposite, the more we dedicate ourselves to God, the more spiritual battles we will have to fight. No one, no matter how holy they are, is free from temptation. Even Jesus was tempted.
Third, fasting is necessary for spiritual maturation and growth. Holiness is not compatible with gluttony. The devil's first temptation is get the hungry Jesus to turn stones into bread just like Satan tempted Adam and Eve to eat of the fruit in the Garden of Eden. However, Jesus' fasting enables Him to overcome temptation because He is not dominated by fleshly passions and desires. Through fasting, Jesus show's us one of the most powerful tools to do battle against the devil and temptation. We must not be fooled, because when we fast, we will be tempted. In Luke 4:2 it says Jesus was tempted for forty days.
Fourth, every temptation is based in pride. The devil says to Jesus, "If You are the Son of God" (vv.3,6). Satan says to us, "If you are smart if you are beautiful if you are talented if you are fill in the blank." In other words, he is setting us up by puffing us up to exalt ourselves to think we don't need anyone or anything to depend on, especially God. In essence, Satan is simply tempting us with our free will. If you can do it, why not, go ahead and do it. In other words, it's the will-to-power principle. Anything you can do, you should do, right? Wrong!
Fifth, while the devil is tempting us to be free and independent of God, he will play the other side of the coin at the same time. That's what the second temptation is about. Satan tells Christ, by quoting sacred scripture, that He should throw Himself from the pinnacle of the temple because God's angels will rescue Him (v.5-6). Satan tells us, "Go ahead, throw yourself into situations of peril, even though they are physically and spiritually dangerous, because God will rescue you." The message is that faith is like magic. We don't need to exercise caution, discretion and discipline because God does all the work for us. No, we must not tempt God, we must take responsibility for our actions and we must be co-workers with God.
Sixth, if we do not already have the resources to be foolishly independent of God, the devil will entice to go out and get them. This is the third temptation of power and possessions and Satan actually has the ability to grant these to us because he is "the ruler of this world" (John 12:31; 16:11). If anyone has wealth, whether he or she realizes it, it is intoxicating just like alcohol, drugs or any other mood altering chemical. Power and possession make us feel like we are in control of our own destiny. They also have a magical spell leading us to think we can do super-human feats. However, all of this is just vanity, just a façade, a smoke screen that blinds us to the reality of our utter dependence upon God for everything.
Seventh, if we are paying attention, we notice that Jesus answered every temptation with Scripture. The Spirit is also leading us to look into the Scripture for strength, guidance and answers to the puzzling questions and temptations in our own life. Jesus' answer to the devil's first temptation is "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Deuteronomy 8:3). We Orthodox Christians believe that the Mosiac Law, the Prophets, the Gospels, the Epistles, the writings of the Saints and Church Fathers, the creeds and canons of the Ecumenical Councils are the word of God that guides our lives. Jesus' answer to the third temptation is "You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only you shall serve" (Deut.6:13). Every choice we make, every word we speak, and every action we take, demonstrates who we worship and serve. Do we worship and serve God? Is He first in our life?
Eighth and final point, Jesus says, "Away with you Satan!" (v.10) and show us we have the power of spoken word to tell the devil to go away. Words, especially in the name of God, have power. Satan must obey them. However, as it says in Luke 4:13, the devil will return at an "opportune" time. In other words, overcoming temptation is not a one time event. Satan will be back at time when we are more vulnerable or more puffed up to try again. Thus, we must be vigilant, always ready, to do battle with Satan in the wilderness. Jesus Christ has already won the war but we must join with Him in every aspect of our life to employ this victory in each and every battle we face. Amen!
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.