Battle of Wits

Scripture:  Luke 4:1-13

There was a time when Western movies were a sure bet at the box office and studios could not put together movies to stick John Wayne in fast enough.   While westerns may not be the dominant genre they once were, the appeal of westerns for a lot of people has not let go and new stories inspired by the old west can still be found in print, on the silver screen, and in video games.  There are a lot of reasons why this particular time of American history seems to captivate the imagination of so many, but I think one of the reason is because the old west seems to be full of so many larger than life characters.  There are off course the ones that many have heard of such as Wyatt Earp, Butch Cassidy, and Wild Bill Hitchcock.  However, there are also several other lesser known colorful characters.   One of these people is William Jones, better known as Canada Bill.   He was a gambler and conman who swindled people out of money through a game called Three Card Monte.  This con involved three cards and the mark had to find one card, usually a queen.  A conman like Canada Bill would then move the cards around quickly on a table and in the process use sleight of hand to switch out the cards so there was no queen to find.  Canada Bill made thousands of dollars with this con while mostly operating on trains and stations.  He even offered the Union Pacific rail line money so that he could get a contract to have permission to run his con on their trains.  Canada Bill offered the rail line a promise that he would only target “traveling salesmen and Methodist preachers.”

Con men like Canada Bill engaged in a battle of wits with their poor marks.  The victim usually thought their perceptive abilities would give them an edge but almost always it was the conman who came up on top.  However, there were occasions when the card shark would lose their own game and be outwitted by their mark.   There is a story from the Old West, the telling of it claims to be true but it is most likely apocryphal.   The story goes that a fast talking, card shark of a conman was trying to run his hustle in a saloon.  The con man thought he had roped in his next easy mark for Three-Card Monte.  After moving the cards, he asked the man to find the queen.  The man calmly took his gun out and put it on the table pointing at the con man, and announced that he is going to flip over the two cards that are not the queen.  He then proceeds to flip over two-non winning cards.   The man then said to the card shark “I guess I don’t need to turn over the last card.”

When I read this morning’s scripture, I imagine it being a similar battle of wits.  Like all con men, the devil likely believed that a tired and hungry Jesus would be an easy mark.   However, like the man on the Three-Card Monte, story Jesus managed to get one over and win the battle of wits.   This morning’s scripture is a well-known one.  The temptation of Jesus appears in some form in the gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke.   By the traditional lectionary, this story in some form is the gospel lesson during the first Sunday of Lent.   In all versions of the scripture right after being baptized Jesus is taken away by the Spirit to the wilderness.   While none of us have ever been offered power over all of the kingdoms of the world Like Jesus was, that particular temptation shares elements with more common temptations.  If we take the three temptations that Jesus faced and break them down to what is really behind these temptations, then we can see that they are like the temptations we face.  We can learn from how Jesus handled these temptations so when we are confronted by the desire to act sinfully we can win our own battle of wits.

The first temptation that Jesus faced was to turn stone into bread.  This does not seem like a big deal.  After all, Jesus endured a fast longer than most of us could handle.  He would have been hungry, and honestly in real need of food.  It does not seem unreasonable for Jesus to use his power to keep himself nourished.  Except it was by the leading of God’s spirit that Jesus was out in the wilderness.  The long fast was clearly a directive from God.   The temptation here is to obey God or meet his physical needs.  The first temptation of Jesus was one that appealed to his physical needs, and this is a temptation that we face as well.   However, if we are being honest usually the temptations that we face are more to our physical comforts than our physical needs.   When we are just a little uncomfortable we are much likely to focus on ourselves than pay attention to others.

Many of the temptations we face daily are ones that are selfish in nature.  We are all amazing at justifying our actions.   It does not matter how selfish or self-centered our actions are, we are really good at telling ourselves it is OK we do that.   A small example we have all encountered is the person with a nice car who purposely parks so that they take up multiple spots in an effort to keep anyone from parking close to them.  It seems this never happens in the back of the parking lot, but always close to the front, so that one car takes up the spots of at least three   Even though it is a jerk move, the person who does that has likely rationalized in their mind why it is acceptable for them to act that way.   Whenever we have a want it is not hard for us to succumb to the temptation to perceive that want as a need and then justify our actions as to how we meet that perceived need.

In this morning’s scripture, Jesus had a real need for nourishment, not just a want.  The way that Jesus resisted the temptation was to put God first.  Jesus turned to scripture for strength and perspective.  He needed bread but Jesus answered “Man shall not live on bread alone.”  When we have temptations that pull at our selfish desires for physical comfort we can resist the temptation in the same way.   This first temptation is one of selfishness, to put ourselves first.  We regularly face temptations to do things that put ourselves first above loving our neighbors or loving God.    They are temptations where we are tempted to put ourselves first above all else.   Just like Jesus, we can resist the temptation by reminding ourselves that God is first, and that our focus should be less on ourselves and more on our God.

The second temptation that Jesus faced is perhaps the most straightforward.  Satan offered Jesus power.  We all know the proverb:  “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”   We all have seen this.  From the school yard bully who pushes around smaller kids because they can, to the middle manager who terrorizes employees because they can, to the international dictators who invade other countries because they can.  We have all seen and unfortunately many have experienced how a desire for power has led to sinful behavior.  Think of all the lies, the people hurt, and broken lives that have been created in human history for the quest of power.   Jesus was offered more power than any one person has ever been offered, so he understands the alluring temptation that power offers.  Yet, Jesus once again quotes scripture.  Jesus once again focuses on God, and Jesus shows us that instead of seeking power to rule our petty little kingdoms we should worship and serve the one and true Almighty God.

The final temptation Jesus faced was really more of a dare.  The temple complex in Jerusalem was built on a hill overlooking a valley.  In the time of Jesus it had been thoroughly developed and at one place from the top of the wall to the bottom of the valley would have been about 450 ft in the day of Jesus.  This is the spot the devil took Jesus, dared him to jump and have the angels catch him.   This was an appeal to Jesus’ pride.   Like Jesus was here, we are also tempted by pride regularly.   This temptation comes in the form of a challenge, and often that is how we are tempted into pride as well.  We feel challenged, and we are so convinced our rightness we refuse to back down no matter the cost.  Pride is when we think too much of our own selves.  Pride is when we refuse to admit we might be wrong, refuse to apologize, or when we refuse to consider the position or feelings of others.   It is the opposite of humility and pride is one of the great catalysts of sinful actions.  C.S. Lewis points this out in Mere Christianity.   He wrote, “A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and of course as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”

Jesus resists this temptation by refusing to play the game.  The devil challenges him, and Jesus does not respond in kind.   If Pride is when we think too much or too highly ourselves, then Jesus once again shows the way to respond is to not focus on how highly we think about selves but instead focus on how highly we think of God.

Jesus successfully resisted all of the temptations that he faced.   It could even be apt to say that he fought back against all of the temptations thrown at him and he won the battle of wits.  It is unlikely than any of us have ever had quite so a dramatic with the devil or temptation that is described here.  While the nature of the temptations might have been unique, Jesus faced temptations that are like the temptations that we face.  One of the foundational beliefs in the Christian faith is that Jesus is God incarnate.  Jesus is the divine son of God, but he is also the prophesied son of man.  We believe that Jesus is fully God and fully human.  This means when Jesus was tempted in this morning’s scripture they impacted him and pulled at him the very same way that temptations pull at us today.   If Jesus being fully human could resist the strongest of temptations in the wilderness, then that means we can to.   I think that is the good news of this scripture.

One of the beliefs that has a special emphasis in the Methodist tradition is Christian perfection.   This is the belief that by the grace of God and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit we can reach a place where we no longer willfully sin.  When it comes to sinful temptation, we are not helpless marks who are being snared in a con.  We are not powerless against sin, but as forgiven and redeemed followers of Christ we have the power to resist.   We are filled with the Holy Spirit which can empower us to say no to the siren song of selfishness, no to the pull of power, and no to power of pride.

Because of Jesus, we are not powerless in the face of sin and temptation.  Yes, the road to Christian perfection, to being more like our savior, is long.   We stumble, we fall, and we get lost along the way.   But thanks to Jesus who faced our temptations and who suffered the cross on our behalf it is a road we can walk and make progress on.  When we stumble and fall then God is always willing to help pick us up, dust us off in forgiveness, and help us get on our way again.  When we lose our way, when our hearts and minds wander from the God we claim to love, even then hope is not lost.  The truth of grace is it does not matter how far we feel we have move from God.  No matter the distance between you and God, the return trip is only one step.    It is God’s grace that empowers and enables us to be like Jesus and resist the power of sin, and it is also God’ grace that is there for us when we fail and need to be forgiven again.

This morning’s scripture is a hopeful reminder that like Jesus we too can resist sin, but this morning’s scripture is a realistic reminder that all too often we miss the mark.   Perhaps that is why the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is traditionally read at the start of lent.  This morning’s scripture reminds us of just who Jesus is and it reminds us why we need him as our savior.   This morning’s scripture urges us to commit to holy living and spiritual discipline so that we too can be like Jesus.  So may we step up to the call  May we resist temptation in our own lives.  May we not lust after power or in selfishness focus on ourselves in prideful ways. Like Jesus may we be quick to turn to scripture and may we strive to keep our focus on hearts, our minds, and our souls focused on God.   In this season of lent may we fully to commit to repent and believe the gospel.

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