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“How Temptation Works”
James 1:12-18


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
First Sunday in Lent—March 1, 2009

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Our text is today’s Epistle Reading.  The Apostle James tells us, “How Temptation Works.”

“When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’”

The first inclination of sinful humans is to somehow try to put the blame for our sinful actions on God himself.  This pattern of trying to shift the blame to God started right after the fall into sin as recorded in today’s Old Testament Reading.

“The Lord God [said] to the man . . . ‘Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?’  The man said, ‘The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.’”  Adam is trying to absolve himself of guilt by putting the blame on God, implying that his sinful action in eating the forbidden fruit is really God’s fault for putting Eve there.  “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Our modern version of this is to claim that God created us with certain weaknesses or proclivities, and therefore since God supposedly made us that way, it should not be considered sin.  That is simply another way of trying to absolve ourselves by shifting the blame for our sinful actions to God.

“When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’  For God cannot be tempted by evil.”

Christ demonstrates his divinity in today’s Gospel Reading.  Unlike Adam and Eve, and us, Christ resists all the temptations of Satan. As Hebrews says, “[He] was tempted in every way, just as we are—yet without sin.”

“For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.”

Our attempts to absolve ourselves by shifting the blame to God for our sinful actions are like the fig leaves Adam and Eve sewed together, in a vain effort to cover their nakedness.  Despite our attempts to hide our sin, with excuses that it’s really God’s fault, or someone else’s fault, as Adam also tries to put the blame on Eve, each one of us stands before God stripped of all excuses and self-justification, naked in our sinfulness.  As Psalm 44 says, “For he knows the secrets of the heart.”

“But each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.”

The real source of our sin is within.  As Jesus says, “The evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. . .  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, lying, and speaking evil of others.”  The real source of our sin is within. 

“But each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.  Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin.”

God devotes 20% of the Ten Commandments to something that we don’t even really consider to be sin.  “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.”  “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

To “covet” means simply a thought, a desire for what belongs to someone else.  What harm can just a thought do?  But, God forbids even sinful thoughts and desires.  As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’  But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.”  The Apostle John says, “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer.”

Why does God forbid even sinful thoughts and desires?  Because all too often we make our sinful thoughts and desires become reality with sinful actions.  “But each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.  Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin.”

We see this progression from sinful desire to sinful action with Eve in today’s Old Testament Reading: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.”

That is also the ploy Satan tries with our Lord himself in today’s Gospel Reading, to tempt our Lord with sinful desires, which would lead him to sinful actions: “After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’  Jesus answered, ‘It is written: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”’ . . . Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’  Jesus said to him, ‘Away from me, Satan! For it is written: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”’”

Today’s sermon hymn is a new hymn based on Ephesians chapter six, where Paul compares the spiritual weapons our faith gives us to the armor of a Roman centurion:

“Be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.  Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.  Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.  Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.  In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

Jesus sets us an example by fighting off Satan’s temptations with “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”  Each time he is tempted, he replies, “It is written,” and fights off Satan with Scripture.  That’s what Martin Luther meant when he wrote in the hymn “A Mighty Fortress,” “One little word can fell him.”

Paul says in 1st Corinthians, “When you are tempted [God] will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”  Jesus shows us “the way out” of temptation, fighting Satan with “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

“And sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.  Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers.”

Satan and the world try to deceive you into thinking that sin isn’t so bad after all.  Sins of various sorts are portrayed and widely considered to be normal, fun, even somehow to your benefit.  That’s how Satan lured in Eve: “For . . . when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” 

“Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers.”  Sin is really like a terrible disease, that if left unchecked will be fatal for you, eternally fatal.  “And sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.  He chose to give us birth through the word of truth.”

James concludes his description of “How Temptation Works” with a wonderful note of Gospel, the Good News of God’s forgiveness and love for us.  “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father.” 

The greatest gift of all, of course, that has come down from the Father is his own Son: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned.”  As we confess in the Creed, “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven  . . . and was made man.”

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.”  After their fall into sin God, grants absolution to Adam and Eve, and makes garments of skins to clothe them.  Those physical garments with which God covers their physical nakedness symbolize the spiritual garment with which God covers your spiritual nakedness.  As Paul says in Galatians, “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”

Just as God covered over Adam and Eve’s nakedness with a garment of animal skins, he covers over your sin with the robe of Christ’s righteousness.  So, you no longer stand naked in your sin before him, but you stand forgiven, and dressed and ready for heaven.  As Revelation says, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

All the other religions of the world postulate an arbitrary, erratic, undependable God.  You can never be quite sure in these religions if God is on your side, and he could change his mind and turn against you at any time.  That’s because all the other religions of the world postulate an angry God, whom we have to appease, and you can never be sure if you’ve done enough to get God on your side.

Christianity is unique in proclaiming a God who has already been completely appeased, by the death of his own Son.  Paul puts it this way in Romans, “[We] are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.  God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. . .  If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all.”  

God has declared that he is for you, on your side, and he will never change his mind or turn against you.  Hebrews puts it this way, “God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’  So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid’ . . . Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

You can rely on God’s love and forgiveness, for “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.  He chose to give us birth through the word of truth.”

Through his Word, God has made you born again as his child.  As Peter says, “For you have been born again . . . through the living and enduring Word of God.”  God has made you born again as his child, through his Word proclaimed to you, his Word poured out upon you in Holy Baptism, his Word made flesh and given to you in Holy Communion.  That’s why heaven is described in Scripture as your “home,” because you are a child of your heavenly Father, and so heaven is your rightful home.   “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth.”

In today’s Epistle Reading, James prefaces his description of “How Temptation Works” with a beautiful promise: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”

Amen.

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