Jesus at the Crossroads: The Temptation to Take Short Cuts
Matthew 4:1-11
March 12, 2017

A few years ago, we were with some friends in the Smoky Mountains. It was a late Saturday afternoon in the springtime and we were in Pigeon Forge. Now, if you have ever been in Pigeon Forge on a Saturday afternoon in the Spring, Fall or Summer then you know how busy the main drag can be. Traffic can literally be bumper to bumper and that is exactly what we were dealing with on this particular afternoon. What I remember about the day is that Ann Marie and our friend Marsha had decided to go somewhere with the children while Marsha’s husband Jay and I decided that we would head on back to the cabin we had rented for the weekend. Jay and I hopped in the car, got out on the main drag and found ourselves sitting in that never ending line of cars that creates weekend gridlock in Pigeon Forge on a regular basis.

We were going nowhere fast. At that moment one of us, and I honestly don’t remember which of us it was, said the magic words, “hey, I think I know a shortcut”. With that, we exited the main road and began to drive down one of the many side streets while planning to hunt and peck our way back to our cabin.

I am sure you know where this is going because you have been there before yourself. Roughly an hour later, we were still pursuing our “short cut” having saved no time whatsoever while at the same time becoming far more frustrated and angry than we likely would have been had we not pursued an alternate route.

We all like a good short cut. And, truth be told, some short cuts are wonderful things. Sometimes, the most heavily traveled or most obvious path isn’t the quickest way to get from one place to another. Likewise, at times, there really is an easier or far more simpler way to do something than what first comes to our mind or other than by only doing things the way we have always accomplished them.

Yet, short cuts are not always what they are cracked up to be, and truth be told, sometimes they are down right dangerous. Only skimming a book or reading the cliff notes may help us to get a decent grade on a test or write a good report that convinces others that we know more about the novel than we really do, but, in the long run, we don’t really know what the book was about, we only know what someone else has told us the book was about. Further, we have not developed the discipline of having to read something for ourselves or the tool of knowing how to interpret someone else’s words or ideas on our own.
I don’t think this comes as a surprise to any of us. Deep down, I think we all know that some short cuts are not always the best thing. Yet, have we ever thought about the fact that short cuts can be downright dangerous in life in general and in the life of faith?

When you look at the story of Jesus’ Temptation which is recorded in Matthew 4 as well as in Mark and Luke, there are many things for us to learn from this event which is one of the most famous moments from Jesus’ life. First, in each gospel, the story is set at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry and serves almost as an immediate reminder that the three years of his earthly ministry were not going to be easy or simple but rather quite challenging.

Second, the story makes it clear, that Jesus, as a human, lived through every element of the human experience as do we – even the temptation to do the wrong things. Jesus may have always chosen wisely. He may have always done the right thing. Yet, just like us, temptation came his way and the gospels are clear about it.

At the same time, the story wants us to also see that one of Jesus’ temptations was to take the easy way out, or said another way, to succumb to the temptation to take some short cuts. And, though these short cuts may have seemed like good ideas for at least a moment or two, they would have been disastrous decisions to make.

This morning, let me mention two such shortcuts, that are very much a part of Jesus’ story here that are equally enticing to us but that also have the potential to take us down the wrong paths.

First, Jesus was tempted by Satan to do good things the quickest way not the best way. I think the first and the second temptations fall squarely into this category. Jesus had amazing power at his disposal. He could have quickly turn rocks into bread and satisfied his hunger but he knew full well that this was not the way that God the Father wanted him to use his power. He had come to live life as do you and I, to experience the human condition from our perspective and turning stones into bread any time he got hungry would have defeated this major aspect of Jesus’ time on this earth.

Similarly, in the second temptation, Jesus could have very easily jumped off the temple and commanded his angels to catch him just as Satan suggested that he do. Had he done that in full view of everyone, it would have been a clear display of his power and certainly some would have instantly believed he was God’s son. Yet, they would not have believed because of his teachings, they would not have believed in light of his sacrifices, they would not have believed in light of his exemplary life. They would have believed because of his magic trick which would have been to believe for all of the wrong reasons. In fact, if you look at the gospels, so often when Jesus did perform a miracle, he was very hesitant for those who had seen it to broadcast it far and wide. Why? Because he did not want those acts to be the primary and sole reason that people chose to believe in him. He knew that this reason for faith would have produced a very shallow rather than a deep and abiding belief. Again, it might have been a quick way to produce good results but it was not the best way instead it was a short cut with serious ramifications.

We too live in a quick and instantaneous society and thus we so often want a quick and instantaneous solution. The problem is it just doesn’t work that way. Doing things right so often takes time, commitment and a life long devotion . In fact, some of the best things will never happen overnight.

The diet that promises us that we really can loose 20 pounds in three weeks may in fact produce the result that was promised. But, can we honestly say that the same diet helped us to learn a healthy way to eat or that through it we are creating good habits that we can continue to use for years to come. So often, our shortcuts help us win the battle, but loose the war.

Yet, we are tempted. And, we are tempted not only to take shortcuts in life but again to take them in our spiritual lives too. We say, “I’ll just believe what someone else tells me the Bible says, I don’t have time to read the Bible and understand it for myself.” This might be the quick way but it will never be the best way. Or, we may say the opposite that still implies the same idea. “I tried to make time to pray for a solid two weeks,” we say, “and when I didn’t get anywhere I gave up on it…” which is a way of saying that when it didn’t work out fairly quickly I determined that I had done all I can do.

A man by the name of James Smith has written a new book about the way that our faith is formed. When he talks in particular about developing our children and grandchildren spiritually, Smith points out that we have made too much out of the idea that the life of faith is about developing the right knowledge or the right beliefs. But, just as if not more important is developing the right habits. Smith says that for children it is the week in and week out act of going to church, the day in and day out discipline of praying, the month in and month out setting aside of regular income for the church that produces strong Christians. It is the cultivation of habits that leads to strong adult believers not telling them every once in a while what they should believe and expect it stick. Again, it is not the quick fix or short cut of a few words, it is the life long habit that produces the good results. (From You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith)

Even further, in the third temptation Jesus was also tempted in another way that is also very common to our own lives. Therein, Jesus was tempted to bow down and worship Satan and thus inherit all of the kingdoms of the world. Again, Jesus was tempted to quickly get the result he wanted. But this time, the quick result came in the form of worshipping the devil or setting aside what he knew to be right. In the first two temptations, Jesus must choose the best way over the quick way, and yesterday changing stone into bread or performing a miracle were not unethical just not the best thing to do. But here he must choose the right way over the unethical way. The right way over bowing down to the devil. Did Jesus want all of the world to recognize him as Lord? Was this the end game that he was after? Absolutely! But, just because it was what he was after – should he take a short cut by employing whatever means necessary to get there? Absolutely not!

Of course, the other way of saying this is through the old idea that the end justifies the means. And here, that idea is further enhanced through our impatience. If I don’t take matters into my hands, if I don’t lower my standards just a little bit, then we will never, ever get there. In essence, the third temptation is an extension of the first two. We start out simply by trying to take short cuts out of our impatience which leads to a willingness as the time and years go by to go so far as to do things unethical out of a deep desire to get what we want. So what if we have to make a deal with the devil, look at what we have accomplished, look at our good results.

During my first year at Duke, there was a new professor that had taken the Divinity School by storm. It wasn’t his first year teaching there but he was in his first few years and compared to most of our professors he was rather young. Yet, he was incredible intelligent, had natural teaching skills and a personality that endeared him to students. Without question, his classes were among the most popular and his future was bright.

One day, our dean entered his classroom in the middle of his lecture and asked him to leave. That unexpected, surreal moment, led to several days of equally unexpected moments as we all began to learn that several elements of his resume had been falsified. There was work he claimed had been published that had not and credentials he claimed to have that he did not have and in the end he was fired.

Did he have the ability to be where he was? Absolutely. Would he have ultimately arrived at the very same place with a little patience and hard work?I have no doubt. But, he couldn’t wait, he knew what he wanted, and he gave in and did whatever was necessary to get what he wanted.

Short cuts can be incredibly dangerous. They can cause us to settle for good instead of best and they can even cause us to make a deal with the devil by doing whatever necessary to get what we want. When the temptation to take the shortcut stares you right in the face, which way will you go? The easy way? Or the ethical and best way? We know which Jesus chose. Which will we choose? Amen.