(a sermon for March 10, 2019, the First Sunday in Lent, based on Luke 4:1-13
It is very interesting to me that one of the key words in our text for this morning is also one of the smallest: “IF,” as in “IF you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread,” “IF you will worship me, it will all be yours,” and “IF you are the Son of God, thrown yourself down from here,” for the angels will protect you. It’s very relevant, this word “if,” for you see, not only did the devil tempt Jesus to material satisfaction, great power and popular glory during those 40 days in the wilderness, he also tempted Jesus to question his very identity, and that’s arguably the worst temptation of all; for how horrible is it for any of us to have doubt cast upon who we really are?
Many years ago now back when I was in seminary, I was actually assigned to write and present a sermon on this very text, about the temptation of Jesus, for a preaching class I was taking. It was an assignment I will never forget, because being both a beginning preacher and a fairly young person at the time, I really struggled to find a way in that sermon to convey something of the biblical understanding of temptation in such a way that was relevant for people of today (and, yes, so I could impress the professor and get a good grade in the process!). Eventually, I ended up falling back on a few of the typical little temptations we all face in life: you know, the bag of cookies in the kitchen cupboard that seems to be calling our name; the chocolate bars we’ve stashed in the desk drawer “in case of emergency;” the midnight run to any fast-food joint for so-called “comfort food.” And if you noticed a pattern there, you’re right: this sermon could easily have been titled, “Temptation, Thy Name is Food!” But it seemed to work, at least for me; and besides, it connected – however peripherally – to Christ’s confession that “One does not live by bread alone!”
Now as I recall, when I preached this sermon for my professor and fellow students; well, let’s just say they were… kind. And I learned a lot from the critique; but the lesson I remember to this day came from a comment made by a classmate, who was not particularly impressed with my homiletical eloquence. He said to me, not unkindly, but nonetheless quite firmly, “Don’t you realize, Lowry, that what for you is a minor annoyance is for some of us a lifelong battle?” He then went on to describe for all of us in that classroom how for many years he’d struggled with a food addiction; how at one point he’d had almost died from overeating; and about how now, though he was healthy and moving on with his life (which included answering a call to pastoral ministry), nonetheless the temptation to go back to that was still a day-to-day, moment to moment thing in his life. This was, he said, like an ongoing assault on his very identity: in the end the decision to resist that temptation, or for that matter, succumbing to it had everything to do with what kind of person he knew he really was and felt called to be in his life; not unlike, he added, how Jesus wrestled with the devil in the wilderness, and affirming his own identity in the process. Likewise, my classmate explained, in enduring and resisting the temptation that food and eating held for him his own true identity was affirmed.
Suffice to say I learned a lot that day…
Ultimately, you see, temptation is less about the lure of life’s so-called riches (fattening or otherwise), than it is about a challenge to one’s true identity and all that that implies. David Lose writes that though the devil tempted Jesus with “bread, power, and safety,” for us it could just as well be “youth, beauty, and wealth. Or confidence, fame, and security.” The truth is that the temptations we experience are usually pretty specific and very concrete, and yet it can also be said that all temptations are pretty much the same, in that they seek to draw us away from ourselves and who we truly are. It is, in the truest sense of the term, an attempt on “identity theft,” most especially “in our relationship with God and the identity we receive in and through that relationship,” that of being a true child of God!
I don’t think I have to tell you just how pervasive a thing is temptation in our lives: I mean, from the time we’re teenagers grappling with “peer pressure” to engage of all manner of reckless behavior all for the sake of fitting in; to the all-too adult crises of morality, ethics and faith that accompany so-called “opportunities” for personal advancement, financial gain, social acceptance or… something else. But whatever the temptation happens to be, the common denominator here is about abandoning one’s identity to embrace another that seems to us at least in that one moment to be easier, more advantageous and pleasure-filled.
The Rev. James Lawrence, one of the Deans at Pacific School of Religion in California, refers to this as the “ferocious and… constant” temptation to serve the “lower ego” rather than “that which the kingdom of heaven is all about.” Now, lest you think I’m overstating this, friends, consider this: some years ago there was a best-selling book entitled Success! which was essentially a self-help manual on how to make it in the business world; it remains infamous to this day in large part because of the moral parameters the author, a man by the name of Michael Korda, set forth in the very first chapter: “”It’s OK to be greedy,” he wrote. “It’s OK to look out for Number One. It’s OK to be Machiavellian if you can get away with it. It’s OK to recognize that honesty is not always the best policy.” Success, Korda writes, means getting over worrying about the moral content of what you do, because “morality has very little to do with success.” Success, according to this book, is getting to the top of the ladder without caring much what that ladder is leaning against, or who you are in climbing up there!
That in a nutshell, friends, is the very nature of temptation! And, I might add, it’s an attitude diametrically opposed to the gospel! Because it does matter what our ladder is leaning against; what is that Jesus said? “What does it profit them if them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” (Mark 8:36) You see, that’s the primary danger of being “led into temptation;” for the sake of that which might at that moment seem like everything (but also inevitably passes in the next moment!)you risk losing yourself, that wonderful, irreplaceable one of a kind person that God has created and intends for you to be! And to lose that… well, that is everything!
But as we said before, in this world such assaults on our identity and ongoing, and temptation is always going to be a part of our lives; the question is how we’re going to resist it! I’m reminded here of the story of the little boy who’d been misbehaving mightily all day; and finally, his mother, exasperated at the depths of his naughtiness in that particular moment, asked her son (lovingly, mind you!), “Why do you act this way?” And the little boy says, “Momma, sometimes I feel like I’ve got two great big dogs fighting inside of me; one’s good, but the other one is really, really bad!” And the mother asks, “Well, which dog is winning?” To which the boy respond, “It depends on which one I feed!”
Well, I would suggest to you this morning, friends, that for you and I who have to regularly face the temptations of this life we would do well to feed on the example of Jesus.
Each year at the beginning of the Lenten season we in the church are scripturally reminded that before beginning his public ministry and eventually “turning his face toward Jerusalem” and the cross that awaited him there, Jesus spent forty days facing and resisting temptation; learning, as Frederick Beuchner has aptly put it, “what it meant to be Jesus.” And ultimately, that’s our journey as well: spending these moments with Jesus in the wilderness, we also have a place for us to re-learn what it means to be who we are in the face of all these temptations that come as an assault on our identity as God’s children. Just as our Savior came to grip with his “human nature” in the wilderness, his temptation before the devil can help us to stay true to who we are before God even when we are sorely tempted to abandon that precious identity for another, lesser, personage.
And how does this happen? Well, to begin with, remember that each time when Jesus resisted the evil one’s temptations, he did so with his mind set on the Word of God: command a stone to become a loaf of bread? “One does not live by bread alone.” All the kingdoms of the world? “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Protection of the angels so that “you will not dash your foot against a stone” (notice that by this time, the devil was even starting to quote scripture (Psalm 91:12, to be exact!)? “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Understand, Jesus did not flip through his handy list of anti-temptation texts; he’d enveloped God’s Word for his life and knew it as his own. And so it should be for us, responding to the challenges of temptation first by being “attentive” to God’s Word and its application to real life!
Granted, there are many grey areas in this life, times when it’s not altogether clear which way we should go, not to mention those times when we’re mired in moments of utter weakness (did you notice, by the way, that just prior to the devil coming on the scene, we’re told that Jesus “ate nothing at all… and… he was famished?”); it’s in times just like these that the line between goodness and evil can easily blur, and we need God’s Word as the pivot point for how God wants us and our lives to be.
What’s more, friends, remember that when Jesus was in the wilderness, he also kept God close as well. Jesus, Luke tells us, went there filled and led there by the Holy Spirit and moreover, in at least one other version of this story (from Matthew), God’s angels ministered unto him in his isolation and hunger. Simply put, our lives need to be lived within the shelter of God’s love and protection; which means we need to pray, which means we need to sufficiently quiet ourselves so that we can truly listen… listen to how God answers so that we can know and trust how God is leading us.
How many of us, I wonder, make our choices in life without benefit of prayer? More than once over the years, I’ve spoken with people who, long after the fact, found themselves deeply regretting some choice they had made in the past. And more often than not, in recalling that temptation, they’ll say, “I should have known… I should have known because it didn’t feel right from the start.” Call that instinct if you want, or 20-20 hindsight, or else confess to not actually paying attention to what the Lord was trying to say to you in that moment; but the fact is, we can’t make use of God’s spiritual armor if we’re going to make ourselves absent from God! As it says elsewhere in scripture, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you.” (James 4:7-8).
The bottom line, friends, is just as the Holy Spirit led Jesus in the wilderness, so that Spirit leads us; and the good news in these times of temptation that come to us all is that we do not have to be in this thing alone. I’m reminded here of a the story about a man who applied for a position with the New York City Police Department, and who in the application process, was interviewed by a panel of officers who tested this candidate’s ability to react in a variety of situations. The man had done extremely well, however, and finally came the last question of the day: “What would you do,” one of the officers asked, “if you had to arrest your mother?” There was a long silence, but then the man replied, “I’d call for backup!”
To know who you really are, to affirm your unique God-given identity amongst all the temptations of this life, does sometimes require calling for backup! But the good news is that as children of God, we always have back up. After all, isn’t that why we pray every Sunday to God our Father in heaven, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…?”
Thanks be to God, to stands with us in times of trial and temptation; and to whom is the power and the glory forever.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry