A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 6 March 2022 [Lent 1]:
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
In many ways, the purpose of the season of Lent is summarized by today’s gospel lesson. In its recounting of the “Temptations of Christ”, Luke also speaks to the real challenges of what it takes for you and me to follow Jesus. In fact, this reading challenges us to move beyond the cartoons that purport to describe Lent and move into the meaning of Christ’s directive to “take up our cross” and follow him. And the crux of the matter can be boiled down to one word: Temptation.
Let me begin by asking a few questions. Is temptation a bad thing? Is it something that the faithful should avoid? It seems that it might be, given (for instance) how does Jesus teaches us to pray that God not lead us into temptation? Does God do such a thing? If so, what does this say about God? Why would a “good” God lead us into such a dangerous problem?
The gospel for the First Sunday in Lent – not of Lent because Sundays are always celebrations of Easter – the gospel for this inaugural Sunday always focuses on the “Temptations of Christ”. Temptation is the lesson’s key. It is the lynchpin not only for this day’s gospel but also for the entirety of Lent. So, if we misunderstand what temptation is – and what it is not, our entire experience of this season and what it means to follow Jesus becomes tainted with distortion. Here, as simply as I know how to express it, is what I mean.
If we view temptation as a bad thing, something to be avoided, and if we pray that God not lead us “into temptation”, then what we have at work is a notion that God is a big part of the problem. If viewed negatively, temptation conveys a twisted notion of God as
some sinister stranger in a black limousine, circling the block, looking for some seducible youngster: “Hey little girl, want a piece of candy?” Temptation. Testing. Can our response to such temptation at least be graded on a curve?
Yet, as common a notion of temptation as this cartoon description is – and too many of us both inside and outside the church hold to this deformed perspective – as many of us as do hold this distortion, it is not true. It is not biblical. It is not what God is like nor what God’s life is about. I say this because temptation is part and parcel of what it means to be fully human. It is, more precisely, what it means to be made in “God’s image”, which is to say to be truly free. For temptation is always about choosing, and choosing freely is what makes humanity distinct. What this means is that in and of itself temptation is neither negative nor positive. Rather, it is at the heart of human life. Choosing characterizes human life. Therefore, the issue surrounding temptation centers upon who or what our chooses are based. And here is where the “religious” question unavoidably emerges.
Since everyone is religious, the issue is what we worship, what we hold at the center. Inevitably, each choice we make is a demonstration of what is most important in our lives. In terms of this unavoidable religious issue of who or what is at the center, humanity is always tempted to choose something or someone other than the Creator of heaven and earth.
It is in this light of choosing that I have found a helpful insight into what has always been a troubling term and concept for me: namely, “original sin”. The understanding of “original sin” that makes the most sense to me relates directly to the issue of choosing and temptation. In this helpful vein, original sin is seen as humanity’s willingness and ability to deceive ourselves. We have the God-given freedom to fake ourselves out. Biblically, the essential temptation, the unavoidable self-deception is that we can replace God and live life on our own terms.
Now here is the kicker: Just like us, Jesus had to make choices about who he was in relationship to God and what living a God-centered life might look like in him. To the extent that we tend to want to view Jesus as some biblical superhero, we miss something vitally important about the God-life and our lives. So, to draw this sermon to a close, I want to decode Christ’s temptations as a way of clarifying our own temptations and with this, perhaps put ourselves in a new place to take Lent seriously and helpfully.
The first point to make is that we are tested in our faith that God is the center, the Source of true life. We all enter the “wilderness” at some point, where our sense of control is threatened and the tempting voices within us lure us into considering taking shortcuts and replace God’s will for our own. To this end, we confront what the biblical tradition notes as the “devil” and describes as the nature of evil. For the most part we sophisticates don’t take the “devil” or “evil” seriously. As a telling example, I well-remember an occurrence in my first parish experience outside of Boston.
On one Sunday, perhaps it was this Sunday, the Rector (who was a good preacher) posed this situation for his toney parish congregation. He said, what if the devil flew over everybody’s house, what would he see? The reaction to this image was quantifiably overwhelming. A good many people were furious at the thought. That soon thereafter this priest wore a red devil’s costume to the local school fare only added fuel to this fire. Let it be sufficient to say at this point, I am not interested in what the devil looks like, evil (that is, the destructive force in the world that rebels against God and God’s will) demands to be taken seriously. As the prayer of Confession that we have been using this year expresses it, we need to take seriously “the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf”.
Evil is real and potent. Evil is personal, not abstract. Evil is distorted good. Yet, it masquerades as good. Evil is the enemy. In this regard, one might perceive the reason we use the “contemporary” version of the Lord’s Prayer, where we plead to be “delivered from the time of trial” precisely because our strength, our will power is painfully limited. We are not meant to be our own centers. It behooves us to remember this because as history shows, the consequences of this self-deception are enormous.
Another item to note quickly, concerning Jesus’ experience of temptation in the wilderness is the unsettling fact that the devil knows scripture better than we do -- well enough to confuse us with his twisting of scripture’s context and intent to suit his own distorting purposes. The old rabbinical adage holds a true admonition: The Bible should never be read. It should be studied.
But the primary point about Jesus’s temptations is that our Lord chooses to keep his relationship with the Father over everything else. In his deep hunger, he eschews the temptation to be relevant. Why not take the shortcut of easing the world’s hunger. If Jesus had the power to turn water into wine, why not expand the program and really make a difference? The answer is that the bread we deeply need feeds the soul in addition to the body; and only God has that bread. No shortcuts; no substitutions.
Going to a high mountain, the devil revealed all the kingdoms of the world and offered control over them all to Jesus, if he would only worship the devil. Undoubtedly, Jesus would rule the world well, but the issue is the “religious” issue that Jesus had to face just as you and I do. Faced with gridlocked legislatures, rising inflation, authoritarians on the loose, who wouldn’t vote for a “get ‘er done” candidate? “Think of what you could do, Jesus! Just let me in, and I’ll put you on every front page in the world.”
Yet, for Jesus, God is the center, the true Source of light and life. Commitment is the glue for all relationship; and Jesus knows that there is no substitute or shortcut to knowing who we are and Whose we are. The fact is that Jesus would rather die than break Communion with the Father. That is the demonstrating essence of the cross.
The last temptation has the highest octane of the three. When the devil challenges Jesus to do something huge, like bungy diving without a bungy cord from the Temple spire, it tempts that part of Jesus and us that wants to do something spectacular or at least noticeable. In this regard, I appreciate Henri Nouwen’s notion that we need to downsize our need to be noticed, our need to stand out, even our need to make a difference and simply be ourselves, present to do our best, not needing or seeking other’s affirmation but mindfully striving to represent God in our lives for the sake of the world.
“Save us from the time of trial … and deliver us from evil.” The question for this day and for this preparatory season of Lent is to ask what is the basis upon which we choose our lives? In what ways are we susceptible to shortcutting? Are we prepared for the testing, knowing the points of weakness each of us has?
God’s answer to our questions and our temptations comes dramatically and eternally in Jesus’ cross and resurrection. The cross reveals that there are no shortcuts, even for God’s Son. The empty tomb demonstrates that fear and death are real, but they and their power are never the last and defining word. God’s Word prevails, and that is our hope and our life and our Good News. Amen.