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A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock


[Genesis 9:8-17; 1Peter 318-22; Mark 1:9-15]

Here’s an important question, especially for Lent: Is temptation a bad thing?  After all, are we not seemingly taught by Jesus himself to pray to God that we are not led into temptation…? So, again, I ask you: Is temptation a bad thing? Something to be avoided? 

Not wanting to tempt you with any delay, I will give you my answer: No, temptation is not a bad thing.  Morally speaking, temptation is neutral.  It is neutral because temptation stems from making choices; and making choices lies at the very heart of what it means to be fully human.  Now having said this (and perhaps tempted you to report me to the Bishop), the key issue about temptation stems from what motivates or shapes our choosing.  As I have repeatedly said to you, everyone is religious; the problem is what we worship, what we hold at the center.  Consequently, given this truth, the basic point about temptation rests in whether our choices are made with respect to God or some other substitute for the Creator of heaven and earth.  And for the record, this is the reason I choose and greatly appreciate the contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer, in which we are guided much more realistically to pray: Save us from the time of trial… as opposed to not being led into temptation.  Of course, God wants us to face temptation and choose to keep communion with the Holy One.  Such choices are tests of our own commitment: that is, what is at the heart and soul of our lives.  The “trial” rests with the extent to which we fail to face the challenge to live out what we say is most important.  So, how do you experience the trial?  What do you do about it?

As I say, in one way or another (or so it seems to me) the ultimate trial , the ultimate temptation we all face, is either choosing God and the God-life as our life’s orientation; or we choose something else to define ourselves –something that is more manageable or more convenient or more pleasurable.  The essential issue about choosing and temptation is the tempting prospect of replacing God-at-the-center.  However, notwithstanding the powerful allure of such replacement choosing, it turns out that the job of God-at-the-center is not open.  Moreover, nor are any of the Holy One’s creatures qualified for the position.  But the replacement temptation still exists in all of us, and there are consequences to what we do with temptation.  Temptation, in and of itself, is not a bad thing because choosing is what it means to be human and choosing God and the God-life (we believe) matters ultimately.

In the season of Lent, we hear a lot about “temptation”. And on this inaugural Sunday in Lent , “temptation” plays the pivotal role.  For instance, the Collect of the Day speaks to the fact that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Satan that great prosecuting attorney, whose eyes never miss any human slip and being the merciless “tattle-tale” Satan is, he is always delighted and quick to bring such violations to the Divine Judge’s attention.  In this vein, one might figure that if God’s own Spirit leads his own Son to be tempted by the great “Accuser”, then might we ask if this is a set up for mere mortals like us.  

In today’s gospel lesson from Mark, we confront another example of the confusion temptation holds for many.  Mark reports that immediately after Jesus’ baptism several stunning events occur.  First, in response to Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan, the heavens are torn apart to reveal the Spirit descending upon Jesus like a dove. Then this scene is wrapped up by the declaration from a heavenly voice: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”1  But here is the point: With hardly a moment to breathe amidst all this high revelatory drama, Mark reports that “immediately” the same Spirit of God drove Jesus into the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan for forty days.2  (By the way, the Greek that describes this propulsion into the wilderness involves no transporting uber drive.  The word we have translated as “drove” has in Greek more to do with being “expelled” -- something that Adam and Eve experienced after making the choice to eat the forbidden fruit.  

From all this, we once again can wonder: Is this the God we can trust?  Is this the love we expect from the Maker of heaven and earth, the One we (in turn) are called to love?

This is an important question about God’s nature, a question of what God is like; and it  reminds me of the story about St. Teresa of Avila, the  16th century Spanish nun, mystic, and reformer.  The story runs along these lines: St. Teresa had an unfortunate happenstance in that it is said that she fell off a horse and landed ignominiously in the mud, at which point she heard Jesus say to her, “This is how I treat my friends,” to which Teresa replied sassily, “If this is how You treat your friends, it is no wonder You have so few!”

If we see temptation as a bad thing, something to be avoided at all costs, then what do we make of the fact that God placed his Son (not to mention the rest of us) in a situation to choose our guiding principle?  What is our answer to this choosing?  One way or another, that choosing is made either proactively or by default.  Some think that if temptation is a bad thing and yet God places us in tempting situations, perhaps we need to consider finding a new god.  Replacement choice.  And at this point, this is precisely temptation’s significance.  What do we choose as our orienting center?  Do we choose to organize our lives around the One we claim creates all things; or do we find a replacement, a substitute?  Herein lies the reality of temptation.

God “expelled” Jesus into the wilderness, where the Son of God was tested, tempted to face the trial of who or what lay at his soul’s core.  This was not a punishment.  It was a confirming test, concerning how Jesus would choose, especially in light of the tempting options.  In a very real sense, the wilderness was the Father’s releasing the Son to live on his own without subsidy.  It was not a cruel punishment but a chance for the child to make his own decisions and confirm what kind of life would shape his identity and his actions.  To put it more in our own familiar experience, Jesus goes away to college and has his own apartment!  Choices.  Temptations.  Tests.  Consequences.  In Jesus’ unique and most telling case, he would rather die than break communion with the Father.  As scripture says, he was tempted in every way as we are, yet did not “sin”.  Jesus did not separate himself from God’s will, from God’s life.3

Temptation and testing: When I think of God’s testing, I think of making bread and testing the yeast.  The procedure is called “proofing the yeast”.  The baker puts some warm water in a small container in which a bit of sugar has been added.  Then a small amount of yeast is mixed into the fortified liquid and left alone for a few minutes.  After a time, if the cup has some foam on the surface of the liquid, the yeast not only passes the test; it is “good” and reliable to use.  

In the wilderness, Jesus is stripped of all subsidy, save for what the beasts and angels could provide.  He is “proofed”.  This means that in the temptation to replace God at the center of his life, Jesus chose union with the Father and the Father’s will.  

And for Jesus (as with us), there were consequences to this choice for Communion.  The consequences were manifest in the cross. All of which became the most profound demonstration of the love of God, which passes all our understanding and is something worthy of our faith in and our following of Emmanuel: God with us.  The God who remembers us – no matter what.  Amen.


1.  Mark 1:10

2.  Mark 1:12-13

3.  Hebrews 4:14-16

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