Year C, Lent 1
February 17, 2013
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”
Welcome to this Feast of Our Lord nestled in the midst of our annual Lenten season. I hope you have been pondering last week’s introduction to Lenten observances, searching your heart for ways to participate, practice and pray that draws you closer to God. I hope you are finding your own way into Lenten observance.
The temptation of Jesus Christ is always the way we start Lent. This story is found in the three synoptic Gospels, which are? ___ It is also found in several places in St. John’s narrative, and Paul holds it up too, in particular in his letter to the Hebrews. Temptation is an important theme to consider as Christians. Maybe more accurately, it is an important theme to consider as human beings.
Why is that? Well most importantly, we need to think about it because it is a constant presence in our lives. Well, it is in mine. We are constantly faced with choices. Large ones, small ones and everything in between, and in our range of choices there are very often some choices that are better than others. By better, particularly in terms of the category “temptation,” what I mean mostly is that most choices favor one party over another. The primary temptation is that me, my family, my kind will benefit at the expense of the other, the stranger, the enemy, the least of these. One over another; that is not the kingdom of God. A subcategory of this temptation is pleasure. Pleasure is a wonderful thing, I recommend it daily, but the pleasure that tempts, sinful pleasure, is pleasure that is not necessarily exploitive (though it often is), but it is also pleasure that defers or obscures its cost or dangers. Drugs and alcohol, pornography and gambling provide pleasure, but it is a dystopic pleasure because the nature of the pleasure itself distracts us from its true cost to our bodies, our minds, our relationships with God and everything as well as possibly exploiting others. When a choice stands to benefit ourselves or our side at the expense of others or if it’s hazards and costs are concealed or obfuscated, it is a temptation. And temptation, very simply put is a test. That is the Latin root of the word, and it is a very important test to pass, be it administered by God, like in the Garden, putting those two powerful Trees within arms reach, or by other forces, less noble forces that are extant in the shadows, in the darker corners of our beings and our world.
Here again, the brilliance of the Gospels is revealed. The three temptations Jesus faces: physical desires and needs as represented by hunger and the prod to make bread from stone, idolatry, in the form of worshiping the devil in exchange for the worldly excesses of kingship, and lastly, the tempting of faith itself, these represent the breadth of human temptation. Let’s take a look.
“We do not live by bread alone.” This temptation illustrates the gamut of physical temptations that ensnare us. Our relationships with our physical world are mightily disordered. We eat when we are not hungry, drink when we are not thirsty, and we smoke when… well there really aren’t many discernible benefits of smoking, though medical marijuana is a probable exception. And, of course we eat and drink things that are bad for us and for our world, and too often too much of it. Our sexuality takes our minds and bodies places we ought not be, drawing us away from situations of proper sexual expression, which is defined by stability, love and commitment and not by who is doing what to whom and how. As we said last week, God is not concerned with what we are doing but why.
Our temporal lives, our lives lived in time and place and the time and place in which we live are extremely important in the economy of God. That the Word became flesh and dwelt among us proves this, so I am not shunning the created world, it is precious to God and must be to us. What I, more importantly, what Jesus is saying is that the temporal realm, time and place are important but there are other things that are important, too. God is important. Goodness and beauty are important. Love is important, and not only in relation but as an ideal, as a Form. God is important and God is not of the creation. And, and for most of us, physical temptations, sensual ones, ones our bodies physically rub up against, interact with, consume, fellow created things, these are extremely distracting to us, creatures that we are. Sites of great sin and temptation to great sin. “One does not live by bread (or sex or beer or French fries) alone.” Well, at least not in Lent.
Second, Jesus teaches, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him.” The primary and overwhelming sin we face as human beings is idolatry: treating as God that which is not God. This happens in the physical realm, our urges to consume, our desire for specific sensations, our ability to make choices. We also do it in our relationships in the lordship we give to our ideas, our opinions our needs, and this leads us to terrible places, leads us to do terrible things to each other. When we begin to value things, states, conditions over the well being of others, it is the same as choosing things over God. “Just as you did it to one of the least of these… you did to me.” When we offer a disproportionate amount of our energy, time, love, intention and attention to things, to created things and not to God, we are we are being tempted with idolatry. Make no mistake, we’ve been warned. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him.”
Lastly, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” What great writing we have here. The devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple, the center of the Jewish universe, and is cited Psalm 91 as God’s assurance that he will be saved. We call it a leap of faith, right? Radical obedience to what we discern as Gods will, that is not just the gold standard we aspire to as faithful Christians, it is kind of the basic Christian contract: when you know what God wants you to do, you have to do it. And discerning God’s will is always an act of faith. Here Jesus is offered a literal leap of faith, but instead He goes back to the Torah, avoiding, as one scholar writes, the spiritual vertigo of this temptation and becomes, as Isaiah writes, he “who walks in darkness yet trusts in the name of the Lord.” Our faith in God is pure, is right only when free from tests. The faith in Jesus Christ that we are called to cannot be confirmed by anything but faith itself. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
As I like to test all of my sermons, what does this have to do with our lives on the average Tuesday afternoon, or at least the average Tuesday afternoon of Lent? Quite a lot, actually. One of the points of Lent, the point of the participation, practice and prayer we are working on, is the cultivation of mindfulness, the building of awareness, the increase of our knowledge of our self, the world and of God. As a famous dog once said, “Knowing is half the battle.” We have to know ourselves in relation to the world if we are ever going to know ourselves in relation to the Word. We have to have a clear and critical eye for our own weaknesses as well as our strengths; our own liabilities as well as our assets. If we walk around ignorant of the very personal pitfalls that we all encounter, we are much more likely fall in.
When I was at divinity school, we had a pastoral unit on clergy sexual misconduct, which started with the words, “I know no one in here will never do these things, but we have to go through it.” The vast majority of clergy sexual misconduct is not preying upon children, but it is nominally consensual sex between adults, just adults that ought not be having sex. Not usually illegal, but terribly unethical and immoral. Priest-congregant, never ok. But it happens a lot. A lot. Because priests or pastors are immoral? Opportunists? Scumbags? Sometimes. Mostly, though, it is because priests or pastors are unprepared to face intensely intimate situations that are part and parcel of ministry. If you do not know your weaknesses, your liabilities, the places you are most vulnerable, you are in grave risk. My take home from that class was that I very well could find myself in a sticky situation and I have to be prepared for it now and not find myself horribly surprised in a confusing, real-time situation in which someone, mostly the other person, could get hurt. We’re all human, right? That’s the point. We need to be prepared with self knowledge to face the world in which we live. We need to know ourselves. We need to know where we go astray, where we are liable to slip up.
Jesus passed the test. But then again, He is Jesus. Which tests will you pass? It is up to you. Take time this Lent, the dark season of our year, take time in the darker corners of yourself. Where are you at risk? Where can you fall down? Because we all can. We all do. In Jesus Christ, though, we can delve into the darkest; He is at hand. AMEN