Text: Luke 4:1-13
Tempted and tried we’re, oft made to wonder
Why it should be thus all the day long;
While there are others living about us,
Never molested, though in the wrong.
Farther along we’ll know more about it,
Farther along we’ll understand why;
Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine,
We’ll understand it all by and by.
Oscar Wilde once said, “I can resist anything except temptation.” For certain, temptation is a part of the human experience. Everything from the “hot” sign at Krispy Kreme, to going to the movies instead of the gym, to using our power and privilege to gain advantage over others and everything in between, we face temptations almost daily (or as the song says, “all the day long.”) Even our brother Jesus couldn’t escape being tempted.
Our Lenten journey begins with the narrative of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. Coming off of his baptism and at the inauguration of his public ministry, Luke tells us that Jesus “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” While there, he ate nothing, and at the end of the forty days, we are told, he was famished—as in ravenous, hungry, starving, empty. Enter now, the tempter, or as the story calls him “the devil.” Hey Jesus, if you are the Son of God, (or put another way: if you are really who you say you are), command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Now, if this were Oprah, we would have a different ending to this story for in her new ad for Weight Watchers she passionately proclaims: “This is my joy. I LOVE bread.” But thankfully we are talking about Jesus here and not Oprah.
Jesus answered, “One does not live by bread alone.” As it is with many of the stories and lessons in the bible, things are not always as they seem. And such is the case with this first temptation. For sure this first temptation was to entice Jesus to satisfy his craving for food, that most basic, physical, biological need. It was a temptation of the senses, an appeal to appetite, and in many ways the most common and most dangerous of the devil’s allurements. But Satan was not simply tempting Jesus to eat. Satan’s temptation was to have him eat in a spectacular way—using his divine powers for selfish purposes. The temptation was in the invitation to turn stones into bread miraculously, instantaneously, without waiting or postponing physical gratification. How often are, we, too, faced with this temptation? How often do we act out of ego, and while we may meet an immediate need, we do so in ways that flaunt our superiority and success? It is a real modern day temptation!
In his second temptation, the devil casts away all subtlety and stakes everything on a blunt, bold proposition. From a high mountain he showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world—the cities, the fields, the flocks, the herds and everything nature could offer. With wealth, splendor and earthly glory spread before them, Satan said to Jesus, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority…if you will but fall down and worship me.” In this second temptation Satan is falling back on one of his false but fundamental propositions: that everyone has a price, that material things finally matter most, that ultimately you can buy anything in this world for money. We need no examples here. We know all too well this real modern day temptation!
Realizing that he had utterly failed in his first two attempts to persuade Jesus to use his powers for personal and physical gratification, Satan went to the other extreme and tempted Jesus to throw himself upon God’s protection. He took Jesus into the Holy City, to the pinnacle of the temple overlooking the spacious courts and people below, and quoted scripture: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “God will command the angels concerning you, to protect you, and on their hands they will bear you up…”
Hidden in this appeal from Satan was another real human temptation—the temptation to perform some dazzling feat, some astounding exploit which might bring crowds of amazed and attentive onlookers. Surely leaping from the temple turret and landing in the courtyard unhurt would be such a feat. It would be a sign and a wonder, the fame of which would spread like wildfire throughout all Judaea and cause many to believe that the Messiah had indeed come. How often do we fall into this temptation? Taking the bait, all for a little fame and recognition.
Temptation is one of those things we have a hard time talking honestly about in the church. We worry the conversation will go in one of two less-than-helpful directions. Either we’ll take the cultural cue and move immediately to a “racy” conversation where the talk is all about sex, power and drugs (or whatever folks find most provocative), or we’ll move in a more traditionalist view and warn against temptation in vanilla terms filled with moralistic vim and vigor but that never really touch ground.
So today, I want to be honest, realistic, and very personal in talking about temptation. I have named this sermon The Gift of Temptation. A more accurate title would be A Confession of Temptation. Let me explain.
Some months ago, late summer early fall, it became apparent that we had several young adults who were experiencing homelessness sleeping on our patio. Moved by their stories, I made a decision to not trespass them from our property. Within weeks, some of these young people had set up tents on our patio and were sleeping here every night. This continued until recently. Over the past months, the conversation about how to minister to these young people has grown intense and frustrating within our church family. And I confess to you, I have not provided the pastoral leadership necessary to help our congregation deal effectively with this issue. Instead, I gave in to the temptation of individual power over community decision-making. In the process, I soothed my own conscience by having a conversation with the deacons about what I was doing. I even asked for their blessing. But I had already moved ahead without that blessing. Out of my own sense of urgency and desire to act, I failed to honor our community process—a value that is at the heart of what it means to be church together, particularly this church.
So where is the gift in having given in to this temptation? The gift of temptation is that the temptation offers clarity and self-definition. I continue to feel clear that our church has something to offer these young people who are experiencing homelessness that probably few other churches in our city would offer. That feels clear to me. AND, I am clear that what that something is is not for me to decide. It is for our community to decide, together. I am clear that the kind of pastoral leadership I want to offer is the kind that honors and encourages transparent conversation while nurturing the voice of the community and not any one individual. The gift of this particular temptation has reminded me that when our community is not of one mind on a matter of substance, which is inevitable in community, relationships are more important than positions, the process of decision-making is more important than the actual decision, and grace not judgment is the bedrock of our faith.
So how do we find redemption when we fall into temptation? In the coming days, our lay leaders will guide a process that will engage our community in how and what we want our ministry to be to those experiencing homelessness in our city, something that I should have done from the start. It is necessary for us to take a pause and be intentional as we continue this conversation. That doesn’t mean those in our community who have been working with and supporting our friends who are homeless will stop. That ministry will continue. But it does mean, for those who wish to be in this conversation, there will be a place for your voice. And together, we will listen to one another, honor our differences, and decide together our next steps. My role will be to share with you honestly and with transparency where I sense God’s spirit leading us. Your role will be to decide how we will respond as a congregation.
How else do we find redemption when we fall into temptation? One of my fellow lectionary participants shared this week that his greatest temptation in life is “not to accept grace.” He talked about the temptation of “grace plus.” That is, the temptation to think of grace as “grace plus there is something I have to do to earn it.” The theological notion that grace stands all alone—that there is nothing outside of grace—is, indeed, hard to believe. And how tempting it is to believe that grace really is “grace plus.” How tempting it is to NOT believe that God’s grace is freely given? With you, my church community, I stand in need of such grace.
I started with an old hymn that demonstrates another temptation – our instinct to believe that it is those around us who are in the wrong. What I’ve tried to say today is that we are all tempted and tried, and sometimes our greatest gifts come from these very places of temptation—in the clarity and self-definition they bring. My Lenten discipline this year is to try and live into the truth that although I let our community down in leading us through a communal conversation around our ministry to those experiencing homelessness, there is grace and there are gifts to be found in the temptations we face.