March 5, 2017
I hope you noticed the Frank and Ernest cartoon on the bulletin! It certainly reflects our Old Testament reading of Adam and Eve and that temptation of the fruit of the tree. For me, it brought back a memory of an Easter several years ago. I had plastic Easter eggs for the children's message. I talked about the anticipation of the goodies inside; chocolates, jelly beans, candy. But I had actually put broccoli in them figuring they'd be disappointed, I have a nasty streak if you hadn't noticed. But my joke turned around, Gary and Rosie's grand-kids were here that day and they loved getting broccoli for Easter!
I want to share another Frank and Ernest cartoon that fits more closely with the tenor of today's sermon. The two characters are standing before a pastor and Frank asks, “How come opportunity knocks once...but temptation beats on my door every day?” That's a pretty good question. The story of Adam and Eve and the story of Jesus in the desert both deal with temptation, temptation knocking on the door and how to deal with it is our topic for today.
Nurya Love Parish, an Episcopalian priest, reflected on the gospel lesson for today in Christian Century magazine. She has an interesting story. She wasn't raised in the church, she explored her faith in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. She was ordained a UU minister. But she found herself drawn to the story and life of Jesus and eventually made the move to Christianity.
A very early influence, she says, was a small magazine published by the Upper Room Ministries, called Weavings. She read it trying to understand what she called, “those mysterious beings, Christians.” An article by Wendy Wright on temptation based on today's gospel reading had her asking herself some questions, “Who was this Devil? What was Jesus doing talking to him in the desert? Did people really believe this stuff?” She says she didn't recognize herself in the story until the author caught her with this sentence, “The tradition teaches that these temptation stand for pride, power and possession.” She writes her reaction, “I didn't know much about Jesus, the devil or that desert, but I knew pride. I knew the desire for power; I knew the wish for possessions. All of the sudden the story wasn't about Jesus, it was about me too.”1
That is where we all should be when we read these stories in the bible. It is so easy to get caught up in debating details; the physical presence of the devil with Jesus; if Adam and Eve were real people or a story with a lesson. Those are not the right questions to be asking. What do these stories teach me about Jesus, and how I live in right relationship with him? That is what we need to discover in our own bible reading and in our worship time together...who is this Jesus and how do I live in relationship with him?
Let's look more closely at those temptations the devil threw at Jesus. I'm going to focus on the first, “IF you are the Son of God, (THEN) command these stones to become loaves of bread.” You may have noticed the title of today's sermon, “If-then revisited”. Three weeks ago I preached the sermon titled If-Then. My main point that day was that God has called us and has promised, from Romans 10:9—IF you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, (THEN) you will be saved.” Today's “if-then” statements are a little different, these are playing on desires that can be met by pursuing our own agenda. How can we get what we want without considering God's agenda? Adam and Eve forgot all about God when the temptation hit. The devil hits a hungry, weakened Jesus by challenging his power to get what he wants. IF you are who you think you are, THEN certainly you can prove it to me and satisfy your own wants and desires. Power and possessions and pride all in this one temptation. Power—demonstrate that you are capable of miracles! Possessions—make these rocks into the bread you desire. Pride—prove you are the Son of the Almighty God.
Jesus didn't forget about God; Jesus knows who he is. But he was weakened by hunger and the tempter goes right after the crucial questions—who are you and whose are you? It is important to see ourselves in the tempting, but more so in resisting the temptations. Jesus knew his scriptures and he used that for his defense. But more importantly, Jesus was intimately connected with God the Father. If we are to resist sin and temptation, it is critical that we be connected to God in Christ. Giving in to temptation moves us even farther away from God. And so, at the risk of saying the same thing every week, we need to be reading our scriptures and spending time in prayer if we are to know and live intimately with Jesus!
Two more temptations that Jesus faces, very similar in that the devil offers up ifs as a dare...if you are who you say you are, then throw yourself down and see if God's angels really save you. If you worship me, then I will give you all the possessions of the world and its glory. Jesus resisted.
There is kind of a challenging tone in two of these temptations, the word “really” is a clue that the question is not on the up and up. Did God really say...don't eat. If you are really the Son of God... We, the church and we as individuals face this in the world today; and perhaps we hear this in our own mind as we consider the doctrines of the church: Did God really create the world...or is this all just a cosmic accident? Did God really send his Son to earth as a man? Did Jesus really have to die on the cross? Did Jesus really rise again? Did God really open up the way to heaven as a free gift? Paul in the letter to the Romans does an exhaustive explanation of all those really questions. Today, Jayne read this, “much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. Tthe free gift following many trespasses brings justification” He assures it is free and is available to the many, to us. Through Jesus, he tells us, we have “justification and life” and will be made righteous.
We have another “if-then” question developing. IF Jesus has taken care of our justification, THEN why resist temptation? Because sin separates us from God; that's what sin does. Not so much the individual lists of sins, but anything that misses the mark of being a faithful child of God. It can be committing acts that hurt others-sins of commission. Or it can be failing to act for the good of others-sins of omission. But when we callously disregard the goal of resisting temptation...”if it feels good do it”, a key saying from my generation, we separate ourselves a little further from God, from that close relationship with the Lord.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives us a chilling account of what temptation does to us...”In our members there is a slumbering inclination toward desire which is both sudden and fierce. With irresistible power, desire seizes mastery over the flesh. It makes no difference whether it is sexual desire or ambition or vanity or desire for revenge or love of fame or power or greed... Joy in God is extinguished in us, and we seek all our joy in the creature. At this moment God is quite unreal to us...He loses all reality...the only reality is the devil...(who fills us, not with hatred of God but with forgetfulness of God).”
And so we must resist temptations that separate us from intimate friendship and relationship with God, that draw us toward that forgetfulness of the Creator. And...we will fail to resist at times. But we cling to the promise, 1 John 1:9 “But if we confess our sins, he will forgive our sins, because we can trust God to do what is right. (Then) He will cleanse us from all the wrongs we have done.” And through the grace God gives, we can be restored to fellowship through confession. As we prayed in the unison confession this morning, “Give us moral courage to face our sins and then let your pardoning and restoring love ignite in us the spirit of new life in Jesus Christ our Lord.” “Pardoning and restoring love”... there is the basis of our hope. And Jayne read our assurance of pardon, “His grace is adequate to deal with past failures and present weakness.” Adequate grace might be understating it. Exceedingly great grace, amazing grace, Marvelous grace, grace that is greater than all our sin! Thanks be to God for the gift of Jesus Christ and the grace we are offered. Amen.
Hymn: Marvelous Grace of Our Loving Lord 240 HLC
1Nurya Love Parish, Christian Century February 15, 2017 pg 23