March 10, 2019 – The 1st Sunday in Lent
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen on the St. Paul's YouTube channel.
The problem with temptation, of course, is that it’s so darn tempting. The cartoon representation of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other doesn’t do it justice. Even if we know what the right decision is, the choice is rarely that clear because it isn’t the bad choices that tempt us; it’s the good ones. No one wakes up in the morning, kisses a beloved spouse, and then heads out the door determined to commit adultery. Instead, it’s when marriage is a struggle, when the love between two spouses is little more than a distant memory, that one begins to look for that love somewhere else. There’s nothing wrong with giving and receiving love. It is a beautiful thing to hear someone say, “I love you,” and mean it and to say those words back with equal devotion. But, when you find yourself looking for that kind of love from someone other than your spouse, that love isn’t good but a perversion of the good.
That’s temptation. Temptation is looking for something good in the wrong place or for the wrong reason. Pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth—the “seven deadly sins” are nothing more than good things taken too far. It is good to know one’s intrinsic worth as a human being, made in God’s image, but an inflated sense of one’s importance becomes pride. Everyone should have access to the material goods necessary to sustain life, but they don’t because many of us, motivated by greed, think that real security is found in having more and more. Those who excel challenge us to work hard and strive for greatness, but, when unbalanced, that drive can quickly become envy of them. All of our sins and all of our temptations to sin are born out of goodness because temptation wouldn’t be tempting if it weren’t to something good.
That makes today’s gospel lesson more than a story about making good choices. It’s about Jesus discovering and confirming his true identity through battle with temptation. After forty days of fasting in the wilderness, Jesus is approached by the devil, who says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Of course, Jesus is the Son of God, and, as we’ll see later in the gospel, he is able to produce enough bread to feed a multitude in the wilderness just as God had done for Israel so long ago. And what’s wrong with bread? What’s wrong with the Son of God coming and changing stones into loaves so that everyone might have enough to eat? With one quick wave of the hand, Jesus could end not only his own hunger but that of the whole world. But that would undermine the truth that in God there is already enough—an abundance—that God, the source of all good gifts, has already given us all that we need.
In an instant, the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and offered to give them to him if he simply would worship him. We know what’s wrong with worshiping the devil, but what’s wrong with Jesus ruling over all the kingdoms of the world? Isn’t he the King of kings and Lord of lords? Isn’t he the one who is destined to overthrow the unholy empires of the world and set God’s people free from their oppressive rule? But to grab that power and assert it isn’t how God works. God is gentle and humble and comes among us as a servant. Jesus’ kingship must be manifest through powerlessness and even death. Even if the end result were a good thing, to seize power like that would be to pursue the devil’s way instead of God’s way.
Finally, the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and invites him to confirm, once and for all, that he really is God’s anointed one. Quoting the psalm we read earlier, the devil reminds Jesus that the messiah is one who will be carried in the hands of angels lest he dash his foot against a stone and encourages him to jump off to prove it. And the devil is right: Jesus is the anointed one, the messiah, and the scripture does say that. It must have been tempting for Jesus to do it—to shut the devil up, to satisfy any lingering doubt in his own mind, to demonstrate to the world that all of God’s promises will be fulfilled. But we aren’t in control of those promises, and Jesus knew that. Tempting though it is to use the Bible to support our cause and prove that we are right, God’s word isn’t something for us to wield on our own terms. Instead, God’s word only becomes clear over time. God does fulfill God’s promises, but that doesn’t happen in an instant but through patient discovery.
Jesus is the Son of God. He has the power to feed God’s people in the wilderness and satisfy the hunger of the whole world. As God’s anointed one, his reign is promised and foretold in scripture. But Jesus comes to that identity not by asserting it on his own terms but by devoting himself to the divine will and allowing the divine will to shape and direct and call forth his gifts and powers. In every case, his true self is manifest when he chooses not to step forward and prove himself but to wait and trust in God. In the wilderness, therefore, Jesus proves himself by demonstrating that he is the one who belongs fully to God.
It is no accident that this formative encounter takes place in the wilderness—that barren place beyond civilization where life is sustained through hardship. The people of God had experienced their own formative time in the wilderness, where they demanded that God give them bread to eat, where they fell down to worship a golden calf, and where they put God to the test with their constant grumbling. Through struggle and failure and return and repentance, the people of Israel discovered what it means to belong to God, to depend completely on God’s bounty, and to live within the boundaries of the divine will. And we, too, are on a wilderness journey through Lent, in search of our true identity as the children of God—an identity we obtain not by asserting ourselves but by denying ourselves—through askesis, self-denial, and spiritual discipline.
We are, as we prayed in the collect for this Sunday, “assaulted by many temptations,” and all of them, in one way or another, are temptations to become our own god—to pursue our own good for our own sakes instead of trusting in the giver of all good gifts and waiting patiently for our salvation. The invitation God gives us is not to do more—not to assert ourselves in triumph over the one who tempts us—but to do less—to sit still and engage the holiness of waiting on God. If it were up to us to win the fight over temptation, we would lose every time, but it isn’t our job to defeat the devil. Our job is to belong to the one who already has. We follow Jesus’ example not in pursuit of his unwavering willpower but in pursuit of his unwavering devotion to his true self. We, too, belong to God, and we discover our true selves when we trust in the one who made us.