Temptation: Just One Bite

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on March 5, 2017, the first Sunday in Lent.

 

lenten altar

Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11

Temptation.

A young couple are to be married soon. A few days before the wedding the bride’s attractive sister asks the groom to come over to help her with her tax return as he is an accountant. He obliges and is met at the door by the sister in some revealing clothes. He tries to ignore this and carry on as a professional. But as they work through the taxes she gets more and more suggestive, finally getting up, bending over, and whispering in his ear, “Meet me upstairs.” She winks and slinks up the stairs. He sits for quite a few moments before getting up and walking quickly to the front door.

As he steps outside he is met by his soon to be wife and her parents. ”Surprise!” they say. It turns out they wanted to make sure that he was the right man for her, and that he would remain faithful no matter what. He passed the test! Thrilled, they invite him back inside to open a bottle of champagne in celebration.

As the groom turns to follow them back in the door, his heart pounding, he can be seen to silently mouth the words, “Thank goodness I left my condoms in the car.”

Temptation. It’s real. The consequences of giving in can be profound. And yet, like the groom in the story, we succumb all the time.

Temptation to engage in forbidden sex makes for the most titillating stories and best jokes, and indeed such temptation is real. But there are many, much more subtle forms of temptation that we confront every day, and these are revealed in today’s passage from Matthew.

Jesus has just been baptized by John in the Jordan, God pronouncing, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.” Immediately, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness where he is tempted by the Devil. We read that Jesus fasted for 40 days and forty nights. 40 is a significant number in the history of Judaism. God brought 40 days of rain upon Noah. Both Moses and Elijah spent 40 days on mountaintops with God. And the Israelites spent 40 years wandering in the desert before reaching the Promised Land. So Jesus’ 40 days in the desert invoke themes of both trial and deliverance.

Jesus is famished when the Devil appears, challenging him to change stones into bread so he can satisfy his hunger. We might understand this as the temptation to put our own needs, our own security first, by amassing more than we need.

Jesus responds by quoting Moses in Deuteronomy. The full passage that he references reads:

“Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

Next, the Devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple, inviting him to throw himself off that Jesus might be saved by angels, thereby demonstrating his special relationship with God. We too know this temptation, pride, or the assertion that we are somehow uniquely deserving.

Here again, Jesus quotes scripture and refuses the Devils’ offer.

Finally, the Devil takes Jesus to a mountaintop and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. All this will be yours, if only you worship me, says the Devil. Here the temptation is to claim earthly power over others, and that temptation is as real for us today as it was for Jesus.

One last time, Jesus refuses, again quoting Deuteronomy, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

At this, the Devil departs and, we are told, angels come to wait upon Jesus.

Note, that none of these three invitations from the Devil are sinful in themselves. In the course of his ministry, Jesus will claim each of these powers in service to others. He will perform a miracle that transforms and multiplies bread to serve thousands of hungry. He will trust the power of God, not to save his own life but to carry him beyond death that all may have new life. And instead of claiming earthly leadership for himself, Jesus will instead offer the realm of God to all those who follow him.

The sin in all three of these invitations is that they tempt Jesus to benefit, exalt and empower himself instead of serving God and others. I would suggest that every temptation we face does the same, tempting us to put ourselves before God and others. Such was the case with the groom in the joke who was prepared to put his own pleasure before his commitment to his bride.

Temptation does not typically come to us as it did to Jesus, boldly and clearly stated by the Devil, a clear and obvious choice to be made. Temptation most often begins with something seemingly innocuous. The groom in the joke no doubt thought, what could be the harm in helping sis with her taxes? Temptation is often present before we even identify it as temptation. The internet is a special kind of wilderness where sin is just one click away. What could be the harm, we think, as our finger clicks away on the mouse.

We are really hard on Adam and Eve. But put yourself in their shoes (well, they had no shoes), but imagine being in that garden. They must have thought, one bite of an apple, what could be the harm? And just as the Devil was in the wilderness to tempt Jesus, the serpent was there with Adam and Eve to sow doubt. What could be the harm?

The serpent is always there with us in the form of self-justification. We can talk ourselves into anything. The Nobel Prize winning quantum physicist, Richard Feynman, once said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and,” he concludes, “you are the easiest person to fool.”

As in quantum physics, temptation begins with small things.

My Gramp used to recite this old proverb at the dinner table:

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the message was lost. For want of a message the battle was lost. For want of a battle the war was lost. For want of a war, the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Temptation begins with the excusable and seemingly insignificant, but like the horseshoe nail, can take down kingdoms.

In the passage I read from Romans, Paul writes, “Sin came into world through one man, death through sin, so death spread to all who sinned.” That sin was taking just one bite of an apple, just one bite, what could be the harm. Small concessions and compromises ripple outward, leading to a world of hurt.

A therapist once told me that the time to resist temptation is at the very beginning. Because after giving in to one little temptation after another, after another, after another, the larger temptation that follows becomes all but impossible to resist. So the time for the groom to have acted would have been as soon as he walked in the door, saw sis and felt his heart go pitter patter. By the time she propositioned him and headed up the stairs, it was too late. He was headed to the car for condoms.

But how do we do this? Because they are so small, these little temptations can be hard to identify and easy to excuse. The answer, says Bible scholar David Lose, lies in living into our identity as God’s beloved. Remember the words Jesus heard just before being led into the wilderness to face temptation, “You are my precious child, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” This affirmation, says Lose, is critical to understanding how Jesus successfully navigates temptation.

“Because,” Lose continues, “when push comes to shove, all the various temptations we may encounter stem from the primary temptation to forget whose we are and therefore to forget who we are. Because once we fail to remember that we are God’s beloved, we will do all kinds of things to dispel the insecurity that is part of every human life, and to find that sense of security and acceptance that is essential to being happy.”

I find this fascinating, that giving in to temptation follows from insecurity. The serpent played on Adam and Eve’s insecurity, sowing mistrust of God, and they give in. We are not so much victims of original sin as original insecurity. It kind of makes sense. Whether infidelity, greed, pride or envy, it is easy to recognize these as responses to insecurity, attempts to secure our identity on our own rather than simply claiming our identity as beloved children of God

Jesus refutes the Devil’s attempts to sow mistrust by repeatedly affirming his relationship with God, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

There are so many temptations in this world, most of them coming not as apples hanging from a tree but rather subtle messages that seek to undermine our identity and invite us to forget whose we are. So many commercials suggest we are inadequate. So many headlines suggest that there is not enough to go around. And so many politicians – of all parties – contend that we have a great deal to fear. In the face of these identity-obscuring messages, we have the opportunity to root ourselves in the same baptismal promise that safe-guarded and empowered Jesus. This is the baptismal promise that reminds us that we are so totally enough in God’s eyes, that there is plenty to go around, and that we need not live in fear.

So, brothers and sisters, I invite you to repeat after me:

I am God’s precious child…

Chosen and marked by God’s love…

Delight of God’s life…

Just as I am…

And that’s enough.

Amen.

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