It’s Temptation Sunday!

You can listen to what I actually ended up saying on the Saint Paul’s website, or read on to see where I jumped off from.

Have you ever felt envious or jealous toward Jesus?  I mean, in about six weeks’ time, as he’s sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, getting arrested, and hanging crucified on a tree, we won’t wish we were him, but this morning as we hear about his 40 days in the wilderness, maybe you’re getting just a tinge of jealousy. Jesus’ wilderness experience isn’t easy, but it is a once in a lifetime experience. Two-thousand years later, the Church invites us into a 40 day wilderness experience every year. Jesus was able to focus solely on his spiritual journey during his time away. Lent happens in the midst of the busyness of life: work, kids, grand kids on spring break, tax season, and, to add insult to injury, just four days into Lent this year we’ve lost an hour of sleep in the name of “Saving Daylight.”  It probably isn’t rational, but sometimes, I’m tempted to feel jealous of Jesus’ wilderness experience.

Of course, that’s what this day is all about, isn’t it?  Temptation is the overarching theme of the First Sunday in Lent, and probably with good reason.  We’ve got four full days of Lent under our belt, and if Lenten disciplines are anything like New Year’s Resolutions, then by now nearly 20% of you have already given up on what you’ve given up for Lent[1].  Couple that with the peculiarity of Lent that Sundays, as mini-Easters and Feasts of our Lord Jesus Christ, don’t count, and your personal Lenten devotion is in for a real challenge today.  I guarantee, you’ll be tempted to give up that extra 15 minutes of Bible reading, or to take back up that morning Coca-Cola before the day is over.  Temptation is alive and well here on the First Sunday in Lent.

It can be said, for many different reasons, that there was great wisdom in the members of the Standing Liturgical Commission that created the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, but this morning I am particularly grateful that they chose to pray for God’s help against temptation when they made the decision to replace the Collect for Lent 1 that had appeared in every Book of Common Prayer since Cranmer’s first in 1549.  Somewhere, in the midst their negotiations, someone brought up a collect buried deep in the Appendix of a book published in 1864[2].  After more than two-hundred pages of history, theology, and devotional reflections on the Collects of the Church of England’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer, William Bright, the author of Ancient Collects and Other Prayers, was brave enough to offer several collects he had written himself.  Third from the end was a prayer “For the Tempted” which reads, “Merciful and High Priest, Who didst deign for us to be tempted of Satan; make speed to aid Thy servants who are assaulted by manifold temptations; and as Thou knowest their several infirmities, let each one find Thee mighty to save, Who livest and reignest with Thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”[3]  Like I said, thankfully there are Churchnerds out there who are nerdier than even I am, and found that collect that, with only a few minor revisions, became the Collect for Lent 1 which Keith prayed on our behalf this morning.  A prayer which calls us to keep alert for the ways in which the tempter will make himself known in our lives.

The deceiver gets to work early on in scripture, seemingly within hours of Eve’s creation out of Adam’s side, sewing seeds of mistrust and doubt into their minds; finding a particular weakness that he could exploit.  “Did God really say that you couldn’t eat from any of the trees in the garden?” the serpent asks Eve, ignoring her nearby partner Adam, the one who was actually around to hear God give his short list of rules.[4]

“No,” Eve responds, “we can eat the fruit of almost all the trees in the garden, there’s just one, the one in the middle of the garden, that God said we couldn’t eat from, in fact, I don’t think we’re even supposed to touch it, or we’ll die.”

“Die!?!” the serpent snorted, “No way!  God wouldn’t kill you over some silly fruit, but he knows that if you eat of it, you’ll gain knowledge, you’ll have your eyes open, you’ll be like God, knowing good from evil. God hasn’t told you the whole truth,” he goes on, “you can have it all, all you have to do is eat this delicious, beautiful piece of fruit.”[5]

And eat they do.  The tempter invited them to question God’s wisdom and resolve, he cracked open within them the thought that they too could be like God, and with that, they fell into the trap, ate the fruit, and had their eyes opened to the difference between good and evil.  Genesis tells us the first thing noticed what their nakedness, but I doubt that puritanical American opinions on the human body is the gift that came from the forbidden fruit.  Instead, it seems that their nakedness was a metaphor for their vulnerability.  They now knew good from evil, they knew that the serpent had led them to temptation and they had made a mistake.  They longed for the goodness of God’s perfect vision for them, lost in the moment of temptation.

Fast forward to Matthew, and we find the tempter, personified in a new way, this time as the devil, seeking out Jesus’ particular weaknesses in the wilderness.  The story doesn’t tell us how long Jesus had been in the desert when the devil showed up, though you could read it as if all of this is happening on the fortieth day.  Whether it is day two or day forty, the truth remains that the fasting Jesus was hungry.  The easiest entry point for Satan was through food, but take notice of the subtlety of his work.  Satan doesn’t begin by hitting Jesus’ growling stomach, but rather seeks to crack the perfect relationship between the Father and the Son.  In effect, he wants to test whether or not Jesus believed the voice that spoke at his baptism, “you are my son, whom I love.”

If you are the Son of God,” the devil says, “then why are you out here starving to death?  Command these stones to become bread.”

When that didn’t work, he moved on to further test the relationship of the Godhead.  “If you are the Son of God, and if your Father loves you so much, then certainly he’ll catch you when you fall.  Throw yourself off the top of the Temple and watch as he sends an army of angels to catch you.”  Jesus is not swayed.

Realizing that Jesus’ divinity is nothing to mess with, finally, the devil focuses his attention back on Jesus’ humanity, aiming for that part that lies deep within all of us: that piece that seeks after power and glory.  From the top of a high mountain, Satan shows Jesus every kingdom in the world, every stockpile of gold and jewels, every country club membership, every hundred-foot yacht and says, “Worship me, and this can all be yours.”

In the end, Jesus doesn’t just know good from evil, he is good – perfect goodness.  He withstands the temptations of Satan by placing his full trust in the Father; something he’ll have to do again late one Thursday night in the Garden of Gethsemane and again on Friday morning in the court of Pontius Pilate and again just after noon as he hangs gasping for breath on a cross.

As the Collect for this week makes clear, the death and resurrection of Jesus does not make us immune to the work of the tempter.  Even now, he knows the particular weakness of each of us.  He knows our insecurities, he knows our vices and our areas of excessive pride, and he will not stop in attempting to exploit them in order to turn us away from our relationship with God.  The truth of the matter is, the tempter will succeed more often than not, but the Good News is that the God who created us, vulnerabilities and all, is mighty to save.  Again and again, he’ll receive us back into his arms and recreate us as his beloved children.  Again and again, he’ll welcome us back into fullness of life.  You will be tempted today, I guarantee it, but rest assured that God stands beside you as a merciful and high priest ready to forgive and restore you.  Amen.

[2] Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, 174.

[3] Bright, Ancient Collects and Other Prayers, 237-8.

[4] Note that Genesis 3:6 suggests that Adam and Eve have been together through this whole story.

[5] David Lose, “Dear Working Preacher” (accessed 3/3/14).

One thought on “It’s Temptation Sunday!

  1. Pingback: Lenten Reflection: Slough It Off | Blog of St. Luke in the Fields

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