My Lent 1C sermon can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it below.
Have you ever wondered why when Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, he included a line that says “lead us not into temptation”? I have. I’ve always thought that was a really strange thing to ask of God. Why would God lead us into temptation? Isn’t God all about saving us from the time of trial? Isn’t God’s dream that we might be restored to right relationship with him and with all of creation? Why on earth would it be so important for Jesus that we pray “lead us not into temptation?” It was important because it is exactly what happened to Jesus. He knew how hard it was when you have been led into temptation, knew how easy it’d be for us to find temptation all by ourselves, and so, in his short example of what prayer should look like, he included the all-important line “lead us not into temptation.”
Still, in my experience it isn’t God actively leading me into temptation, but rather in being led toward God, I find myself running headlong into temptation. See, the Devil isn’t worried about lukewarm Christians who show up at church on the occasional Sunday morning, throw a five in the offering plate and consider themselves covered for a week or three. Instead, he spends his time worrying about those who are actively seeking the will of God for their lives and for the world. Maybe that’s why we hear this lesson each Lent 1. Many of us have taken on practices of discipleship; have given up distractions that keep us from focusing on God; or have committed anew to following God into the world to share the Good News of his forgiveness and love. The season of Lent invites us to a closer relationship with God which in turn, invites the Devil to forty days of trying to lead us into temptation.
I first came to realize that temptation seems to grow the closer we get to God while I was in the discernment process before heading off to seminary. Thanks to a great Bishop, I was able to do discernment in Central Pennsylvania, where I grew up, instead of having to start all over in the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, where I moved after college. Once a month, Cassie and I would make our way from Grove City to Lancaster where I attended the Diocesan School of Christian Studies on Saturday and meet with my discernment committee on Sunday. I can’t remember if it was our first or second trip east, but it was October, and western Pennsylvania was getting crushed by an early snow storm. We borrowed Cassie’s dad’s four-wheel drive truck and the five hour trip took something like eight hours as we crawled along the snow-covered Turnpike, stopping at every rest stop to knock off an inch of ice and snow that had accumulated on the headlights, making it almost impossible to see. I don’t know how many times I was tempted to call it quits, but we kept going. We made it, obviously, and we did so again in November, December, January, February, AND MARCH. Every month for six straight months, we drove through snow and wind and the temptation to just call it quits.
It was after the sixth snowstorm that I finally came to realize how temptation lurks when God is at work. It didn’t take Jesus nearly that long to figure it out. Immediately after his amazing baptismal experience: where the heavens tore open, the Spirit descended upon him, and the voice of his Father said, “you are my beloved”; he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness and for forty days he was tempted by the devil again and again and again. Luke gives us three examples of what the ongoing temptations looked like. The contents of those temptations seem miraculous and Son of God-y, but the crux of Jesus’ temptation is the same as what the devil uses on you and me: he calls into question our trust of God. “If you really are the Son of God, then turn these stones into bread.” “If you really are God’s beloved, he will protect you.” Do you really trust God to love you that much?
As we continue our forty day journey through Lent, temptation will be nipping at our heels, constantly goading us with questions of God’s love for us. The Deceiver is always ready to make you doubt God’s dream for you. He never fails to cause hesitation on the pathway to the Kingdom of God. I’m not arrogant enough to think that the devil made a snowstorm happen for six months in a row to keep me from being a priest, but I can guarantee he used the freakish winter weather to his advantage. “If you really are a beloved child of God, then he won’t mind if you quit this discerning for the priesthood foolishness, turn around, and go home.”
Maybe you’ve decided to take on a few extra minutes of prayer during the season of Lent. I promise that your life will seem busier in these next forty days than ever before. Be prepared to hear the Deceiver at work in your heart. “If you really are a beloved child of God, he’ll forgive you for not saying your prayers today. You’ve just been so busy, relax, it’ll be fine.” Maybe you’re trying to read your Bible more. The words of Scripture will never seem more convoluted than during this time of special intention. Be ready to hear the Deceiver at work in your mind. “If you really are a beloved child of God, don’t worry about meditating on the Bible, it’s just an old book of stories anyway. Just curl up with a good Tom Clancy novel instead.” Perhaps you’ve decided to give something up this year: maybe its chocolate, wine, potato chips, or road rage. Be prepared for whatever it is you’ve given up to be in front of your face constantly for the next 36 days. Every event you attend this Lent will be at the end of a long line of traffic and all they’ll serve are chocolate covered potato chips and red wine. Be ready for the Deceiver to be at work in the pit of your stomach. “If you really are a beloved child of God, he won’t mind if you indulge just this once. Certainly he’ll forgive your trespasses again this time.”
Temptation is sure to follow any attempt we make to get closer to God, so how are we to overcome it? Jesus was Jesus, and I most certainly am not. Rather than standing here and saying “just be like Jesus,” I thought it might be more helpful to look at how Jesus is able to resist his forty days of temptation. First, Luke tells us that Jesus was filled up with the Holy Spirit. Like each of us, Jesus received the gift of the Spirit in baptism, and the Spirit continued to work in his life, calling his human will to seek the Father, reminding him of God’s never failing love, and comforting him in those moments when it all seemed overwhelming. The Spirit does the same for each of us: celebrating our accomplishments, reminding us of God’s grace, and holding us close when we fall into sin. Even for Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity made flesh; resisting temptation required a healthy dose of help from the Spirit. Second, Jesus relied on his knowledge of the Scriptures. Jesus knows his Bible, and as such, he knows God’s will for him and for all creation. Even when the deceiver tried to use the Bible against him, Jesus was able to discern good interpretation from false teaching. Having the strength to resist temptation means knowing what is in God’s will for this world and what is not, and that requires coming to know the story of God in the Scriptures.
Finally, Jesus prayed. Luke doesn’t mention this detail in his account of the Temptation, but we know that throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is in the habit of prayer. As a devout Jew, he would have prayed at least three times daily, following the customs of his tradition. Jesus was in tune with the will of God not only because he knew the Bible, but because he was in regular conversation with his Father. We too should rely on prayer, being quiet and listening for God, in order to stay in tune with God’s will for our lives. Nobody said this Lenten journey was going to be easy. By committing to a closer walk with God, you’ve led yourself straight into temptation, but through prayer, studying God’s holy word, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, you can find a way to resist the work of the devil and follow God’s dream for you, his beloved child. Amen.