Led into Temptation – a sermon

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.

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40 Days of Temptation

I’m not sure why I’ve never noticed this before, but some how, in my rush to figure out what the three temptations of Jesus might mean, I’ve failed to notice that, in fact, Jesus has been tempted constantly for 40 straight days.  Don’t believe me?  It says so, right there in Luke’s Gospel:

After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

Luke gives us a sampling of what Jesus had to endure: temptations of bread, power, and safety; but what really strikes me is how 2/3rds of the sample temptations start with a question of trust.

“If you are the Son of God…”

As we begin the 40 day season of Lent, temptation will be nipping at your heels.  At least I know it will be for me.  You see, every time I find myself getting closer to God’s dream for me, I realize that the devil is hard at work tempting me to give it all up and follow my own dreams.

“If you really are a beloved child of God…”

The Deceiver is always ready to make you doubt God’s love.  He’s always there to make you question God’s dream.  He never fails to cause hesitation on the pathway to the Kingdom of God.  If you’ve decided to take on a prayer practice, be ready for your life to get busier than ever.  If you’ve given up chocolate, wine, or potato chips, be prepared to have them offered to you again and again.  If you’re seeking a closer relationship with God this Lent, be prepared to wonder if God is a target moving ever farther away.  That’s the job of the Deceiver.

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Withstanding 40 days of temptation isn’t going to be easy.  There are bound to be days when you fall short of whatever ideal you’re striving for this Lent.  When that happens, be kind to yourself, take a deep breath, ask for forgiveness, and for goodness sake, try again.  Lent is a marathon, 40 days of temptation were almost too much for Jesus, but with God’s help, even when we fail, we won’t lose our status as a beloved child of God, no matter what the Devil says to the contrary.

Offertory Sentences

I wasn’t born under the stark regime of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, so I don’t have that nagging desire to keep odd things from it like the falsely named “Installation of a Rector” which is really called “An Office of Institution of Ministers into Parishes or Churches.”  I’m not overly fond of the latent sexism in Rite I language, though I do think that the penitential tone of Cranmer’s Eucharistic rites are worth hearing from time to time.  I do, however, have one bit of the “old Prayer Book” that I wish the church would have held on to.  The 1979 Book of Common Prayer removed my favorite offertory sentence from its suggested list.  In the 1928 Book, after this great rubric: “Then followeth the Sermon.  After which, the Priest, when there is a Communion, shall return to the Holy Table, and begin the Offertory, saying one of these Sentences following as he thinketh most convenient” comes a list of no less than 16 choices.  Second on that list, having survived since Cranmer’s first Book in 1549, comes words from Jesus recorded in Matthew 5, “Let your light so shine before [others], that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father [who] is in heaven.”

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I love that Offertory Sentence, and have used it all through Epiphany season, but as the calendar moves to Lent, it is time to pick another one, and I’m thinking about going beyond the suggestions of the Prayer Book again, this time from Deuteronomy.  In Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, we hear what sort of Offertory Sentences the Lord requires of those who are entering the Promised Land.  Ignoring the potential for a killer stewardship sermon for the time being, what we hear is the rehearsing of salvation history, and a reminder that everything we have is a gift from God.  It might be a bit long to memorize, and tough to turn into a second person directive, but these words are so very important as we enter the Season of Lent and take stock of the ways in which we have fallen short of God’s dream for us.

When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.

Let us with gladness bring before the Lord the first of the fruit of the everything that God has given us.

Resist the Temptation

As I started research for my Doctor of Ministry thesis, one of the members of the Thesis Committee suggested that I read a book called The American Jeremiad.  The suggestion was that perhaps America isn’t changing in such a dramatic way as I was suggesting, but rather the words of William Reed Huntington, Brian McLaren, and others were merely a rehashing of the old fashioned jeremiad, the prophetic voice of John Winthrop aboard the Arbella that the American enterprise was God’s Kingdom come, and that any moral failing on the part of the Puritans that were making their way to New England, would bring about not just the failure of the nation, but the failure of God’s dream.  I ultimately disagreed with this argument, but in reading Sacvan Bercovitch’s dense prose, I came to realize where much of the prudish, moralistic bent that makes up vast sections of American society comes from.

As Americans, moralistic thought has been in our DNA since before the Arbella landed at Salem, Massachusetts in 1630.  As such, there remains a temptation to read stories like the Temptation of Jesus that we hear read on the First Sunday in Lent as a moralistic text.  We hear how Jesus withstood temptation at the hand of the devil for 40 days and say, “Just as Jesus withstood temptation, you should too.”  Here’s the thing, none of us is Jesus.  Jesus is a special case, and while I believe it is important that we emulate his life’s witness of loving God and neighbor, I don’t think we can use him as the measuring stick for successful discipleship.

The Temptation of Jesus

Do not try this at home. This sort of thing only works for Jesus.

Instead of lifting Jesus up (no pun intended) as the exemplar of faith that we should all just try to follow, I wonder if we might look at what makes Jesus the example which we should all try to follow.  This may be splitting hairs, but bear with me, as this seems to be the difference between asking our congregations to do the impossible, i.e. be like Jesus, and asking our congregations to be disciples, i.e. the very real struggle of everyday life.   So how is it that Jesus is able to resist temptation?

First, he is filled up with the Holy Spirit, the advocate, the comforter, the guide.  Jesus is just off his his profound spiritual encounter in the waters of the Jordan River, with the Spirit hovering over him as a dove and a voice coming from heaven, when that same Spirit propels him into he wilderness.  Even for Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity made flesh, it require the help of the Spirit to resist temptation.  Second, he relies on his knowledge of the Law, or as we might call it, the Scriptures.  Jesus knows his Bible, and as such, he knows God’s will for him and for all creation.  Even when the deceiver tries to use the Bible against, him, Jesus is able to discern good interpretation from false.  Having the strength to resist temptation means knowing what is in God’s will for us and what is not, and that requires coming to know as God has been manifested in the Scriptures.  Finally, Jesus prayed.  While Luke doesn’t mention this detail in his account of the Temptation, we know that throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is in the habit of prayer.  As a devout Jew, he would have prayed at least thrice daily, and would have followed the customs of his tradition.  Jesus was in tune with the will of God not only because he knew the Bible, but because they were in regular conversation with one another.  We too should rely on prayer, and by that I mean being quiet and listening for God, in order to stay in tune with God’s will for our lives, which will ultimately keep us from being led into temptation.