Customizable Temptation – a sermon

You can listen to this sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it here.


One of the great joys of living in 21st century America is that we live in a world that is increasingly customizable. For roughly the last half century, advertisers have been helping us move from the “one size fits all” world that came out of the industrial revolution to a world where anyone can have it “your way, right away.”  Believe it or not, it has been 43 years since Burger King introduced “Have it your way” as their slogan.  According to Wikipedia, the source of all wisdom, there were 1,024 ways to order a Whopper in the early 1960s, but now you can get it any one of 221,184 different ways![1]  In 2014, there were at least 80,000 different ways to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks.[2]  Think about that.  It wasn’t that long ago that your choices were black, cream, and/or sugar.  Domino’s Pizza advertises that their menu allows you to choose from any of 34 million possible pizza combinations!  34 Million!  Madison Avenue has long since figured out that the best way to get us to buy their widget is to make sure their widget can meet our specific and varied tastes no matter what our whim might be at any given moment.

Before I say what I’m going to say next, I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that all marketers are evil. What I am willing to suggest is that the art and science of marketing has at its root the Tempter who has been working on humanity since the very beginning.  The contemporary shift toward a fully customizable world is built upon a foundation of customizable temptation.   That is to say, the Tempter has been using various approaches to tempt human beings toward sin since the very beginning.  I can say that with some confidence seeing as we just heard the story of that first temptation in our Old Testament lesson this morning.  Our lesson opens with God giving Adam the only rule of the Garden.  “You may eat freely of every tree, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat, for on that day you eat of it you shall die.”

With the first rule comes the first opportunity for temptation, and the Tempter had his first goal: get Adam to eat from that tree.  The Tempter was hard at work long before the conversation between the serpent and Eve.  We can tell this is true because the serpent finds the first couple standing close to the forbidden tree.  Like telling a child not to eat a piece of candy, the only thing Adam and Even seem to be able to think about is that tree.  What beautiful fruit it has.  What would it be like to know the difference between good and evil?  Why would God hold this back from us? The Tempter had these questions swirling around in their minds as the serpent made his next move: twisting the words of God. “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?”

She might not yet know the difference between good and evil, but Eve knows that the Tempter is wrong.  He gives Eve her first opportunity to stretch her discernment wings.  She corrects the serpent, and boy did that feel good.  He presses further, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.”  That’s what that feeling was?  To be like God is to feel the power of correction and reproof?  The Tempter had found the right combination, and Adam and Eve ate.  His customizable approach to temptation had produced its first fruit.

Generation after generation, the Tempter continued to seek out ways to tempt God’s children away from right relationship.  For Noah, it was wine.  For Abraham and Sarah, it was impatience.  For Moses, it was frustration.  For David, it was lust.  For Solomon it was idolatry.  For Samson it was pride.  Again and again, the Tempter found the perfect way to turn the attention of Israel away from God, until finally, God had had enough, and he sent his Son to restore all of humanity to right relationship.

The Tempter did not give up with the birth of Jesus, of course.  In fact, just like in that moment when God first said, “you may not eat,” the Tempter saw his big chance come at the baptism of Jesus when the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  God knew what was to happen next.  God was familiar with the Tempter’s work and knew that he would immediately begin to sow the seeds of sin, so without any hesitation, the Spirit took Jesus out into the wilderness to allow the Devil to try his best, and try he did.

“If you are the Son of God…”  The Tempter was in for a challenge with Jesus, and so he went dirty right from the start – pushing Jesus to question the identity that had just been spoken so clearly in his baptism.  “Are you really the Son of God?  Because if you are, then you shouldn’t have to be out here starving to death in the desert.  God’s Son should be treated better than that.  In fact, you have all the power you need to make bread from these stones.”  Jesus is not swayed by the Devil’s tactics, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

“If you are the Son of God…” The Tempter tries a different approach.  Still calling into question Jesus’ primary identity, now he turns his focus to just how strong that relationship really is.  “If you’re so dependent on God, why don’t you take it a step further?  You trust God to feed you.  Do you trust God to keep you safe?  Prove it by throwing yourself down.  God has promised in scripture that ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’  By jumping, you’ll simply be demonstrating your total confidence in your Father’s promise.”[3]  Jesus again stands firm.  He won’t allow the Tempter to twist God’s words: quoting instead a passage from Deuteronomy, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

After two failed attempts, the Tempter changes tact one more time.   Rather than trying to get Jesus to question his identity, the Devil goes after his patience.  It will take years and an agonizing death on the cross for Jesus to be given all authority on heaven and earth.  Why wait?  “For the low, low price of worshipping me,” the Tempter offers, “all that you can see will be yours.  All the kingdoms, riches, and power on earth will be yours.”  Here again, Jesus withstands a third uniquely customized temptation.

The Tempter left, but not for long.  Again and again during his lifetime, Jesus came face to face with Temptation, and he resisted it each and every time.  This is because the Devil isn’t the only one who knows the power of customization.  As we prayed in our Collect for Today, God knows the weaknesses of each of us, and stands ready to help us stand firm.  Again and again in our lives, we will find ourselves in the Tempter’s snare.  Like Adam and Eve, we won’t always be successful at avoiding his wiles.  We will forget to turn to God for help.  We will allow our fears to be used against us, our pride to make us foolish, or our envy to bring us down.  But the Good News is that God is always ready to overcome our temptations and forgive our sins.  The Devil is tricky, and uses any means necessary to drag us into sin, but God is all the more crafty: knowing the weakness of each of us, God has a fully customized plan so that every one of us might find God mighty to save.  Save us from the time of trial, dear Lord, and deliver us from evil.  Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whopper

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/04/starbucks_n_4890735.html

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1973

Life is all about choices

There is an inherent flaw in the version of Christianity that is focused entirely on grace.  Well, there are probably multiple inherent flaws in it, but the one I am thinking of this morning comes out of Sunday’s Old Testament lesson in which Moses is clear that even for God’s chosen people, those whom God had rescued from slavery in Egypt and to whom God had promised a land of prosperity through their ancestor Abraham, life was still about choices.

good-choice-bad-choice

Despite the hard line often taken by strongly reformed traditions on whichever sin they’ve decided God cares more about than anything else, in a theological worldview that is only concerned with the grace of God, there is actually little, if any, room for consequences.  The same sort of theology that created sola gratis underlies Your Best Life Now.  It assumes that because one has been washed clean in the blood, there is no room for sin, even though everybody knows that can’t possibly be true.

Moses lays before the Hebrews a choice between life and death, blessing and curses, and God continues to do the same for each of us; especially those of us who claim to follow Jesus.  As committed disciples, the assumption shouldn’t be that we can “sin boldly” or “go on sinning” as people have been trying to argue from the very beginning (see James, the Letter of and Romans, the Letter to), but instead that we are called to live by an even higher standard.  Our lives are testimony of the Gospel of Christ, and when we make bad choices, we bring curses upon ourselves and the entire body of Christ.  Alternatively, when we choose love: of neighbor, of creation, of enemy, we bring blessing upon ourselves and the entire body of Christ.

Grace forgives us our sins, but it doesn’t excuse our bad behavior.  As Lent rapidly approaches, it might behoove us to give some thought to how our lives reflect the Gospel of love.  The benefit of grace is that we have one more opportunity, in a long life of opportunities, to repent of our misdeeds, to acknowledge the times we have chosen curses over blessings, and to once again choose blessing and life.

Jesus does more than save you

Sunday’s Gospel lesson is probably better suited for a Bible Study or academic lecture than it is a sermon.  As John is wont to do, the language that makes up this two day interaction between Jesus and John the Baptist and his disciples is careful, studied, and layered in meaning.  One could take 45 minutes to unpack the verb meno which is translated as “stay.”  A whole class could be devoted to the word Jesus uses for “looking” when he asks the two men “What are you looking for?”  But what struck me late yesterday afternoon as I perused my go-to sermon prep resources occurs much earlier in the story.

As the scene opens, it is some time after the baptism of Jesus.  We don’t actually get that story in John’s Gospel, just JBap’s interpretation of it.  We can’t be sure how long it has been since that momentous day.  It isn’t clear if this story happens before or after Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, but we do know that the experience left a lasting impression on John.  As he sees Jesus once again approaching the River, John says to anyone who will lesson, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  Again, you could spend an entire Bible Study trying to discern what it means to call Jesus “Lamb of God” (a phrase that only occurs in John 1), but what I have found fascinating is the word that gets translated as “world,” cosmos.

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Cosmos not Cosmo

Translating cosmos as world is already a step to point out the broadness of Jesus’ salvific activity.  To say that he came to take away the sin of the world would already be contrary to the prevailing wisdom of the Judaism which thought that God’s grace was given to the Jews exclusively.  To say that God’s grace extended to the whole world means that God’s love is poured out upon Gentiles, heathens, and depending on your political persuasion, Republicans or Democrats.  <Gasp>  But here’s the thing, cosmos carries a much broarder meaning than simply “world.”  What Jesus did wasn’t simply take away the sin, that is offer salvation to, the world, Jesus came to set right the entire universe that God created.

This may not seem that important to you, and I’m not arguing for life on other planets, in case you were wondering (though I wouldn’t rule it out).  What this really means, at least in my interpretation, is that God really is in control of everything God has made.  It isn’t just that humanity messed up the earth through sin, but that through sin, everything was put out of whack.  In Christ, God sets the whole thing right again.  In Christ, the vision of Eden is restored.  In Christ, the harmony in which the Triune God made everything is restored.  Now, it may not seem like this is true.  There is still plenty that is out of whack – plenty of sin to go around – but the promise, spoken by the last Old Testament Prophet, John the Baptist, is that in Christ, all shall be set right again.

Thank God I’m not like those people

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If ever the Christians in this country needed to hear a parable from Jesus it is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector during the waning days of the 2016 Presidential Election.  While it seems clear to me that one candidate is clearly more qualified to run this country for the next four years, both candidates, their parties, and their supporters have engaged in a form of dehumanizing rhetoric about which we as a nation should be ashamed.

Whether it is Facebook, Twitter, the 24 hour news cycle, or even my Junior High Youth Group this afternoon, it is impossible to find a safe place, free from anger, fear, and a whole lot of Pharisees praying about themselves, “Thank you Lord that I’m not like those people.”  Here’s the thing, as soon as we start to think that about someone else, we’ve been sucked in to sin.  As soon as we look down at another human being whether it be over their opinion on gun rights, their opinion on double predestination, or their opinion on mild or spicy chicken at Popeye’s, we are no better than the “deplorables” who rabidly attack “Crooked Hillary” or “Racist Donald.”

As we butter our popcorn, ready our bingo cards, and open our Crown Royal bottles in preparation for tonight’s “dumpster fire” of a Presidential Debate, we should pause for a moment and take stock of where we have allowed ourselves to be taken as the body of Christ in the United States of America.  Maybe we’d be better off turning off the TV, pulling out a rosary, and saying the Jesus Prayer five hundred or a thousand times.

“Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

This prayer, which is not unlike the prayer of the tax collector, has worked to calm the minds and hearts of Christians for more than 1,400 years.  It reminds us of our dependence on God alone.  It focuses us not on the other who stands outside of us, but the Lord Jesus who makes his home deep in our hearts.  Most of all, it brings to mind the one fact that every human has in common: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; all of us are in need of forgiveness; and it is God’s desire to restore us all to right relationship with him and with one another.  Resist the temptation to be like the Pharisee tonight and for the next three weeks and instead, focus on God who takes delight in our prayers, who longs to be at the center of our lives, and causes those who exalt themselves to be humbled and those who humble themselves to be exalted.

[Don’t] Trust your gut

I’ve been on the road most of the last two weeks.  New Orleans for some R&R, Beckwith for Clergy Conference, and Charleston for my brother’s Air Force retirement ceremony.  This means that I’ve been eating things that I normally wouldn’t eat in quantities I normally wouldn’t eat them.  There was the cheeseburger covered in grilled onions and bacon at 10pm, the several dozen oysters, and the Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast, just to name a few.  The worst idea came last night, however.  I was stopped for the night somewhere between here and there at one of those chain steak restaurants when the waitress gave me a choice I should have refused.

“Do you want a 12 or 16 ounce New York Strip?”

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This is terrible advice

I went with the 16, and I’ve regretted it ever since.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Luke tells us that Jesus told a parable to those who “trusted in themselves.”  This too is a terrible idea.  When we try to trust in ourselves, we are bound to make all sorts of powerful missteps.

In the real life Draughting Theology, we are studying Paul’s letter to the Romans, which has at its core this idea that the primary sin of humanity is idolatry.  Not that we worship other gods, but that we put ourselves in the place of God.  When we trust ourselves to know what is right and to do it, we, more often than not, put our own desires in front of God’s.  We put ourselves at the center, do what’s best for us, and like me trusting my gut, must life to pay the consequences.

I’m eating Tums like they are candy, but in the spiritual realm, the only way out of trusting ourselves, is, as Jesus points out in the parable, to trust only in God’s mercy.  When we confess our tendency to make idols of ourselves, ask God to return to God’s rightful place in our lives, and put our trust in God alone, we will find life to be much more abundant.

Take it from me dear reader, don’t trust your gut.

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.

God acts, we respond, und wiederholen

One of the hardest concepts of Christian theology to wrap my mind around is God’s grace.  Every time I try to explain it, I end up caught in a loop of work’s righteousness.  Take for example, the classic, God’s grace is a gift argument.

blog-opening-gift-in-red-box

God’s grace is sparkly

Logically, if grace is a gift, then all we have to do is open it in order to receive it, but isn’t the act of opening a gift work?  And if it is, then does it mean that those who aren’t able to receive the gift are excluded?  Does God’s grace require some level of cognitive ability in order to understand what it is and intellectually assent to it?  I have my doubts about that.  How then do we explain grace without getting caught in this quagmire?  I think I might have found my answer in the Collect for Ash Wednesday, which seems to put the action in the proper order:

God acts, we respond, und weiderholen
(and repeat, all good theology needs to have some German in it)

After an introductory clause naming God’s desire to restore all things to right relationship, we ask God to “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness…”  God acts by placing within us “new and contrite hearts.”  Contrite is one of those fifty-cent church words that means feeling sorry for the sins we have committed and desiring forgiveness through confession.  It is because of the contrite heart that God places within us, and nothing we can do in and of ourselves, that we then respond with contrition.  That is to say, our new hearts naturally feel what they were made to feel: lamentation of our sin and acknowledgement of our wretchedness.  Because of the actions of the heart that God has placed within us, God forgives.  In this equation, there is nothing that we do of our own power.  God’s action causes us to respond, and God acts again.  This cycle continues, daily (sometimes hourly or even by the minute) for the rest of our lives as we seek to grow into the likeness of Christ.

Is this a perfect definition of God’s grace?  Of course not.  It raises questions about free will: can we override the contrite heart within us?  It raises questions of forgiveness: does God forgive even if we refuse to be penitent?  It raises questions of time: when exactly does God install that new, contrite heart?  Like I said, God’s grace is a difficult concept to explain, but on this Ash Wednesday, as I prepare to receive a cross of ashes on my brow and be reminded of my mortality, my sinfulness, and my need for a savior, I’m grateful for the Collect that reminds me that God is constantly at work, rebuilding my heart and forgiving me of the sins and offenses that I, from time to time, most grievously have committed.