Temptation and Freedom

Note: I preached a version of this sermon on February 21, 2010 (the first Sunday in Lent) at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Aurora, Illinois. At the time I had more doubts about the substantial existence of the devil.

Why do we do bad things? We’re not bad people as far as it goes, right? So why do we do things we shouldn’t? Don’t worry–I’m not looking for answers, so you can put your hands down. But it’s not a rhetorical question either. This is one of the mysteries of life, and there is no shortage of answers. Today’s Gospel lesson deals with one popular cause of bad behavior: Temptation. 

Temptation is so insidious because it offers us the good reason for doing the bad thing. Because there is almost always a good reason for doing a bad thing. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from all these centuries of human life, it’s that people can talk themselves into doing absolutely anything. See if these sound familiar:

“I deserve this.”

“My spouse doesn’t understand me like so-and-so does.”

“It’s a special occasion.”

“I’m in such a hurry.”

“It would hurt people to know the truth.”

“My pastor colleagues are all going out in Lincoln Park and it would be rude for me to stay behind and go to bed early!”

If you haven’t said any of these things to yourself a few times, you’re a much better person than I am. And if you are a much better person than I am, you have learned that the better you are at resisting temptation, the more complicated and persuasive the temptations become. “If you would serve the Lord, my child, prepare yourself for temptation,” writes the ancient Jewish sage Jesus ben Sirach. 

Today’s Gospel describes the temptation of Jesus, the most righteous person, by the devil–who is, in the end, nothing more than the voice of temptation inside all of us. Jesus being particularly strong, faces especially difficult temptations. He has been in the desert for forty days without eating. He is famished. He is probably quite weak and even delirious. And the devil comes to him with a proposal: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Use your power, Jesus, he says. Satisfy your own hunger. You have stood fast all these days and nights. Now you have earned your reward.

And not only that. Think, Jesus, of the power that flows from this one little act. The hungry, fearful masses will flock to you. You will win their undying loyalty. Humans will put up with anything, will follow anyone, will believe whatever you tell them so long as they know their bellies will be full. Do this one thing, Jesus, and you will truly be the Son of God in the eyes of all.

This is the temptation of prosperity and security. How many people, given the chance to turn stones into bread, actually say no? From a street mugging to Bernie Madoff’s financial crimes, the appeal of money for nothing never seems to diminish. 

But what does Jesus say? Quoting the Old Testament, he replies “One does not live by bread alone.” Bread is good. Bread is necessary. But it is not the only good and necessary thing. God’s Word is still better and more necessary. Winning your bread apart from God is no miracle and no blessing. 

So the devil ups the ante. He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and says, “to you I will give their glory and all this authority, for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”

This test is even harder. Why save the world by preaching and teaching and healing when you could seize all power at once? There is a world stinking in poverty and war and corruption. The princes of the world laugh at God and oppress the poor and the widows. You could end all of this tragedy now for the small price of worshipping me instead of the Holy One. 

Imagine it, Jesus: No more war. No more torture. No more abuse of God’s creation. All you have to do is grasp the scepter and mount the throne and a grateful world will fall obedient at your feet. 

This is the temptation of earthly power. It is the temptation to let the ends justify the means. And who can resist such a temptation? No more television attack ads, no more irritating and incompetent Congress, no more sloppy international conflicts. There will be order and justice if only we give in to this one little thing.

So what does Jesus reply? Again quoting the Old Testament, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Earthly power is good and necessary. But it is not the only good and necessary thing. God’s will is better and more necessary still. Power without God is no miracle and no blessing.

The last temptation is maybe the hardest. Seeing that Jesus quotes Scripture in response to each test, the devil takes him up to the height of God’s own temple and urges him to jump using the words of the Psalms: “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you; on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”

Jesus, you are God’s own Son; surely God will not let you come to any harm when you are on God’s own temple? And think of it: people need to eat and they yearn to be ruled over. But most of all they want to be amazed and filled with awe. When you show them that God’s power is your plaything, surely nothing will stop the whole world from begging you to command them. What are you going to do? Heal a few lepers and cast out a few demons? No one will follow you for that. Show them your power over death itself. Then they will follow.

This is the temptation of magic and charisma. It is the temptation of claiming extraordinary powers or secret knowledge. I think of it as the pastor’s temptation. Summon up everyone’s hopes and fears and promise to answer them with knowledge that only you have. 

But Jesus goes back to the Old Testament: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Yes, there are wondrous things in the world, things no one can explain. But a great deed done apart from God is no miracle and no blessing. 

In each case, notice that the devil is tempting Jesus to do something that sounds good. Food is good, just and peaceful government is good, the mysterious power of God is good. The devil is taunting Jesus to get serious about these things already. What use is feeding a few thousand here and healing a few there and touching a few hearts somewhere else when you could just grab it all at once–fill every stomach, heal every infirmity, hold every heart in the palm of your hand? 

It is hard enough to turn down things we know are bad for us–that second donut, that not-quite-honest sick day. It is even harder when that little voice inside of us insists that what it wants is not bad, but good. Suddenly our knowledge of the Bible comes up a little short. It is very hard to let God have the last word. It is very hard to be content with God and a few blessings rather than with the tempter and the promise of a cup overflowing. 

Still, with a little thoughtfulness you can win some battles. You can start to recognize when you’re coming up with a good reason to do a bad thing. Perhaps this can be a Lenten discipline. Consider the temptation you succumb to most often or most easily and focus on that. Don’t try to fix every problem and slay every dragon. I used to be a real Lenten athlete, coming up with lists of resolutions that would make the saints tremble. This is a recipe for failure. Just pick one. You might surprise yourself. The example of Christ is more powerful than a cynic would imagine.

But temptation ends up winning out somewhere, somehow. The devil would not have to offer all the world’s kingdoms to me. If he took me up to the Oregon coast and pointed north and south, I’d probably hear him out. 

When those trials come, and we fail, we remember that Christ was not just tempted in himself. He was not tempted to give us an example of heroic strength. He was tempted for our sake. He was offered the path of the provider, the emperor, or the wizard. He was offered three ways to compel the world to come to him. A lot of great people have been tempted in one of these ways and failed. If Jesus had taken the offer he would have been a great man. The devil gets a bad rap–he’s full of good ideas for human improvement. If Jesus had taken the offer, he would have been a great man. But he would have been nobody’s savior. But Jesus stood firm. He stood firm so that he would call us to him not by our empty stomachs, not by our fear of the government, and not by our need to be amazed. He calls us in freedom. Freedom to follow him in love. Freedom to serve our neighbor without fear. Freedom to explore God’s world in the knowledge that Christ goes with us. And yes, freedom to ask forgiveness when we fall and sin over and over again. Jesus was not strong to give us an example of strength; he was strong to save the weak. He was not obedient to show us how to be obedient–we already had all of that information. He was obedient to save the disobedient. We are tempted and sometimes we fail. He was tempted with all good things but did not fail, so that none of our failures would rob us of the best thing of all: the God who gives all things their bread in due season, who holds all the kingdoms of the world in his hands, who holds us fast and carries us to safety beyond all temptation. Amen.

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