Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Temptation to Forget

Each week, in preparation for writing a sermon, I do copious research to help me better understand the bible and subjects it addresses. This research can, and often does, take me down a rabbit hole or two. Knowing that the season of Lent always begins with the story of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness, I decided to google the word ‘temptation.’ I am here to testify that you do not want to look at the images tagged to the word ‘temptation.’ Don’t go there, just don’t.

While the image avenue proved less than fruitful, somehow I found my way to a link labeled as “Bumper Stickers about Temptation.” Because I love a good bumper sticker, allow me to digress for just a moment. These were my favorite non-temptation bumper stickers from the site:

“Cover me. I’m changing lanes.”

“Sometimes I wake up grumpy; Other times I let her sleep”

“Friends help you move. Real friends help you move bodies.”

“Very funny, Scotty. Now beam down my clothes.”

“I’m not as think as you drunk I am”

“I want to die in my sleep like my grandfather… Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car!”

If you are looking to put a bumper sticker on your car that makes a statement about temptation here are your choices:

“Lead me not into temptation, I can find it myself.”

“I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.”

“Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.”

“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”

“Better to shun the bait, than to struggle in the snare.”

Today we hear again of the temptations Jesus faced. They are as old as they are new.

“Turn these stones to bread.” Given that Jesus was in the midst of a forty day fast, this temptation was aimed at a concern as basic as survival. In our time, it sets its sights on instant gratification for human cravings… I am hungry, I am bored, I want sex, I want to be comfortable. Think about the commercial industries that have mushroomed to prominence to satisfy these basic human drives. In our culture, these are not temptations, they are profit opportunities.

The bible describes heaven as being like a sumptuous banquet, so food in and of itself is not evil. In fact, in God’s Kingdom gathering for a meal not only nourishes the body, but it also creates community through table fellowship. It is an opportunity to thank God for daily bread, to extend hospitality to the stranger in our midst, and to share with those who have nothing to eat.

God wants us to be comfortable and promises that those who put their trust in God will lack for nothing. Note that lacking nothing is not the same as opulence or excess.

Sexual intimacy, which brings two people into a singular relationship, is ordained by God. The human drive toward relationship finds its highest expression not through promiscuous conquest, but through life-long, mutual commitment marked by fidelity, monogamy, affection, respect, and careful, honest communication: the kind of intimate relationship into which God seeks to enter with us.

We are much, much more than the sum of our human urges but we have lost touch with the purpose for and value of subduing basic cravings. We are to master them, not they us. And when they master us, we transform gifts God has given to us into something destructive to us and to those around us.

“Bow down and I will give you authority.” For Jesus this temptation must have been particularly tricky. You see, it is the Father’s will that, at a certain point in human history, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. The tempter offers what the Father desires, but (as they say) the devil is in the details. The tempter’s offer involves a shortcut. No obedience, no suffering, no crucifixion, just kneel down now. “Take the easy road, after all you deserve it. Why study? Why work hard? Why save? You can have it all right now. You should have it all right now. You deserve to have it all right now.”

When we yield to this temptation we come to expect that the world owes us, well, the world. We shift from the godly call to mark our lives by offering to wanting to get something. We sit back waiting for someone to do for us when we are called to follow the example of our Lord and do for others. The easy road the tempter offers is a dead end.

I am now 53 years old; old enough not to be young and not to be old. I am old enough to have a sense that what authority I have in life has come the hard way: trials I have endured through the grace of God, persecution I have withstood while doing God’s will, deaths I have suffered from being faithful. None of these are to my credit. It is just what happens when by the grace of God you endure. I sense a little more each day and month and year people acknowledging an authority in me that comes from having been around the block once or twice. There is no shortcut to get this. It is won through faithfulness, admission of failure, tears, confession, tears, forgiveness, and more tears. It is especially tempting when we are young to short-circuit all of this for the easy authority we dream should be ours. It is especially tempting as we get older to be bitter about the things that never came our way when.

“Throw yourself off this pinnacle and let the angels catch you.” Today the tempter would offer to help Jesus go viral! We all want to be ‘somebody’; someone who captures attention, someone who is known for something, anything. The ultimate goal in our age of hyper reality is fame. Deep down we fear that we are nobody, that we don’t matter. This is where the tempter finds us most vulnerable. “I can make you somebody. I can make your life matter. I will get others to notice you. Once you are famous and people admire you, you will feel good about yourself.” So dress for success, sculpt your body into the likeness of a Greek god, upload a video of a stunt to YouTube, if you are really desperate, walk into a school armed to the teeth.

Who wouldn’t want to make the catch that wins the Super Bowl or walk down the runway in a designer dress or author an acclaimed book or even orchestrate a church initiative that revitalizes the prospects of a congregation we deeply love? The tempter’s efforts here are all about the show, not about the sacrifice. Jesus got what the tempter offered, except he died to accomplish it.

The tempter works on our notion that the only reality that matters is a public reality. Jesus reminds us that those who pray or fast or do acts of charity in order to be seen by others have their reward. They do get noticed. What they do not get is the benefit of developing a private, interior world where they will discover that they are loved by God and that this love is the most important thing in life. It is what we were made for.

Think about the tempter approached Jesus: “If you are the Son of God…” Do you recognize how this is a challenge to his identity? And coming within forty days of his baptism, it is no small challenge because Jesus cannot be at all clear as to the full meaning of the Voice he heard proclaiming him “the Beloved.” The tempter presents plausible possibilities. In the end, Jesus overcomes each temptation by knowing who God is and who he is in God’s eyes.

Who are we? The bible says you and I are wayward children adopted into God’s family through the work and love of Jesus Christ. It is not something we earn. It is something we embrace.

How differently do we approach the world when we understand ourselves to be loved and valued in God’s eyes verses if we believe ourselves to be lacking or worthless? Temptation is not so much something we get led into or stumble across – “If only I hadn’t clicked on that website or walked into that bar or sat down on the couch with a bag of chips” – but rather something that has its roots deep inside our soul and self-understanding. When we are confident in who we are to God then we move comfortably in this world. When we are unsure who we are in God, or when we reject who we are in God, then we turn to any number of things to fill that void and salve the hurt.

I suppose if I were going to make up a bumper sticker it might say, “The tempter wants us to forget. Jesus wants us to remember.”

You see, temptation is about forgetting; forgetting that we are God’s children; forgetting that the body is more than food and clothing; forgetting that greatness comes from serving others; forgetting that what really matters is not what we are known for, but who we are on the inside. Every time we gather in worship we gather to remember what often we are tempted to forget. We remember that we are God’s children, deeply loved for who we are, more precious than fine jewels, lacking nothing, possessing everything in Christ. We remember that our Savior Jesus Christ has shown us the way. We remember that what God says is what matters most and that the voice of the tempter only gains leverage as we forget.

Joseph Kennedy taught his children always to remember that they were a ‘Kennedy.’ No matter where you, no matter what you are doing, he said, always remember that you are a ‘Kennedy.’ His children grew up to be presidents, senators, and great humanitarians because they had an identity which they never forgot. You and I have an identity even stronger then theirs. We are God’s children and God showers the rich blessings of grace upon us each and every day. If you remember this there is no temptation against which you cannot stand. As we forget this, we experience how temptation distorts life and makes it something God does not intend. We are blessed that God invites us to remember and to return. This invitation comes to us each and every day, but is especially present during the season of Lent. Who are you? Do you remember? How do you need to reassert in your life your identity as a child of God?