Temptation and the Disciplines of Lent
Sermon for February 25th, 2007: 1st Sunday of Lent
The Gospel lesson:
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “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. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
The most important thing we learn from Jesus' temptation in the wilderness is this: The devil's most cunning temptations invite us to do something we might perceive to be good, but are actually bad. Most of us are not tempted to do something we know to be really bad. Instead, we are more often tempted to do things we find somewhat good and pleasing, but that are actually contrary to God’s Word.
Let me give you an example from my own life. One temptation I have as a pastor is to seek constant approval and praise. I like approval, and I like to receive compliments (who doesn't?) Most of us know it is good to give and receive praise. It helps our self-esteem. But when I make decisions based solely on how popular I will be as a result, this is succumbing to temptation. Paul writes at the beginning of Galatians, “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” I imagine most of you have seen me at work enough now to know that I have even more temptations than this. I welcome your providing me with appropriate biblical quotes to protect me from temptation.
What follows are a list of imagined temptations, paired with a quote from the Bible. It is my hope that we might learn from these pairings that oftentimes, God's ways are not our ways, and we need to hear the counsel of God in our life in order to be set free from temptation.
Temptation #1: I'm too young, or too old, and therefore cannot volunteer and serve in the church, or contribute to the vision that God has for our church.
Biblical response: Your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions (Joel 2:28).
Temptation #2: I give 2, or 5, or 10% of what I earn to the church and other charities, and that is enough.
Biblical response: Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. (Matthew 19:21)
Temptation #3: I’ve already given everything away (or most of it, anyway), and so I’ve achieved Christian perfection.
Biblical response: If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:3)
Temptation #4: I’m not that bad. I’ll go to heaven because I haven’t done anything that horrible.
Biblical response: There is no one who is righteous, not even one; all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3)
Temptation #5: I’m so bad that God can never love me.
Biblical response: In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:10)
Temptation #6: It’s ok for me to condemn that person because they are a druggy/sinner/bad person.
Biblical response: Jesus came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. (Matthew 11:19)
Temptation #7: No one has ever asked or invited me to make use of my gifts in church. That’s why I don’t volunteer.
Biblical response: So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. (Galatians 6:10) And, For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. (2 Thessalonians 3:11)
Temptation #8: My work, or family, or hobbies, or athletic events, or… are more important than God and my ministry in the church right now.
Biblical response: Yet you have abandoned me and worshiped other gods (Judges 10:13)
Temptation #9: But what about me and what I want? I want to be entertained, have a good time, and please myself.
Biblical response: it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
Temptation #10: I want to work on the Sabbath; I want to disobey my parents; I want to carry hate in my heart; I’m attracted to someone other than my spouse; I’d like to copy copyrighted music off the Internet; I’d like to gossip about my neighbor; I wish I had a house as big as my neighbor.
Biblical response: The 10 Commandments
It is clear from this list of temptations, and from the conversation between Jesus and the devil, that we need the Bible to help defend us from temptation. We need something more than our own power and strength. We need the word of God.
We also need some disciplines. We can imagine that Jesus prayed while in the wilderness, and we know that he practiced the spiritual discipline of fasting. Prayer and fasting were his preparation for temptations. It also seems he read the Bible a lot before he went into the wilderness, because he was able to quote from it in response to the devil’s temptations.
We should not think that we are spiritually stronger than Jesus. So we should read the bible to find responses to our temptations, and we should take on Christian disciplines to ward off temptations.
William Cavanaugh writes, “Christian discipline is the antidote to the world’s [and the devil’s] attempts to discipline us.”
One of the traditional ways Christians have disciplined themselves is by taking on a Lenten discipline. Many of you know that my Lenten discipline this year is to spend less time on e-mail. My temptation was to always be checking it, always worrying that a new e-mail was in my basket. So, the discipline is an antidote to that temptation. What discipline are you taking on for Lent? Here are some good possible disciplines:
1. If you’ve never had a Lenten discipline before, maybe this year it can be as simple as asking someone close to you, or a member of the church or the pastor, how they think you are doing spiritually. Then have them assign you a Lenten discipline.
2. You might take on a “classic” discipline- Lutherans sometimes talk about the “marks” of the church, all of which can be resources. These include
a. Baptism- find a way to remember and trust in your baptism each day
b. The Word- read the Bible every day
c. Holy Communion- attend worship every Sunday and receive communion
d. The Office of Ministry- check in with your pastor, kind of like your annual medical check-up
e. Worship- Sing a hymn and pray every day, especially with other people
f. The Cross- find a way to suffer together with Jesus for the love of your neighbor
3. Maybe you can participate in our Trust Fund challenge grant, get a copy of Giving to God, written by Mark Allan Powell, and read it.
4. Take on the discipline of caring for the poor, the grieving, and the lonely.
It’s especially good if you talk to someone else about your Lenten discipline, tell them what you’re doing, and have them help you stay accountable to it.
When you take on a Lenten discipline, I think you’ll find out how true this quote from Jesus is: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30) Disciplines are, counter-intuitively, freeing, because they set us free from some of the ways the word and the devil have trapped us. Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, replaces the heavy burdens of the world with the light and easy burdens of Christian discipline.
So I invite you into this Lenten journey with me. Together, let us take up Jesus’ light and easy yoke. Let us come together regularly, on Sundays for Communion, and Wednesdays for meals, fellowship, and prayer. Let us support one another, let us be ministering angels to one another, for Christ has called each one of us, through baptism, into this community of mutual consolation and care.
And by the way, Mr. Devil, since Christ is on our side, you don’t stand a chance! Depart from us, in the strong name of Jesus. Amen.