ASSAULTED BY MANY TEMPTATIONS
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
Lections: Deut 26:1-11; Ps 91; Rom 10: 8b-13; Luke 4:1-13.
We are in the Judean desert, and everything we see takes place under the shadow of the cross. The great, ancient cities and their Mediterranean commerce lie far removed from the solitude and stillness of our rough, rock plateaus. The days are hot and nights are cold; there is little food or water, and always the danger of poisonous insects and wild animals. Moses went into the desert for 40 days, as did Elijah after him. Now the Spirit of God has driven Jesus to the place where he, like them, will have his righteousness tested. After going without food for forty days, Jesus will be given the opportunity to recover his well-being by choosing to live at odds with God’s will for him.
Jesus is tempted three times in the desert: he is tempted with bread, because he is hungry; he is tempted with power, because he is a servant; and he is tempted with disbelief, because he has given God his heart. We rightly infer that these three temptations, which we call gluttony, wealth, and vainglory, are the most difficult temptations to resist. And because Jesus successfully resisted all three of them, we can be confident that he was able to resist all the lesser temptations of his lifetime. For this, he is known as sinless.
Briefly, we should mention an aside: Jesus resists all temptations relying only on the human nature and guidance of the Spirit that he shares with us. He does not have any advantage on us due to his divine nature. The choices Jesus makes reveal the perfection we too achieve by single-mindedness. We should also notice that he resists temptation by finding their antidotes in Scripture. The three adages, “Man shall not live by bread alone,” “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God,” and “Thou shall not tempt the Lord thy God” are all found in the Book of Deuteronomy. The practical lesson for us is self-evident: we avoid making wrong choices by conforming our conduct to the righteousness revealed in Scripture. As is said in Psalm 91, “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High: shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty… He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will deliver him and honor him. With long life will I satisfy him: and show him my salvation.”
We know a lot about temptations, because they continuously assault the human person. God isn’t confined to the smallness of a person; temptations, however, are. The root of all temptation is the effort to make the human person a proxy for the divine person. When we choose wrongly, we overrule God. Temptation is familiar, futile, and fatal.
We don’t have to be in the desert for temptation to succeed against us. The Psalmist tells us we are successfully tempted even in our mother’s womb. Adam and Eve are tempted in the lushness of the Garden of Eden. The tempter is always a trickster. The trickster asks questions and then challenges our answers. The trickster acts like a lawyer. His leading questions convince us that we have misunderstood the Word of God; we admit that God couldn’t have said and done the things he said he did. When the trickster rests his case, we are prepared to trust the darkness of our judgments rather than God’s will.
This is the illusion we create. Its deep rootedness is almost incomprehensible, but we can all identify the petty temptations of excess: drinking, drugs, television, fascination with the movie industry, web-surfing, video games, etc; likewise, eating too much, shopping for and buying things we don’t need, striving to make and bank money. These have in common one thing: their opportunity cost. They cost us the time we could be engaging differently. Simply put: we could be living the life we were created for, but we choose to squander it. We undergo a spiritual death, our health fails, and then we undergo a physical death.
More egregious temptations are recognized with less difficulty but nonetheless frequently occur: illicit sex is a biggie. Countless temptations are related to addictions, obsessions, and attachments. Remarkably, however, our delusion is so thorough that the most life-threatening temptation are also the most difficult to identify: when we deny hospitality to a stranger, for instance, with what are we being tempted?
Our understanding of the Trinitarian Being of God is rooted in the story of the three angels who visit Abraham in Genesis 18. The original, archetypal communion table is a table of hospitality. By denying hospitality, we subscribe to a system of domination and violence, that is the outcome of jealousies, judgments, and selfishness. We are all guilty of the indiscriminate killing governments inflict upon populations around the world, as they lay waste to the nature, culture, and divine glory of our planet. This is the inevitable outcome of the un-holiness that results from disbelief.
When we grow apart from God, we yet miss God, and we yearn for God. Our yearning for God is not unlike our yearning for the beloved of youth and the loved ones of older years. The longing for God is deep-rooted within us. How can we grow closer to God? The prayers for Lent are often prayers for the church, which God provides as a sanctuary and safe haven: “God, you cleanse your Church by the annual observance of Lent: Grant to your family that what they strive to obtain from you by abstinence, they may secure by good works.”
Lent is a time to re-establish intimacy with Christ. We do this in three ways: praying, fasting, and almsgiving. Prayer is especially important, because in prayer we talk to God. We know from our most meaningful relationships how important talking is to establishing and maintaining a successful relationship. When we talk, we communicate. When we stop communicating, we grow apart.
We also know from experience that sometimes we communicate without using words. We can and do sometimes share our heart and thoughts in silence. Lent is a time for silence, for quieting our minds. When we are quiet, we can listen.
Simple forms of prayer are fitting for Lent. The Our Father, reading of Psalms, saying the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer be said anytime of the day or night:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy On Me, A Sinner.”
The prayer can be repeated over and over, as a mantra, in its shortened form:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Have Mercy On Me.”
7 words said 7 time will instantly change your mind.
It is best when we are praying these prayers to say the words out loud. We should hear our voice outside ourselves. In this way, we experience the largeness and potential of our mind. God isn’t confined to the smallness of a person. As we recognize the activity of our mind extending outside ourselves, we experience God in the vastness of creation. We rend the illusion created by our judgment. This is why Jesus says, “Rend your hearts, not your garments.”
Here is one new prayer I want to teach you. We should say it every day during Lent. It is the Lenten Prayer of Ephraim the Syriac:
“O Lord and Master of my life, do not give me the spirit of laziness, faintheartedness, lust for power, and idle talk.
But give to me Your servant the spirit of purity, humility, patience, and love.
O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother,
for blessed are You unto ages of ages. Amen.”
This is a good prayer to pray before settling into its silence.
We discipline ourselves, during Lent, to pray in the morning and the evening, every day. We read Psalms, say simple prayers aloud, and allow silence to bloom in the absence of words. On Sunday’s, we meet for worship. Nothing can be more important than moving through Lent together. We talk to God and listen to God as a people, as God’s humanity; as one body, not as individuals. And we fast.
We don’t starve ourselves, but we get a little bit hungry before we eat. We eat simple foods, soups instead of meats, vegetables instead of breads. And because of our focus, our purposeful behavior, we are beset by temptations, as Jesus was tempted in the desert.
One way to resist temptation is to put aside the clutter of everyday things that get in the way of our turning toward God: these are things that are particular to each of us, and when we are honest, we can get a start on calling them out. To focus on our relationship with God, we bid them good riddance during Lent.
Another thing we do is we give away money. We call this almsgiving. Counting our money is a good only for keeping God at a distance. Jesus clearly tells us to give it away to the poor. That’s a challenge for us. Lent is a time to meet that challenge.
Praying, fasting and almsgiving – the means we employ to turn our attention to Christ – are the joyous occasions of Great Lent, for they “open the gates of heaven to us.” As we find written in Micah (4:1-4):
“In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.”
When we – the corporate body of humanity – recognize our weakness and trust in the strength of God, will all be joined in the body of Christ, and rejoice in the loving providence of God.
Let us close by returning to the question of hospitality. This is what our bishop writes in February letter: “As we struggle with these kinds of questions, may I share with you a thought from Henri J. M. Nouwen, who wrote, “Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even dare to be silent with you.” (Henri J. M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey: Reflections for Every Day of the Year. Mumbai: St. Paul’s, 1997, p.111).”
May God continue to add his blessing to our Lent. Amen.