One Great Temptation

This week I was lurking a bit on Social Media as some priest-friends were talking about the difficulty of fasting on Ash Wednesday. For priests the day is long, especially if you’ve got to preach or celebrate several times. One colleague confessed he often ends the fast when he stops for fast food on the way home from the final service, and so he starts his Lent feeling guilty about a double cheeseburger. Priests are just people, after all. I admired his candor about giving into temptation. But I also wondered, is a double cheeseburger what we mean by temptation? Does God care that much about Big Macs?

In the church writ-large, I would argue, we’ve talked about temptation too narrowly. If you started today not wanting to hear a sermon about temptation, I would understand. When I first opened these lessons, I didn’t want to preach about temptation. But faced with the story of Eve and the Serpent, and especially with Jesus’ Temptation in the wilderness, I felt stuck. Then I wondered: What if we broadened our view? What if I let go of my assumptions about what Christians mean when we talk about “temptation,” and try to reinterpret.

So today’s sermon has a thesis. It is this: Scripture teaches that the heart of all our temptations is one single great temptation, just one. It’s this: to be less than who we are created to be. Let me say that again: from the point of view of Scripture, there is really only one great temptation: to be less than who we are created to be.

The story of Jesus’ Temptation is my primary text. I promise we will get back to Eve and the serpent, but for now:

Let’s meet Jesus in the desert.

The devil tempts Jesus three times. In the version we read today, from Matthew, first the devil tempts Jesus with food. This temptation is pretty basic. And Jesus turns the old tempter down.

A quick aside, in case just one or two folks need to hear these words: As I said at the beginning of the sermon, the church has taught about temptation too narrowly. This is definitely true around food. In Lent folks who struggle with food need to be extra careful. If you struggle with food, with body image, please do not allow Lent to complicate the work of feeding your body. Please don’t.

Jesus re-centers the question of food. “We are not fed by bread alone,” he quotes from Scripture. Notice, both Jesus and the Devil know their Bible. The devil tends to use verses very narrowly. Jesus responds more in the broad themes. Jesus knows the tempter is also a trickster, and so we aren’t surprised when, after Jesus passes the first test, the next temptation comes right on its heels.

In the second temptation. The devil tells Jesus to throw himself off of the pinnacle of the temple, surely God will save him. Again he turns the devil down.

Finally Jesus is brought to the top of a high mountain. The story in Matthew builds. The story of the Temptation crescendos to this question: “Jesus will accept the power to rule the kingdoms of the world from the devil?”

We need to pause. This is an odd temptation, if you think about it. We Christians proclaim Jesus is “King of Kings” and “Lord of Lords.” We’ll sing those very words from Handel’s Messiah on Easter morning. The devil is offering Jesus a job we believe he is destined to take.

Jesus won’t turn from God to accept a kingship our world would recognize. Power for Jesus is unrecognizable to the powers of the day. Jesus is the one who says the greatest is the servant. The last shall be first.

The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas of Union Seminary says, this last shall be first business isn’t about retribution. The first shall be last and the last shall be first is a statement of equality. When Jesus reigns: there is no way to distinguish: there is no first and last. Everyone comes in together.

The devil is offering Jesus the same title, king of kings. Jesus can’t accept the offer on the devil’s terms. This is what we mean when we say Jesus was tempted but did not sin. Jesus refused to settle for the status quo. Jesus refused power on the terms he was offered. But it’s tricky to see the distinction. The title was the same.

And this is why temptation is often a subtle question.

Temptation is all about the subtleties.

It would be nice to think that our temptations would all come a great big signs, “sin this way lies.” But remember sin, as it appears in the Bible, it’s a term from archery. Sin means “missing the bullseye.” Even the greatest archers sometimes fire a little off target. The great temptation, to be less than who we are created to be, it can feel like a small compromise.

And, don’t we often make small compromises, especially when we are afraid? We often fall into subtle temptation when we face uncertainty.

We are facing some fearful news this week.

We are facing uncertain times. This is a time for the prayer “lead us not into temptation.”

The coronavirus dominated the news this week, but for all the stories there really isn’t much useful information. We are faced with a lot of speculation. Wall Street doesn’t do well with uncertainty. And there are a lot of uncertainties about this virus. So far there seems to be only one thing about which everyone agrees: wash your hands.

I wish I could tell you I knew how this was all going to play out. I wish I could tell you whether to cancel your vacation. I wish I could tell you when a vaccine was coming. I can’t. No one can.

I can tell you this: now is a time to ask central questions, questions of vocation, of who we are called to be. Now is the time to ask, ‘will we meet this moment? Will we be who God created us to be?'”

The temptation is always to be less. The temptation is to be smaller. The temptation to pay attention only to the needs of my country, my city, my neighborhood, to ask how will this affect me.

Will we face this challenge with our full selves? Will we be like the people of faith who went before us in this city and throughout our country, who responded to epidemics like cholera by building hospitals and serving the poor? Or will we settle for the temptation to be less?

So far the news isn’t good.

Reports are coming from Asian American communities across the country that business is down in restaurants. Hateful language is on the rise. Folks are facing real stigma for a virus that happened to originate in central China.

The stigma isn’t new. Part of what we have to face in this country are the sinful structures of racism and discrimination. When I call the structures sinful, I’m using that language theologically.

I think the best way to illustrate this is by example. Growing up in a pretty Evangelical suburb, I remember pro-Life groups proposing that maybe God had sent humanity a cure for cancer, and someone had chosen to terminate the pregnancy. Now, that question leads us down the path of asking when does life begin? I don’t want to go too far down that road, because we may disagree with the premise of when life begins, and because that’s another sermon. But I thought about the theology at the heart question this week, and I found myself asking:

What if God intended to send us a brilliant disease specialist, but she was unable to finish college because her family’s medical debt? What if God sent us a brilliant diplomat who could have negotiated an international response to the health crisis, but her last name was judged “too hard to pronounce,” so she didn’t get an interview?

When I named one temptation in scripture, I used the plural intentionally:

The temptation is to be less than WE were created to be.

We won’t be who we are created to be here until we dismantle the structures of racism and discrimination based on gender, age, orientation, ability, on and on… If you missed Jeff Schulenberg’s presentation this morning watch online. The date in our region is clear, and it’s sinful.

Because God didn’t just put individuals on the planet. Jesus didn’t just meet with folks one on one. We believe in a God who invites us to community, to grow, to laugh, to heal together. In uncertain times, we have a responsibility to ask, “how will this impact my neighbor?” “How does a decision affect the most vulnerable?”

I was thinking this week about what would happen if we had to shut the church down day to day for awhile. A number of our employees are payed by the hour. Some of that pay is dependent on rent from partners we might miss if we have to close. Would I have to let staff go? Would we reduce hours? Folks are depends on that income. What would we as a church need to sacrifice for all of us to make it through a shutdown?

I don’t have answers yet, but these are the kind of questions I think we all need to be asking at this time, as we wonder, as we plan.

How will we ensure that we don’t leave folks behind? How will we ensure that we all have a chance to be who we were created to be?

One last reflection. I promised I would make my way back to Eve and the serpent.

I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I would not be surprised if most of you in this room when I first said the word “temptation” went straight to sex. As I said at the beginning. We’ve spoken very narrowly of temptation.

We’ve talked about temptation too narrowly around sex. The church needs to repent for the way we have taught about sex. I blame a lot on St. Augustine, who told us this story from Genesis was all about sex. Original sin in his mind was a sexually transmitted disease. I would say, that teaching tells us more about who Augustine was than who God is.

Because this isn’t a story about sex anymore than Lent is a season about hamburgers. Eve gets far more blame than she deserves. Eve isn’t our sinful 32x great grandmother. Eve is an archetype. So is Adam. She and Adam together they represent all of our capacity to be convinced to settle for less, to give into social pressure, to give into fear. The garden was a vision of human flourishing, a story of our God-given capacity to live in full relationship with one another, with creation, with God. The story of the serpent isn’t the story of a choice made once which doomed us. It is a story of the choices we make again and again, to settle for less than the dream God has for us.

Countering temptation then requires discernment. To counter temptation means slowing down, means asking questions prayerfully, “who is God calling us to be?” We need to gather not just hand sanitizer and face masks. We need to gather our spiritual resources. We need to be our fullest selves, our truest selves. In times like these, we can’t afford to settle for less.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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