Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8,
A pastor was late for a memorial service which he was leading at a church other than his own in the city. After driving around and around searching for a parking place, he finally parked his car in a tow-away zone and left a note on his windshield that said, “I am a pastor who was late for a memorial service. Forgive us our trespasses.” When he was done with the service he found on his car a ticket along with a note which said, “If I don’t ticket you, I lose my job. Lead us not into temptation.”
Our lives are filled with temptations. And as we read today, it is a common theme in scripture as well. The responses to those temptations obviously vary. Adam and Eve’s response was perhaps more like our own in the face of serious temptations. They were told the forbidden fruit was good food. Then they were told that it would give them knowledge of good and evil. Finally, they were offered the hope of divinity, told that they would become like God, full of power, after they ate of it. For Adam and Eve, these temptations were too great and they ate. Jesus was offered very similar temptations. First he was tempted to make bread out of the rocks – food. Second he was asked to test God to gain directly the knowledge of the depth of God’s love for him. And finally Satan offered Jesus power and the strength to rule over all the kingdoms of earth. But unlike Adam and Eve, Jesus did not succumb to those temptations.
I think it is important to note that for all three: Adam, Eve and Jesus, the first temptation was about simple fulfillment of a need: about food, about eating. Is this normally something we would consider bad or think of as a temptation? To simply fulfill a need that we have? To EAT? Of course not. So what, then, is the message in this for us?
Temptation has more to do with how something specific affects our relationships with God, with others, and even with ourselves, than it has to do with a particular substance or particular action. Good things can still become temptations if used to keep God or others at a distance, or if they are used to injure ourselves in unhealthy ways. For Adam, Eve and Jesus, this was not so much about eating as about disobeying or distancing themselves from what was right. Similarly, for us, many temptations are not evils in themselves, but within a context or relationship with God and one another. We know, for example, that chocolate has some good and healthy aspects to it and is not a bad thing in itself. But I have to admit that as I was writing this sermon I was sitting on my couch eating an entire bag of chocolate kisses. By the time I was halfway through, I was sicker than a dog, too sick to finish the sermon that day. Too sick to pay attention to my kids or to do the other work I needed to get done that day. It’s a good thing I write my sermons a couple weeks ahead, or it could have caused problems for more than just myself and my family. This was a giving in to temptation – doing something that was not good for myself and by extension, for my family. We all know that alcohol and other much more serious addictions can injure our relationships with others and even with God. These things are not necessarily bad in themselves, but anything, when overused, can become a serious problem. This can be the case with almost anything. Work is generally a good thing, for example. Obviously it supports us: brings in income, and it can give our lives a sense of purpose and meaning. But, if we become workaholics, if our job is taking too much time, attention and care away from our families, away from our time with God, away from being loving, giving people, then it can become a temptation, it can turn into a sin that we need to face, understand and change. Or if in our job we are asked to do something that is against the will of God, that, too, can become a temptation to do wrong. In the same way, television, books, FaceBook, other forms of media are not bad in themselves. We can learn a great deal from media sources, social media can help us connect with one another, time spent in these ways can help us relax and unwind, all of these things can be a way to help us, heal us and can be a way to build relationships with others, to stay connected, especially during a time such as this one with the pandemic. But it can also become dangerous. Through social media, especially perhaps, we can become entrenched in one-sided deeply divisive political positions that prevent us from hearing our brothers and sisters who have differing view points, that prevent us from relating or even speaking to people who disagree with us, that encourage division rather than bridge building and entrenching in thought rather than being open to learning. These can also be extremely time/ energy/ interest consuming activities. I remember visiting someone once who had a TV on in every single room. This constant noise and distraction prevented the members of the family who lived there from having any kind of quality conversations or relationships with each other. It also took time away from God, from prayer, from listening and being with God. This addiction to the TV, often now replaced with addictions to our phones, to social media, can become a strong temptation, something we should work to limit. Jesus determined that for him, during this time of fasting and prayer, even the simple creation of food would have been a temptation. If even basic food can become such a temptation, the call is clear for us to examine what in our lives keeps us from deepening our relationships with God and with each other.
15 years ago a group of women from the church I was serving at the time went to see Eve Ensler’s production “The Good Body.” In this performance she talked about female obsession and dis-ease with our bodies that is so prevalent in our culture, as well as in many cultures around the world. In particular she focused on her own hatred of her stomach which she saw as fat, round, not flat, not perfect, not “good.” After an hour and a half of sharing different stories about women’s struggles with body image and in particular her won, she ended “The Good Body” by telling a story about a trip she made to Afghanistan. There, she said, all people, but especially the women, experienced great oppression under the Taliban. But out of all the stories of oppression, of torture, or abuse that Eve heard and saw, Eve found herself especially upset by a story in which several women were imprisoned and severely beaten by the Taliban for eating ice-cream, which was forbidden. She could not let go of her own distress about this, and eventually her hosts in Afghanistan told her that something needed to be done. They told her it was time for her to do the forbidden task of eating ice cream in Afghanistan. Together Eve and her hosts went to a place in the middle of the open market downtown that was secret, was screened off, was silent. All of them knew that if they were caught with the ice cream, they would be beaten, imprisoned, perhaps even executed, depending on the mood of the Taliban officers of the day. But there they were sitting together, listening to the Taliban circling around outside, still about to share this forbidden ice cream together. As she raised the ice cream to her lips, as she ate of the fruit the Taliban called forbidden, Even realized that the statement she was making along with the others, that grabbing of freedom, that rebellion and solidarity in the illegal act of enjoying this food was more important, much more important than the fat of her stomach, than the calories, than the struggle with body image. Here was something more important than all of that. Here was life, here was solidarity, here was a statement about standing up to oppression at whatever risk for the sake of saying, “ I will not idly stand by while my sisters are being tortured for living their lives. I will not be distracted by my own self-concerns in the face of their dying even as they struggle to live.” Her obsession with her body had been a sin – she was tempted as people all over the world are, to get caught up in something that was not so important, something that was not about life, nor about love, nor really about taking are of herself; caught up in an obsession, a temptation that by taking her time, energy and focus was robbing her and those around her of deeper connections with each other, and with God.
While the specifics of the temptations that Jesus faced in today’s scripture were probably different than the specifics of those things that tempt us, this gospel story has much to say to us about the ways in which we are tempted. Jesus said “if someone asks for your coat, give him your shirt too.” We are not to ask when someone asks us for something, when our resources are being called upon, whether or not those asking are somehow “deserving”. That is never a question Jesus says we are to ask. We are to give to all in need, regardless of their situation. But we, like Jesus, often find ourselves tempted, I would say, by our rationalizing minds. For Jesus the rationalized response to the tempter might have been “well, it would be easy to turn these stones into bread. And I would prove to myself and to everyone around that I really was God’s son. Why, then, shouldn’t I do this?” For us the rationalizing goes, “Well, they might misuse my resources. I might be supporting their addiction. If I give them what they ask for, they may just keep begging and not get off their feed and help themselves.” Well, these sound like good arguments. Yes, they might misuse what we give them. Yes, they might not get up on their own two feet and they might stay where they are. And yet, we are commanded to give anyway. The temptation to listen to our own rationalizing, rather doing what we are called to do, this is a temptation that most people find hard to resist.
In Jesus’ second temptation he was tempted to test God’s love for him. The basis of the temptation was scripture – from Psalm 91 which says, “God will command the angels concerning you and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” Many of us have been tempted, I think, to test God’s love and care for us in various ways. We also may find ourselves at times compelled to rationalize or even use scripture to justify behaviors that are unloving and therefore against God’s will. Paul talks about separating ourselves from those who are a “bad influence” – those who might lead you astray. Many churches, especially fundamentalist churches, use this scripture as an excuse to separate themselves from the rest of the world, even from family members who do not share the same belief systems. But this is in direct conflict with Jesus’ example to us of eating with sinners, of claiming to come to the unrighteous rather than the righteous. It is in great contrast to his command to us to love our enemies, to feed the poor, to visit those in prison. It is also against his call to go and make disciples of the nations: if we cannot talk to non-Christians, surely we will have a hard time sharing with them the love of God. Many of us may have also been tempted to support the “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” scripture, again ignoring that Jesus directly spoke against this text telling us to turn the other cheek and to do better. This, too, is a hard temptation to resist.
Finally, Jesus’ last temptation took the form of bribery. He was told that if he bowed down to the tempter, he would be given power over all kingdoms and nations. For us the bribe may not be the rule and reign of all kingdoms. But we still negotiate with temptation in the form of pay-offs for ourselves. “If I don’t give to this person, I’ll have more for myself and my family. If I were to help so and so, I might have less time for my family, even less time for God,” we might tell ourselves. “If I ignore that racist comment, maybe that person will like and accept me.” “If I choose not to stand up against injustice, maybe I’ll be more secure in my job.” “If I am just quiet and don’t speak the truth, maybe I’ll still have this friendship, that friendship, this relationship, that relationship.” All of these temptations are very compelling, aren’t they? It is no wonder that Jesus taught us to ask in the Lord’s prayer that we might be kept away from temptation. Evil is subtle. It distracts us. It calls to us. It is a slippery slope, “It’ll be okay if I do just this one little thing” leads to, “well, I did that, so perhaps it’s not such a big deal if I also do this.” Which leads to, “well, I guess it doesn’t really matter what I do, so I may as well do what I want.”
But we are called to resist temptation, like Jesus did. We see what happens when we don’t: the story of Adam and Eve is a story about all hell being broken loose, as it was. And Jesus’ story is about the ushering in of heaven. What will we do with the temptations that are before us? Will we even recognize them when they come? We are called to face the temptations of life and to say “no”. It is obviously not easy to do this. But we are called to it for the sake of our relationships with God, with one another, and even with ourselves. What is in the way of your relationships with God and one another?
“Lead us not into temptation” we pray every week. But even as we pray, we know that we will and do face temptations daily. So I add this prayer for you all today: “God, help us to see clearly the temptations that do fall our way. And God, when we do see them, give us the strength to say “no”, to strive to do better, to find another way.” That is my prayer for you, that is my prayer for me, that is my prayer for us all. Amen.