A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fifth Sunday in Lent • March 13, 2016
Copyright 2016 James Eaton, All Rights Reserved
This year we’ve been slowly walking through the Lord’s prayer and today we read: “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”
Now here’s a little professional secret about clergy: most of us work on our sermons all week but end up writing at least some of them on Saturday night. That’s right, all over in homes, church offices, coffee houses, wherever ministers work, sermons are feverishly composed on Saturday night every week. My goal is to be done on Thursday, but I didn’t make it this week so Saturday night I went to a coffee house to write and when a guitar player set up and it became clear the place was about to get noisy, I drove here, got out of my car in the dark parking lot and heard a man say, “Hey, you wanna go to a party?”
Now it’s a little daunting to be hailed in the dark by a stranger. But when he walked up, he introduced himself as Mark, the guy from across the street who does our snow plowing. I said I’d love to go but I had to work. We chatted and he renewed the invitation; I said I had to write a sermon. He laughed and said oh come on. I declined again, he walked off, I came up the stairs and I couldn’t help but think: wow, I’m going to write a sermon on temptation and there was one!
Lead us not into temptation
It’s hard to make sense of this. Kindergarten teachers don’t intentionally get their kids to do bad things. Why would God lead us into temptation? I think the way to illustrate this is to say something my Old Testament professor occasionally said out of the blue: today there will be a test. See? How did that make you feel? I can see just looking out who has test anxiety here. The thing to know about temptation is that what it means is a test. Temptation is a term for testing our life with God.
Now the Bible gives us several stories of temptation but among them the most important are two we read today: Adam and Eve in the Garden; Jesus in the Wilderness. The first thing to see about these stories is they begin the same way. In each story, temptation occurs when God is absent. God finishes Creation, celebrates the sabbath and Adam and Eve are left in the garden with instructions: take care of the place and don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the garden. God leaves; they are on their own. Jesus is baptized and embraced that he is uniquely God’s child and beloved. Immediately he goes off to the wilderness, a place desolate of others, whose blankness and emptiness is an image of abandonment. The Spirit that lifted him at the Jordan leaves him alone, on his own, without any direction forward.
Temptation in the Garden
Now consider what happens in the garden. The serpent, we’re told, is the most crafty creature and it begins a dialogue with Eve: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’” So what we have here is the first theological discussion. Eve correctly quotes God’s word: “We may eat fruit form the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” What Eve does here is to expand the command; God did not say, “You must not touch it”, that part Eve has added on. The serpent continues: “You will not surely die” and suggests that eating the fruit will open her eyes and she will become god-like. The heart of this is the meaning of the tree. Hebrew uses the word ‘know’ to mean “intimate experience”. To eat the fruit of this tree is to take on yourself the burden of moral choice, the experience of good and evil. This is what happens: the text tells us that she saw the fruit was good for food and pleasing to the eye and desirable for gaining wisdom, she takes some, eats it and gives some to her husband. When they hear God returning, they hide; suddenly, the people who had lived unashamed have something to be ashamed about and the result is the death of their life in the garden.
The story invites us to reflect on our own lives. When have we felt the temptation to be god-like? When have we felt we were so right in our judgement that we could use our power to take on the burdens of deciding what is right and wrong? When have we put ourselves in the place of God? For that is the real test here: who’s in charge? Near the beginning of this series on the Lord’s Prayer, I pointed out that to pray, “Thy will be done” is to affirm ourselves servants of God, citizens of a realm where God rules. Temptation is the moment when this claim is tested, our faithfulness to ourselves as God’s people is tested.
Temptation in the Wilderness
The other story of temptation, Jesus in the wilderness, lifts the same themes but with a very different outcome. Once again, God withdraws. Once again, an agent comes whispering and creating an occasion for temptation. Luke tells us Jesus was 40 days without food; he really means a complete time. Have you been hungry? Have you come to that moment when all you can think about is your next meal? Can you imagine Jesus, completely empty, hungry, hearing the whisper of his power. He’s just been told he’s the son of God; surely the son of God can turn a stone in to bread. Who will notice? Who will know? “If you are the song of God, tell this stone to become bread,” the tempter whispers. And Jesus replies with a quote from Torah, from Deuteronomy: “Man does not live on bread alone.” In other versions of the story, he quotes the whole verse, continuing, “…but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Successively, the tempter continues, offering him power, offering celebrity. In each case, Jesus replies with God’s Word. Significantly, Jesus doesn’t seek anything for himself in this encounter. Hungry, he doesn’t see to be fed; weak, he doesn’t seek power, alone, he doesn’t seek to be the center of attention. He simply lives from God’s Word. Finally, we’re told, the tempter withdraws for a more opportune time. That too is significant: temptation, the testing of faith, is never permanently over; there will always comes another moment of temptation.
Temptation in Our Lives
These are two stories of temptation but there are more because there are more people in the Bible and more particularly because there are all of us. I suspect each of us has a story of temptation to tell and not always ones we’ve survived as well as Jesus. Faithful life is often lived in the wilderness, alone, hungry, feeling abandoned. Mother Theresa was a young woman on fire to serve Christ and live faithfully when, at the age of 18, she left her home in Macedonia to go to Ireland and become a nun. She went to India a year later and became a fully professed nun three years later in 1931. Living among people of abject poverty in Calcutta, she taught at a school for over 10 years until she received what she believed was a call to serve the poor. She traded her habit for a simple white sari. She wrote in her diary,
Our Lord wants me to be a free nun covered with the poverty of the cross. Today, I learned a good lesson. The poverty of the poor must be so hard for them. While looking for a home I walked and walked till my arms and legs ached. I thought how much they must ache in body and soul, looking for a home, food and health. Then, the comfort of Loreto [her former congregation] came to tempt me. ‘You have only to say the word and all that will be yours again,’ the Tempter kept on saying … Of free choice, my God, and out of love for you, I desire to remain and do whatever be your Holy will in my regard. I did not let a single tear come
She founded a new order, serving lepers first, then others as well, living among them, becoming an emblem of Christian faith.
But only after her death, when her letters were published did we learn this astonishing fact: having determined to live in the light of Christ, she felt herself alone and in darkness most of her life. Mother Theresa, one of the most Christ like persons of the last century, lived out a life in which she acutely, painfully, felt the absence of God. She wrote to her spiritual advisor in 1961,
Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—the place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—when the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God. …
She made in her wilderness a garden for others; she stopped hearing the voice of Jesus which had been so vibrant in her when she was young and spoke his love with her own life.
Meeting the Test of Temptation
Now there will be a test, as I said, and perhaps it will come today, perhaps it will come tomorrow or another day. How will we face the test of temptation? What are the tools that help us face it? One is certainly knowing God’s Word. Jesus responds to his temptations out of the deep foundations of the Torah, the teaching God gave into the hands of God’s people, the centuries long experience of God we know in the first five books of the Bible. Yet God’s Word alone is not enough; it takes as well, a profound humility to pass the test of temptation. Both Eve and Jesus quote God’s Word; Eve, however, goes beyond it, judges it, and finally decides her own judgement is more worth more than God’s command. Jesus simply lets the Word guide his actions. He proves himself God’s son not by turning stones into bread but by resisting the invitation to use his power for himself. What are we using ours for?
A few moments ago, we sang, “Jesus had to walk this lonesome valley, he had to walk it by himself.” The lonesome valley is the time of temptation and like Jesus, we also must walk it by ourselves. We walk it pacing hospital corridors, waiting for someone to come out of surgery; we walk it when the very things we felt were secure and powerful enough to keep us safe are ripped away. In those moments, just a little humility, just a little faith, just a little of God’s Word can make all the difference. Jesus doesn’t preach a whole sermon: he simply offers his humility and God’s Word.
Early in my ministry, a powerful, accomplished man who was a leader in my church asked to meet me at my office one night. When I got there, he told me he had been fired that day. He began to cry as he told me about the experience, he said he no longer knew who he was, everything was over. I reached over to touch his shoulder, wanted to console him, and said, “I understand, I feel for you”, or something similar, some cliché, and he looked at me and said, “How could you? you have an office. I don’t even have an office anymore.” He was a faithful, Christian man and he was facing a test of that faith. He did go on to live from that faith; he made a new life and his office became a beat up brief case he carried as he went on to lead Congregational ministries.
I said earlier there would be a test and there will be, whether it comes today or another day. In fact, every day asks us: who are you? We say we love the Lord: as evidenced by what? That’s our test, that’s our temptation. Every day invites us to speak God’s Word to the world. Every day invites us to lives as God’s beloved children. Today, may we avoid the test just for this day yet today, may we live so that when we are tested, we will indeed hear God’s joyful affirmation, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
The biographical information about Mother Theresa was gleaned from many sources but a good source online where it is collected is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_Teresa#Early_life. The quote from the letter is from http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/augustweb-only/135-43.0.html. I asked the man whose story I told many years ago for permission to share this story which he graciously granted.