Rev. Danielle K Bartz April 7, 2019
Luke 4:1-13 “Temptation”
Creator God, source and destiny of all that is, we come to you in partial awareness of the hallowed nature of each human life, and in need of your reviving Spirit for comfort and grace. In the beauty of this place set aside, in the solemn reverence of time set apart to hear your Word, in the strength of mutual care, in the silence and in the songs which attend your redeeming power, we come to worship you and to wait for you.
May every bitter thought and each nagging worry about what we have done and what we have failed to do be washed out into the ebbing sea of your boundless mercy. Let every noble thought and every impulse of love be stirred anew by the breath of your Spirit. So now, in these moments of silence, lead us by your gentle inspiration to sense in each moment eternal depths, immeasurable goodness and the possibilities of tomorrow.
Loving God, in all we think or do, put upon our lips and write upon our hearts the Good News of Christ Jesus – and lead us to transformation in your uncompromising love. Amen.
In recent weeks we’ve been considering the Lord’s Prayer in order that we may pray it with intention and use it to help us make sense of our lives in God’s world. This week we will conclude with this portion of the prayer: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” This is an incredibly important part of the prayer, though I have heard from several of you, as you have been reflecting with me these last several weeks, that this is the part of the prayer that makes many the most uncomfortable. And I wonder if this might be because temptation is one of those things we have a hard time talking honestly about in church. I think we worry the conversation will go in one of two less-than-helpful directions. Either we’ll take the cultural cue and move immediately to a “racy” conversation where the talk is all about whatever folks find most provocative or we’ll move in a more traditionalist view and warn against temptation in prosaic terms filled with moralistic vim and vigor but that never really touch ground. But I don’t think that a sermon on temptation needs to be either titillating or boring to be helpful. Rather, I think it needs to be both honest and realistic. This portion of the Lord’s Prayer, and indeed the scripture we will be using to consider it, offers an excellent chance to continue down this path we began several weeks ago with Lent. Rarely, in fact, do we encounter passages that tell us so clearly and keenly the truth about ourselves and about how we are to live in the world with both honesty and hope.
Toward that end, a note on scripture not covered today but could have been. When most of us think of temptation, we think of Genesis 3 – the fall of Adam and Eve, and given that Luke closed the preceding scene by tracing Jesus’ descent from Adam, perhaps Luke is thinking of that as well. In any event, I think it’s helpful to point out that the temptation of Adam and Eve had next to nothing to do with a power grab and almost everything to do with insecurity and mistrust.
We sometimes refer to the devil as “the great deceiver” and with good reason. But in point of fact it’s not so much the case, at least in this scene from Genesis, that the serpent deceives – Adam and Eve do not, in fact, die when they eat the fruit – as much as he sows mistrust. He distorts the commandment of God and plays upon the insecurity of Adam and Eve, in order to call into question God’s intentions. We hear the serpent say, God hasn’t told you everything about the forbidden fruit. So what else has God not told? What else is God withholding? It is a story of seduction based on mistrust that leads to the dissolution of the relationship between the two humans and God, then between Adam and Eve themselves, and then between them and all creation.
Today’s gospel reading is a story that portrays different concrete temptations yet revolves around the same dynamic. The devil again attempts to sow mistrust, by saying: you may go hungry; you do not have enough; how do you know God is trustworthy. In each case Jesus replies with Scripture. Over the years people have made a great deal about that, inviting us to respond to life’s challenges by remembering or quoting Bible verses. And while there may be something to that, I wonder if it’s not so much that Jesus quotes Scripture to deflect temptation as it is that Jesus finds in Scripture the words to give voice to his trust. Because at the heart of each reply is Jesus’ absolute trust in – and dependence on – God for his identity and future.
Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century French philosopher, spoke of the condition of being human as one of having a hole, what he called a “God-shaped hole.” He did not see this as a flaw, however, but rather as the means by which God keeps us tethered to our life-giving relationship with God. Similarly, St. Augustine, the fourth-century African bishop, writes in the first lines of his Confessions that God created a restlessness in our hearts that can only be satisfied when we rest in God. And the seventeenth-century Welsh poet George Herbert went so far as to describe this same restlessness as the “pulley” by which God draws us back to God.
Read in light of these classic theologians, the Genesis narrative indicates that before there is “original sin” there is what I would call “original insecurity.” Adam and Eve, then, are tempted to overcome that original insecurity not through their relationship with God but through the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, fruit that in that moment looks to be shaped just like their hole.
Now jump to the Gospel reading. At the heart of the temptation of Jesus rests the same insinuation that God is not trustworthy. “If you are the Son of God,” the tempter begins. This pernicious “if” calls Jesus’ relationship to God into question and suggests that he could and should establish himself on his own terms. Jesus — in this sense truly the “second Adam” as Paul describes in his letters — resists the temptation to define himself apart from God and instead is content to know who he is in relation to whose he is.
So a question to ask ourselves — not just to think about, but to take with us, to look for, and to answer in the week to come — is this: what things present themselves as perfectly shaped to fill our own God-shaped hole? What things are we tempted to look to in hope of eliminating the “original insecurity” that also beats within our hearts?
The PBS documentary series Frontline produced an episode a few years ago called “The Persuaders” that got at a similar question by examining the evolution of modern advertising. In years past, advertisements boasted of the quality of the product. Not too long ago, they would seek celebrity endorsements. Today, however, advertisements make a promise less about the quality of a product and more about an imagined lifestyle that owning the product can somehow provide. By owning this kind of car, or using this kind of wineglass, advertisers suggest, we will discover our identity and move closer to having a meaningful life.
On the face of it, such advertising sounds ludicrous — how can using a particular laptop or television enhance your sense of self-worth? Yet the documentary suggests that we are so starved for a sense of meaning and purpose that we make many of our purchasing decisions based on our hope that the story they tell us — that we will feel less alone, less incomplete, and more whole if we simply buy their product — is true. I should be clear, it’s not that the stuff itself is bad, but rather that we expect too much from it. As one guest on the program says, “In the end it’s just a laptop or a pair of running shoes. They may be great, but they’re not actually going to fill those needs.”
Which brings us back to the gospel reading. One way to read it is to imagine that Jesus shows us the key to resisting temptation by finding our identity in our relationship with God. And I think there’s something to that. As we remember that in Baptism God confers upon us our essential identity as beloved children, we may be less likely to succumb to the various pressures that seek to tempt us — like Adam and Eve — to define ourselves in terms of what we have.
At the same time, it’s important to recognize that temptation is not once and done. Jesus rejects the tempter here, but he has other moments of doubt, particularly at Gethsemane and the cross. Similarly, our life as Christians does not eliminate doubt, need, or a sense of incompleteness. Rather, we are oriented to our relationships with God and with each as those places where our needs are met, though not taken away. Further, as heirs of Adam and Eve, we will inevitably fall short in claiming our God-given identity. Yet Jesus has triumphed, not only at this moment but also and more importantly at the cross, committing himself and his destiny to God. Therefore, when we fall short we can confess our failings and trust that in and through the crucified and risen Jesus we have the promise of forgiveness and new life.
Trust is at the heart of our relationship with God and with each other. It’s not always easy, and when it’s missing, temptation is regularly just outside our door. For this very reason, I think, we need the support of the community to grow in our ability to trust and live out of a sense of abundance and courage rather than scarcity and fear. We need community, we need prayer, and we need community in prayer to help us resist the temptations to fill our own God-shaped Holes with things that always end up leaving us empty. One of the ways we find that community in prayer is with the Lord’s Prayer. This is said by Christians all over the world, in many different languages, with many different lives. But yet, it is our universally shared prayer.
There is a lot that comes together in the Lord’s Prayer. John Dominic Crossan, whose research I have been using for this sermon series, puts it like this, “It is both a revolutionary manifesto and a hymn of hope not just for Christianity, but for all the world. Better, it is addressed from Christianity to the world. Better still, it is from the heart of Judaism through the mouth of Christianity to the conscience of the earth.”
When we pray together these ancient, familiar words, let us hear them anew each week. When we pray together the only prayer that Jesus taught us, let us pray it with intention and true faith. The Lord’s Prayer gives us hope, gives us courage, and helps us to connect to God and one another. Amen.
THE SLOWLY DIMMING LIGHT
When we arrived this morning we entered into the normal bustle of a church on a Sunday morning: friends greeting each other, choir members getting their robes, everyone bringing their energy and enthusiasm. Now that we are sitting together in the pews, I invite you to settle your minds…and consider the word ‘sanctuary.’ A sanctuary is a place set aside for sacred things. It is a place of refuge and protection. This room is a sanctuary. The season of Lent is a kind of sanctuary, extended in time. And one of the things Lent teaches is that you, too, are a sanctuary. There is inside you a place for sacred things, a place where God abides.
As we extinguish this light, we acknowledge the darkness and pain of war, of persecution and oppression in the world.
Loving God, we open our hearts to you. We invite you into our inmost being, only to find you already there. Strengthen us in our quiet places and then lead us into the work of justice and peace. Amen.