Temptation, First Sunday in Lent, February 17, 2013
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in South San Francisco
Deut. 26:1-11 Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 Romans 10:8b-13 Luke 4:1-13
Temptation is our subject for the first Sunday in Lent. “Lead us not into temptation.” We pray in the Lord’s Prayer. But there is a big difference between the temptation of the Adversary, whom we often refer to as the devil or Satan and the testing we undergo from God. The Greek word for temptation can also mean testing. St. Paul writes, “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful and will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing will also provide the way out so that you may be able to abide and endure it.” (1 Cor 10:12) Too bad Oskar Pistorius, the Olympic blade runner, did not take this warning to heart, there on the heights in which he stood, to watch out that he not fall. I wonder if he forgot to wrap himself in the humility of Christ. He must have really lost it! But when God tests us it is like a teacher giving us a test. God intends to measure our faith by testing us, like a teacher would do. When a teacher gives a test in the classroom, she does not intend to flunk her students, but to see how much the students have learned. God measures our faith by testing us in order to strengthen it. God is not like a bad teacher trying to flunk us. What kind of a teacher would try to make her students fail? When we talk about an evil spirit, it is different. It really does want us to give up our faith and persuade us to sin. But God’s testing us is designed to measure the strength of our faith in order to increase it.
Remember how Flip Wilson used to say, “The devil made me do it”? It was easy to see that as a cop out. The devil can’t make us do anything; it can only try to convince us. The devil does not have the power of coercion, but can only try to persuade. We learn about what is right and wrong and we usually know the difference, but really it is a matter of our will. We want to do wrong. Sometimes we just want to sin. Sometimes we are bent on sinning.
In Jewish folk lore, the devil came to God and explained how he was bored to tears. He had nothing at all to do. But God said, “Aren’t you busy enough trying to persuade people to sin?” The devil said, “The problem is even before I get there they are already sinning, I don’t even have to persuade them.”
Good thing that God writes straight on crooked lines, because otherwise no good would come of us and our crooked wills and our crooked ways. Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (17:9) Thank, God Jesus Christ certainly can and Jesus can also change our hearts and fill us with the Holy Spirit so that we want to do the will of God. Jesus gives us freedom so that we can do whatever we please. But because we have had a change of heart, we find that we only want to do what pleases God.
That fills our lives with adventure, excitement, and all kinds of meaning. The devil is there saying, “No, that is only what I can give you.” But the devil is the father of lies and always lies in order to deceive us and destroy us. Just the way he said he owns and rules the whole world. He does not. God does. The devil is busy twisting and distorting and trying to destroy God’s good creation and blow it up right in God’s face. The devil is a liar. He twists and distorts God’s good creation trying to destroy us.
For instance, look at beer commercials. They show the high life: beautiful women and men in a party and they arrive in expensive cars. It might as well be the vision of the wonderful life. Sure thing: An intoxicated student comes home after partying and gets into a fatal accident, gets a DUI, and goes to jail. So much for the promised high life! On picnic day up in UC Davis in the street where many of the fraternity houses are located, the beer cans were two feet deep with drunk students mulling around everywhere. The deception of the beer commercials, especially for the super bowl presented and promised the high life. What the students get is the low life. When we follow Christ we think we will live a low life, but what we get is the high life. We send our children to school to expand their minds with knowledge and because of lies they expand their minds with drugs and alcohol.
Christ tells us the truth. Life is full of suffering and you have to learn to take responsibility, but the love of God gives us a high that chemicals and alcohol cannot give. The commercials of our society give you a mirage of a beautiful oasis with palm trees and flowing water to quench your thirst. You get there and there is nothing there and you are deceived by the banality of sin once again. When you follow Christ, you first have to go through the wilderness, but when you follow, you get to an oasis that quenches your thirst and fills you with amazing grace. God does reduce you to nothing, but to make somebody out of you. You are made a real genuine person filled with integrity ready to stand for what is right. The only trouble with heaven is that you have to go through hell to get there. I found that I can’t take that much hell and I just have to keep banking on the grace and mercy of God.
There was something about being good that I did not understand. I learned that when an alcoholic wants to continue his or her addiction, they choose a really good person to be their co-dependent. In psychodrama, they would demonstrate by letting the person role-playing the alcoholic stand on a wobbly chair. What did that person need? He reached for someone to lean on in order not to fall off the chair. So, he found a good stable person to lean on so that he could keep drinking. Thus goodness can be used by the evil spirit, in this case the demon of the bottle. It is not enough to be good; a person also has to watch that her goodness is used by the Holy Spirit. The demon of the bottle can control many good people and use them for the sake of strengthening their disease. Just try to take the bottle out of a baby’s mouth! For a while they need a pacifier. Taking the bottle out of an alcoholic’s mouth is much harder.
So our society tells us many lies. That is done by distorting the truth. Mark Twain said that he knew a fellow who loved the truth so much he would stretch it. A barrister in England has merely been a legal aid over here. She stretched the truth into having been a prosecutor here in New York, who jailed 29 gangs, handled domestic abuse cases and what not. They caught her in England because she lied about her age and then found out that she lied about her law degree and everything else. She was arrested in New York trying to flee to Puerto Rico. Her husband had forged all kinds of documents for her.
So it is important to face the truth about ourselves and about others. Even one or two lies can sometimes snowball and make a person start living a lie rather than living in the truth. We also have to see whose mouth something is coming out of. Even the devil quotes scripture, but he is using the truth for the sake of twisting and distorting it. Goodness and good works can be used by an evil spirit. Look at Sandusky, who opened up a boy’s orphanage. What a wonderful thing to do! But then we discover that he did it in order to have access to boys to satisfy his pedophilia.
In some churches there is so much talk of the devil! One preacher said that the devil was out there in the congregation among us. She did not say that Christ was really present among us. Next thing you know someone gets into superstition and looks for the evil eye and such. In my father’s prayers he would always say, “Because Christ lives, the devil is dead.” The devil is dead, when we become alive to God and when you are filled with the Holy Spirit. When people harp on the devil so much, we have to ask them why the devil is so near to them when God should be so much closer. In the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are more than victorious and in Christ we are not at all victims of the devil.
Luther said that there were three levels of temptation for the young, the middle aged, and the elders of the people. The temptations of the young revolved around sex, while those of the middle aged revolved around wealth, property, and power; but those of the elderly revolved around spiritual sins. We often talk about the spirit as if it is only good. The spirit can be good or evil. We need the Holy Spirit to overcome evil spirits. Look how much evil the spirit of White supremacy and racism have done to us. Luther taught us that we are sinners and saints at one and the same time. So we dare not act as if we have only a good side and project our shadow side onto people of color or others who are different from us. The evil spirit of prejudice, bigotry, and racism has got to be overcome with the Holy Spirit.
In the online commentary it said that we criticize churches that only attempt to increase in numbers and see their success only in numbers. We say, we are small, very few in number, but we are the faithful. But that may also be self-deception. When we are faithful then we should be bearing fruit. When we have sunk our roots into the good soil of the Gospel, then we produce thirty, sixty, or hundred fold.
A little Pentecostal church has asked to rent our facility. In two or three years they have fifty members and are growing so fast they need more space. In the Holy Spirit we have to get out of our comfort zones and bring people into the truth of life, the strength of a faith that saves us from our sins.
Let’s listen to Christ and also pray for the Holy Spirit to motivate, guide and direct us, because we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Life lived in the Word of God is an incredibly exciting life. Just like the community meal yesterday. What an incredible and exciting ministry this church has serving these wonderful characters, many of whom are homeless. One thing I certain: they are characters that we will not soon forget. A fellow who had actually attended seminars under Karl Barth played piano and I played trumpet with him. Then a singer came up and sang “Unforgettable” in an unforgettable key. He seemed three sharps too high.
Following Jesus is an untold adventure that really adds to the music of your witness. But, let’s be honest, it puts you through the school of hard knocks. God is our sculptor. When God chisels away the stony marble to create us, face it, it hurts. But with that, God fashions us into our real selves, the persons we are created to be so we can step out of our marble statues and live move and have our being in the mission of God, who sends us to carry out the plan of God’s salvation. Amen.