St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent
“Then was Jesus led up of the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.”
WHAT DOESN’T KILL YOU will make you strong. This unwelcome truth gives a good cause for temptation, a positive reason why we are put to a test. Resistance training—pulling, pushing, lifting weights—builds muscles, strengthens bones, pumps blood and makes you healthier than by simply doing the same motions without those weights, that resistance. We must push against something that pushes back or we’ll just stand there. The temptations I speak of today are not a Motown group, not a perfume scent, nor is it a line of fancy desserts.
Whoever serves God is going to be tested. Tests are challenging and we can hate them and avoid them, or we might face them with a purpose—the purpose to win. When Jesus went out into the wilderness alone, fasting and praying, He was tested forty days. The temptations came through the devil, but it was the Holy Spirit who led Him there for confrontation. Jesus didn’t complain about it—on the contrary, He later told his disciples about the epic face off and how He told Satan where to go.
There are good tests and hardtests, unfair tests and overwhelming defeats. We take all kinds of tests in school: essays, true-false, multiple guess, and finals. Some exams aren’t real tests of knowledge, but of style, or mind reading, questioning the question. That’s what Jesus did with the questions put to Him. Even unfair tests teach us something.
God never tempts you to sin, but He does put you in situations where temptation to sin happens, and this He calls testing. I think of it like being the point man in a patrol of soldiers. The point man is the one who walks in front of the rest of his platoon. If an enemy is going to shoot, the point man is the target, alerting everyone else to the danger. God definitely uses this means of testing us, putting us in jeopardy where we face fear, opposition, betrayal, attack and spiritual battle. A good soldier counts himself dead before he goes to war, so he can face his enemy fearlessly. God uses our natural and supernatural enemies to embolden, strengthen, and test us.
The Book of Job illustrates God provoking Satan to attack His favorite guy, and then setting limits on the scope of the attack. It’s disquieting to think God and Satan negotiating how much the devil is allowed to do to you. God doesn’t tempt, but He tests us and, as we suffer, we learn. What doesn’t kill you makes you strong. As in Job, the only one who understands what you’re going through is God.
Tests come in many forms, but they aren’t really temptations unless they are tailored to us. Satan had a good guess what Jesus wanted in order to put something before Him that might divert Him off His path. Changing stones to bread was crude, but a sound first-move, to see if mere hunger could betray the God-man into obeying the devil. Christ’s true role as Messiah, and as the rightful ruler of the creation, were things the devil offered by short-cuts in his own diabolic way. You and I wouldn’t jump off a tower or seek to rule the world, but these were real questions for the One who is both human and divine. Yet Jesus knows who He is: the real Bread of Life, the literal Temple of God, and this World’s True King. Satan was offering Him nothing, and God’s Son told Him so.
What tempts you? Oh, did I ask that in Church? For me, a whole jar of red licorice doesn’t even make my needle twitch, ‘cause I don’t like ‘em. But now, a box of dark chocolate truffles… I see them and I might take three. Food, drink, sweets: such pleasures are so tied to our sensual pay-off neurons that we’ll fall to over-eating or drinking before we know we’ve been tested—and failed. Again. That’s why it’s one of the seven deadlies.
Pride, envy, anger, covetousness, gluttony, lust andsloth – the seven deadlies. C. S. Lewis observes that the last three, the sins of the body, while grossly evident, and shameful, may be less damaging to the soul than the first four, sins of the heart. Don’t be relieved at that. Deadly is still deadly, and many have fallen dead through substance abuse, alcoholism, cholesterol, and obesity.
Lust claims such respectability today that only an outright sexual assault moves us to revulsion. Enticement passes as a clever ad campaign, décor, a ‘celebration of the human form.’ We’re much too easily entertained. Just looking may be as far as we go—then tell ourselves it’s okay. Jesus said that’s committing adultery in your heart. And it’s death.
Sloth is evident when bills pile up and the indolent just won’t go out to find a job. It’s subtler when a poor person needs loving care and we can’t be bothered. TV is sloth’s best friend, and the remote was invented in hell to make it easier-click, click, click. But so is the modern computer and the internet, click, click. This isn’t bothering you, is it?
Those are the outward, sensual-serving sins. But the more inwardsins of pride, envy, anger and acquisition can be cast in dignified dress as praise-worthy attributes, and are therefore far more dangerous. We are tempted by self-esteem mentors to have a higher view of ourselves. Not a bad idea, if it were true. When we exaggerateour view of ourselves, sin is crouching at the door. Pride has actually so many faces, costumes and camouflages it goes unseen for decades. We’re born egocentric. We could confess pride every moment of each day and be right. But when pride combines with other sins is when it’s lethal—for it makes virtue out of evil and justice out of offence.
Pride added to envy, for instance, caused Lucifer to rebel in heaven and lead 1/3 of the angels to war against God. Envy hates whatever is higher, better, hassomething, is something we are not. That hatred leads to violence and outrage that hurts our own souls. Envy starts wars, maintains ghettoes, elects communists, fans racial hatred, and justifies every kind of crime. Its only antidote is love. If you envy, then work toward love: pray for it, express it in prayer, and get free of it.
Anger is a fire in the bones, and as an expression of pride and envy it can kill. Jesus extended the commandment against murder: citing undue and unabated anger, speaking ill of others, cursing someone’s life, and holding a grudge. These are all tickets punched for hell. We may object that righteous moral outrage, like Jesus against the moneychangers—are good and proper, and we’re right. If you’re God, then employ them fearlessly. If you’re mortal, then take care. Anger may be a righteous tool, if kept in check. Unchecked, and you eat yourself alive. If you get angry every time you watch the news, stop watching. It’s not good for you.
American’s have no problem with covetousness. This is because everything we desire, we’ve already bought, on credit. There is hardly any object of desire we deny ourselves. By giving intotemptation, we have triumphed over temptation—but what good is that? Our possessions own us. Life is, or ought to be, getting rid of about 80% of what we have. Living simply, having things we really do use for good purposes, owning what we own without debt, and being satisfied with less: that’s a diet we might all get on and never get off of. But the highways are lined with self-storage facilities bulging with the things that no longer fit in our garage, attic, and spare bedroom. How much of this do we really need? Not one scrap of it will fit into your coffin.
Temptation: it’s the stuff with your address, ID, pedigree and prescription, tailor-made just for you. Another man’s temptation may appall you: that someone could fall for such base sin! Daily we watch trials of famous evil-doers and see the faces of their victims. We are shocked, but we look, and look again. That’s the modern way of sin. Get angry, then talk about it. Send an email around. Temptation is easy when we fall for it. But whatever kills you, first makes you weak.
We might adopt another strategy: St. James wrote:
“Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing… God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. And remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, ‘God is tempting me.’ God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else. Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.” James 1:2-4; 12-15
The world desperately needs a Church that stops succumbing to its temptations. The world needs positive Christians evidence that sin is not inevitable, but that there is help in God, and forgiveness and new life in Christ.
Jesus taught us in His prayer, to ask the Father not to lead us into temptation, but rather deliver us from the evil one. God may put us out on point at times; even give us crosses to bear. But it’s all for the working of our redemption, and the strengthening of our faith. “Be glad—for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world.” 1 Peter 4:13