Temptations (First Sunday in Lent)

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As we were studying the Lord’s Prayer in Confirmation recently, we came to the petition which says, “save us from the time of trial” (or in the old version), “lead us not into temptation.”  And as a way of thinking about “temptations” or “trials”, I asked the kids to read today’s Gospel reading.  And then I asked them on the worksheet that they complete before class, “why does Jesus think these suggestions from the devil are wrong”?

Now of course, since in the story, all of these ideas come from the devil, we’re all inclined to say, “there’s something wrong here”, just because the devil suggests it.  Indeed, if the devil told Jesus to do something we all consider great – “worship God” or “help the poor and oppressed” – we’d wonder what the devil’s angle was…!

But it’s worth stopping to ask why these temptations that Jesus faces are bad things.  And that’s because usually when we hear the word “temptation”, most of us envision being tempted to do something that’s really, obviously bad.  If we’re tempted, it must be to do something illegal, or immoral, or fattening!

But actually, those kinds of temptations may be the easiest kinds of temptations to deal with.  Even if we may be tempted, we at least recognize them as bad things.  And, we have guilt, fear or a sense of self-preservation to at least help us resist those temptations.

But sometimes the more difficult temptations are the ones that aren’t illegal, immoral or fattening.  They may be otherwise good and commendable things to do in some situations.  And it may not be clear why an otherwise good and necessary thing could be a problem.

In fact, in the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness, Jesus is asked by the devil to do things which are, after all, necessary:

  • Eat!  Jesus is hungry and actually needs food;  Except for the fact that the devil is making this suggestion, it probably wouldn’t occur to any of us that this would be a bad thing to do; after all, Jesus turned 5 loaves into many loaves, and teaches us to pray for our daily bread; Jesus tells us that God knows that we need food and clothing, and the need for “self-preservation” isn’t, in and of itself, a bad thing; this is why Jesus never told his disciples not to eat, but did call them to share their bread…;
  • Be in control – this is ultimately what Jesus is promised by God anyway, so in one sense the devil isn’t offering Jesus something he wouldn’t get anyway; and even though “control” is often a dirty word for us, a certain amount of control is necessary for us to live healthy lives – which is why when you drive, you really need to be in control …! In one sense, being in control can be about being a good steward of what God has given to you…
  • Have a great reputation – most of us realize that showing off is bad, but a good reputation is important; after all, crowds come to Jesus to hear about God because reports of him spread all over; and Luther points out in the catechism that one way to murder someone is to kill their reputation …

Self-preservation.  Control.  Reputation.  They’re all basically good and necessary things.  But Jesus recognizes them as temptations not because they’re inherently bad, but because the devil wants him to pursue those things for their own sake.  They become demonic when they take control.  And they would become a problem if they became the end, instead of the means, for the mission of Jesus’ life.

Sometimes, the most dangerous temptations in our lives are the more subtle ones.  They’re the temptations to focus on otherwise good things in such a way that those things become the goal of our lives, rather than the means to living the mission of life to which God calls us.

In resisting temptation, Jesus stayed focused on the mission of his life.  And in in resisting temptation, Jesus calls us each day to resist the temptation to let otherwise good things become the goals rather than the means to the mission to which God calls us.

And for us, too, that means resisting the temptations of:

  • Self-preservation – how easy is it to say, “I have to take care of myself first” and then never move on to “now I can help somebody else…?” This is also why it’s important for congregations to really focus on doing the things that we believe God really wants us to do, especially as things change and we have less money and volunteers… (instead of desperately trying to make things the way they used to be…)  And that’s because one thing that has NOT changed is that churches that focus on mission always manage to find the people and money to do what’s really important, but churches that focus on self-preservation never do …
  • Control – being in charge is supposed to serve a purpose – it’s supposed to help you serve and help others, instead of locking others out… (the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem have been opened and closed for the past 200 years by a Muslim family across the street, because the Christian denominations in charge of parts of the building don’t trust each other not to lock the others out if they had control of the key…!)
  • Reputation – what are you known for?  What are we known for?  Many of you have probably seen some of the surveys that have been done after Covid forced a lot of folks to work from home.  What many companies found was that that experience really made it clear who was actually adding value to the company, and who was really good at looking like they were working …! Is what we’re doing adding value and meaning to our lives and the lives of others, or are we spending time and energy on things that we think we’re “supposed” to do… ?

In today’s Gospel, we’re reminded that temptation comes in many forms.  We’re called to recognize that sometimes the worst forms of temptation don’t seem at first to be bad ideas.  But most of all, we’re called to remember that the key to resisting temptation, in whatever form it comes,  isn’t so much about saying no to bad things as it is staying focused on the mission that God calls us to each day.