Sunday, February 14, 2016

Resisting Temptation

A Sermon preached on First Sunday in Lent February 14th at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13 

In my weekly announcements I promised to fit St. Valentine into today’s sermon, it is after all February 14th, Valentine’s Day. But that may have been a mistake. Lent is very early this year and so unusually Valentine’s Day is already in Lent. In the UK and US, still a little less so in Germany, this Day has become another occasion for conspicuous consumption, it’s no longer just about special greeting cards as an expression of love, and nowadays even flowers and chocolate are not enough: Valentine’s Day now encompasses all manner of gifts including diamonds. Wikipedia tells me that in the US the average valentine’s spending is $131 per person and in the UK around £1.3 billion is spent yearly on cards, flowers, chocolates and other gifts. So how does that fit with Lent – a time in which many people give up a lot of the things been given on this day? 

Well it doesn’t, not the way it is celebrated today. But on the other hand, love is one thing we definitely do not give up for Lent. On the contrary, Lent is in fact all about love and is the season that ends with that most extreme expression of love, of God’s love for us even to the cross. And the saint – or possibly saints - behind the day, an early Roman Christian known as Valentinus, was, according to legend, imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry and for ministering to fellow Christians during a time of persecution under the Roman Empire. Sustained by his faith and his particular service for the cause of love, he is a good example to us all. Even or especially in Lent.

In fact when we look at today’s Gospel reading, Luke’s version of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, we see him too being sustained by faith both in his fasting and in resisting the temptations of the devil. What are Jesus’ temptations all about? In each case the “devil,” in my imagination not a visible figure, but a quiet, whining, and very insistent voice, is trying to persuade Jesus to put his will, and his immediate needs, above God’s. But Jesus resists these temptations by his faith and by his trust in God’s power. When the devil wants Jesus to use his powers to help himself, by commanding a stone to become a loaf of bread, Jesus replies with a quotation from Deuteronomy (8:3) referring to the manna from heaven that sustained the Israelites during their wilderness experience. That food was “in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” And Jesus trusts that his Father will sustain him, just as his Father sustained the Israelites and as we too pray in Jesus’ own prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” 

Then, when the devil tempts him with worldly, political power – which by the way according to the Bible, to this passage, is something “given over to the devil and is his, the devil’s, to give to anyone he pleases” – so perhaps political power is not something self-declared Evangelicals should strive to? But back to topic: when the devil tempts him with worldly, political power Jesus again replies with a passage from Deuteronomy (6:13), in the original: “The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear.” We have governments and parliaments and politicians, some better than others, and we need them too, we need them to run the society we live in. But only if they act righteously and justly, only if they serve the greater good – and that is always a good that goes well beyond our narrow national boundaries and interests, at least for Christians it does. What Jesus knows and confirms in his resistance to the temptation of worldly power is that while he is and always will be Lord of all, this Lordship is expressed in loving service and in selfless sacrifice, not in power over others. 

That willingness to sacrifice himself is of course what the devil is going for in the last temptation, when he calls on Jesus to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple trusting that he will be saved by God’s angels. You will note that the devil has now started using arguments from Scripture too. Which is of course a salient reminder that something is not necessarily true just because someone cites scripture as proof, not even if I do it. We have to look at any passage in context. We need to compare any interpretation to God’s will and intention as shown in all of God’s words, acts and interactions with us throughout salvation history. Does the interpretation then still ring true? Here Jesus does not allow himself to be tricked and instead, with a final citation from Deuteronomy (6:16), replies:Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” And as we know, acting in accordance with God’s Will, is for Jesus not something that will lead to him being protected from death, but will instead lead to his death …. and beyond. 
But that’s all very well for Jesus, but what does it take to resist temptation if you’re not the Son of God? What can we hold on to, what will sustain us?
First of all we need to remember that Jesus resists the temptations as a human being, though admittedly a very special one. But he uses no miraculous powers, nothing that is not also available to us. 

Secondly, I don’t think it is a coincidence that Jesus quotes extensively from Deuteronomy 6. This section begins with the “Shema” “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) Jews recite the Shema twice a day. It is traditional for Jews to say the Shema as their last words, and for parents to teach their children to say it before they go to sleep at night. It is a Creed – a summary of important beliefs. And that is one thing we can use to guide our decisions and to resist temptation, one thing we can hold on to. A Creed is more than a just a statement of faith, it is a reminder of a power and of priorities beyond our own immediate horizon – something that we can both rely on, but also something and someone we serve and with goals and ideals we must aim for in discerning the right path to take.   

This morning’s Old Testament passage, also from Deuteronomy, contains another ancient creed, in the section that began with the words: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor” It reminded the Jews who prayed it, that their ancestor, Abraham, had obeyed God’s will and left his home and family, and that whenever they suffered from oppression and cried for help, God had intervened. The Creed we recite on Sundays, the Nicene Creed, is a little longer of course. But the basic points are simple. We believe in a God who created everything, including us. In a God who intervened by becoming human and who died to save us, to help us realize our fullest potential as humans. In a God who still acts in and through us today. 

And then in the letter to the Romans, Paul cites the simplest and most basic Creed of all: “Jesus is Lord.” Jesus, and what he taught and stands for, is Lord, not Caesar and his modern equivalents. Jesus is Lord means that this Jesus we believe in and call on has the power to help us in any situation. Jesus is Lord of all, as Paul goes on to say, should help us resist any temptation to divide people into good and bad, them and us. Lord of all … not just of a particular group or nation. At the heart of any resistance to temptation is love and loyalty to God and to the Lord, God’s Son. 

But thirdly and finally, as we are human, and not the supreme expression of humanity that Jesus is, and as we will err and fall and fail, we also have the promise of forgiveness – part of our Sunday Creed. All we have to do, in Paul’s words, is call upon the name of the Lord just as we did at the beginning of the service in the Great Litany, when we “beseeched the good Lord to hear us,” so:
“That it may please thee to strengthen such as do stand; to comfort and help the weak-hearted; to raise up those who fall; and finally to beat down Satan under our feet.” Amen.

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