Saturday, March 8, 2014

Meeting the tempter

Genesis 2:15–17; 3:1–7; Matthew 4:1–11

I suggested last Wednesday that we can consider the season of Lent as a virtual pilgrimage. Each week we’ll encounter someone who has a conversation with Jesus. We’ll take the opportunity to learn from Jesus’ companions and grow in faith and knowledge. As we begin our Lenten pilgrimage, we stop today in the wilderness. Jesus has just been baptized and led by the Spirit to face the temptations of this world.

Let’s turn to Genesis: Isn’t this real life? “Now, the serpent was more crafty than any other animal.” We could substitute many names, or types of people. Now, the salesman was more crafty… Now, the financial planner was more crafty… Now the handyman … Now the pastor … Now the teacher … Now the auto repairman … Now the neighbor … and so forth. So many opportunities for people to steal from us, our money, our prized possessions, our identity. All it takes is someone to be crafty, devious, yet appear so trustworthy.
To Eve, the serpent seemed trustworthy, very believable. And Eve was innocent, trusting. Just that quickly, God’s words became less clear. God’s “No” became the serpent’s “Here’s another way to look at it.” So easily Eve was tricked into disobedience.
I heard a story this week. Mary told us she graduated from college with a degree in business, and got her first job. She thought she knew how to buy a car, so she went. The salesman was so helpful, she said. She bought the car, and went to tell her dad about it. Dad said, let me see the paperwork. Then Dad called the dealer and said, I want you to reduce the interest rate by at least three points, and reduce the length of the loan by at least one year. The nice salesman had sold Mary a very profitable deal for himself.
We are all Mary, and we are all at times subject to the crafty ways of those who would take advantage of us, or lead us into trouble and temptation. At the very least, this is why we have contracted with a firm to provide scam alerts, to help us not get caught by those who would steal our savings from us.
In the wilderness with Jesus, we confront the tempter again. Jesus is not fooled by the temptations to take the shortcut to glory. He will not use his power to take care of his personal needs. He will not put his human life at risk to prove God loves him – until the time is right. He will not claim his divine power until after the resurrection, except for the healing of the ill and disabled and demon-possessed.
In all these temptations, Jesus puts his relationship with the Father ahead of his own personal, human needs. Jesus is not tempted to give in to the tempter. I have often thought that this wilderness time was not easy for Jesus – not because of the 40 days of fasting, but because of the inner battle. How easy it may have seemed to take the easy road! How Jesus must have wrestled with his divine and human natures until he was able to fully commit to God’s plan! In the end, even though he prayed for an alternative – for God to take the cup from him – he followed the plan to the end, to the cross.
We humans, God’s children, find it harder to recognize God’s plan and to avoid temptation. We find it easy to make jokes about the tempter and our temptations. In another congregation, I asked a Bible study group about this text: “What tempts you?” The answer was instantaneous: chocolate!
Seriously, what tempts us is more money without more work; more food without more weight; more control over our lives by controlling others; the newest, the biggest, the best even if we don’t need it. We are tempted constantly by advertising to want something else, to not be content with what we have.
We are tempted to try to get away with little things as well as big things. One of the easiest temptations is skipping worship. In a previous congregation, I called a number of families who no longer attended worship, but were still on the membership list. One family I spoke with was two parents with several children. The parents both worked jobs with long hours; the children were involved with the usual activities. Sunday was the only day they had for doing housework and laundry and grocery shopping. Attending worship was too much of an interruption in their lives.
On the other hand, I remember a conversation with a farmer in Iowa. He told me that he had discovered the hard way that it didn’t pay to skip worship. Every time he chose to be working in the fields on Sunday morning, some piece of equipment, some vehicle, broke down, and cost him more than the time in worship would have cost him. Even during planting and harvest time, he is in church every week now.
Another easy temptation is to give God as little as possible. We argue that tithing is so Old Testament, and not intended for us today. I know folks – note that I do not know what anyone here gives – who give $5 whenever they worship, once or twice a year.
Before I went to seminary, I occasionally helped count the offering at my home congregaton. I was often surprised by what some members put in the offering. There was a woman who owned a boutique that sold pricey gifts, so when I saw her offering envelope I assumed there would be a significant gift, at least $50, maybe $100, maybe even more. Her mother, I knew, was a generous giver. But, this woman had given a check for $5.
On the other hand, there was Rasma. They escaped from Latvia on the last ship before the Russians invaded their country. Rasma supported herself, her sister Lydia, and her disabled nephew John. They never had much money, but they always put something in the offering plate, five singles. If they missed a week, there were two envelopes with five singles each in the plate.
When we fail to resist temptation, we fail to put God first. We fail to trust God for everything we need. We fail to believe God’s plan for our lives is better than what looks to us like a great shortcut. Whenever we resist temptation to live as God calls us to live, we put God first. We remember God’s plan is the best one for us, even if it doesn’t seem like the right direction at the moment.
This week, I hope you’ll pay attention to all the times you have to resist the tempter. Simply use the Ten Commandments as your guide. How often do you not put God first? How often do you use God’s name in ways that are not respectful? Why is it hard to give of your time for mid-week worship in Lent? Do you always respect those with authority – even the politicians? Even the traffic police? Do you pay all your taxes, or are you tempted to cheat a little? Do you let your eyes and heart stray from your committed relationships? Do you always tell the truth, the kind truth, or is it easy to gossip about someone? Do you secretly wish to harm someone? What do you covet? What do you focus on having, even though it is beyond your budget, and you don’t really need it? What tempts you away from God’s plan, protection, and purpose for your life?

Please pray with me: God of mercy, guide us each day to trust in you enough to resist the temptations of this life. Help us trust enough in you to live your way, following Jesus on the path to the cross. Amen