Sermon – March 10, 2019 – First Sunday of Lent


Those of you who have been around here awhile have been part of the conversation on conditional and unconditional promises.  Conditional transactions are if/then.  If you do this, they you will be rewarded.  If you don’t do this, you will be punished.  Plenty of that in the scriptures.   The unconditional construct is different.  It is ‘because/therefore. Reading scripture in this way takes us to statements like, because God is faithful, therefore you can trust that God keeps God’s promises. Because God is merciful, you can trust that God is forgiving.  Because God is omnipotent, you can trust God with some mystery.  Because God loves all that God created, therefore you can count yourself in among the beloved.  God is still God in both transactions, but the if/then formulas make God’s actions conditional on our actions.  Because/therefore puts the actions of God first, and ours second.  Make sense.

Temptation is almost always conditional.  If you do this, you’ll be more beautiful, more loved, more secure, more happy.  Because/therefore settles this as God’s opening orientation towards us, which then empowers us to act in more spiritually healthy ways.

There are some pretty big ifs in the story about Jesus in the desert today. These ifs were the devil’s tool, the devil’s leverage against Jesus and for Satan’s own ends.

Jesus in the desert, famished, alone, vulnerable the devil thinks, so he has come to seed doubt, to mock, to imply that Jesus or God or both are not up to the task of watching over the world and that he, the devil, out of his generosity and wisdom and power would provide the solutions for the obvious train-wreck that is pending in Jesus’ life.   To sow doubt, and undermine and offer himself up to Jesus as a reasonable, indeed preferable alternative.

Jesus is hungry, famished, and the devil says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones into bread.”  You’re hungry; if God has given you this power, use it fool.  I’m giving you a way out here, permission.  Go ahead.  Impress me. Humiliate me.  Turn these stones into bread.  Jesus responds with the familiar words, “One does not live by bread alone.”  Hey devil, something more important is at stake here, . . . not the grumbling in my stomach, but the yearning, the hunger in people’s souls.

Next, he says, “listen Jesus.  It’s self evident that you are not who you think you are.  You are in the middle of the wilderness, by yourself, no followers, no band of brothers.  Just me and you.  You are no king, no Messiah, no ruler.  You’re of no good to anyone.  Look at you.  Let me show another way.  Let me show you what a king looks like, let me give you a taste of what it could mean to rule over all you can see.  Take a little sniff of real power here Jesus. Let me give you something tangible to rule over, rather than a kingdom of pipe dream and fantasy and false hope.   It’s all yours; I’ll give it to you, if you just acknowledge that I can. Recognize my power. Just say I am able, and you are willing.  That’s all.  Just a little acknowledgement here.  And it’s all yours.  And Jesus responds, ‘It is written, worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’

OK, says the devil. All right.  It is also written, in the 91stPsalm to be specific, that God will command his angels concerning you and that they will bear you up, so you don’t dash your foot against the stone.”  That’s right out of the Bible Jesus; so let’s see if you believe.  Throw yourself off the pinnacle here.   The implication is, Jesus, that if you don’t, you doubt your own worthiness or righteousness and don’t deserve this bit of God’s grace, or Jesus, if you don’t you don’t have enough faith that God will protect you. You don’t believe that God will do it. C’mon Jesus.    Jump!   And Jesus says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Well, such was the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, a story we know well. It’s a dramatic story full of tension and power and surprise, and also humility and faith and hope.  And now we are to ponder our own trials and temptations, right?

Let’s do, but first let’s get clear on a few things.

First, temptation itself is evidence of conscience.  Temptation itself is evidence that there is a choice, that there is something at stake, that how we live matters.  Temptation is a clearly challenge to whom we serve, where our loyalties lie. The gospel is never ambiguous about whom we serve and to what ends.

Temptation should be no surprise to anyone of faith.  It exists because we are not libertine, that we are not without conscience, that we are not without some moral and ethical training and insight. Temptation is inevitable, friends. All of us are tempted.  Probably went a round with it since you crawled out of bed this morning.   So, temptation should never be a surprise.   What we need to realize first, then is that as temptation comes, we are to ponder whose side we are on.   Now, this whole conversation with Jesus in the devil was an attempt to bring Jesus to follow him, to choose him.  But the most real, the most important consideration is that God is step ahead of us here.  We need to lean on and understand and depend on, is that God is on our side.  Because God as promised to abide with us in all things, therefore we can trust that God is at hand.  The devil was wrong when he thought Jesus was alone, unguarded, unwatched. Remember, “Jesus full of the Holy Spirit…. and we led out . . . and the next verse after our reading today we read that Jesus, full of the Spirit returned to Galilee.  God is on our side folks.

Next we have to realize that as we face temptation, as we go about the business of living out our faith, we need to remind ourselves that we are on a journey, one with challenge, and growth and setback, and renewal. Faith is a journey that needs regular nurture, reflection, prayer, encouragement, worship, forgiveness. . .  the fruits of our fellowship with Jesus.

And because faith is a journey, temptation will track with the journey, seeking access, seeking affirmation, seeking acknowledgement.  It too needs nurture and encouragement and attention.

We need to feed wolves that prey on us in order for them to continue to return.

Temptation works on us.

Finally, it comes to us in a graduated scale, always aspiring to the next level. White lies, little lies are the fodder for greater deception.  Small indiscretions of loyalty become the breeding ground for greater betrayal.  Cynicism and anger prepare the soil of hatred and violence.  Unguarded self-indulgence can lead into a vortex of destructive behavior that sucks in us and those whom we love. Temptation works on us in small steps in order that it may accomplish greater ends.

None of us is exempt, all are subject to it.  Starting small, our unguarded decisions, self-betrayals, compromises of faith unchecked, create for us our own wilderness, where we feel vulnerable and alone, attacked and ill-equipped, uncertain of ourselves. There is one of the great tools of temptation, to cause us to doubt ourselves, our faith, our families, our friends, the world. Causing us to turn cynical and inward, prey then for another way.

Here we remember, then that God is our side.  God is the first and last voice in our heads.  Then we remember the lessons of the wilderness, that God provides the resources, the food, the armor, the means to resist.   We do not live by bread alone, we are reminded and the temptation of material wealth and security and power is unmasked.    Jesus gives us a word over power, “worship God and serve only him.”  When we are tempted to lord it over another, when we seek an authority that is exploitive and manipulative, where we would use our good gifts to deprive another, shame another, hurt another.  Jesus is saying in doing so we are worshipping another besides God, because that power becomes more important to us than the call to serve God, which is a call of humility and reconciliation, a call to love and serve our neighbors, to build the kingdom of God through the gifts of the many and turn from the kingdoms of this world ruled by the few.   And, finally, he gives us the reminder, “Do not put God to the test.” He reminds us that God does not dance to our tune, is not a creation of our own imagination, subject to our will and whims, even when they seem just or beneficial.  God, if you are really God, make we walk, make me rich, take away this disease.  Because if you don’t, then you ain’t God.  To put God to the test is to deny that which makes God truly distinctive, his setting aside of power to draw near to us in Christ.  For, if we create God in our own image, we surely and most certainly would have withheld that greatest gift, the giving of his own Son. No, do not put God to the test.

Having said all that, these are lessons that are learned and lived out in our life of faith, our journey of faith.  And we can remain strong and hopeful, even joyful in the face of temptation.

You can find great stories on how people face temptation, but a few catch my eye because of the power of the greatest temptation, wealth.  Melinda Gates, for example, cites her faith as the reason for the generosity of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which gives away tens of billions of dollars toward causes like eradicating polio, eliminating poverty, supporting poor women and mothers, and more.  We’ve talked about Bob Moore of Bob’s Red Mill products.  He gave his multimillion dollar company to his employees. He did this with buyout offers on the table that would have made him fabulously rich.  But he said this, “there’s a biblical principle that money is the root of all sorts of evil.  And that he did not give in to the temptation to grossly enrich himself.  He said his employees were like family, have been loyal and worked hard.  So he gave them the company, a gift worth hundreds of thousands to everyone there, including the janitors.  Or there is the yogurt giant Hamdi Ulukaya whose multi-billion dollar Chobani yogurt dominates that market.  Ulukaya uses his success to leverage his compassion rather that indulge his lifestyle. He has given his employees ten percent of the value of the company, contributes another 10 percent to charitable causes from veterans to the Olympics, and has taken a special interest in the plight of refugees and immigrants.  Rather than sell out to the highest bidders, he continues to run the company with high than average wages, generous health and wellness benefits and an ethic of lifting everyone up.

It can be done, is done every day.  By faithful people who turn to neighbor and away from themselves in faith. Who discover joy and meaning and purpose in turning their backs on the if/then promises that turn us in on ourselves and practice unconditional ethics that turn their hearts, fortune and vision outward.

I started tonight by saying that the devil put some pretty big ifs before Jesus in the wilderness.   Now we know, with God there is no if.  It is because, therefore.  Because God is who we know in Christ, we know we are his family.  We know he is with us.  He will never leave us.

So, let’s go out with our eyes open, into our work and families into the new day, knowing that we will be tempted, our faith tested, but that through all things, God is on our side