Sermon – February 29, 2004

A young man was sent to Spain by his company to work in a new plant. He accepted because it would enable him to earn enough to marry his long-time girlfriend. Their plan was to pool their resources and put a down payment on a house when he returned.

As the lonely weeks went by, she began expressing doubts that he was being true to her. After all, Spain is populated by beautiful women. The young man declared that he was paying absolutely no attention to the local girls. “I admit,” he wrote, “that sometimes I’m tempted. But I fight it. I’m keeping myself for you.”

In the next mail, the young man received a package. It contained a note and a harmonica. “I’m sending this to you,” his girlfriend wrote, “so you can have something to take your mind off those girls.” The young man wrote back that he was practicing on the harmonica every night and thinking only of her.

When the young man returned home his girl was waiting at the airport. As he rushed forward to embrace her, she held up a restraining hand and said sternly, “Hold on there. First I want to hear you play that harmonica!”

I know that each one of us has a story about how we failed in the face of temptation. I don’t want you to blurt them out, but think for a moment about an instance where you failed in the face of temptations.

It might have been failing to keep a commitment, anywhere from quitting smoking to honoring your marriage vows. It may be that you were tempted by something to elevate yourself at the cost of another, it might be that you were tempted to deny, fudge, cheat to enrich yourself with material well-being or with the praise and opinion of others. Or it might have been to take the easier way in your faith, your sense of justice. Each one of has a story about we have failed in he face of temptation.

And as we consider these things, we must admit that real temptation always involves a choice. Temptation comes to us at the point f our greatest freedom, where we have the opportunity to choose. When we stand in the face of temptation, we are fully aware that it is a choice. Nevertheless, we are so often surprised by the results.

Sometimes so surprised that we are tempted. . . to blame someone else. Well, no. If we are forced into a choice, that is coercion. That’s not temptation. For example, if someone puts a gun to our heads and demands that we renounce our faith, our government, our whatever, and we do so, we are simply trying to stay alive. That is not really a choice in the face of temptation. We probably still love God or the nation, but have chosen instead not to die, or suffer whatever threat is presented by our tormentor.

No, good old garden variety temptation is a choice. Temptation comes to us at the point of our greatest freedom, our ability to choose.

Of course, it is often not quite so clear. Temptation comes to us in a variety of forms. My favorite is that little voice of dialogue that goes on in our heads. You know the one. It’s OK to do that, everybody else does. No one will notice if you trim a little of your real income off. Who will be hurt by a few bucks? That’s the no one will notice variety of temptation. Of course, though the consequences may by small and far off, they are real nonetheless, . . . but out of sight, out of mind.

Or, here’s another. You deserve it. This was one of my favorites when I was a smoker. Hard day, you deserve a smoke. Good day, you deserve a smoke. In between day, let’s have a smoke and think about it. Choice, choice, choice.

Of course, it comes from the outside, too. I like the Madison Avenue varieties of temptation. Flattery. If you do this, you will be this. If you wear these jeans, this label, this perfume . . . you will confirm this truth about you that we wise ones here know. Choose us. Choose our stuff.

Whatever its form, temptation causes us to choose, and in making a choice, we reveal what it is we value, and who it is we serve.

Jesus was not coerced, brow-beaten by the devil. He is not presented with the host of terrors or obvious things he should reject out of hand. He is offer the good stuff.

Turn these stones into bread. Feed the world, Son of God. Do this at my command. No, no. One does not live by bread alone. Well, then, worship me and I will give you power over all these things. Notice the devil doesn’t say you will have to do things my way. He just says, I will give you this authority. Do what you want. Just worship me. That, by the way, is the temptation of the one ring of power in the movie the Lord of the rings. Galadrial, the good elven queen, powerful, loving and just, incorruptible by all things but one named the power of the ring. If she were to acquire it, she would wield it with good intent, but finally the one whom the ring served would assert its power and distort the good queen. Jesus sees this. No, it is written worship the Lord your God only.

Well, then, throw yourself off the temple tower and let the angels catch you. Test God. See if God is really looking out for you. Surely, if you are the Son of God, you have nothing to worry about. Jump. Jump. No, says Jesus, it is said, “Do not put your Lord to the test.”

Why not do these things? Why not choose to turn the stones to bread and feed the world? Why not accept the power over those cities and do your will? Why not see if God is really looking out for you ? What could it hurt. Well, Jesus teaches us here that the choices we make reveal who we serve. Jesus is at odds with these expectations that seem so reasonable to us. Surely we want to feed the hungry, surely we want the power to do good, surely we want to demonstrate God’s power with a little spiritual show business.

But Jesus says no. Satan’s offers to Jesus were of worldly expectations. Jesus says no because he knows whom he serves. He knows who makes the offer. The subtlety of temptation is that is sometimes comes to us wrapped in the packaging of the desirable, the culturally recognized good. Had Jesus taken the devil’s offers, he would not have become the bread that was broken, he would not rule from the resurrection and triumph over death, he would be satisfied with a religion of gimmicks rather than a divine relationship of love, sacrifice and hope.

Jesus said no. What a surprisingly difficult model that is for us to follow in a culture that rarely hears the word. We have not yet said no to the temptations of power that bring us so regularly to arms and violence. We have not said no to the temptations of greed which keeps us from feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and healing the sick. We have not said no to all the ways of self-gratification that leaves the marginalized, the poor, the undesirable, the least among us in their perpetual place of hopelessness. We have not said no to the temptations to serve Christ without sacrifice or suffering, without renunciation.

I said earlier that temptation hits us at the point of our greatest power, the power to choose. What we find so difficult in those circumstances is to say no, but to do so is a public act, a defiant act of showing whom it is we serve. To say no in the face of spiritual challenge, is finally to lean on a power other than our own. Our story today began with the words, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit. . . . went into the wilderness.” Friends, in baptism we are claimed by God and filled with the Holy Spirit, equipped to call on God in our temptation and trial. And it is through God’s power that we will choose the right, and seek the way of Christ. And, frankly, that is the only way we can. We may not, like Jesus, always have the right word of scripture on our lips to challenge temptation, but we do have a powerful word, and if it is uttered out of faith in Christ, that it is a word temptation cannot overcome.

We will sing of it in a moment. The pastor William Willimon reminds us that in Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” a verse says of the devil, “one little word subdues him.”

Might that word, uttered in Christ’s name, be no?