The power of temptation

Mark 1:9-15

Sunday Sermon

The Rev. W. W. (Tad) Meyer
Assisting Priest

February 18, 2018

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; ...”

The story is told about Honest Abe Lincoln that one day he and his presidential aide were working in his office in the White House when a very prominent business person was announced. The man strode into the room brusquely and immediately began to set out his agenda. It seems he was upset about a particular legislative measure that the president was supporting and he wanted to know what he had to do in order to get him to change his mind. After some futile attempts at discussion, the businessman resorted to the tool of his trade—money--and he brazenly offered the president $10,000 to withdraw his support. The president calmly refused, which infuriated the entrepreneur, who raised the bribe to $20,000. Again, Honest Abe resisted and again the tempter upped the ante, this time to $30,000, a princely sum in the 19th century. It was now the president's turn to become infuriated and he grabbed the man by his lapels and threw him out of the office. The aide, who had watched this drama with rapt attention and admiration, showered praise on his lord and master for his incredible integrity and moral fortitude. Lincoln dismissed the man's flattery with a wave of his hand, "Nonsense,” he told his startled aide, “he was just getting too close to my price."

Each year, on the first Sunday of the Lenten season, we are handed the powerful yet enigmatic portrait of our Lord and Master facing temptation in the wilderness. Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan by John and then he was sent out into the wilderness to experience the temptations of Satan. In the stark and simple account of St. Mark, we are told that Jesus was actually driven into the wilderness by the Spirit of God. The Greek verb literally means to hurl, like a javelin, so Jesus was thrown out into the wilderness by the power of God's Spirit. Mark does not tell us anything about those temptations, nor does he relate how Jesus resisted them. We only know that he was cast out into the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by Satan, to live with wild beasts and to be ministered to by angels.

Matthew and Luke, of course, provide us with many more details, and from their accounts we learn something about the temptations that Jesus faced and how he rebutted them. But even without that additional information, within the austere narrative of Mark, we can still sense that this was a formative event in the life of the Lord, a watershed in his ministry. In the murky waters of the River Jordan, Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit and was named by the Almighty as God’s son, God’s beloved, with whom God was well pleased. Immediately following that affirmation, and before he began his ministry of healing and reconciliation, Jesus was hurled by that same Spirit into the temptation of the wilderness. Whatever the precise nature of that temptation, whether it was $10,000 or $30,000, it is clear that it represented an important moment in Jesus’ evolution as the Savior. In an important sense, it was that moment when he came into his own, when he became the person he was called to be. It was on the anvil of temptation that the character of the Messiah was hammered and fashioned.

Unfortunately, in our day and age, we tend to emasculate and dismiss the power and importance of temptation. Like the bribe in that apocryphal tale of Lincoln, temptation appears to be an external affair which basically involves the acceptance or rejection of some proffered prize: the dieter is tempted by a piece of chocolate mousse, the smoker is tempted by an open pack of cigarettes, the politician is tempted by an enticing "kickback." We tend to see temptations as things that are presented to us from the outside, which entice and beckon to us, appealing to our latent wishes and desires and forcing us to make tough moral choices. The reason that I love that story about Honest Abe is because it presents us with a different understanding of temptation, one which shifts the focus from the external to the internal dilemma. Lincoln's aide thought that the president was responding to temptation in just such a moral and upright fashion, courageously rebuffing the lure of gold. Lincoln's response to his aide's praise, however, reveals a far more profound struggle. For him, the real temptation was that this man's offer was presenting him with an internal temptation which forced him to look at all sides of his personality, even that side which was willing and able to accept that bribe. In the context of the story, Lincoln's response is fully and gloriously human, acknowledging that the real temptation is truly within and cannot be quietly dismissed with a straightforward moral choice, a simple matter of choosing between right and wrong.

By externalizing temptations, we have actually granted them enormous power for in doing so, we fail to see the real havoc they can wreck within the fragile sphere of human integrity. The true temptation that lies behind all the external enticements is the denial of our humanity, accepting an understanding of ourselves that is based on our vision of who we think we are or who we want to be rather than who we really are. That is the true source of temptation and the one that can sully and destroy the true beauty of the human spirit. The greatest temptation that constantly confronts us is to put on a mask

of self-distortion and self-denial, a mask which simplifies and compromises the astonishing and frightening complexity of our human nature.

In the wilderness, Jesus did not make perfect moral choices, mechanically refusing the allure of diabolical attractions. One could argue, in fact, that Jesus could have actually accomplished great moral good if only he had succumbed to the temptations that were offered him. After all, Jesus could have fed the hungry with stones changed into bread, and by assuming absolute power, he could have ushered in a period of unprecedented peace, justice and prosperity. Jesus knew, however, that the real struggle was not a moral one, a simple acceptance or rejection of a tantalizing prize. No, the real battlefield was the identity of his soul and how he perceived and accepted the humanity he had come to redeem. The temptation for Jesus was to become something other than human. Each of the temptations presented him with an opportunity to be more than a human being: to no longer feel the pangs of human hunger; to exercise omnipotence and ruthlessly reorder human reality; to make himself invulnerable to the destructive forces of human existence. In the wilderness, Jesus was not asked to be morally perfect, but he was invited by God to be whole, to be wholly and gloriously human.

Each Lent, we are hurled into the wilderness, cast out by the Spirit of God into a stark desert where we are asked to look at things as they really are in all their confusing and bewildering intricacies. Within this Lenten wilderness, we are asked by God to look at how we are assaulted by temptations, to look deeply within to see the patterns of distortion that lie across our minds and hearts. We are not being asked simply to exercise self-discipline and self-denial, practicing moral uprightness by boldly refusing all those things that we think are really bad for us. Instead, we are invited by God to look beneath those external temptations, to strip aside those masks of self-delusion which suggest that we are actually decent and gracious beings, who live controlled lives of propriety and decorum and we are asked to acknowledge and accept, with our brother Abraham, that we all have our price, that we are complex creatures that are filled with love, generosity and gentleness and sin, greed and anger. To recognize that we all have our price is not to surrender to temptation, but is, in fact, to engage reality, to lay hold of a human reality which our Lord accepted in the wilderness and made an instrument of our redemption. In that wilderness, Jesus became fully human, and now we must learn to join in his wholeness. To be whole is to be fully human, to have the courage to look at ourselves as we really are, and then to have the faith to hold that bundle of sinfulness and gracefulness before the mercy of Almighty God. The only reason that we can risk making such an offering, the sole justification for such extraordinary candor and honesty, is the gift of Christ, who suffered for sins once and for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. To make such an offering in the context of Christ’s sacrifice is to discover a font of mercy and forgiveness that will empower us to resist temptation and to become the gloriously human creatures that God has called us to be.

I am convinced that God wants us to be fully human because She wants all of us, not simply the parts that we deem acceptable and morally appropriate. You see God too has a price, and that price is no less than our entire selves, our complete love and devotion. Such love and devotion can only arise out of the marvelous complexity of the human heart, molded and formed in the stark and frightening beauty of the wilderness, hammered and fashioned on the anvil of temptation and offered to God in the wounded hands of an Incarnate Lord.