Monday, March 10, 2014

Yesterday's sermon@Highlands

“Tempted to do right
Highlands Presbyterian Church
March 9, 2014

Temptation is a complicated thing. The dictionary says that temptation is an urge, something that causes a strong urge or desire to have or do something and especially something that is bad, wrong, or unwise.

Mae West said, “I generally avoid temptation unless I can't resist it.” Adding “Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.”

Today is the 1st Sunday of Lent and appropriately the lectionary takes us to the great stories of temptation from both the Old and the New Testament. The question of temptation arises quickly. It is only the 2nd chapter of the Bible’s first book when the issue is raised.

Adam and Eve have been placed in the garden…a garden where God has provided well for them. All their needs are met. Think of the scene. The characters in this myth include God, Adam, and Eve. The setting is the Garden of Eden. God gives God’s first commandment.

“You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Seems simple enough and not at all onerous. And all would have gone well but for the fourth character in the play. The serpent. Now what is he doing there? Why has God turned him loose in the Garden? In fact, we should ask, why did God create him in the first place?

Not only did God create this serpent but God made him…what does the Bible say? Quote “more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.” Not only is the serpent the most crafty of all…but God has given it a voice. The serpent speaks. It speaks and uses its voice to contradict the God of its own creation.

Think about that for a moment.

What kind of God creates a creature and empowers it to question the creator? This serpent owes its very existence to the God it now contradicts.

The serpent said to Eve, “Did God just say to you, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “Yes...that is what God said. We may eat of the fruit of all the other trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“

But the serpent said, “That’s just not true. God is not being straight with you. You will not die like God says and God knows better. God knows that when you eat of that tree, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Think about that. We are less than two complete chapters into the Bible. We are only a matter of days or maybe hours into creation and already the authority…the truthfulness of God is being questioned by God’s own creation. Now, that doesn’t bode well for the centuries ahead, does it?

Verse 8 of the third chapter of Genesis sets the stage for the centuries to come. After Adam and Eve had eaten from the forbidden tree at the behest of the serpent, they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden…and men and women, the heirs of the first human beings have spent generation after generation hiding themselves form the presence of God.

The lectionary then takes us to the Gospel story of the temptation of Jesus. Now…that is certainly an interesting story and it teaches us a great deal about the nature of Jesus. But I have to say…that’s where it ends. The ability of Jesus to resist temptation doesn’t have much to do with my own struggle to resist.

“Preacher,” you might say…I serve Jesus. I know Jesus. Jesus is a friend of mine. Preacher, believe me, you're no Jesus!” The fact that Jesus could resist temptation can’t be the standard for humans.

The significance of that story is found not in his ability to resist but rather in the kind of temptations Jesus resisted. Jesus resisted defining the world by our earthly and human needs. “Man,” he said, “does not live by bread along.” He resisted the idea that a relationship with God could be built on testing God and finally, Jesus resisted the temptation to worship he who could give Jesus power over everything. 

When the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

So where does that leave us during Lent and beyond? I am tempted to suggest we listen to Martin Luther on that score.

“Whenever the devil harasses you,” Luther wrote, “Whenever the devil harasses you, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all. So when the devil says to you: do not drink, answer him: I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to.”

Sounds a little like Mae Wests’ theology, doesn’t it. It is a recognition of our human nature. I think Martin Luther was on to something very important. We cannot trouble ourselves with trying to be perfect. It is not going to happen. The list of what humans think is or may be sinful is too long…it includes what we eat or drink, the music we listen to or the movies we watch, the words we use when we are angry, the fact that we even get angry, the length or our hair, the tattoos on our arms, the lust in our hearts…and on and on.

Martin Luther is saying that we can make ourselves crazy if we permit our selves to become bedeviled with all of that. Actually he sounds a bit like that serpent, doesn’t he.

“So…you really think God cares about what you said when you hit your thumb with that hammer? Do you really think God cares if you drink a beer or eat too much pasta? Seek the company of others, Luther said,  drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles.

I think we fall for the temptation to worry ourselves more about the trifling than what may matter more. Bishop Fulton Sheen put his finger on it when he wrote, “Why is it that any time we speak of temptation we always speak of temptation as something that inclines us to wrong. We have more temptations to become good than we do to become bad.”

Did you hear that? “We have more temptations to become good than we do to become bad.” The Garden of Eden myth teaches us that once Adam and Eve did as told by the serpent, their eyes were opened, and we all were given the knowledge of good and evil….and we are every bit as tempted to do what is right as we are to do that which is wrong.
Resisting the temptation to do good is probably the greatest cause of hardship on this earth. Resisting the temptation to speak out when there is injustice, resisting the temptation to give to those in need because we aren’t sure they are worthy or we worry about our own security, resisting the temptation to allow others to share the rights and opportunities we have.
In the Garden that day long ago, I think God was trying to shield human beings from the very nature with which God had created them. God had endowed humans with what we call free will, that is the ability to choose right or wrong. And then God shied away…knowing what that might bring. Don’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he warned.
But that bridge had already been crossed. God had already given God’s creation the ability to say yes or no to what it is God wants.
God had created a world filled with temptation. And God’s hope for the world is not so much that we resist all temptation but that as often as not we will accept the temptation to do what is right.
As we enter into a moment of silent contemplation, consider the times you have been tempted to do the right thing…and the difference it made because you either gave in to the temptation or … didn’t.

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