That late 19th century writer who got such a bad press, and sometimes played up to it: Oscar Wilde said:
I can resist everything except temptation.
I was tempted to stay in bed this morning. Whose idea was it to have me start on the day that daylight savings begins! I am glad that after being four months late I was not another hour late today. Tempting as that may have seemed.
We are talking about temptation today. Jesus temptation as an archetype for all temptation, and both individuals and institutions are tempted at times.
We think of temptation in different categories, the cliché of temptations of the flesh: such as food and lust, immediately spring to mind. We desire comfort, we need sustenance, and these needs can be so powerful:
You must be hungry: Turn these stones into bread – If you are the Son of God.
But there are other equally pernicious temptations – such as the temptations to take short cuts within relationships. The temptation to manipulate those around us with whom we share our lives. The temptation to take the easy route in an argument and lash out with effective but cruel words. Temptations that flow from a desire to be loved:
Does God really love you? Throw yourself off this parapet – you will see when his angels come to save you.
There are finally those temptations of the ego: temptation that is intimately interwoven with ambition. The temptations that power and position bring:
Do you want the world? I can give it to you, just worship me, not God.
And Christ is tempted as we are.
But where from? Do the temptations come from outside or from within?
perhaps we shouldn't: …excuse [ourselves] by accusing Satan. (Thomas Brooks)
This story almost gives us permission to see external things as sources of temptation – that woman – that man – that bar of chocolate – Satan.
The story sets up a conversation between the Devil and Jesus like the Tom and Jerry cartoons I remember where a devil and an angel sit on each shoulder trying to influence the protagonist's behaviour. The writer does this for a purpose – so an internal process can be witnessed. Jesus is talking to the devil on a mountainside, but it is a personification of a voice within him.
Jesus was a person, as we are. If that is the case, it is ridiculous to suggest that he was not tempted as we are. And if he was tempted, then it was as real as ours is, and he does not have access to magical resources in order to combat the temptation, otherwise he is not as we are.
The temptation is not out there – it is in here.
And what kinds of temptation affect us? I cannot see inside your hearts, but you know. For a moment though, I want to focus on institutional temptations. Of the temptation that can affect communities. They fall into similar categories to those that Christ suffered.
First, like the stones and the bread, there is the temptation to obsess about material things. With a large building project like the one Transfiguration has been involved in recently it would be easy to think the building was everything - and it is important, very important, but only as a space within which the real church, the living stones, the people, can be nurtured and built up.
Then in the temptation to prove God loves him by jumping off the temple. We too could take short cuts in building up the relationships in the Christian community, rather than letting them grow naturally - we are insecure and worried that we are not loved, so we demand affection and we don't allow Christian charity to grow. Take time to get to know me as I get to know you, and take time to deepen your relationships with each other.
Finally, the temptation to power. This is the temptation to believe that we are right and should have our own way in the church. It's worst manifestation is when we start throwing missiles at one another across the pews. We must again take time to listen and understand one another, to give up our power and value the opinions of those we don't agree with. Only then can we discern our direction together.
These are communal temptations - and we should not be afraid of them - we should understand them, as we should understand our own personal temptations.
Rather than the external things being sources of temptation – we realise that being tempted is something intimately tied up with our personalities, with our ways of relating, with our very being.
In lent we give things up, as though giving up is the point – gritting our teeth till it is over. But a second look at the Gospel demonstrates that this is not what Jesus does.
He responds to his tempter. He has answers.
Make bread from stones – no – the sustenance of the word of God is enough for me.
Leap from this tall building – no – you must not put God to the test.
Worship me and be king of the world – no – it is not right to worship anyone but God.
Jesus responds to his tempter. And in his responses we have a hint at a way to get through our own wilderness experiences.
The Gospel of Matthew locates Jesus in the wilderness after his baptism. He has been told that God is pleased with him.
The temptations focus on Christ's identity. Are you the Son of God? Will God save you as he promised? Will you be the Lord of the whole earth one day?
In the last temptation Christ is faced with his destiny. If he is the Son of God he will one day rule the world. But how will he get there? Will it be in obedience to God and through suffering, or is there an easier way?
His temptations ask questions about who he is.
Thomas A Kempis said:
We usually know what we can do, but temptation shows us who we are.
That is the case here. The temptations focus on exactly who Jesus is. And his response is central to him being able to complete his life work.
He pulls through. Of course he does.
But he answers correctly, not because he is the Son of God, but, because he is prepared. And we can prepare too.
After his baptism, his initial encounter with God - in which he is given a vision of his own identity - he has spent time in the wilderness, with only one thought:
Who am I?
He prepared. Wondered, meditated, fasted, prayed, made space, took time.
He has explored the question of his own being. He has taken time to make the connections between scripture and his own experience that help to explain his role in the world.
And he has encountered a darker side to it all.
What if it is too hard?
What if he cannot go through with it?
Perhaps there is an easier way.
Richard Baxter encourages us to:
Be thoroughly acquainted with your temptation
Jesus has taken time, made space, fasted, prayed, and prepared. He resists temptation because he is thoroughly familiar with it, he is prepared for it.
The point is not giving up.
We do not give things up in Lent as an end in themselves. We do so for a purpose. We give things up to make space.
That space is for us to then use – as we fast, and discipline ourselves, and pray and meditate and read and think.
So that when we are faced with our temptations. The moments in which we are asked to make a decision, we are not surprised, we are thoroughly prepared. We know ourselves, including our shadows.
Our temptations are utterly a part of us. If we listen to them, they will teach us about the people we are. If we embrace them, and understand them, we shall be ready for the moments in which they test us.
So make space. Take time, but be encouraged. As Julian of Norwich reminds us:
He said not:
'Thou shalt not be tempted:
Thou shalt not be travailed:
Thou shalt not be afflicted.'
But he said:
'Thou shalt not be overcome.' Julian of Norwich
We record all of the sermons at Transfig so you can catch up with them if you miss them, or listen to them while you are running or driving.
If you would like to download archived sermons please go to iTunes and search for the "Transfiguration Episcopal Church - Sermons" podcast. Or click on the button below.