Monday, February 22, 2010

temptations wherever we are

The Exodus is the journey from slavery to freedom. On the way Israel’s passes through the sea (for us an image of baptism) and enters into the wilderness, where they are sustained with daily manna (an image of communion).It is a powerful narrative and has captured the human imagination across cultures and over the centuries, from the ancient middle east to the underground railroads of the United States of America.

This narrative shaped Jesus, who was Jewish, who understood Exodus to be the story of the salvation of his people. The temptations of Jesus are the traditional gospel readings for the first Sunday in Lent--- we find them in Matthew 4, Luke 4 and Mark 1. We reflect on his forty days in the wilderness, which corresponded to forty years for Israel, and it is appropriate that we connect his temptations and testings with ours.

What are the temptations of Jesus? To live by bread alone---the temptation of materialism. To worship more than one god—the temptation of idolatry. To throw himself from the temple---the temptation of testing God. Henri Nouwen describes these as the temptations to be relevant (stones into bread), to be powerful (all these kingdoms can be yours), to be spectacular (throw yourself down and allow the angels to catch you).

This week temptation became a buzz word in the vocabulary of our popular culture, all of a sudden, in anticipation of a statement that Tiger Woods would make on Friday. What would he say and how would he say it? Having had his personal affairs dragged across television, sports talk radio and the internet for months, having gone into exile, he would now emerge on the stage to apologize, to ask forgiveness. How did he do? Well it is of course up to the beholder to mark the scorecard. He talked about temptation, which caught my ear, he talked about his failures but also about his virtues and his religion, and he broached the subject of when he would return to golf. It was partly for his family, partly for the media, partly for his fans, partly for his corporate sponsors.

And after the fifteen minutes, there was plenty of time for everyone to comment. Some guy said it on sports talk radio: if Tiger is a role model, “don’t be so quick to judge…what would you do in the same situation?” Writing in the New York Times, Doug Glanville, former professional baseball player, makes the point:

Tiger Woods has been transformational for the game of golf in so many ways. That is indisputable. But he has proven to be just like every other figure who fell for the little guy with the pitchfork on his shoulder telling him, “It’s all good, no one will know, you can get away with it.” But that little guy on his shoulder didn’t tell him that in the real world, you don’t get away with it because even when you are the only one who knows, that is enough to destroy you. It just will happen from the inside out.” (February 22, 2010)

We know the temptations of Jesus and the temptations of Tiger Woods. What are our temptations? We miss the meaning of the temptations if we dismiss them as being unlike our own experiences, for most temptations come to us in subtle forms. Most of us are tempted by materialism in one way or another—we want to have what our neighbor has, or we work too much to purchase things that we convince ourselves that we need. And so work can crowd out time for God, family, friendships, or self-reflection. We do live by bread, but not by bread alone. In Matthew’s gospel there is the inclusion of the full verse that Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 8. 3: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Make no mistake: Jesus fed the hungry, and the followers of Jesus feed the hungry until this day---but he feeds us as well with the word of God.

How are you tempted to live by bread alone? To live by bread alone is to focus on style and not substance, on the surface and not depth, on what is seen rather than what is unseen. At one of the Ash Wednesday services I listened to the words of the Apostle Paul from II Corinthians 5, also a traditional reading for that day:

We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; As unknown, and yet are well known; As dying, and see, we are alive; As punished, and yet not killed; As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; As poor, yet making many rich As having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

The temptation of the church in a postmodern world is to live by bread alone--- it is the temptation to be relevant, comparing ourselves to other churches, wondering what the media is saying about us, to focus on what can be seen, and yes, to focus even on what can be measured. But the deeper meaning of church is what cannot be seen—the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love, the everlasting arms upon which we lean, the peace that surpasses human understanding, what we have done unto the least of these.

At its best, the church resists the temptations of the world, to be relevant, and listens for the word that comes from the mouth of God. It is going more deeply into the life, death and resurrection with Jesus and there is no better place to begin that journey than today. Along the way we discover that Jesus himself was tested, and, at the conclusion of today’s gospel, there is a phrase that occurs only in Luke:

When the devil had finished every test, he departed until an opportune time.

If you read later in Luke’s gospel, in chapter 22, Satan enters into the heart of Judas, who betrays Jesus, and Peter, who denies him. Here we connect the first Sunday in Lent with the readings of the Good Friday Tenebrae service, but we also relate to this on a more human level---we are never beyond temptation, we never permanently overcome the testings that came to Jesus throughout his life and will come to us as well.

The wilderness is not something we pass through, in a linear path toward progress and enlightenment. It is a place of testing and struggle, and we return to it again and again. Our reading from Deuteronomy 26 is a stewardship sermon for Israel, (don’t tune me out here), advice for them about what it will be like to live in the promised land. Once they settle into a new place, they need to remember all that Moses is teaching them. It is both simple and challenging.

Moses says, in essence: God gives us the land, it is our inheritance, it was promised to us and God has kept his word. Now, once you have taken possession of it, you shall (remember, this is the law, note those words---you shall) take some of the first fruit of the ground that you harvest, put it into a basket and go to the house of the Lord. Take it to the priest and set it before the Altar of the Lord. Why? Here there is, in the midst of the passage, a creed, is a remembrance of all that God has done:

When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us by imposing hard labor on us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; The Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. With a terrifying display of power and with signs and wonders and he brought us into this place and gave us this land a land flowing with milk and honey.

That is the confession of faith. And then the offering: So now I bring the first fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given to me. It is the culmination of a long journey: from slavery, to the decision to cross the sea with all of its risk and danger to the time of wandering in the wilderness and finally they have made it. This is the core of the faith for our Jewish friends. But where are we in all of this? It helps to remember that we are one people with Israel, even if we have ignored the salvation history of Israel, which is not in our creeds, nor is it in most of our hymns. And so it is good to know this story, because it is our family story, we have been grafted into this tree of life.

But at another level, it is true that we don’t read scripture simply for the history, but also for application in our present circumstances. What does it mean to live in the promised land? For those who would look in upon us, it would appear that most of us dwell in a land flowing with milk and honey—the stereotype would be that we have it made! We want something, we go buy it, or at least we borrow the money. There are few closed doors to most anything that we want to experience---we are included, and not marginalized, most of the time. Now this is a generalization, I know, but it is more true than most of us would like to admit.

So what does it mean to live in the promised land? It turns out that there are temptations in the promised land, just as there were in the wilderness, only they are different temptations. The first temptation is to forget the source of the power and blessing that got you to the place where you are. Tiger Woods talked about feeling “entitled”. We could also use the word privilege. It is easy to come into the promised land and think, it was my power, it was my goodness, it was my talent that got me to this place.

That is why the ritual of the first fruits is so crucial. Give the first fruits to God, not what is left over, not a prudent determination of what you think others are giving. Give the first fruits. Is God more important than sports? Is God more important than leisure? Is God more important than education? Is God more important than appearances? So what do I give up for Lent? If it is something that is important to me, something of first importance, I am in touch with a practice that is three thousand years old and has the power to transform me spiritually. It is easy to let go of the outstretched arm of the One who saves us.

There is another temptation in the promised land . Once you’ve made it, to compromise. This is the struggle of the Methodist minister in Blood Done Sign My Name, to speak the truth. The prophets have always drawn their strength from the story of the Exodus, the journey from slavery to freedom, knowing that the God of the Bible is always on the side of freedom. The story of Israel, and it is the story of Jesus and it is our story, is that we never get beyond temptation and testing. How do we survive, or better yet, how do we flourish? We watch for the subtle signs of temptation---we also call them rationalizations. We listen for the word of God---Lent is a great season to read scripture, you could start with Luke 4 today and read through the end of Luke’s gospel by Easter. We connect with each other---in the body of Christ, at its best, we find community, support and also the accountability that we need; isolated from it, we are on our own, and the voice of the tempter seems to make more sense, even if it leads to our destruction. We give our first fruits, ---not what is recycled after the world has consumed it, or us, we give our best to God

There are temptations in the wilderness, where things are really a mess, and in the promised land, where it is going relatively smoothly. Most of us are somewhere on a continuum between these two places. Where we are is no so important. There is a constant. God is in the wilderness, to sustain us, and God is in the promised land, a reminder of who and whose we are.

Sources: Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus. Robert Jenson, The Lectionary Commentary (Deuteronomy). Timothy Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name.


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