Temptation

Part 1 of the series “Lead Us Not Into Temptation
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
February 22, 2015
Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15

Genesis 9:8–17 • God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “I am now setting up my covenant with you, with your descendants, and with every living being with you—with the birds, with the large animals, and with all the animals of the earth, leaving the ark with you. I will set up my covenant with you so that never again will all life be cut off by floodwaters. There will never again be a flood to destroy the earth.”
God said, “This is the symbol of the covenant that I am drawing up between me and you and every living thing with you, on behalf of every future generation. I have placed my bow in the clouds; it will be the symbol of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember the covenant between me and you and every living being among all the creatures. Floodwaters will never again destroy all creatures. The bow will be in the clouds, and upon seeing it I will remember the enduring covenant between God and every living being of all the earth’s creatures.” God said to Noah, “This is the symbol of the covenant that I have set up between me and all creatures on earth.”

Mark 1:9–15 • About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”
At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.
After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”

I. BEGINNING

Here’s the thing about being an adult: no one is there to stop you from making dumb life choices. There was a time when after services here on a Sunday, I would stop by a friend’s house to visit for a little bit on the way home. After I’d swung by the Eagle’s Nest to pick up a couple of pints of Ben & Jerry’s. My favorite is “New York Superfudge Chunk.” It’s probably a good thing that that friend has moved.

At a certain point, you realize that your aging body and slowing metabolism won’t really handle an entire 1,200 calorie pint of Ben & Jerry’s the way you’d like. Especially at night. So, older and wiser, I only indulge if I’ve actually managed to burn a significant amount of calories that day. Like over 2,000 to be safe.

But I will admit, whenever I’m in the CVS or Walgreen’s and walk by the freezer section where the Ben & Jerry’s is kept I sure am tempted. Sometimes, I’ll just stand there and look at the pints and think, it won’t be that bad. But then my brain starts doing math and I think ‘no’ and walk away. But boy am I tempted.

II. THE TEXT

Temptation is, of course, at the heart of our text for today. The traditional lectionary reading to begin the season of Lent is always Jesus’ temptation in the Wilderness. Jesus has come to the River Jordan to be baptized by John. As he comes out of the water, he sees the heavens torn open and hears a voice say, “You are my son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” And then we are told:

At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.

There are a couple of interesting things about this passage. First the Spirit “forced Jesus out into the wilderness” which is a curious thing. Traditional translations read, “drove him out,” which sounds less odd. The Greek actually reads, “casts him out” using the same verb used when speaking of demons.

Second, there’s this interesting note that he was among the wild animals and that angels took care of him. Curiously, in Mark’s version, there’s no mention of Jesus fasting. What is central to Jesus’ time in the wilderness, then, for Mark, is not his fasting, but his temptation.

Unlike in Matthew and Luke’s version, we get no description of the temptations that Jesus undergoes in Mark’s version. No recounting of his temptation to turn stones into bread, or to cast himself off of the pinnacle of the Temple, or to worship the devil and thus gain dominion over all the kingdoms of the world.

Now, Biblical scholars will simply tell you that the descriptions of the temptations belong to the “Q” source, where much of the material that Matthew and Luke share that’s not in Mark is understood to have come from. But I think there’s more than just source criticism going on here. Perhaps Mark does not provide details of Jesus’ temptations because like everything else in Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ sufferings are supposed to be relatable to the rest of us. And honestly, when was the last time you were tempted with the offer of world domination?

Probably not ever and so tempting Jesus with temptations beyond ordinary human experience is kind of outside of Mark’s normal style. Jesus’ suffering and temptation are supposed to be like ours.

III.  THE TEMPTATION OF THE CHRIST

Some years ago, before anyone other than me in this room was born, a movie called The Last Temptation of Christ was released. It generated a storm of controversy among some Christian groups because it showed Jesus coming down off of the cross and then leading an ordinary life, marrying Mary Magdalene, having children, and then laying on his bed in his old age to die.

The thing so many Christians failed to grasp, however, was that all of those things took place in the context of a vision with which Jesus was tempted, while hanging on the cross. The devil comes to him on Golgotha and says,

“I’m the angel who guards you. Your Father is the God of mercy, not punishment. He saw you and said, ‘Aren’t you his guardian angel? Well, go down and save him. He’s suffered enough.’ Remember when he told Abraham to sacrifice his son? Abraham was just about to kill the boy with his knife when God stopped him. So, if he saved Abraham’s son, don’t you think he’d want to save his own? He’s tested you and he’s happy with you. He doesn’t want your blood. He said, “Let him die in a dream. But let him live his life.’ … You’ve done enough.”[1]

And so he comes down off of the cross and leads a life of an ordinary man. Years later, he encounters Paul preaching his message. When Jesus confronts him and says that he is the son of Mary and Joseph, that he is Jesus of Nazareth, Paul points to the crowds and says:

“Their only hope is the resurrected Jesus. I don’t care whether you’re Jesus or not. The resurrected Jesus will save the world and that’s what matters. You know, I’m glad I met you. Because now I can forget all about you. My Jesus is much more important and much more powerful.”

Still later, on his deathbed, he has a vision of Peter, John, and even Judas. The encounter with Judas is the most difficult one. Judas laments that Jesus had asked him to betray him, to ensure that he would wind up on the cross.

“And I loved you so much. I went and betrayed you. And you … you… What are you doing here?”

When Jesus says, “There was angel.” Judas replies, “What angel? Look at her.” It is then that Jesus recognizes the angel as Satan and Jesus declares aloud that he wants to go through with the sacrifice and bring salvation. And there he is again, hanging on the cross, declaring, “It is finished.”

What all of the protestors failed to grasp was that the vision we were seeing was the vision of a temptation given to Jesus by Satan. In the gospel of Luke, after Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, it reads “the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.” This was, according to Martin Scorsese, the next opportunity.

The entire thing is just a vision of an alternate life that Jesus could have. He is tempted with a vision of a normal life, with a wife and children. And for some reason, a lot of Christians really had a problem with that. To the point that some in France burned down a theater and in the U.S., one church group tried to buy up all the prints, and the leader of Campus Crusade for Christ tried to buy the negative in order to destroy it.[2]

Even though Jesus’ ministry begins with his being tempted in the wilderness by Satan, a lot of people have a hard time accepting that he could really have been tempted. What they seem to be saying is that Jesus’ temptations weren’t real. He didn’t really want any of the things he was offered. And he certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be spared suffering and death.

Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that there are clear passages of scripture where Jesus asks God to have the cup of suffering and violent death taken from him, what would it say if Jesus were somehow not really tempted by all the things offered him? If all of these things were empty formalities?

It would mean that despite what the church has claimed from the very beginning, Jesus was not truly human. One who is truly human is going to be tempted. To deny that Jesus was truly tempted is to deny that Jesus was truly human. And if there’s one thing that Mark’s gospel emphasizes, it is Jesus’ humanity. Jesus was tempted because humans are tempted.

Temptation is a necessary state of our humanity.

IV. TEMPTATION AND FREE WILL

And that’s a good thing.

Because what’s true for Jesus is true for us as well: in order for temptation to be real, the temptation must be meaningful. We actually have to be temptable. And if we’re temptable it’s because the choice before us is a meaningful, real choice.

We’re tempted because the choices are real. And that means that we have free will.

If we didn’t, then our tests would be meaningless, too. If we could not choose to do the good, then tempting us with the evil is just as meaningless as the idea that Jesus could be tempted to do anything other than the good. Both we and Jesus are tempted because in our humanity we have free will, free to choose, free to walk down the path of righteousness or wickedness.

And that’s good news because what that means is that God loves us, truly loves us. It is not possible to love someone who is not free to choose to respond to that love. If you could make someone love you in response to your love, would that really be love? From either of you?

Love is about letting go.

Image courtesy world.net

Love is about accepting the other as they are: and that may mean ‘as a person who does not love you.’ Love is not about trying to get someone to love you. Love is not about trying to get someone to do what you want them to. As Paul says, love “does not insist on its own way.” Rather, love is about letting go and being willing to suffer the pain of having let go. You cannot truly love someone unless you are willing to grant them the freedom to hurt you. To love someone is to allow that person the freedom to love you or reject you. Until you are willing to risk heartbreak, you are not really willing to love.

God loves us. How do we know this? Because God has given us the freewill whereby we might choose to reject God. God is in relationship with a people whom he has freed to decide for themselves whether they want to be in that relationship.

We are tempted because we are free. And we are free because we are loved.

V.   END

Throughout this Lenten season, we will be looking at the things that are temptations for us and the hope of the gospel that helps us to overcome them. But as we do, we’ll bear in mind that the very fact that we can be tempted means that we have been freed to do so by a loving God who desires our freedom in order that we might truly be in relationship.

Now, that does mean that there will be consequences to our choices. The story of Noah is a story of the consequences of human sinfulness on a grand scale. Our freedom to choose means that when we choose wrong, we have to take responsibility for that choice.

But none of that changes the fact that in all our choices, we are loved. Loved by one who loved us so much that we were set free to choose or reject, with all the temptations, consequences, and blessings that that results in. And one who walks beside us, in times of temptation and struggle, in the wilderness, in our testing and our succeeding. In all the days of our lives.


Notes

[1] http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/l/last-temptation-of-christ-script.html

[2] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0095497/trivia?ref_=tt_ql_2