"Temptation, A Threat Or An Opportunity?"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 1/10/1999

Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:9-13


     This morning we are going to discuss a subject with which all of us are intimately familiar. Every day each of us experiences temptation. Since our thinking about temptation has been somewhat molded by our religious heritage, we have tended to associate its origin with Satan. In fact, our lesson today places Jesus' experience of temptation in that context. "At once," our lesson says, "the Spirit made him go into the desert where he stayed forty days being tempted by Satan."

     For centuries many people have viewed human life as the battle ground where the God of light and the god of darkness have waged war for the eventual ownership of our souls. This belief has allowed some people to place the motivation for their behavior outside themselves, pardoning them to some degree from assuming full responsibility for their thoughts and the deeds generated by those thoughts.

     While everyone on earth experiences temptation, not all people understand it the same way. Within the thought systems of many Eastern religions, for example, temptation does not come from another divine being whose purpose is to lure souls to their eternal damnation. Such a plan would make little sense since human beings would be no match for a being with superior powers. For these people, temptation is understood as a vital part of life that helps individuals explore how they want to define themselves.

     Interestingly enough, before its later distortion during the Babylonian captivity, Hebrew thought actually defined Satan in much the same manner as did some Eastern religions. Originally, Satan was the tester, the being who offered attractive counterfeit sources of happiness to people who had decided to live faithful, virtuous lives. An example of such thinking can be found in the first chapter of the book of Job. Throughout the book of Job, God and Satan were not shown to be the mortal enemies that the much later religious traditions would suggest.

     Regardless of our individual understanding of temptation or the nature of its origin, all of us experience the voices that are requesting the same thing from each of us. Temptations are asking for a decision. And all of us make tiny, almost insignificant decisions every day, decisions that when placed end to end create the quality of our destiny. Some of them enhance our lives. Others produce anger, hurt, and frustration—elements that can easily compromise the character we are attempting to fashion through our discipleship to Jesus Christ.

     We begin this process the minute our day begins. For example, I get up at 5:00 a.m. every morning and read The Washington Post before I shower. For years I was irritated by something very minor. Most of us are familiar with the newspaper's inserts for Home or Health. How is it that the Post can not manage to cut the upper right corner so that those inserts open properly? I am forever running my hand up through the paper to tear that corner. Little, insignificant decisions to feel irritation are the seeds from which much larger habits are formed.

     Another example is what used to happen to me in the grocery store. Before I learned how to open those little produce bags, I would stand there trying to determine which end of the bag has the opening. I would moisten my fingers and move them back and forth hoping the opening would appear. When it did not, I would turn the bag around and try the other end. Again, this tiny obstacle was giving me a choice of whom I wanted to be.

     Temptations do not come packaged in forms that we readily recognize. Nor are all of them associated with major flaws of character. I was tempted to blame the newspaper or the bag manufacturer for my feelings of irritation. Had I elected not to understand what I was doing, much later in life I could have chosen to continue the practice by blaming everyone and everything for my frustrations.

     Spiritually, tools like patience begin their development early in life. If patience is in place, we will have already developed the inner resources when larger obstacles present themselves. If we have trained ourselves to be patient during our early years, we could not possibly be tempted to explode with physical violence toward our spouse, or engage in aggressive behavior when we cannot get our way, or escape into alcohol or drugs when our lives do not follow the story line we would have preferred.

     Learning to understand the purpose of temptation as early as we can, is a lot like enrolling in a physical exercise program. In that context, only uninformed and inexperienced people would attempt to bench press 350 lbs. or attempt to run in a 10 mile marathon on their first day. We must begin with light weights and walk long distances before engaging in activities that are more strenuous. Our spirits get into shape in much the same way. Every obstacle is offering us the opportunity to define ourselves, i.e., "Do I want to develop a mean spirit or one that is peaceful and more thoughtful?".

     Think of yourself as a sea captain. This image may be a useful aid to our understanding of life's built-in testing process. Only your hands are on the wheel that steers your sailing vessel. Only your decisions will govern the direction of your boat. The amount of knowledge you have will enable you to sail with confidence and joy or with ignorance and failure.

     A sea captain must know how to read maps if she is to steer her vessel around the shallow water and away from the rock outcroppings that lie menacingly just below the surface. She has to know what to do in stormy seas and in gale force winds. We can label shallow water, the rocks and the wind as "Satan" if we prefer. That is fine; but never forget that it is our hands that are on the wheel, not Satan's. And it is our knowledge or lack of knowledge of sailing which will determine the quality of our destiny and not Satan's power.

     In our lesson, Jesus went into the wilderness following his baptism. Like Job, Jesus was being tested. He had to decide, "Who do I want to be?," "How do I want to use my power?,"or "How do I want to communicate what the Kingdom of God looks like?". These questions did not come only to the Son of God; they are identical to the questions we also answer every day.

     All that happens in life is that various events, personalities and potential goals come into our experience offering us the opportunity to clarify and sharpen who we are choosing to be. Clearly none of the temptations in the wilderness were of interest to Jesus. Was his victory in the wilderness a sign that the rest of his life was temptation free? Hardly! He faced every day what all of us face.

     If we want to consider the temptations that Jesus must have faced throughout his ministry, imagine for a moment what it would be like if you had the power to heal others? Think about this possibility before you answer. What a unique gift! How would you deal with such an incredible ability? Here is the tension that Jesus faced. He had to decide intentionally to by-pass the various leper colonies knowing that he had the power to make every leper clean. If he could heal ten at once, he could have healed hundreds. He did not.

     Travel into Jesus' mind and imagine his thoughts, "By choosing not to heal them, am I being like the Levite and the priest in my own parable? Am I also guilty of passing by on the other side?". Defining who he wanted to be was not easy. Each one of us is engaging in that same process every day whether we think we are or not. This process continues in the lives of everyone whether they are believers or not.

     Think about the more fragile moments in Jesus' life where temptation must have confronted him. Imagine him asking himself, "Do I want to be known as the violent teacher who used a whip to drive the money changers out of the temple courtyard? Do I want to remain overly critical, cruel and callous with my words to the Priests, Scribes and Pharisees, particularly when I know that they are only teaching what they have been taught? Do I want to continue modeling my own impatience? If not, why do I continue asking my own disciples, 'How long must I put up with you?' I am the one who teaches 'Love your enemies.' Am I able to give such love to my own enemies?"

     In closing, how can we know how to choose wisely when faced with temptation? In many circumstances that answer is difficult to determine. The most important question in every decision is the obvious one, "Who is it that I want to be?" Secondly, we must understand that there is no "right" formula which will guarantee success for every issue that confronts us. We are still growing and obviously our decisions will reflect greater wisdom and skill as we mature.

     For example, think about the confusion that often comes to us when we are asked to help our older children. After all, what loving parents would refuse to help when their children ask for it? Be careful how you respond. Is our intervention into the affairs of our children the most loving response to make? Jesus could heal everyone and did not. God has the power to make all our troubles go away immediately, and does not. Why is that?

     If we think clearly about this temptation to help them, we may receive insight into why God does not answer all our requests. By helping, we may actually rob our children of the opportunity to discover their own inner strengths, a quality that readily surfaces the minute their own choices turn their lives toward a more viable direction.

     It is not easy to remain neutral when pleading loved ones are asking for our help. Yet sometimes when we intervene and remove the consequences of their situation, our children never learn that it was their repeated choices that took them to their crisis. The proof of this is that generally there will be a next time when identical circumstances surface again. This understanding applies to many people who have not learned that they create what they experience. The temptation to make the same unwise choice repeatedly will leave a particular area of life once the necessary lesson has been learned.

     When we decide to trust God every day for the outcome of all things, that decision will reflect in what we do. We will often fail, much like the prodigal son. We will make mistakes and those mistakes will have consequences. BUT we know where home is. We know where the arms of God are always available. We know where healing can be found.

     When we trust God with our lives we can walk into tomorrow unafraid of failure. Our failures can teach us what we can do better the next time. Never be afraid of circumstances in life that have the power to teach; only be afraid of yourself if you are unwilling to learn.

     To crucify ourselves emotionally for failing is not only a useless behavior but it also postpones our setting sail toward a new horizon. When the prodigal son found himself eating with the pigs, he did not dwell on what a mess he had made of his life. What he did was make another choice and immediately his dread was replaced with joy for having made a better decision.

     While sailing, the wind can teach us many things. Yes, the wind can shred our sails, but God is always ready to give us new sails. This is how love teaches. There is nothing in life to fear. If we are not ready to move forward in our growth, our personalized temptations will repeat in our lives until we are. The day will come when all of us will remember who we are. Why not make that day come for us sooner rather than later?

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

     We are eager for these moments together, O God, when we have the opportunity to be touched by your Holy Spirit. In the midst of our daily experiences, we seek the signposts that help us remember who we are. Every day we are challenged by voices that call us to make decisions. We know that the way is seldom clear to choose wisely when our identity remains uncertain. We ask that you challenge us to decide who it is we want to be. Help us learn to love the peace of a clear conscience, the calmness of a gentle spirit, and the release from worry by trusting you with the outcome of all things. By experiencing such joy in our lives, may each of us serve to make your Kingdom available to more people. Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

     As we gather once again, O God, enable us to discover the opportunities in our midst to bring new understanding to what used to produce anxiety. Enable us to celebrate our grown children's autonomy rather than worrying why it is they do not call. Help us to understand retirement as a beginning and not an end. And when our plans collapse around us, may we bring eagerness to the thought that a new and different adventure is about to begin.

     How often it is, O God, that when we are faced with unanticipated circumstances of life, we are frequently drawn to dwelling on the worst possible outcome? The temptations come to brood, to feel sorry for ourselves, to wear the "preoccupied" look on our faces even though it is impossible for us to know where the unexpected changes in our lives will lead us.

     Help us to see beyond our perceived needs for comfort, security and being loved so that we can remember the truth you have given us. It is we who are the light on the hill. It is we who have been called to carry our burdens with courage and faithfulness. It is we who have been given the task to make you visible in the world. Our only failure, O God, is not remembering who you called us to be when life becomes challenging.

     Open our eyes so that we can use again the enthusiasm for life that grows from the seed of our remembering that we are instruments of your peace, your love and your healing. Lead us to walk into tomorrow unafraid of anything. We ask these things through the Spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray. . .