“Temptation, Evil and the Triumph of Jesus”
By Rev. Dr. Orville James
Sunday, March 13, 2022
Reading: Luke 4:1-13
Here we are again: The season of Lent with religious activities that can sometimes make us feel awkward. Like the emphasis on our sin, our brokenness, and our need for confession. A Presbyterian minister I know of received a call from a friend in his church asking him to come over. “I need to talk to you,” she said, “and it’s about religion.”
When he arrived, she had last Sunday’s bulletin in her hand. “Listen to this” she said as they sat down, and she began to read the Prayer of Confession, (now this was Chicago, and straight from the new Presbyterian Book of Worship, but what she read could easily have been heard here, or in any of our mainline churches).
“… we cling to the values of a broken world. The profit and pleasures we pursue lay waste to the land and pollute the seas. The fears and jealousies that we harbour set neighbour against neighbour and nation against nation.”
‘Now really, John, I didn’t do all that last week. I didn’t waste the land and pollute the seas and turn my neighbours against one another. I didn’t have time for all that. I had a busy week: I went shopping, saw a movie, came to church. Why do you make us say all those dreadful things week after week?”
So, they had a good conversation about why there is a prayer of confession and what we believe about sin. The fact is, that a central but somewhat awkward dimension of the Christian faith is the conviction that there is something wrong with the human condition; something wrong at the heart of things; something, even, wrong with us… Something that has a society-wide, as well as a personal dimension, so that, no, she didn’t pollute the seas last week but yes, she and all the rest of us are part of enormous economic structures that most certainly are polluting the seas and air and rivers and cutting down rain forests and increasing the carbon footprint and heating up the environment and generally acting as if our comfort and affluence are all that matter.
Something is wrong. It’s what Christian faith is about. It’s what Jesus Christ came for and the daily news feed is all the evidence we really need. So, what might be the result when our temptation toward collective laziness and selfishness runs rampant? What might that look like?
Let’s engage in a little time travel: It was cold and windy when the minister stood that day to preach. The granite steps of his bombed-out church were beneath him, and his congregation huddled together in clusters throughout the street.
This was the spring of 1945, in Stuttgart Germany. Allied tanks rumbled by as Helmut Thielicke began to speak. For weeks he had been working his way through Lenten scriptures as we are and linking them to the Lord’s Prayer. Three weeks earlier as he preached on “Thy Will Be Done” allied bombers had attacked the city and left the church in ruins. The nightmare of WWII was drawing to a close; today the sermon was on “Jesus’ Temptation, and deliverance from evil.” Exactly the scriptures we are pondering. The question was posed, Is temptation real? Is evil real, is the devil real? Here is what the preacher said:
“Dear friends, in our time we have had far too much contact with demonic powers; we have sensed and seen how men and whole movements have been corrupted and controlled by mysterious, abysmal powers, leading them where they had no intention of going…
Year by year we have seen an increasingly poisonous atmosphere settling down on our globe, and we sense how real and almost tangible are the evil spirits in the air, seeing an invisible hand passing an invisible cup of poison from nation to nation...”
That was spoken in Germany in 1945. Interesting – chilling really, that it so well describes our world today. Because temptations and evil are as real and dangerous now as they were then; and the evil one still works his demonic power – silent and secretive, and oh how effective we allow him to be. Something IS wrong. It’s what Christian faith is about.
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr commented, “The doctrine of original sin is the one obviously provable doctrine of Christian faith.”
So, we can acknowledge that human sin is real, undeniable, and complex! It comes in the form of lazy individuals and selfish societies. The Christian faith has known this to be true, whether we personally admit it or not.
What am I talking about? What’s that look like in everyday life? We could do a brainstorming session with a flipchart or PowerPoint and come up with an extensive list of temptations to avoid: Greed, lust, revenge, dishonesty…
Many things will, of course, tempt us, and that can make us feel guilty. But our anxiety will be reduced if we understand what Martin Luther, the great priest of the 16th Century meant when he said: “A man is not guilty if a bird flies over top of his head. He is guilty if he allows the bird to land and build a nest in his hair.”
Exactly! We all recall having dark thoughts, and malicious ideas; they will fly by; dismiss them and fret no more. The evil only comes when dark, malicious ideas are allowed to linger, are dwelt upon, and even allowed to dominate our thinking.
So, in Lent each year, the tradition of the church has suggested we read and ponder the story of the temptations of Jesus. The birds that flew over His head… The Devil attempts to shake Jesus’ connection to God and dependence on God’s grace and care, by coming at the three most basic human needs: survival, power, and identity.
IF… you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread, jump off the temple, take power.
That is, don’t rely on God; you can do better for yourself; you can do more on your own.
Here, Christian faith maintains, is what is wrong with us and with the human condition. At the heart of things, we aren’t willing to trust God and link our lives and spirits to our Creator. We aren’t completely willing to give ourselves to God, or God`s world! The temptations Satan offers to Jesus are not to do terrible things – rob, murder, steal, do public violence to innocent people. If there are crimes here, they appear to be victimless crime, but they are crimes that push God away from the center of Jesus life.
Someone said that SIN is centrifugal.
When I was at university, studying toward a Bachelor of Science, I was in a laboratory working with a centrifuge. It is a machine that spins at high speed and separates components by weight and density. The heavier component will be driven out to the periphery, leaving the lighter element at the center. So, mix water and oil in a test tube, and in a centrifuge, you can quickly separate them again. Or blood cells and plasma… You get the idea.
Sin is centrifugal – it pushes everything out and away from the center of our being, EVEN God; until there`s nothing there but self. Sin is finally selfishness, self-centeredness, hubris, pride; that secret attitude that I, truly am the center of the universe: Me, mine, my desires, comforts and wishes; my clan, my nation, my tribe, me, MINE!
Isn`t that more dangerously likely for most of us, than the possibility that we will go out and burn, rape and pillage? Evil is smooth, sneaky, seductive, attempting to push God away from the center of our lives with many subtle temptations. Just turn stones to bread (no one’s hurt), just jump off this cliff… just bow down, and let ME (instead of God) dominate your decision process.
So – there it is – the collective sum of all temptations – separate and isolate from God.
Now, I want to propose a solution for each of us to deal with temptation. I doubt if I’ll surprise many of you, because this is what Jesus did, and what he role-modelled in his prayer. It’s a simple solution – keep God at the center of your life; and let it be a happy, trusting friendship that No One, or No Thing can intervene between.
You see that’s what evil tried to do to Jesus in the desert. Separate Him from his Heavenly Father – get him to allow Satan to become who His spirit connected with, relied upon, lived for. The same choice is whispered to us. Through small and great events in our life, little fondness’s, and great passions, we can be brought to the point where we lose contact with our heavenly Father.
It’s hard enough just to get through a day of work and volunteering, of dealing with kids or with our loneliness, of digesting the onslaught of bad news, of managing our sadness and depression, which seem to be an inevitable result of the madness of the age we live in.
My guess is, many of us drift from God, softly, gradually.
Let me read you something from a former professor at Princeton. “We get busy and forget about praying and reading scripture and staying close to the Father.”
There are family things to do – trips and vacations and outings. There are friends to be with – parties and golfing and camping and cottages. There are sports games to attend… There is television to watch – hours and hours and hours of it.
Life just seems to go by, and before we know it, we have lost regular contact with Christ and the Kingdom. We didn’t plan it that way. It merely happened.
Casual temptation, as opposed to formal temptation. Nothing big. Just not making our spiritual life with God our priority. Forgetting that Jesus was tempted to this, and said to pray to avoid it, to be delivered from evil, from life without God.
Maybe you heard the song this worship service opened with, Breathe:
You are the air I breathe,
You are the bread I eat;
your Holy Presence, living in me
It’s the chorus that zinged me:
And I, I’m desperate for you,
I’m lost without you.”
I must tell you there’s a part of me that wanted to resist that, at first. A little smirk of pride. But, oh my. It is so true. It is so renewing and empowering, and purifying and strengthening to reach out, to open up and let God be the very air we breathe and the life living in us. Without God we’re in trouble. With God, everything changes.
Oh, how healthy it is to be honest! How freeing. A burden is lifted, a weight removed. Our hearts are light! No more false and complicated roles to play. No more masks to hide behind, especially… with ourselves, and with God!
Friends, this is why the Christian life is, at its best, the happiest, most joyful, liberated, uncomplicated life there is today. Free! No dark shadows of defense and denial…. No puddles of guilt and shame… Rather, honest, straightforward, free!
To achieve that we need only regularly and ruthlessly face the truth about ourselves and admit it to God. (NOT necessarily to others; Protestants believe you must not hide your sin but confess it to God; Catholics believe this too and over centuries have recommended confessing also to a priest, God’s agent. I don’t know which is better, but I do know you are far healthier and more mature to face the reality of your sinfulness, admit it, and repent. Regularly and repeatedly.)
“Recalling and confessing our sin is like taking out the garbage: Once is not enough.”
(From Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Pg. X)
Let me say to you that I do believe in the Devil. I accept this word of scripture about Jesus in the desert, and his opinion that we should pray against this force of evil. Call it what you want… Satan is one popular name; Luther called it “The Prince of Darkness grim”.
But fear not. Christ is with us. Pray… Live with your life centered on Christ. Simply because Jesus taught us to pray, especially because Jesus taught us to pray: “Deliver us from evil”. Therefore, we have a right to expect that God will answer and help us.
Take the courage of Martin Luther and his brazen blunt words:
The prince of darkness grim,
We tremble not for him,
His rage we can endure,
For lo, his doom is sure;
One little word shall fell him.
The word my friends is Christ, Christ Jesus.
“There is now no condemnation for those who are united with Christ Jesus… So, if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; behold everything has become new!”
Hallelujah. Thanks be to God. Amen.