The Gift of Temptation
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
March 13, 2016
Audio for this sermon is not available.
As we have explored what it means to find ourselves in the Dark Wood, by now it is becoming clear that often the obstacles we find in life can become opportunities for us to move farther along in our faith journey, our exploration of who we are and who we can become when we are open to change and neither so proud as to think we know more than God and therefore don’t need help, or so ashamed that we think we are not worthy for God’s help.
Temptation may seem an obvious obstacle along our path; however, temptation as we often think of it – the seven deadly sins types of temptation – wrath, avarice, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony (WASPLEG!) – those messy rather obvious instances of falling short of the mark, aren’t nearly as insidious as the bright, shiny, attractive, often praiseworthy temptations of doing good – the wrong good for us – or even the right good for the wrong reasons!
Maybe that doesn’t make sense. Isn’t it always preferable to do good? Is there such a thing as a wrong good? And if something is good, what difference does motivation make? It is helpful when faced with these kinds of questions to look at the example of Jesus when he faced temptation just after his baptism and had heard the voice of God naming him and voicing pleasure in him, “You are mon son in whom I am well pleased.” Jesus spent time alone discerning what this naming and claiming event meant for his life. What was he supposed to do as the Son of God? What would that mean? How would that look?
After forty days of discernment in the wilderness, he is presented with a series of alternatives, all of which on the surface seem to be pretty good things – even religious things. Bread is good. People need bread. Think what the world would be like if we could turn stones into bread and eradicate world hunger. But Jesus rejected this suggestion.
Similarly, the opportunity to wield political power holds tremendous potential for good. Jesus wanted the best for the world; and had to have considered what he might be able to accomplish by becoming a great leader – change oppressive laws, direct resources for their best use, bring an end to war and violence, usher in an age of peace, justice, and tranquility. We are already being inundated by news of various presidential candidates who want to do their own version of these very things. ”Just give me the power,” they say. Political power may seem the fastest, most direct way to accomplish all of those lofty dreams. But Jesus rejects this suggestion as well.
Finally, religious authority surely is a source of good. Jesus could throw himself from the pinnacle of the Temple and not be harmed, and through that spectacle draw thousands who had doubted God or who had no faith. What would be wrong with that? The more people who believe in God the better, right? If it takes a little razzle-dazzle to bring that about, what’s the harm? Some church leaders today think that is exactly what the church needs to reverse declining attendance and participation – smoke machines, stage lights, charismatic leaders. Books are published about methods to produce church growth all the time. But Jesus says “no” to this suggestion too.
Only of course, none of these are mere suggestions. They are temptations, and the proposer of these temptations is none other than that fallen angel, Satan. Now, however you understand “Satan” – as a little red man with a pointed tail, horns, and a pitchfork, or as the personification of our own inner torments, our shadow self, if you will, — Satan has always been associated with things that are not so good for humankind. So maybe these fantastic suggestions are not as great as they seem to be on the surface, considering the agent who is proposing them!
Some say turning stones into bread represents the mistake of thinking that by meeting our physical needs we have satisfied all that is required to be human; that seeking power through political means affirms that the ends justify the means;; and that jumping from the top of the Temple represents measuring success by the standards of the world.
Others say turning stones into bread represents our desire for physical security, that ruling the world through political means represents our drive for power and control; and that jumping unharmed from the pinnacle of the Temple represents our need to be the center of attention, to be popular and praised. Security, ego, and power are often called the satanic trinity.
Still others suggest that turning stones into bread represents our need for relevance and effectiveness. We want to see the fruit of our labors and we want to meet people’s needs right now. They say that jumping from the pinnacle of the Temple represents our need to be right, to use religion for our own purposes, to preach ourselves rather than the gospel. And they agree that the last temptation is all about power because seeking and holding power is the surest path to corruption.
No matter how we interpret the temptations, all three are complicated because they all hold the possibility for good. Jesus isn’t asked to do anything shameful; he is not asked to commit any of those seven deadly sins. He’s not being asked to rob a bank, lie under oath, or murder a neighbor. He is not being tempted at a point of potential weakness at all, but at a point of potential greatness, at the point of what is reasonable, helpful, and good. He is not being tempted to fail or fall; he is being tempted to rise and succeed. He isn’t being tempted to do something he cannot do, but something he can do. He isn’t being tempted to misbehave; no it is much worse than that; he is being tempted to forget his identity, who he was named at his baptism, all in the pursuit of doing good things. It is as T. S. Eliot described it in Murder in the Cathedral, “the last temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
Additionally, being a bread baker is an excellent vocation; however, it was not what Jesus was called to do even though he often fed the hungry. Meeting physical needs was not his ultimate goal. Being a physician is another high calling, but although Jesus healed people, some would say miraculously, he did not become a doctor, because he saw healing as a part of something greater, part of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God in those who were broken and helpless. Being a political activist is a high calling as well; however, even though Jesus confronted powerful people in places of authority, he did not choose to become an activist like the Zealots. He used power to empower others, not to overpower them, to serve the ends of justice and affirm the dignity of all people.[i] These activities were only a part of his path. To have devoted his life to any one of them would have been less than what he was called to do. It would have been to do the wrong “good” for his life.
In the course of our lifetimes we can find ourselves in both of these situations – doing something good for the wrong reason or doing the wrong good. Because we are seeking security – we stay in the same job, which may be great for someone else, but to us has become a dead end and boring; because we want to be liked – we take on a project we’re only half-hearted about because we don’t want to offend the person who asked us to do it; or we look for opportunities for new responsibilities not because of all the need, but because of how much more influence, power, or control we’ll have. I will confess that at different times in my life, I have been tempted by all of those things! I would guess that at some point or another, you have too.
Real temptation, unfortunately, isn’t as simple as resisting chocolate cake in favor of carrot sticks. It’s not about cheating on a test or an income tax return. Real temptation is caving to our selfish, fearful instincts – for security, for approval, for control – under the guise of doing a good thing. Real temptation is settling for a lesser good, rather than in having the courage to step out in faith to accept the challenge of something different that is ahead. And so we have to ask again and again, “What would God have me do? How should I act so that I don’t forget who I am, so that I don’t betray my God-given identity?”
The gift of temptation offers us the opportunity to ask many questions if we dare – How attached am I to material things? How much money do I need? Am I using power to find dignity or status? How much do I need praise; how much do I need to fit in and go along? Do I overpower others or empower them? What is holding me prisoner? What keeps me from being who God has created me to be? Who am I anyway? What is the purpose of my life? Asking these questions, struggling to find the answers can help us to find our way out of the Dark Wood, find our center once again, let go of what holds us back, and assert our identity as children of God. And Jesus shows us how it is done.
Throughout Lent perhaps you have heard the world “wholeheartedness” spoken each Sunday. In the weekly confession, the Liturgist says, “God is with you, forgiving and restoring you to wholeheartedness.” I don’t know how you would define “wholeheartedness,” but for me it means a unity of being and doing. No fragmentation, no hiding anything, no pretending, no being a different person in one place than in another. Fred Craddock suggests that we should be able to say in 25 words or less, “this is who I am and this is what I do.”[ii] When we can do that, we will have experienced the gift of temptation.
[i] William Sloan Coffin, “Going to the Mat with the Devil,” The Collected Sermons of William Sloan Coffin, Vol. 2, 506,
[ii] Fred Craddock, “Testing that Never Ceases,” Christian Century, February 28, 1990, 211.