Sermon: Dangerously Tempting

When Jesus was tempted by the devil, he could’ve easily given into the temptation. After fasting for 40 days, Jesus was famished. The devil offered him everything, from food to power to glory, and even used words from the Bible to reinforce his point. In the end, Jesus did not give into the temptation.

We are tempted by “the devil” many times in our life. Our belief in the literal interpretation of “the devil” does not matter. We are all faced with key decisions in which we can ignore God’s call for us and focus on the tempting forces of selfishness, greed and power. Are we going to give into the temptation? Or are we going to walk the path of Jesus and make decisions based on what is good for all God’s people?

Sermon: “Dangerously Tempting” by The Rev. Elaine Puckett

“Dangerously Tempting”
Sermon by The Rev. Elaine Puckett
Luke 4:1-13
March 1, 2020 • First Sunday of Lent

Lenten Devotional: Thursday, March 22

by Alys Willman

Matthew 4: 1-3: Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Last week, as we drove back from our spring break camping trip, I was struggling to think of a good idea for a Lenten reflection.  So I asked Oscar (7) who sat next to me. What he said was better than what I had, so this is basically a transcript.

ME:  Oscar, I’m thinking about that story where Jesus goes into the desert for 40 days to pray. What do you think it was like for him there?

OSCAR: Oh man! A LOT of sand. Zero trees. Zero water. It’s very rare to have a river in the desert. Actually it’s impossible. It would be crazy hard. You’d almost die.

ME: And do you remember the part of the story where the devil shows up and tells Jesus if he’ll just come and be on his side, he can have everything – food, magic powers, you name it. He tells him he could be king of the whole world.

OSCAR: I think Jesus would be a good king, actually. He’d probably say you can go to bed whenever you want, and eat whatever food you want. He’d let everyone join in all the games and not even punish people when they mess up but just let them think about what they did.  Hey wait, is Dad getting another speeding ticket?

ME (watching flashing lights pass us): Eh, nope! Looks like they’re going after someone else. Back to the story – why do you think Jesus said no to all that he was offered, and instead decided to do what God asked?

OSCAR: Yeah, that’s weird. I mean, did he know he was actually going to get killed?

ME: I don’t know.

OSCAR: Well, even if he did, maybe he just missed Joseph and thought if he died he could see him again in heaven.

ME: Can you think of a time when your Dad or I asked you to do something, and you really, really didn’t want to do it?

OSCAR:  Yeah. Today on the beach I was playing football and we were winning and you said it was time to go.

ME: Imagine if some dude had shown up right then and been like, “Hey Oscar, come be on my team and you can play football for the rest of your life!”

OSCAR: That would be so cool! I would definitely go with that dude.

ME: Seriously? You don’t even know this dude.

OSCAR (thinking hard): Well, yeah. And you know what? This dude might be tricking me. I mean, after a while he would probably have gotten all bossy with me and made me do everything he wanted. And you and Dad and Nico would have left and I’d be stuck with him.

ME: Maybe it was like that for Jesus in a way.

OSCAR: You want what I think? I think Jesus did the right thing. Because what if the devil was lying? What if he made him king, but then instead of a real crown he put that crown of thorns on, and then he ended up dying anyway? And God was always the one who was nice to him and took care of him.  It’s probably better to go with someone who is honest with you and that you know instead of someone who’s just tricking you. Can I have a sandwich?

 Prayer:  God, you know us better than anyone else, and you know the ways we are tempted.  Help us to seek out and pay attention to your voice and your guidance so that we will know it when we hear it.  In Jesus’ name we pray.

Sermon: The Gift of Temptation

The Gift of Temptation
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Luke 4:1-13
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.

Sermon: Searching the Scripture

March 9, 2014
by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Matthew 4:1-11

This is the first Sunday in Lent, a time during the Church Year that offers the opportunity for us to take some time out of our busy lives to evaluate where we are in our walk of faith. Are we living out the vows of our baptism? Or, have we strayed away and do we need to repent of our self-centeredness and ask for forgiveness and renewal. On Ash Wednesday we met here to reflect on Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount when he encouraged his disciples in certain disciplines or habits of faith — praying, giving alms, and fasting. These are good things to do, he said, but by no means should they be done as the Pharisees were doing them, because unfortunately their primary motivation had become self-centered rather than God centered, and they enjoyed the attention and approval of the crowds before whom they performed their religious obligations. Their reward had thus become the approval of the crowd rather than a holy and living relationship with God. Doing the right things for the wrong reasons doesn’t fool God, not for a minute!

Today and in the weeks to follow we will be reflecting on God’s call to a life of devotion, a life that is a continual expression of our love for God and one another. That is, how to do the right things for the right reasons. it isn’t something frankly that comes easily or naturally. It requires help and encouragement, discipline and focus.
It’s funny how we know this fact about other things. We know that if we want to learn about a subject in school, we have to read the texts, attend the lectures, do our research, and think a lot about the topic, even when we’d rather be sleeping, or going to the movies, or hanging out with friends. We know there’s work to be done. And we can’t just put the text beside our bed or under our pillow at night and hope somehow the knowledge will be transferred. Same thing with our health. We can’t just wish for stronger, healthier bodies. It won’t happen by watching other people as they choose the right foods or exercise daily and become healthy. We have to do it ourselves without excuses, like “I don’t have the time,” or I don’t have any will power,” or, “I don’t like green vegetables.”

Faith somehow we like to think, is different! We like to believe that good intentions count. That God counts it as prayer when we mean to pray, but just don’t have the time. Or God counts it as searching the scriptures when we place a really nice bible in plain sight in our homes and dust it regularly. Or God understands it as generosity when we have a kind thought or a moment of pity as we shop at the mall and see someone less fortunate than ourselves. But faith doesn’t grow, mature, and get stronger, by wishing it so. It’s something that we have to work on too. And not just when we have the time or when we feel like it. I love what Eugene Peterson says about this, “If Christians only worshipped when they felt like it, there would be precious little worship that went on.”

John Wesley knew this to be true. That’s why he and his friends formed what they called the “holy club,” in order to hold one another accountable in the development of their faith. They read scripture together, prayed together; they fasted, participated in Holy Communion regularly, and encouraged one another to attend worship services every week. They knew the truth that “we can act ourselves into a new way of feeling much quicker than we can feel ourselves into a new way of acting.” These activities were all acts which helped them to develop feelings for God; not feelings for God that then were expressed in specific actions. That was why Wesley was able to take courage later in life when he was told, “Preach faith until you have it, and then because you have it, you can preach faith.” He knew that in the performance of these actions, his relationship with God would be nurtured.

During Lent we are called strengthen our ability and desire to live a devotional life, and continually express our love for God and others in everything that we do. We have the opportunity to live every moment as a God-moment, if we are awake and aware to the possibility of encounter and involvement with God. But we can’t have this continuous devotional life if we do not set aside devotional time, if we do not find specific opportunities to nourish our souls. For John Wesley, the foundational devotional exercise was what he called “searching of scripture.” He wrote to a pastor, who was struggling with burn out, encouraging him to find time every day, no matter how busy he was, for this exercise. He was honest about it. He said at first it will be tedious, but later it will become pleasant. And then he warned, “Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days.”

Searching scripture, as Wesley described it, is not like scholarly Bible study, as valuable and essential as such study is providing us with needed information about historical backgrounds, uses of languages, cultural habits, archeological discoveries, varieties of manuscripts, and multitudes of interpretation, which thereby increase the depth and breadth of our intellectual knowledge of biblical material. I’m all for that. I love to do that.

Although Wesley was an extremely well read and well educated person who believed in learning all he could about the Bible from all available sources, he was calling for a different kind of activity when he referred to searching the scriptures. Instead of an activity exclusively of the head, he was calling for an activity of the heart and spirit. He was calling for reading scripture as an act of worship. And in this activity, all those valuable intellectual skills of criticism and analysis are put aside for an attitude of expectancy and wonder. And the goal is not to discern a fact, but to encounter a truth, and to mull it over and meditate on it slowly and hopefully in peace.

But often this isn’t an entirely smooth process, as sometimes when we are meditating over scripture, trouble can enter in. Martin Luther wrote that in the midst of contemplation, while we are experiencing the truth, sweetness, and comfort of God’s word, “the devil will likewise appear, seeking to afflict us and dissuade us from responding to the revelation.” Luther believed that these trials were a part of the “formative process, enabling us to embrace the word of God because we experienced it to be stronger than the deceptive words of the evil one.” If we face the struggle honestly, we will come out stronger for it.

This possibility of challenge leads us to today’s gospel lesson, the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, which since about the year 500 has been told on the first Sunday of Lent. Jesus has been led into the desert after his baptism and there he has fasted for forty days and nights, considering and attempting to discern what his baptism means for his life and what God has called him to do. Toward the end of his solitary time, he is tempted three times by the devil, who even quotes scripture to him once, and Jesus responds every time with a verse from scripture. (By the way, I am not holding this story up to you with the idea that if you memorize enough bible verses, you too can avoid temptation.)

But look at what’s happening here. Jesus has been alone for forty days mulling over his future, no doubt recalling, remembering, meditating on what he knows and has learned about God through scripture. Matthew wants us to know that Jesus was thoroughly familiar with scripture; Jesus quotes from the Torah often throughout Matthew’s gospel. But Matthew also wants us to know that Jesus is human – we tend to forget that – and probably in that harsh environment it would not be improbable that he began to have doubts about both his motive and method. Matthew depicts this dramatically, as we see Jesus at his weakest point, tired, hungry, thirsty, lonely, and vulnerable, called to do the right things – feed people, call people back to God, show the way to the kingdom of God – surely God had spoken to him through the words of the prophets during this time. Maybe he remembered God saying through the prophet Isaiah
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights: I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations . . . a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.”

But now here at the last, he’s tempted to do these good things for the wrong reasons – for the sake of his own comfort, ego, an, desire for power. And he answers these temptations by quoting each time from Deuteronomy, to the temptation to turn stones to bread, he answers “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” To the temptation to jump from the pinnacle of the temple to prove he is God’s son – what an ego trip that would be – he answers, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” And finally, to the temptation to forget about all the justice and mercy stuff, and just go for the power of the world, he responses “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” At that point Jesus knows God well enough, even if he doesn’t know himself well enough yet, to realize that these temptations to act in certain ways are not of God.

Now, we know from reading the rest of Matthew’s gospel that Jesus did feed people, he performed wonders and healings among the people, and his ministry had and still has enormous political impact. He fed those who were hungry but meeting physical needs was not his ultimate goal for he also taught, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink” (Matt. 6:25). He healed people, not to call attention to himself and attract followers (in fact he often told people not to tell anyone what had happened), but because he saw healing as a part of God’s kingdom breaking in to those who were broken and helpless. And he used power, not to seek status for himself or to overpower others, but empower others, serve the ends of justice and affirm the dignity of all people.

Not coincidentally, I think, the temptations Jesus resisted were the ones the Pharisees succumbed to. The temptation of comfort, having nice clothes and plenty to eat, – the temptation of egotism, showing off, being popular and looked up to – and, of course, the temptation of power, becoming a force to be reckoned with, respected, obeyed, and feared. Both Jesus and the Pharisees sought to do good things, but for very different reasons and with diametrically opposed motivations. Jesus remembered what he’d learned from scripture; he’d taken it in and absorbed it. It had become a part of him, not just so that he could quote it back, but so that he could live continually within it, and use it as the lens through which he saw and evaluated everything. The Pharisees could quote scripture too, but they lived superficially on top of it, obeying all the laws, checking up on others to see if they were observant too, thanking God that they were better than most people. And sadly they missed the point entirely.

We don’t want to miss the point. But there’s only room for one at the center of our lives — us or God. Spiritual disciplines, holy habits, like searching the scripture, help us to pry open the door to our hearts to make room for God, so that with practice, we can be formed, shaped and nurtured, and can say with Paul, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. But we have to practice. We have to do the work. Wishing won’t make it so. Amen.