Monday, March 10, 2014

Temptation, is it really what we think?

In today's gospel, Jesus has just been baptized and instilled with the Holy Spirit of God.  And our scripture tells us that he is led by that same Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil.  Its called a desert because it is deserted - it is a place where very little grows and very few live.  It is a place where you are alone - with little to eat or to shelter you from the scorching heat. 
And Jesus fasted for 40 days - living off what little the land could provide - no contact with other people - utterly alone.  And at the end of those 40 days comes the temptation.  Jesus is hungry; he's lonely; he's in a physically and emotionally weakened condition.  This is one of the circumstances in life when we are most susceptible to temptation – when we are weak, when we have been beaten down by life.   When we are strong and among our true friends, we can fight off temptation.  It doesn't control us. 
So Jesus is in a weakened condition - both physically and spiritually and the devil comes... -  this is a stumbling block for many people - the devil - some translations say Satan - other meanings used for the Greek word diabolos are false accuser, and slanderer.   Our lesson also calls him tempter - which can be translated enticer or tester. 
I once had a parishioner ask me if Satan was real.  Our catechism in the back of the prayer book never mentions Satan - it talks about human nature, rebelling against God, and sin, which it defines as seeking our own will over the will of God.  So I followed the catechismal party line and rather than talking about the person of Satan, I talked about the reality of evil in the world - and the need for people to personify that reality. 
But even at that, some people don't want to admit the reality of evil in the world today.  That's why you hear people say things like, he's just misguided, or she showed poor judgment, or they made a mistake, or they're just going through a dark period.  Any euphemism to keep us from having to confront the concept of evil.
But there is evil in the world - people want to believe that it doesn't exist, but if evil doesn't exist, how do you explain things like the two young men who recently ceremonially raped and killed a young girl in order to sell their souls to the Satan.  This is evil.  Or another topic that has been much in the news lately is the “slave trade“ in the Houston area – young ladies being sold especially for sexual uses. 
Several years ago there was a show called Joan of Arcadia about a teenage girl who talked to God.  It was a great show because it dared to talk about realities of life and ways of facing those realities.  One episode had a discussion between two characters concerning evil.  Joan's mother was taking catechism from a former Roman Catholic nun turned surfer.  The word evil comes up in their conversation.  Joan's mother said, "Evil's so ugly and foreign..."  The nun replied, "Evil is charming and beautiful - it asks for one small compromise after another until it whittles you down.  It makes you doubt yourself, and it functions best when no one believes in it."
You know, Satan is called the deceiver - and not without reason.  He lures us into a false sense of security weaving a tale of deception.  The three temptations of Jesus are an example of that kind of deception.
In the first temptation, the devil comes to Jesus with a temptation that doesn't seem so outlandish. "You are hungry.  You are the Son of God.  (the word translated "if" can also be translated "since" - Satan is not questioning Jesus' sonship, he is affirming it with a suggestion that Jesus prove it.)  You don't have to be hungry.  You can do something about it.  Turn these stones into bread and satisfy your hunger."
This is more than a temptation to satisfy the desires of the flesh.  It is a temptation to deny our need for God.  Nothing wrong with a little bread, but consider this difference - God gave the children of Israel manna from heaven - a free gift - they didn't have to do anything - it fell from the sky and they just picked it up.  But Satan is asking Jesus to take matters in his own hands - not wait for God's gift, but to make the bread himself - to be self-sufficient - not to rely on God's promise.  It's subtle - it looks like taking care of a necessity, when the issue is actually much deeper - putting himself in the place of God, denying even the need of God.
Next we find that Satan has taken Jesus up on the temple - and once again tempts him - "You are the Son of God.  You can do whatever you want.  Scripture says that God will send his angels to take care of you.  Go ahead - throw yourself off the temple - you won't get hurt." Jesus has already shown in the first temptation that he will rely on God, that Jesus will trust God to take care of him.  Since Jesus understands that, Satan is trying to encourage Jesus to 'call the shots' on how - and when - God is going to take care of him - it's actually an attempt to make Jesus seize control by forcing God's hand.
And finally Satan takes Jesus up on a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world.  And he tells Jesus, "Fall down and worship me and all this will be yours."  Well, okay - we know Jesus is a king - king of the Jews, light of the world, prince of peace - what's wrong with taking up his throne now, and then he can dictate what he's trying to teach to the people.  They'd have to obey him and surely he could have spread his message much faster. 
That would have been an attractive compromise that looks good on the surface - but what a difference it is from what God offers.  What Satan was offering was for Jesus to be king over an imperfect earthly world.  What God offered was for Jesus to be king over the redeemed kingdom of heaven.  A kingdom he himself would redeem. 

God has planned for us something greater than we could ever imagine for ourselves.  But like Jesus, we have to be willing to wait on God's plan, in God's time.  But the evil that permeates this world would convince us that what we can gain through our own efforts in this place, at this time, is the goal we should aim for.  That we should settle for something less than God's plan for our lives.  The darkness that people talk about is what Satan uses to obscure God's plan by injecting his own end objectives - that of drawing us away from the love of God - away from the help of God's saving grace.  Jesus is the light of the world - and he does shine out in the darkness - and in his light, Satan - evil – sin - call it what you will - cannot hide.  After all we can't see heaven, we can't prove its existence.  It's a matter of faith.
So I suggest that, yes, we are tested - after all, there is a reason we pray, "Lead us not into temptation - but deliver us from evil."  We are led into temptation every day.  Temptation comes in all sizes and shapes.  Temptation
          to keep the extra change the clerk gives us
          to fudge on our taxes
          to tell a small untruth that might help us get ahead at work
          to listen or pass on gossip about a neighbor or co-worker
          to cut off that driver who’s trying to get ahead of the line
          to glance at your neighbor's paper when you don't know the
              answer to that test question.

And even though we are led into temptation - please remember that temptation itself is not sin.  Sin (or evil) comes when we succumb to that temptation - when we choose to act less than Godly in any given situation.   
Let us pray:  Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan:  come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ our Lord who overcame temptation, and died and rose again that we might have life eternal.  Amen.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Daily Word: Rejoicing in the face of struggle

Daily Word: Rejoicing in the face of struggle: From today's reading:  Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and ...

Rejoicing in the face of struggle

From today's reading:  Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.  Habakkuk 3:17-18

Once a month there is a Friday night celebration service at Fr. Jim's house in Huntsville.  The person in charge of the music would often pick a song called "I will rejoice in the Lord always" based on these verses from Habakkuk and it always drove Fr. Jim crazy.  I think he questioned the reason for such rejoicing when everything was obviously going wrong.  But the truth is, that even when things go wrong, and maybe especially when they go wrong, that is the time when we often draw closer to God. 

There are so many things that happen to us that we have no control over, and those are the times that we feel helpless.  When we are helpless to do anything ourselves, it helps to know that there is a God who is in control - even when things don't go the way we want them to go.  My sister-in-law Jane died three weeks ago.  That was a hard loss for the whole family.  When we first learned that she was dying, she told me, "I don't like God's plan.". She had so much she wanted to do and to accomplish before leaving this earth and no time to do it.  And yet, God was so present at her bedside.  I saw an acceptance come over her and a smile on her face as she listen to her favorite scriptures being read.  I was not there as she died, but I understand from those who were that she began to get glimpses of heaven and those who were waiting for her to cross over.

Those of us who are left behind take comfort that she is in the arms of a loving God who has taken away the cancer and the pain and raised her to new life.  I will rejoice in the Lord always.  And we live in the promise that we will be with her when our time has come.  I will exult in God my Savior.