The first temptation in writing a sermon about temptation is the temptation to put off writing the sermon…. I’m suddenly tempted to vacuum the living room or rake all the leaves.
Here’s the overall map of what I would like to cover today.
Temptations of Jesus in the wilderness
Jesus has just been baptized, and the voice of God has called him the beloved son with whom God is well pleased. Jesus is feeling called to a new ministry. He goes out into the wilderness, away from distractions, to figure out how to lay the foundation for his ministry, to ask himself, How am I going to be in this new role?
One of the temptations that crops up is whether to focus on his personal comfort and security: turn these stones into bread. Never go hungry or thirsty, never worry about where your next anything is coming from. And Jesus says, No, I can’t have an effective ministry if I’m focused more on my own comfort and safety than on the ability to serve God’s people.
Another temptation is to throw himself off the top of the Temple and let God’s angels catch him. It’s a temptation to be God or to value himself so much that he dares God to prove he’s indispensable. This is about ego. Don’t do it. This is also about serving gods that lead to self-destruction. Sounds like the cult followers of Jim Jones, who ultimately had to drink the Kool-aid to show their devotion, not to God, but to Jim Jones. Or it sounds like worshiping other false gods, such as addictions: they sound full of promise at first, but ultimately they lead to death. That next high, that next cigarette, that next drink—so tempting, but it leads to a false sense of reality, a false well-being, and a life based on lies. And I will say that in our society right now, there are a lot of people who are following a political cult based on lies and loyalty to what amounts to a false god. And that’s really dangerous. So Jesus says No, he’s not going to be a false god so full of himself that he dares the real God to rescue him.
Which leads directly to the third temptation: to have political power over people. But Jesus would have to sell his soul in order to have it. We need our political leaders. And we need them to not be selling their souls in order to get in power. We need them to be following a god that is above politics, that guides them to serve the greater good.
So these three types of temptations cover the gamut from personal comfort and security to systemic power and corruption.
Notice that, in Jesus’ ministry, he will do some of these very things in the service of the greater good. Where he won’t create bread to feed himself, he will somehow manage to feed loaves and fishes to thousands of hungry followers. But the message there is not about personal comfort; it’s about the Good News of a God who feeds us in body and soul. “Give us this day our daily bread.” We explored this in more depth two weeks ago.
Jesus won’t try to save himself from death, but he will save Lazarus. He won’t claim power over people, but he will preach and teach and heal them and serve them and connect them to the power that is at the source of all creation. Always, his focus is not on himself but on serving God and neighbor, or the greater good.
Violence vs. nonviolence in response to oppression
According to John Dominic Crossan, in his book The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord’s Prayer, after King Herod died in the spring of that year, Jews throughout the area rose up in revolt. According to Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities, a fellow named Judas
got together a large number of desperate men at Sepphoris in Galilee and there made an assault on the royal palace, and having seized all the arms that were stored there, he armed every single one of his men and made off with all the property that had been seized there [Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 17.271, quoted in Crossan, 163.]
In response, the Romans sent legions of soldiers into the area; they came through and wiped out Sepphoris, just 5 miles from Nazareth, around 4 BCE. The Romans may also have torched Nazareth, killing and raping their way toward Jerusalem, where they crucified 2,000 people on the charge of revolt. Everyone who survived would remember that time—it was a formative experience. Jesus would surely have grown up hearing about this. Like 9/11, or now the pandemic: there’s before 9/11, then 9/11, then how things changed after 9/11.
Some people responded to the Romans with violence, staging insurrections. They were wiped out. Some people fought back with nonviolent means. They were likely wiped out, too. So it was less about the outcome and more about what kind of person you choose to be in the face of that violence. Do you become like them? People who kill and rape and destroy? Or find another way? And because Jesus had seen and experienced this oppression his whole life, and the people around him were traumatized and formed by what had happened, this was a question that they all had to wrestle with.
Is our God a violent God? There are plenty of examples of God smiting people when God gets angry. And as much as we think of Jesus as being nonviolent in the Gospels, the Jesus that appears in the Book of Revelation is kicking butt. That is more the kind of Christ figure that the Jews had expected: a mighty warrior who metes out justice and vengeance.
The Bible is a collection of 66 books written over a period of more than 1,000 years. God is understood and portrayed in all kinds of ways in these books. There is the violent God that zaps Sodom and Gomorrah out of existence because the people there are so inhospitable. There is also the God that loves us, forgives us, will never leave us.
Which God—and which Jesus—do we follow?
Crossan argues that the Lord’s Prayer, or the Prayer of Jesus, points us in the direction of nonviolence. “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” could be seen as saying, “Do not tempt us to respond with the same violence of our enemies, but deliver us from their evil oppression and violence.” So when Jesus wrestles with temptation in the wilderness, he’s wrestling with this legacy of violence, power, oppression, greed, and how to respond faithfully.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, we know Jesus was doing some mighty wrestling in prayer. He asks God to spare him from what he sees coming. But even in that prayer, he says, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matthew 26:39). As we saw with Jesus and Satan in the wilderness, it’s never about Jesus’ own personal power or will, but about God’s power and will.
Jesus’ disciples show us a different response. He asks them to stay awake and wait with him, but they succumb to the temptation to sleep. Then one of them succumbs to the temptation to respond with violence to those who come with swords and clubs to arrest Jesus: the disciple pulls out a sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave. And Jesus says, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). In other words, to go back to the temptations in the desert, do not be tempted to violence, even to save God as incarnate in Jesus.
John Dominic Crossan writes,
What, then, is the difference in precise content between worshiping God and worshiping Satan? To obtain and possess the kingdoms of the world, with their power and glory, by violent injustice is to worship Satan. To obtain and possess the kingdom, the power, and the glory by nonviolent justice is to worship God. . . . Jesus’s climactic test/trial/temptation—and our permanent test/trial/temptation—is to establish the kingdom of God by violence. That would equate the eschatological and the imperial kingdoms. That would conflate divine and demonic power. [173.]
Succumbing to temptation is a very human response. In the story of Jesus’ arrest and trial and crucifixion, we see two ways to respond. First there is Jesus’ response, which is to stay true to his nonviolent path even to death on the cross. There is also the response of the disciples, which is to pull out a sword and respond with violence, then to flee, then—for Peter—to deny multiple times that he even knows Jesus. These are all very human, very understandable responses to a terrifying situation. We may identify with the disciples. But we are called to follow the nonviolent, God-centered model of Jesus, who gave himself to the greater good in God’s name even to the very end. That is resisting temptation and shunning evil.
How temptation shows up in our lives
Throughout our lives, we face choices. What school can I go to—or is that even an option? What career path do I follow? What life partner do I choose? Where do I live? How do I live—what is my moral foundation for how I am as a person in this world? At each of these forks in the road, we may be weighing whether a certain path will bring us wealth, status, power, security, comfort, and happiness. We may also be questioning whether our decisions will serve the greater good. Of course we want a nice house and the resources to pay for it, as opposed to struggling to pay rent for a falling-down hovel or, worse, sleeping on the streets. Of course we want regular meals, decent clothes, a retirement plan, etc. Of course we want a certain amount of power and control over our lives, and we make life choices accordingly.
Prospect UCC is at a crossroads now. Do we choose a safe, comfortable path that takes care of each of us here? Or do we figure out what would serve the greater good for the community, the city, and the world?
God calls us to consider, at every step—every time we pray this prayer—whether the choices we are making serve only ourselves, or whether they serve God and the greater good. This prayer helps us to check our priorities. Are we living fully into the self and the church that God calls us to be? Or are we tempted—by fear, by comfort, greed, addiction, money, power—are we tempted to try to be God?
The temptation is to focus only on our own personal benefit. We see this play out in elections: people vote for their own interests. Let’s cut my taxes, and I don’t care if that means poor people’s programs lose funding. We want to know that we will be okay, that our lives will go smoothly on an easy path. That is not, in fact, something we can control completely. The wealthiest people should, in theory, be the happiest, right? But they’re not. They can be betrayed, cheated; their relationships can fall apart; they can get that cancer diagnosis, just like the rest of us. An easy life is never what God promises to us. What God does promise is that God will always be with us, no matter what happens, and that the more we trust in God, the more we will become fearless about serving the greater good, working to bring about the Beloved Community, and becoming the best selves that we can be. That’s a life that means something and that is worth living.
Summing up the series
Rick’s sermon on the first few lines of the prayer—salient points.
Our Father/Mother, Holy Presence beyond naming.
Please issue in your Realm of love and peace.
May we see your desire and plan for us and shape our willful lives to yours, in this place we call earth which is really heaven if we can only open our eyes and our minds and our hearts to how you are present with us, always.
Our daily bread
God feeds everyone, body and soul. Even when oppressive regimes are trying to control the people or strip the resources that allow them to live, we are reminded that the world belongs not to those rulers but to God, and our God is a God of abundance, a God of loaves and fishes for everyone, a God whose presence we celebrate in the breaking of the bread. We share what we have freely.
Forgive us our debts—Katrina
The Old Testament has the concept of Jubilee, where all financial debts will be forgiven, slate wiped clean. Katrina Fitzpatrick talked about forgiveness of financial debts as well as interpersonal trespasses—ways in which we hurt each other.
Temptation and evil: God calling us to live not for our own selves but for God and for neighbor—for the greater good.
Because the kingdom and the power and the glory are not ours but God’s. That’s the whole point of the temptations in the wilderness—creation belongs not to Jesus, not to us, but to God. And when we pray this prayer each week, we can be reminded that we are God’s beloved children, that God provides for us body and soul, that God forgives us as we also forgive others, and that we are a part of God’s entire creation and are called to work for the benefit of all.
This is a revolutionary prayer. John Dominic Crossan writes,
It is both a revolutionary manifesto and a hymn of hope not just for Christianity, but for all the world. Better, it is addressed from Christianity to all the world. Better still, it is from the heart of Judaism through the mouth of Christianity to the conscience of the earth. [John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord’s Prayer (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 182.]
Let us be mindful from now on, as we pray this prayer, of how it calls us to relate to God and to each other.
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kin-dom come.
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kin-dom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.