Struggling with temptation

February 3, 2008

Lent’s 40 days of preparation for baptism and discipleship are
modeled on Jesus’ postbaptismal test in the wilderness. Reading about
Jesus’ struggle with the devil opens up some potential directions for
the preacher’s journey to Sunday:

Each of the three temptations invites Jesus to bypass suffering. In
each he is offered triumph and glory. The desire to win approval, to be
the best church, to succeed in some measurable, noticeable way always
besets the church.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor
Dostoyevsky describes a church that has chosen to accept the tempting
path of “miracle, mystery and authority.” (“The Grand Inquisitor”
chapter is worth rereading this week.) Might the sermon invite the
congregation to wrestle with the ways that it is tempted to accept the
devil’s bargain? How is it tempted to bypass suffering—suffering within
and without the congregation?

• The narrative begins by
noting that the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted,
then concludes with the devil leaving him and angels coming to wait
upon Jesus. But during the time of testing Jesus is apparently on his
own with the devil. This is how temptation works. It isolates. It shows
up when we are craving solace. It seeks us out when we are vulnerable.
Jesus has the strength to withstand temptation even when he is alone.
The ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday remind us that we are
mortal. We do not have his capacity to always say no to temptation when
we—individuals or congregations—are isolated, in need and weak.

12-Step programs like AA, one of the keys to recovery from habitually
saying yes to temptation is partnership with a sponsor who is available
24/7 when temptation threatens to overwhelm. What might our
congregations look like if they were communities of mutual support in
the face of temptations? Who in our congregation would we phone when we
found ourselves tempted again to shop ‘til we drop? Who could we call
on to help us avoid the temptation to walk away from a neighbor in
pain? Why is this practice the norm in a 12-Step group but so unusual
in the church of Jesus Christ?

• At least two other texts come
to mind when reading of Jesus’ temptations: Matthew 6:13 (“lead us not
into temptation”) and 1 Corinthians 10:13 (“with the testing he will
also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it”).
Temptation is a basic category of life for those who follow Jesus. We
pray to avoid temptation yet it cannot finally be avoided.

Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ portrays
a Jesus who is subject to every human temptation including fear, doubt,
depression, reluctance and lust. Not even Jesus, although fully human
as the Nicene Creed reminds us, avoids temptation. Perhaps in the
sermon the preacher can offer the “free gift” (Rom. 5:12-19) of naming
and normalizing our hard struggles with temptation and of announcing
the gift of amazing grace in Jesus Christ that leads us on the path of
recovery which is the way of salvation. That grace is embodied in a
people whose baptism joins them to a community of those who seek to
repent—to change their habits of saying yes to the tempter.

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