lenten journal: temptations


My sermon this week grew out of my conversation with Matthew 4:1-11, which is the account of Jesus’ temptations while he was in the desert for forty days. The story is about more than giving up for Lent.


The temptations. What comes to mind when you hear those words?

I hear music: “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” or “My Girl.”

Perhaps you think about the things you try to do without, or things that seem to have your number.

Many years ago, I was in the supermarket and picked up a commemorative Oreo tin–with cookies inside–because I love tins. As I was checking out, I commented to the woman at the register that I liked the tin because now I had somewhere to keep an open pack of Oreos. She smiled and said, “Like you’ve ever had a problem with an open pack of Oreos.”

I felt seen.

We think of being tempted by bad things or immoral things or addictive things–and those are legitimate concerns, but that is not what our passage today is about.

Early in Epiphany we looked at the story of Jesus’ baptism where he went out to where John was baptizing people to mark the beginning of a new chapter in his life. Though we have talked about other things in Jesus’ life, today’s passage took place right after the baptism. Jesus heard the voice say, “This is my beloved child in whom I delight,” and then he went further into the wilderness to figure out what it meant to be that beloved child.

How do we live a life that reflects and honors our belovedness?

People already had expectations it seems. John questioned who should be baptizing whom. The word was already spreading. So Jesus went off by himself–except he was not by himself. Well, we don’t have a complete account of what happened in the desert because he was out there for forty days and what we are told took about a minute and a half to read. We can infer that the conversation took place at the end of the time when Jesus was hungry and vulnerable, but if we turn to Luke’s account even that is not clear.

Whatever happened on the other thirty nine days, Jesus faced three decisions, none of which were immoral or evil in and of themselves: make bread out of stones; put on a show of God’s power; put yourself in a position where you are safe and have control. Each time, Jesus refused the opportunity or the demand, yet in his ministry he did miracles that fed people and he healed and did other things that showed God’s power; and he even rode into Jerusalem on a donkey with people cheering as if he were some kind of royalty.

The difference was the motivation behind his miracles was not the same as what the tempter encouraged. It was not so much the actions as the motivations behind the actions. Theologian Maggi Dawn writes,

If temptation were all about blatant wrongdoing, it would be far easier to avoid. Most people do not want to commit crimes or indulge in dissolute and destructive behavior. But what about seeing a way to achieve something good by a shortcut that just marginally blurs true integrity or allowing a gift to seem altruistic when it masks personal pride? True temptation lies in our capacity to justify the means by the end and nudge ourselves into tiny, incremental compromises.

Jesus knew life could not be reduced to avoiding a list of unacceptable behaviors or strictly adhering to a set of laws or rules. The gospels are rife with stories of Jesus breaking the law for the sake of relationship. At the same time he said things like, “You have heard ‘do not kill’ but I tell you if you live with uncontrollable anger towards someone else you are doing damage.”

“Love God with all of your being,” he said, “and love your neighbor as yourself.”

It seems the unspoken admonition in those familiar words is “love yourself like you are God’s beloved child.” To trust we are really, really loved gives us freedom to “Love God and do what you like,” as Augustine said. Singer-songwriter Guy Clark hit on that inner sense that we are God’s beloved (at least when I hear it) when he sang,

you’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money
love like you’ll never get hurt
you’ve got to dance like nobody’s watching
it’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work

The tempter lost his grip on Jesus because Jesus wasn’t willing to reduce his relationship with God to a list of dos and don’ts. Jesus was beholden to anything but love. To be God’s beloved child meant choosing to do whatever needed to be done to help others know they, too, were beloved.

I learned from Ginger this week of the Platinum Rule. She is taking a class to become a death doula and it came up in her reading. You know the Golden Rule–do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Platinum Rule is “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” Learn their love language, learn how they best receive love and package it that way, and they have a better chance of being able to trust the love we are offering.

If you were not able to be at our community Ash Wednesday service at Hamden Plains UMC, you missed a good time, which may sound like an odd thing to say about an Ash Wednesday service when most think of it as the “dust to dust” liturgy, but it was sacred and fun. We did get ashes and the reminder of our mortality, but it wasn’t bad news. It came along with us singing “People Get Ready” and “I’ll Fly Away.” It was both solemn and joyful, as this whole season of Lent should be.

We may be tempted to make it about the rules, about what we are doing without, but let’s not fall prey to that temptation. It’s like Sister Mary Clarence taught the choir of nuns in Sister Act to sing along with the Temptations*—with a slight change:

I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day
when it’s cold outside,
I’ve got the month of May
I guess you’ll say
what can make me feel this way
(and the nuns sang)
my God . . .

We are loved, we are loved, we are really, really loved. Don’t be tempted to forget that. Amen.
(*It was only when I went to find video that I remembered the nuns sang, “Nothing you can say can tear me away from my God,” not a version of “My Girl.” It would have worked though, don’t you think?)


The next edition of my weekly newsletter, mixed metaphors, goes out on Tuesday. The subscription is free, and I am ten folks away from reaching 350 subscribers. Click here and I’ll send it to you.

Leave a Reply