Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Temptation

2nd temptation of Christ
The Second Temptation of Christ by William Blake

This sermon was preached Sun., Aug. 12, but because we headed out for a family vacation directly after church, I wasn’t able to post it until now.

Texts used – Psalm 103; Luke 4:1-13

  • Well, friends, since it’s been a few weeks since we’ve been together and tackled this journey through the Dark Wood, let’s remember where we’ve been and what we’ve been up to throughout the summer.
    • Dark Wood = place/time of challenge in our lives
      • Often places that we don’t want to go initially
      • BUT often places that give us powerful revelations about who God is and who God is calling us to be in this world
      • Often places that reveal some powerful gifts in the midst of the darkness and ambiguity → talked about …
        • Gift of uncertainty = teaches us to trust
        • Gift of emptiness = reminds us to make room for the moving of the Holy Spirit
        • Gift of being thunderstruck = reverberations of God’s guidance and inspiration in our lives
        • Gift of getting lost = gift of being found by a God who loves and cares for us
  • Today, we’re jumping right back into our journey through the Dark Woods and exploring the various gifts that we find there by tackling a difficult one: the gift of temptation.
    • Important clarification: not the typical kind of temptation – temptation to do things we know we’re not supposed to do → We’re not talking about the temptation to do all those things we know we’re not supposed to do – sloth, gluttony, hate, lust, and all those other sins, deadly or otherwise. What we’re talking about today is actually much more difficult, much more subtle, and much harder to wrap our brains around than your everyday, run-of-the-mill temptations. Believe it or not, what we’re actually talking about is the temptation … to do good. Yup. You heard me right. The temptation to do good.
      • Elnes’ description of the gift of temptation: In itself, doing good is not the problem. Doing the wrong good, however, is entirely the problem. By the wrong good, I mean any good work that is not yours to do. It may be someone else’s good to do, but not your own.[1] → gift of temptation is all about discernment
  • Elnes’ greatest example of the gift of temptation – of being tempted to do the wrong good = Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness
    • Context of Jesus’ overall ministry: this is just the beginning
      • Comes right on the heels of Jesus’ baptism by his cousin John in the Jordan River
      • Beginning of today’s reading: Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There he was tempted for forty days by the devil.[2] → Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness … sounds like a pretty intense, physical version of the Dark Wood, doesn’t it?
    • Now, I have to say that using this passage in terms of Elnes’ idea of temptation to do the wrong good is interesting. Most of the time, when we read this passage or hear it preached, the focus is on how temptation is bad. The temptation comes from the devil – the Adversary, if you translate the Hebrew word literally – so we focus on the push and pull of good versus bad. In a nutshell: “Satan tempts. Jesus refutes. Temptation is bad. Be like Jesus.” We inherently think of the temptations that Satan lays before Jesus as evil because of their context – they are, in fact, temptations laid out by Satan. So they must be evil by their very nature and by the nature of the one presenting them, right? But have we ever actually looked at the three temptations that Satan presents? Have we ever considered them at face value?
      • Elnes makes an interesting point – point illustrated by our bulletin cover image this morning
        • Image = William Blake’s painting “The Second Temptation”
          • 2nd of three painting inspired by this Scripture reading
          • Painted as illustrations for John Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost”
          • Now, what’s interesting about this image that Blake painted is the way Satan looks. He’s not the guy with horns and a pointy tail brandishing a pitchfork like we see in cartoons. In Blake’s depiction, Satan is actually even more beautiful and composed and appealing-looking than Jesus. – Elnes: If you did not know that the painting was of Jesus’ temptations you might not realize that the man on the left is the Adversary. … If anything, the man looks pious and sincere. … Blake recognizes that someone with the spiritual stature of Jesus would be even less tempted by overt evil than we are. If you were the Adversary and wanted to tempt someone like Jesus, you’d have to convince Jesus you were on his side while rolling out the biggest temptations you could muster. All your temptations would have to be about doing good.[3]
    • So let’s think about those 3 temptations that Satan lays out for Jesus.
      • 1st temptation: The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”[4] → In a world in which 815 million people go hungry every day[5] … in a world in which 17 million children under the age of 5 suffer from severe acute malnutrition every day[6] … in a world in which 3 million children die from hunger every year – that’s one child every 10 seconds![7] … in a world in which we produce more than enough food to solve this problem but cannot get it together enough to actually solve this problem, we cannot argue that Satan’s idea of turning stones into bread is actually a bad one. Jesus himself goes on to feed thousands through his own miracles not long after this. So Satan’s first temptation is to help Jesus feed first his own starving body and then the hungry of the world. Sounds good, right? Of course! But that is not the good that Jesus came to do.
      • 2nd temptation: Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.”[8] → This one sounds easier – of course we don’t want to worship Satan, the Adversary – but as Elnes says, “Imagine the temptation of being able to change a few of the world’s laws, or direct public and private resources to their best use, or create world peace?”[9] How many wars have been fought … how many atrocities committed … how many people killed “in the name of God”? Which god? Which interpretation of God? Based on which version of God’s word? So much pain has come from people trying to impose their own conclusions about God on someone else’s life or culture or country that it must have been tempting for Jesus to circumvent all that suffering by simply becoming the One-and-Only Man in Charge. Sounds good, right? Of course! But that is also not the good that Jesus came to do.
      • 3rd temptation: The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.” → This temptation gets at motivation and at “proving it.” Think of the playground taunt that all children endure at some point or another in their lives. They claim they can do something or that they have something wonderful, and the unbelievers around them say, “Oh, yeah? Prove it!” The only things that matter – the only things that count – are the things we can see with our own eyes. Imagine how much easier it would have been for Jesus to gain followers … to silence the Pharisees and the Sadducees once and for all … to avoid the pain and humiliation of the cross if he’d just thrown himself off the tallest building in Jerusalem and floated down to the crowded, eye-witness-thronged street below. All of the arguments that we have today about whether God is or is not would be unnecessary. Sounds good, right? Of course! But even that is not the good that Jesus came to do.
      • Elnes: The point is none of these activities would harm anyone. Not initially, anyway. And Jesus does feed the hungry, change the political equation, and perform miracles at various points in his ministry. Yet none of these individual activities were ones that Jesus was called to devote his time and energy to. … Part of Jesus’ calling was to live more fulling into his human identity than anyone else had ever done before.[10]
  • You see, the gift of temptation is all about discerning your special and specific call in the world – discerning that “sweet spot” that God has especially for you. At the end of all of my emails are a few of my favorite quotes. One of them is from American poet and theologian Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” The gift of temptation is all about finding that place – that place where your unique gifts and passions are being utilized in a way in which you are being fulfilled and the world is being fed all at the same time.
    • Elnes provides some clarification: The reason the Dark Wood gift of temptation is so important is that it produces results – like exhaustion – that reveal fairly quickly whether you are on a path that is central to who you are and what you’re here for or are on a side path. … The temptation to do the wrong good is one of the greatest gifts you can receive, as it continually challenges you to discern between the good you are called to do and the good you are specifically not called to do.[11] → So the gift of temptation is a litmus test of sorts for whether or not we are following our true call from God.
      • All about why and how we’re making the decisions we’re making – what is motivating those decisions
        • Is it passion, joy, spiritual contentment?
        • Is it logic, reason, and strategy?
        • Elnes: Finding your distinctive path in live involves more than applying reason, logic, and strategy. It requires instinct and imagination. Instinct because the surest sign that you’re on your path is not reason alone but wholeheartedness. Imagination because your true place in this world tends to be found just beyond the edges of your immediate awareness. It’s a bit like walking in the dark.[12] → This sort of goes back to our Puritan roots in America and in the Reformed tradition because somewhere along the line, we seem to have adopted the idea that if we’re doing something and it’s bringing us great joy, we’re enjoying it too much. Work is supposed to be work.
          • Quote from BBC mini-series version of A Little Princess – Miss Minchin, one of the headmistresses of the school: “School is school, sir. It’s not supposed to be fun!” → That seems to be how we’ve come to think about many aspects of our day-to-day being in this world: it’s not supposed to be too much fun, and if it is – if we’re enjoying it “too much” – then it must be selfish or self-serving in some way. “Self-sacrifice is self-sacrifice, sir. It’s not supposed to be fun!”
          • Doesn’t necessarily have to be about your job – could be a hobby, a side endeavor, a volunteer opportunity → The point is, when you feel that passion arise in you and you feel the world around you responding in a positive way, you’re on the right path.
    • This is where our 2nd Scripture reading comes in this morning – Psalm 103. It is a psalm of praise – a song extolling the blessings of God and the overwhelming and overflowing joy that the psalmist experiences in God’s presence and God’s goodness.
      • Text: Let my whole being bless the Lord! Let everything inside me bless his holy name! Let my whole being bless the Lord and never forget all his good deeds … The Lord is compassionate and merciful, very patient, and full of faithful love. … The Lord’s faithful love is from forever ago to forever from now for those who honor him. And God’s righteousness reaches to the grandchildren of those who keep his covenant and remember to keep his commands. … All you heavenly forces, bless the Lord! All you who serve him and do his will, bless him! All God’s creatures, bless the Lord! Everywhere, throughout his kingdom, let my whole being bless the Lord![13] → Everywhere throughout God’s kingdom – in the sunny, easy patches as well as the wandering journeys through the Dark Wood – let your whole being bless the Lord.
    • Elnes: My friend Bruce often observes that the question is not “Are you saved?” The question is, “Are you used?” In other words, have you given yourself over to the Spirit in such a way that you are willing to allow it to lead you on your path and bring you to fullness of life? Are you willing to move beyond the protestations of your logical, strategic mind, and your desire to figure out everything for yourself, to follow the sweet-spot moments that reveal where your soul yearns to travel in this world in conversation with God?[14] So let me ask you, friends: As you travel through these Dark Woods – as we travel together along this winding, up-and-down path – as you listen for the thundering reverberations of the Spirit’s leading – as you go out in search of the special and specific good that God has for you to do, are you used? Amen.

[1] Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), 104.

[2] Lk 4:1-2a.

[3] Elnes, 116.

[4] Lk 4:3.

[5] Action Against Hunger, “World Hunger: Key Facts and Statistics,” https://www.actionagainsthunger.org/world-hunger-facts-statistics?gclid=Cj0KCQjwtb_bBRCFARIsAO5fVvEjt9rDJwsxvSkW8y9TO7i6XHBW6YiRm-o9cZAMpsr0P7jvSRT1YeAaArfkEALw_wcB. Facts from the 2017 UN Hunger Report, accessed Aug. 12, 2018.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Mercy Corps, “Quick facts: What you need to know about global hunger,” https://www.mercycorps.org/articles/quick-facts-what-you-need-know-about-global-hunger. Udated Apr. 28, 2018, accessed Aug. 12, 2018.

[8] Lk 4:5-7.

[9] Elnes, 117.

[10] Elnes, 117, 118.

[11] Elnes, 105, 108.

[12] Elnes, 106.

[13] Ps 103:1-2, 8, 17-18, 21-22.

[14] Elnes, 118.

3 responses to “Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Temptation

  1. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Disappearing | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

  2. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Misfits | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

  3. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: Where We Go From Here | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

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