Craft of Preaching

Dear Working Preacher

Insights, ideas and inspiration related to the coming week's lectionary texts.

The Greatest Temptation

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Biscuit (and Spock)
(Creative Commons Image by Britt-Marie Sohlstrom on Flickr)


The first Sunday in Lent is always Jesus’ temptation. Always. But when was the last time you noticed just how brief Mark’s temptation story is? It’s virtually non-existent. A summary only. To the point. No details really. Just that it happened. One could say, and you probably have, “Well, that’s Mark for you. The Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of the Gospel.” Of course, Mark’s version of Jesus’ temptation would be abbreviated!

It’s kind of hard to preach on the temptation of Jesus when there’s not much to go on. Sure, you could bring in Matthew and Luke, but that’s Matthew and Luke. What if we take Mark seriously? Mark -- why so short? Not important? Should we be paying attention to something else?

Maybe temptation doesn’t matter as much to Mark, or it matters differently. So then, what does matter? In asking that question it appears that I am giving more weight to the baptism of Jesus which is as brief as his temptation. Which wins? If you choose temptation, then you have to read forward in Mark. What tempts Jesus? What tempts us? Yet Jesus’ baptism totally matters for Jesus’ temptation, as you know. God rips apart the heavens. The Spirit descends. The Spirit enters into Jesus. It seems that no resistance of temptation is successful without the presence of God. And therein lies our promise. Not necessarily that we have the power to defend and deflect temptation. Not that we are capable of taking on Satan in the wilderness, or at least, I know I am not. Not so much that baptism is our guarantee that will shore up the walls to keep out that which seeks to threaten our belief, our trust, our relationship with God.

It’s that now, all battles with evil, with that which tempts us, the game is changed because God is present. We are not asked to do this out on our own, which can be one major misinterpretation of giving up things for Lent. God tears away our every attempt to say, “While I appreciate your help, God, I’ve got this. I can figure it out.” We don’t want help. We don’t want to ask for help. Help is a sign of insecurity, exposes weakness, but more so, when it comes to issues of faith, intimates our inability to thwart sin. It seems we are even good at pretense before God.

But that’s where Jesus’ temptation in Mark should shatter our carefully constructed faith worlds, or at least the ones we create for the eyes of others only. Jesus goes into the wilderness, not with the conviction of success but only because he knows that God has chosen to rip to shreds any boundary, any structure, any ecclesiology, any denomination, any doctrine that would separate him from God. He enters the wilderness only with the promise of God’s presence. Not with fighting skills, not with self-help strategies, not with techniques for passing the tests, but only his personal knowledge because of God’s direct words to him alone that God will be there. To preach the temptation of Jesus in Mark means that our preaching task is not to offer a list of temptations that tempted Jesus that then we should be able to deflect. Really? We are talking about Jesus, after all.

To preach the temptation of Jesus in Mark is to call attention to our greatest temptation -- the temptation to think that God is not present.

We are tempted to believe that God is absent. God has given up. Withdrawn. Why? Well, you name it. A whole host of reasons. Need any prompts here? Our parishioners sure don’t. They are fully aware that they are not worthy of God’s love which we tend to perpetuate during Lent. They are fully aware, as are we if we are honest, of those excruciating times when God is silent.

To preach Mark 1:9-15 as the first Sunday in Lent is to say clearly, unapologetically, without any doubt, that God is present in it all. We will not have the same temptations as Jesus. And naming Jesus’ temptations as some sort of comfort in our experience of the same implies that we can get through it, whatever “it” may be. But, we are talking about Jesus. JESUS!! The point of contact is not necessarily that Jesus was tempted yet without sin. That’s not helpful. I can’t be Jesus. No, way, no how. But, I can look at Jesus’ temptation, whatever it is, whatever it turns out to be, and say, God was there.

God is present. In other words, what if we focus less on listing all that tempts us, less on some pep talk that we can deny all those so-called things that seek to get us to craft our golden calves, less on giving up the so-called temptations of our lives, and focus on true denial of that which tempts us the most.

Karoline

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