Dear Working Preacher,
I sometimes wonder if temptation is one of those things we have a hard time talking honestly about in the church. I think we worry the conversation will go in one of two less-than-helpful directions. Either we’ll take the cultural cue and move immediately to a “racy” conversation where the talk is all about sex, power, and drugs (or whatever folks find most provocative) or we’ll move in a more traditionalist view and warn against temptation in prosaic terms filled with moralistic vim and vigor but that never really touch ground. But I don’t think that a sermon on temptation needs to be either titillating or boring to be helpful. Rather, I think it needs to be both honest and realistic. In fact, I think that kind of sermon on temptation might be just the thing a lot of our people need and want to hear.
Toward that end, two notes on texts. First, on the text that’s not here, but could be. Deuteronomy 26:1-11 is chosen to connect the end of the forty years of wandering to Jesus’ forty days of fasting. But when most of us think of temptation, we think of Genesis 3, and given that Luke closed the preceding scene by tracing Jesus’ descent from Adam, perhaps Luke is thinking of that as well. In any event, whether you substitute the first reading or simply reference it, I think it’s helpful to point out that the temptation of Adam and Eve had next to nothing to do with a power grab and almost everything to do with insecurity and mistrust.
We sometimes refer to the devil as “the great deceiver” and with good reason. But in point of fact it’s not so much the case, at least in this scene from Genesis, that the serpent deceives – Adam and Eve do not, in fact, die when they eat the fruit – as much as he sows mistrust. He distorts the commandment of God and plays upon the insecurity of Adam and Eve (yes, they’re both there together), in order to call into question God’s intentions. God hasn’t told you everything about the forbidden fruit. So what else has God not told? What else is God withholding? It is a story of seduction based on mistrust that leads to the dissolution of the relationship between the two humans and God, then between Adam and Eve themselves, and then between them and all creation.
The second note is about today’s gospel reading, a story that portrays different concrete temptations yet revolves around the same dynamic. The devil again attempts to sow mistrust: you may go hungry; you do not have enough; how do you know God is trustworthy. In each case Jesus replies with Scripture. Over the years people have made a great deal about that, inviting us to respond to life’s challenges by remembering or quoting Bible verses. And while there may be something to that, I wonder if it’s not so much that Jesus quotes Scripture to deflect temptation as it is that Jesus finds in Scripture the words to give voice to his trust. Because at the heart of each reply is Jesus’ absolute trust in – and dependence on – God for his identity and future.
And that’s what I would like to lift up for our people this week. That there is a crucial link between trust and temptation. To the degree that we trust God for our daily needs, for a sense of purpose, for our identity as a child of God, the temptations of the world have, frankly, little appeal. But to the degree that we allow our natural insecurity to lead us to mistrust God, we are open to the possibility, appeal, and temptation of the proposition that it is all up to us, that God is not able to provide and so we’d better take matters into our own hands.
But of course it’s not enough just to say that. Indeed, just saying that can make people feel worse, precisely we know we do not trust God as we should. So after talking about this, I’d invite us also to practice it. Because trust, like anything else, is strengthened through practice. Toward that end, here’s a three-step exercise you might consider.
First, make sure there are 3×5 cards and pencils available in the pews. Invite people to write down on one side of the card something that is important to them for which they feel confident of God’s support: maybe it’s the love of their family, or a job, or their relationship with God. These things shouldn’t be “givens” – stuff you never worry about, but rather things that matter, that you do worry about, and yet you trust God with them. Label this side of the card, “trust.”
I think it’s important to start with something that is working because under the pressure of mistrust or temptation it’s easy to forget what trust feels like and, indeed, that we are capable of trusting. But we are, all of us, so let’s start there.
Then, on the other side of the card, write down one thing that is difficult to trust God with right now. Maybe it’s a particular relationship, or a job or school decision, or something challenging at work or home, or an uncertain future. Label this side of the card, “mistrust.”
Second, take a moment to compare these two things: why is it easier to trust God with one of them and not the other? What makes the challenging one different? Are they different, or might we be able to trust more than we thought. If you are feeling brave, you might invite people into conversation, so that we can learn from each other about what makes trusting God easier or harder.
Third, invite people to commit either to taking the card with them from church or to putting it into the offering plate. If they want to take it with them, suggest that they carry it around for the week, taking just a moment or two each day to pull it out so as to give thanks for what they trust and to pray about the thing they are having a hard time trusting God with. (You can even ask them to email you and tell you what it has been like lifting these matters up in prayer.)
If they out the card into the plate, they are asking for your prayers on these matters. Indeed, you can group many of the things folks trust or mistrust together and not only take some time each day this week to pray for your parishioners but also to weave them into the prayers of the people next week.
Trust is at the heart of our relationship with God and with each other. It’s not always easy, and when it’s missing temptation is regularly just outside our door. For this very reason, I think, we need the support of the community to grow in our ability to trust and live out of a sense of abundance and courage rather than scarcity and fear. Notice that Jesus goes into the wilderness just after his baptism and while “filled with the Holy Spirit.” One of the ways we remember our baptismal identity and can be renewed by the Spirit is in fellowship with each other, and I hope this idea helps promote an experience of that for your people.
That’s what I’ve got this week, Working Preacher. I don’t know if it will work in your context, but I am confident you will find a way to anchor your people in the promises of God and for that – and most especially for you – I am exceedingly grateful. Blessings on your week, your work, and your proclamation.
Yours in Christ,
PS: For what it’s worth, and should this not be the direction you want to go, two years ago I approached Matthew’s story of the temptation (which is really quite similar to Luke’s) from a somewhat different vantage point. You can find that letter here.