Friday, March 12, 2010

Christian Temptations

Richard R. Crocker
March 11, 2010
College Vespers
Luke 4:1-13

During Lent, we consider the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness – a story that is certainly familiar to all of us. I am sure that some of us can identify, somewhat, with the three temptations that Luke’s gospel describes – the temptation to use his power to satisfy his own hunger, the temptation to want earthly power, and the temptation to crave celebrity. Succumbing to any of these temptations would have taken Jesus off track; any of them could have destroyed his integrity, his ministry, and his mission. I said that we could identify with them – somewhat. All of us will do almost anything to satisfy our hunger, if we can; many of us will crave earthly power and are willing to make compromises to get it; and some of us seek celebrity status. But these temptations, as strong as they are, are not the ordinary ones. Most of us ordinary Christians face different ones. Most of us have never faced the hunger that Jesus faced; we have not been offered extensive worldly power, so we have not been tempted by it, and few of us really want to acquire celebrity status. Those things are mostly out of our reach anyway. Our temptations are more common and ordinary. But since Lent is the time in the Christian year when we are especially aware of temptation, let us not confine ourselves to thinking about these three temptations that Jesus faced. Let us also think about the temptations that we commonly face,

Think for example: did any of the disciples face the same temptations that Jesus did? Not exactly. Jesus did not instruct his disciples to undergo long periods of fasting. He was criticized for not doing so. Fasting, when some Christians practice, may be a significant spiritual discipline. It is not prescribed by Jesus for us to do, but Jesus did seem to imply that his disciples, at times, would fast. There is a difference between fasting and dieting. Both practices can be good for us, but for different reasons. But Christians, unlike Muslims for example, during Ramadan, and unlike Jews on Yom Kippur, are not required to fast, even during Lent. Nor did any of Jesus’ disciples face the prospect of great worldly power. Yes, James and John wanted to sit on his right hand in his coming kingdom, so ambition was perhaps a pitfall, but none of the disciples craved wealth. Even Judas, who betrayed Jesus, did not do so to become rich. And all of the disciples said they had abandoned houses and property in order to follow him. It is true, of course, that when he encountered the rich young ruler, Jesus challenged him to give up his possessions, and he did warn his disciples that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, but Jesus did not demand poverty from his followers, nor did his disciples struggle greatly with the temptation of wealth and power. Similarly, none of the disciples craved celebrity. Jesus told them that if they wanted to become great, they should become servants, and for the most part, they understood him.

I think it is true for most of us in this congregation as well: our temptations are not so blatant. Satan does not appear to us and challenge us to perform miracles. What are our temptations? What are the temptations that we commonly face? I’m sure we could list so many: we are tempted to be dishonest on occasion; we are tempted to be greedy; sometimes we are tempted to indulge in sexual sins. Sometimes we are tempted simply not to care about what is happening to others. But I think the most common temptation for Christians, the one that threatens our mission and ministry most fundamentally, is the temptation to think that somehow we are better than other people, that God somehow loves us more than God loves others (especially the others that give in to temptations!), and that the gift that we have been given in knowing Jesus as Lord somehow makes us special. Jesus warned his disciples about this problem always – telling them that their greatness consisted in servanthood, warning them against judging others, calling them to take up their cross – which, as we know, was an emblem of suffering and shame. As William Sloane Coffin often said, when Jesus was crucified for being Christ, what makes people think they will be praised and rewarded fore being Christians?

Sometime our attitudes are very blatant. I recall a young student, a graduating senior, who spoke to me in frustration at the end of her senior year. She was upset that she didn’t have a job, and she complained, in all honesty, that she always thought being a Christian meant that God would take special care of her and make sure that she was rewarded – else why would one be a Christina? I tried to explain that God's faithfulness to us does not mean that we get jobs and other people don’t. Her attitude reflects, I think, perpetual temptation of Christians, which is to think that we are God’s special favorites.

To some extent, of course, this is the temptation of all human beings – not just Christians. I have been reading about some very interesting psychological experiments. Here’s one experiment. A person is brought into a room and told to perform a simple task. He is then offered a reward. A prize. But, he is told, there is a person in another room who also performed the task, but there is only one prize. You can decide whether you keep the prize, or whether the other person gets it, however you want to. Here’s a coin; some people think flipping a coin is the best way to decide. Then the experimenter leaves the room, but watches what happens. What do you think happens? Guess what. 90 percent did not flip the coin; they just kept the prize for themselves. Of those who did flip the coin, 90 percent won the coin toss, that is, whatever the result, they declared that they had won. Even when it was a special coin that had two sides, one that said, “you win”, the other “you lose”, still 90% claimed that they had won the coin toss. The only think that changed the result was – guess what: first, telling them about the importance of fairness, and then putting a big mirror in the room, right in front of the person, so that he or she had to watch himself or herself. Watching yourself in a mirror: that seems to change the outcome.( This experiment by Dan Batson at the University of Kansas is described in Jonathan Haidt’s book, Authentic Happiness, New York: Basic Books, 2002. p. 62.)

There are many experiments like this that show our natural selfishness and tendency to rationalize our own self-interest. But people who think that they are right in a situation, morally right, are even more likely to discard the rules, because, after all, they are right. This tendency toward self-righteousness is perhaps the greatest temptation of everyone, but it is especially common, I am afraid, among us, Christians, who instead of being known as people who are patient, loving, kind, and forgiving, are often known as people who are judgmental, angry, and unforgiving.

The greatest temptation that the early disciples of Jesus faced was betraying their dearly beloved Lord. And I am not thinking only of Judas, whose betrayal of Jesus was so blatant, and yet so complicated. We do not know, clearly, what happened to Judas that made him do what he did. There are always new theories. But it is not as if the Romans could not locate Jesus on their own. But I am thinking also of Peter – who, despite his protestations that he would never do such a thing, denied three times, with an oath, that he had never known Jesus. And all of them deserted him. Such also are we: so often proud of our own virtue, so often blind to our own hypocrisy and faults.

Since this is President’s week, it is appropriate, I think, to remember some words written by President Abraham Lincoln to a group of ministers representing the Baptist missionary society. President Lincoln was not a church member, though he did attend The New York avenue Presbyterian Church, where he frequently sat in an side room, by himself, so that his presence would not disturb the congregation. His words express all that I have attempted to say today:

To read in the Bible, as the word of God himself, that "In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread," and to preach therefrom that "in the sweat of other men's faces shalt thou eat bread," to my mind can scarcely be reconciled with honest sincerity. When brought to my final reckoning, may I have to answer for robbing no man of his goods; yet more tolerable even this, than robbing one of himself, and all that he was. When a year or two ago, those professedly holy men of the South, met in semblance of prayer and devotion, and, in the name of Him who said, "as ye would all men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them," appealed to the Christian world to aid them in doing to a whole race of men, as they would have no man do unto themselves, to my thinking they condemned and insulted God and His church, far more than did Satan when he tempted the Savior with the Kingdom of the earth. The devil's attempt was no more false, and far less hypocritical. But let me forbear, remembering it is also written, "Judge not, lest ye be judged." (In William Sloane Coffin The Riverside Sermons, Volume II. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. pg. 124.)

So what helps: The experiment found only one thing: hearing a sermon on the importance of honesty and fairness, and then being forced to watch ourselves in a mirror. So I suggest that Lent is a good time not only for us to listen to sermons but also for us to look at ourselves in the mirror. Day by day, during these forty days, let us hold up before ourselves that looking glass – that perfect looking glass, in front of our own faces and ask: whose image is here? Is it the image of Jesus, whom we proclaim as Lord? Or is it our own distorted image? Perhaps if we look truly at ourselves, the image will, over time, change, so that we will no longer see through a glass, darkly, but see face-to-face; no longer will we know in part, but we will come to know fully, even as we are fully known. For our hope is finally not in our own righteousness, but in God’s eternal goodness, mercy, and love, shown to us in Jesus – a love powerful enough to forgive even those who abandoned him and tortured him and killed him – even us; even me, even you.

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