The Wrong Way
United Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
First Sunday in Lent
Richard R. Crocker
I am relieved that I have been invited back to the Church of Christ at Dartmouth, and especially so since it is not yet again Transfiguration Sunday. Relieved, yet challenged, for preaching on this first Sunday in Lent requires a great deal of honesty and self-examination --- qualities that we might think always characterize worship, but qualities that are especially important in Lent and qualities that, perhaps more often than not, can make us uncomfortable.
Indeed, I must begin with an uncomfortable word of warning. Three words of warning actually, because the story of Jesus’ three temptations is indeed a warning - a warning to us individually, and to the whole church, that just as Jesus was tempted in three ways, so also may we expect to be tempted. And although Jesus resisted all the temptations of Satan, we are not able to do so. Indeed, we often succumb to temptation, and in doing so, we go the wrong way.
The wrong way. I was brought up going to Sunday School during my whole childhood – now in the distant past - and a distinctive feature of that experience, from the very earliest times, was the task of mastering a weekly memory verse – that is a verse of scripture to be memorized each Sunday, beginning with the simplest (yet most profound) truth that “God is love,” (John 4:8) and “Be ye kind one to another,” (Ephesians 4:32) and proceeding to lengthier ones. Memorizing is now out of fashion in educational theory in general, and certainly in Christian education; it is as out of fashion as the King James Bible, which was, of course, the only truly authorized version, so truly authorized that most of us grew up convinced that Jesus himself spoke Elizabethan English. So I can’t help it if I still think of scripture first in Elizabethan English, and in terms that are certainly not gender neutral, even though of course we know that such language is no longer viewed as inclusively as it was once seen. So you will forgive me, I hope, for opening our service today with a hymn found only in the Pilgrim Hymnal; it certainly could not be rendered acceptable for the New Century. And you will forgive me when I preface the rest of my remarks, and make my text, one of those memory verses of long ago that came stubbornly and persistently to my mind as I contemplated today’s message. The verse is this, from Proverbs (14:12): “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.”(Not even grammatical, but there it is.) This verse described, for my teenage-self, and for my now old self, and for us all - men and women, the essence of temptation. “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.”
For you see, we are generally not tempted to do what we know clearly is wrong. Rather, we are tempted to do what seems right, or what we can justify or rationalize as right; and then we may discover that we have in fact taken the wrong way.
The wrong way is laid out for us in the story of Jesus’ temptation. Almost all of our own temptations, and the temptations of the church, are summarized here. Jesus is hungry, and Satan tempts him to eat bread – to make a stone into bread. This is the temptation to seek our salvation, our ultimate well-being, in materialism – to think, contrary to scripture, that we really do live by bread alone. It is the temptation to acquire goods, to nurture our outward physical selves while neglecting or discounting that which makes us truly beings made in God’s image. And no temptation holds greater sway over many of us who live in our affluent world than the temptation to make material goods the purpose of our lives. Jesus knew this was the wrong way, but it has seemed the right way to many of us – individuals and church – and we have gone down that path, traveling a long way on it, perhaps before we discover, to our sorrow, that it is the wrong way. Indeed, we may travel so far on it that we end up as the man Jesus described , the one who gained the whole world but lost his soul.
The second temptation that Jesus faced is the desire for power. Satan showed the whole world to Jesus and said, “I’ll give you the power over this world if only you worship me.” Now, this is frightening. It’s frightening to think that Satan has power over the world, but a little thought makes us realize that those who have power will do almost anything to preserve it. We may start out wanting power to do good. But we end up wanting power to keep our power. “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” There is nothing more intoxicating than power – the power to exercise our wishes over others – wishes that we may justify and rationalize as being in the best interest of others, but which are really, we come to realize, in the best interests of ourselves. We may start out seeking power to do good, but, all too often, in the history of states, churches, businesses, families even, we discover that we have gone the wrong way.
It is the third temptation, however, that perhaps calls for the strongest word of warning for us today. It is, you recall, that Jesus is taken to a high place, the pinnacle of the temple, and told to jump off, so that God will catch him before he falls. Surely, seeing this, Satan argues, the people will be amazed and listen to him. But Jesus replied (in the words of the NRSV) “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test”, or, in the King James version, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” Now you may well say, this is not a temptation for me at all. I have no desire to jump off a temple pinnacle. Why do you say that this is the greatest temptation of all? You do not need to warn me about jumping off of towers.” Well, what I mean is this: Jesus was told by Satan that he should show that he was exempt from the ordinary laws of humanity. He should prove that he was an exception. And I believe, based on experience with myself and with others, that our most common temptation is to think that we are exceptions, that we are somehow exempt from the laws that govern others. Now, although it is true perhaps that Jesus could have claimed a special exemption from harm, he obviously did not. Although he could have avoided death, he did not. Although he could have avoided suffering, he did not. Or perhaps he knew that he could not. If he was truly to be, for us, a savior, a fully human one, he could not be exempt from the perils that beset all of us. Yet it is our temptation to think, often and perhaps always, that we are exempt from the perils of life. Somehow affliction should not come near us; we should not experience the deprivations, cruelty, violence, oppression, and injustice that so afflicts others in the world. This belief was put to me quite bluntly when a student, a number of years ago, --- a young woman, a devoted evangelical Christian who was disappointed that she had not found suitable employment before graduation –asked me: ”What’s the point of being a Christian if God doesn’t help you get the job you want?” This young woman said what many of us truly believe. We believe that our faith gives us special claims to be exempt from the very nature of humanity. Such a belief is not only wrong, it is extremely dangerous. When we began to believe that we are especially entitled to exemptions from humanity’s perils, we are headed the wrong way. “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the ends thereof are the ways of death.” We who claim that Jesus Christ is our teacher, our Lord, and our Savior – how can we believe such a thing? He who spared not himself, but gave himself up for us all – is this a man who told us that we ourselves should have exemption from woe? No, not at all. Of course, we believe that we are in God’s hands, no matter what. But being in God’s hand, no matter what, is not at all the same thing as thinking we are entitled to avoid human suffering and limitation.
I am afraid that all too often we go the wrong way because of a mistaken idea of faith; we confuse the promise of salvation with a promise of privilege – and in Christian life there is no promise of privilege. There is only the promise that, in our suffering, we are joined with the suffering of Christ, he who did not seek exemption, but who brought redemption – that is, he who by his suffering has made our suffering a meaningful part of the larger context of God’s work in this world. Our suffering is not to be sought or desired – just as Jesus did not seek or desire suffering – but it is to be expected, accepted, and transformed through faith. Even when we face the greatest suffering that the world can deal out to us, such as those parents who recently lost their children in a senseless slaying, we remember that God has not promised us exemption from suffering but redemption of suffering. How can we look at the cross of Christ and expect otherwise? The good news for us is not that we are immune to the human condition, but that God is deeply immersed with us in the human condition, and that by his suffering, we are healed. Our own suffering is transformed into compassion, and it is this compassion that will heal the world. When we think otherwise, we go wrong. We come to feel entitled rather than blessed, privileged rather than supported, special rather than simply accepted.
“There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” If we are to follow the path of life, we must remember the cross – which seemed to the world the way to death, but which has become, for us, the way to true life. For beyond the cross is life, health, peace. The world has not yet fully learned this way. Instead, it tempts us with the promises of materialism, power, and privilege. During Lent, we examine ourselves and ask: How have we succumbed to temptation? Are we going the wrong way?” The good news is that Christ died to save sinners – not because he was impressed with our righteousness. It is grace that helps us to know we are on the wrong way, and grace that turns us round. In the words of the hymn, “It was grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” During Lent, we remember again the way that our Savior chose. He fully trusted in a way of servanthood, non-violence, and sharing. This is the way that appears to the world foolishness, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God and the wisdom of God.