Sermon preached by the Reverend Richard Tombaugh
May the words spoken and heard here be spoken and heard in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen
The gospel about Our Lord’s temptation has been used in the Church on the first Sunday of Lent since very early times. St. Gregory the Great in a sermon on this text says that the devil tempted both Adam and Eve and Jesus with the same temptations: gluttony, vain glory, and greed. The temptation of gluttony for Adam was eating the forbidden fruit. The temptation of vain glory was to be like God. The temptation of greed was to know good and evil, to be thought of as grand. For Jesus the temptation of gluttony was to eat bread. The temptation of vain glory for Jesus was to be saved by angels from a fall. The temptation of greed was to have dominion over all the kingdoms of earth. These parallelism forms the basis for the Church’s teaching that all of us, including Our Lord, are tempted but by God’s grace we do not, like Adam and Eve, need to give into the temptations.
The story of Jesus temptation is a profoundly human story. I think that is why it is so easy for us to respond to this story. To help in his struggle with the decision whether or not to accept God’s call to announce the coming of God’s kingdom, Jesus goes apart to fast and pray. He enters into a personal wilderness to reflect in solitude and silence upon his decision. Is not this how we first face serious decisions in our lives? When faced with a decision to marry, to have children, to get a divorce, to become a musician or a pharmacist, to remain a mechanic, to have dangerous surgery, or to move an aging parent into one’s home, do we not at first retire into ourselves and struggle with the decision. Certainly we may also seek the advice of others, but initially we are alone with the decision in our own wilderness.
And when we struggle alone to answer serious personal questions, we know the tricks we try to play on ourselves: the plausible arguments, the rationalizations of false alternatives which are part good and part evil, but which present themselves as entirely good. These tricks are temptations, like the temptations of Jesus, to choose a lesser good or a false means to achieve a good end.
Temptation, where an individual is attracted to a course of action incompatible with his or her proper relation to God, is well known in the Bible. From the story about Adam and Eve to the hints of the final great trial in The Book of Revelation (3:10), almost all of the great figures are tempted. We learn from the variety of these temptations- the ambition of Jacob, the sexual desire of David, the cowardice of Peter, the sufferings of the writer of Psalm 42, the prosperity of the rich fool in Luke (12:18), the rectitude of the Pharisees, and, as we learn from today’s Gospel, even the divine mission of Jesus himself, that almost anything can provide material for temptation.
This insight that almost anything can provide material for temptation may be the Bible’s greatest gift to us who imagine ourselves as rational, educated, civilized, maybe even cultured; as respectful, if not kind, toward others. You probably remember Goethe’s story of Faust who sells his soul to the devil, Mephistopheles, in order to have extraordinary experiences. In this story Faust is the image of ruthless, unsmiling concentration upon self, which is the mark of Hell. The really pernicious image is Mephistopheles. He comes to us, as he is in the story, urbane, civilized, sensible, adaptable and humorous, all of which help strengthen the illusion that evil is liberating. Humor involves a sense of proportion, of seeing oneself from the outside. Pride lacks this sense of proportion. Satan, said G. K. Chesterton, fell through the force of gravity.
It is C. S. Lewis’ contention in The Screwtape Letters (I would perhaps disappoint you, if I failed to mention this reference) that today potentially great sinners, those with robust rage, defiant egoism, insatiable lust and callous cruelty, are less and less the target of the devil’s efforts at temptation than the ordinary, lukewarm, spiritually naive, folk like you and me. In the words of our own day: “we are at risk.”
We are at risk because we tend to be unaware of the character of the prohibitions we are tempted to break, to be unsophisticated about the consequences of our actions. We have perhaps never heard that the slippery slope of temptation comes in three phases: first suggestion, then delight, and, finally, consent. We have not been well taught by our Church about the power of good habits for leading a virtuous life or the power of bad habits for leading a vicious one. Actually, now that I think about it, when was the last time you heard an official of the Church urge you to live a virtuous life, let alone talk about good habits? We tend also to be uncritical of conventions which our society readily accepts, conventions like “the white lie,” “the timely gift,” and “the end justifies the means.”
We are very much at risk because we are in a wilderness that might, at first glance, seem to us like the Garden of Eden. We have so much. We think we can control so many others and need help from so few. And yet we are spiritually hungry enough to eat free apples from the tree without first considering their source or the consequences of eating them. Like Eve we have been seduced into a state of complacency which is so often the prelude to wrong action. Like Adam and Eve we want to escape from the limitations of finite existence, which we have learned from Kierkegaard to call dread or Angst, by being like God. And to be like God is not primarily a temptation of those most at the mercy of their animal passions, but of the competent and the well disciplined, the followers of good causes and believers.
We are at risk, then, because in the wilderness of our lives the twin temptations of presumption and despair pursue us and would ultimately steal from us our most precious possession: hope. To believe either that we are good enough as we are or that God no longer wills good for us is to abandon hope and to enter hell.
The good news of today’s Gospel is that by resisting these twin temptations of presumption and despair Our Lord rescued hope from possible extinction and kept it alive for us. The challenge of today’s Gospel is to realize that “eternal vigilance is the price of freedom” in the spiritual realm as much as the political. Lent is meant to be a time for renewing vigilance. Fasting is a time honored technique for such renewal, not only because it symbolizes intentional resistance to the devil’s temptation of gluttony, but also because it is not ordinary, and therefore opens the possibility of our questioning of those aspects of our ordinary and conventional life which may hold for us greater temptation that we now realize.