A couple of weeks ago my wife and I left town to enjoy a few days in the sun. When we registered at our hotel we were offered discounts on certain hotel services–if we listened to a time-share presentation! We shouldn’t have given in to that temptation because we’re not interested in time shares but we went to the presentation anyway. If any of you have sat through a time-share presentation you know it’s just non-stop pressure to buy into a vacation property.
We didn’t buy anything but we talked about the experience the rest of the week. What really struck me was that the salespeople tried every angle to get our business! They learned that I was a pastor so during a tour of the property they took us to visit a chapel that was on the grounds! They tried to tug at our heartstrings by showing photos of them with their families. They knew my wife has family overseas so they showed us pictures of properties overseas. And, of course they penciled out dollar amounts to show us what a great deal we’d be getting. One of the strangest approaches was when they told us that it had cost them $1300 just to get us to the table—as if we should somehow feel guilty or obligated to buy something because of that!
I’ve continued thinking about that experience this past week because today’s reading from Matthew sounds a lot like our conversation with the time-share guy! It’s the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and we’re told that he was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to face temptations. In this story “the devil” is the time-share salesman. He is trying every argument he can think of to convince Jesus to prove that he is the Son of God.
Well, it’s an intriguing story but what do you think? Turning stones into bread? Jumping off buildings? Lusting after world power? Everyone faces temptations but are these the kinds of temptations you face? Probably, not so much. Or, what about the temptations of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? The question of whether or not to eat fruit from a certain tree? It seems far from our experience and not much of a temptation at all.
But both stories are about temptation and the terrible human freedom we have to make choices. Notice on this first Sunday in the season of Lent that life circumstances make little difference. Our first reading is set in a garden, a lush place of abundance where all needs are met. Jesus, on the other hand, is driven into the wilderness, a place of apparent scarcity and danger. But the temptation in each story is the same, whether we live with abundance and luxury, or whether we’re just scraping by. The temptation is this: Will we submit our lives to the will of God, or, will we succumb to the temptation of trying to make God fit in with the lives we’ve made for ourselves?
There was a time when Sunday was sacred, an actual day of rest. Today if you’re a parent you know that there are sports and social events that demand your commitment and your children’s attention on Sunday morning. If you don’t commit to these activities you’re afraid you’ll get left behind. It doesn’t seem like a big deal but over time children learn what’s important through the priorities of the parents. As adults, when they face their own temptations, they will order their lives according to what they’ve learned.
Christians in North America—Lutherans, at least—would mostly try not to stick out. We’d prefer to blend in to the woodwork. We want to fit in, to be liked. But the world does watch, whether we know it or not, to see if our Christian faith makes any difference at all in the choices we make. So, forexample,whenfamilycomestotownyouhaveachoice. Pastor,Iwon’t be in church on Sunday because my relatives are here. My question is, So, what’s your point? Your family’s in town, so invite ‘em to worship! They may say no but at least they’ll be clear about your priorities, and who’s Lord of your life. If you skip worship to spend time with them, it silently confirms what your friends and relatives may already believe: that their lives are more important than the gathered assembly of God’s people, or maybe even that their lives are more important than Jesus Christ himself.
Having said all that, the point of Christian faith is not “going to church.” The point of Christian faith is the message of God’s unconditional love for all people. The point of Christian faith is God’s forgiveness and the message of reconciliation through Christ offered for the healing of all our relationships. The point of Christian faith is the hope for nothing less than the healing of the world, for as we’ll hear next Sunday, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.
No, the point of Christian faith is not “going to church.” It’s how we are the face of Christ to the world the rest of the week. But the choices we make on Sunday morning can make a huge difference in how we respond to greater temptations in other areas of our lives. If we can’t make a clear statement about what’s most important on Sunday morning, what are the chances that we’ll see clearly the temptations we face the rest of the week? Notice, for example, the progression of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. He had been in the desert forty days and Matthew tells us that, not surprisingly, he was famished. The suggestion that he turn stones into bread seemed like a sensible suggestion. If he didn’t survive his time in the desert, he’d be dead and then what good would he be? For this first temptation I can be the “devil’s advocate” and show how much sense the devil makes!
But if he’d succumbed to that temptation he might have been more open to more outlandish temptations, like…jumping off the temple roof to prove that God would take care of him. Or, finally, most outlandish of all, to cave in to the temptation to believe he could rule the world.
This past week I was reading about the new Huskies coach, Chris Pedersen. Petersen, as you know, is the wildly successful former Boise State football coach. His approach with his new team is to “get back to basics,” to work on the fundamentals. Players say that he is paying great attention to the tiniest details of the basics. If the basics aren’t mastered, what chance do the players have against stronger opponents in the big games?
Likewise, in the life of faith we are tempted to cut corners, to give in to the little temptations, not to pay attention to the little details–like how we choose to invest our time on Sunday morning. If we don’t pay attention to the fundamentals, like Sunday study and worship, it may be that—without even realizing it–over time we become able to justify giving in to greater, even outlandish, temptations which can have far greater consequences for ourselves and others.
I’ve been pondering, for example, Vladimir Putin, president of Russia. Here’s a guy who seems to have heard the devil’s invitation to rule the world, or at least a big chunk of his part of the world. I don’t know his background but I suspect that his early life didn’t involve attention to details of faith that might make him more aware of and resistant to greater temptations later in life.
And yet, there’s a little Vladimir Putin living inside each of us, waiting for opportunities to organize our lives around our will rather than the Living God. Whether it’s a snake in the garden, some guy with horns and a pitchfork, or the endless chatter of the little voice inside our heads, the temptations we face are very real and very easy to miss!
Our Christian faith equips us with tools to recognize and grapple with the temptations we face. The season of Lent leads to the cross. It calls us during forty days to return to the fundamentals, to reclaim the power of prayer, and study, and worship, and service, and fasting, to experience the cleansing power of confession and forgiveness. In practicing the fundamentals we become more skilled in recognizing the smooth messages of self-interest that assail us each day, in every way.
One thing I know: That because my parents were faithful in paying attention to the fundamentals, such as getting me to worship and study each Sunday, as an adult I am much better prepared to recognize and grapple with the greater temptations that come my way than I would have been on my own. The temptations we face in our time are not new but they are as powerful as they’ve always been. The most powerful may be those we don’t even recognize as temptations. We, the Body of Christ, need each other. Whether the circumstances of our lives are garden or desert, may the Holy Spirit take hold of us and lead us to see clearly and follow the way of Jesus, the Way of the Cross!