Temptation’s God Surprise

Surprising Words of Life:  Temptation
Matthew 4:1-11; Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
A sermon for Jerusalem United Church of Christ, Palmerton, PA

Crawfish adorned Christmas tree

This story of Jesus in the wilderness seems strangely familiar to us.  Our Holy Scripture tells us that Jesus was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted.”  So it makes a lot of sense to us that Jesus, when he taught us to pray, included this particular plea:  “Lead us not into temptation” and we pray that prayer every single Sunday.  

“Lead us not into temptation.”  God forbid that what happened to Jesus would happen to us — that is, that the Spirit would lead us into wilderness places and put before us a buffet of delicious temptations.

I don’t know about you, but when I pray that prayer, “Lead us not into temptation,” I find myself inserting my temptation of the week — something I’m struggling with or something I want to avoid.

“Lead me not to the dessert menu.”
“Don’t get me all tempted to get lost in a book when I should be doing housework.”
“Lead me not anywhere close to that person where I might say something in anger.”
Or the more general:  “Lead me not into things I have no business doing — the temptation to do this when I should be doing that.”

I sort of pray that prayer “Lead us not into temptation” — as a general — and sincere — “Keep me out of trouble, God!”  and God knows what that trouble is.  My great fear, of course, is that surely God does know my temptation, so God could be really good at leading me right into it just to test me — yet again!  “Lead me NOT …” I pray!

Still things go very wrong sometimes.

On a tragic global scale, this week we are reeling from the massive devastation from a gigantic earthquake or two and the tsunami that came along with that.  It was predictable that the day would not pass before someone put a “God spin” on the events of the day.  Sure enough, someone said to me regarding the big earthquake that God must be trying to get Japan’s attention with such a display of force.  God testing; God finding someone or some group or some country deserving of being led to the brink and over the brink. “Whatever they did, God, to get that judgment — whatever temptation they gave into — deliver me — deliver us — from that!”  

“Lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil.”

I sometimes wonder if we think of that prayer as our religious rabbit’s foot. “Lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil” — an incantation of protection — calling a time out from God’s relentless judgment that can show up anytime in natural disaster, like this week’s earthquakes, or human-created devastation like the recent shootings in Tucson.

When devastation comes, we wonder where God is in the tragedy.  If all lives were not saved, then we say that God must have been sending a message to someone or worse, God must have abandoned someone.  After all, the very fall of humankind — we have been told — was the result of a woman — Eve — who had clearly been told not to eat the fruit of a certain tree. Then she was tempted to do so by a serpent. She ate the fruit, and everything changed from the unspoiled garden to a world where God is no longer pleased with humans, work makes you sweat, childbirth hurts and people are out to get each other.  Lead us away from the kind of temptation that messes up the world like that!  

The great temptation — of the first humans and of Jesus — is to turn away from God at the precise moment that the longing for God is the greatest.  The first humans had an abundance of good things and of God things.  The only thing left was to be like God.  It’s tempting indeed, when things are going well, to be like God instead of being with God.

Jesus’ wilderness experience was no Garden of Eden.  Jesus was physically hungry in an actual dry desert and alone.  It’s tempting indeed to fill that hunger and powerlessness with temporary food and false power.

Jesus could have played the God role. If anyone could be God, it’s Jesus, for he was God. He had just been baptized and affirmed by God, “This is my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased” and being Son of God we say that Jesus himself is fully God.  Walking around in a real body, we also say that Jesus is fully human.  In the wilderness, Jesus comes face to face with what it means to be fully human.

To be fully human is to be aware that we aren’t quite complete all by ourselves.  We have what’s been described as a hole in our beings that we are always looking around to fill up.  Whether living in the abundance of Eden or in the dryness of the wilderness, there’s always the temptation to fill that God-shaped hole with something — or someone — that is not God-shaped at all.  These stories from Genesis and Matthew say that the God-shaped void might seem to be shaped like a piece of forbidden fruit or a power play.

For you or for me, we might think that the hole is shaped like more things, a bigger house, a promotion or a raise, or the perfect life partner.  Sometimes it’s shaped like another piece of cake.  

Blaise Pascal was the one who said that we all have this “God-shaped hole.” The temptation to fill that hole with all kinds of things reminds us:  There is no filling for that God-shaped hole except our relationship with God.

And there is more to it than just finding God and plugging that hole once and for all.  To live the God-life and to be a Jesus-follower doesn’t solve that emptiness and doesn’t plug the hole for good and forever.  What Jesus showed us in the wilderness is that humanity is not a puzzle to be solved or a task to be completed.  To be human is to accept being human over and over again.  

We get to practice being human every day!  We might, over time, with lots of practice, be less likely to fill our God space with other things, but we will have the chance to practice being fully human every day!  

We especially get to practice when tragedy strikes.  Doesn’t anxiety take us right to the place where we are really tempted to play the role of God?  We might even say — with that little voice in our ear that is the same one Jesus heard — “God would want me to make sense of this and I can do that!”  
So we can give into the temptation to be the all-knowing voice of God and say:  
“This earthquake is God making a point.”
“That war or terrorist attack is God’s judgment on those people.”  
“These are surely signs of the end times” 
“Here’s the reason God let your loved one die.”  
In our fear or our anger — and especially in our helplessness — how easy it is to give into the temptation step out of being fully human and take on the role of God — to share God’s wisdom instead of showing God’s love — to speak for God instead of speaking to God.

Temptation in whatever form turns out to be simply the next chance we will have to take on the role of God instead of taking in God to fill the void.

Temptation’s gift of life:  In whatever circumstance of anxiety or of abundance, the God-seeking place in each of us — that God-shaped void — asks the question:  “Where is God in this?”  The God-shaped void demands an answer!  The temptation is to answer quickly.  Our faith says, “Slow down and stay with the question.”  The temptation to answer quickly gives us a holy opportunity to let the question lead us.

The question “Where is God now?” may pull us to our knees in prayer. 
“Where in the world is God?” might propel us into each other’s loving and comforting embrace.  
Staying with the question “Where is God in this disaster?” might inspire us to justice actions or to compassionate acts of relief.  
“Where is God when things are going well?” could bring us together to search the Bible, to share our lives, to walk with each other down the road a bit.
Staying with the question — inviting God in as well as our fellow humans — and just maybe — something brand new and incredibly surprising might show us that — yes, indeed — God is here!  
For real.  

4 thoughts on “Temptation’s God Surprise

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