Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sermon: "Facing Temptation" (Mark 1:9-15)

Good morning and welcome to BKCC on this first Sunday in Lent. The season of Lent began last Wednesday, a day that is known as Ash Wednesday. It continues up until Easter.
The color associated with Lent is purple, the same color associated with Advent, the season leading up to Christmas.
Lent is a season of fasting. I remember my Catholic grandmother telling me how she didn't eat meat during Lent, at least not on Fridays, except for fish which was allowed. I was little at the time, and since my family attended a Disciples church, I hadn’t heard of this tradition before. It made an impression on me.
Many people, Catholics and others, still avoid eating meat on Fridays during Lent, except for fish. Our neighbors at St. Barnabas have a fish fry every Friday during Lent, and if you wonder why McDonald's has Filet-o-Fish sandwiches on sale every Friday during Lent, now you know.
There is a number associated with Lent, and that number is 40. Lent is actually 46 days long, but Sundays aren't counted, which brings the number of days down to 40. Sundays are feast days, and Lent is about fasting, which is why Sundays don't count.
The reason why there are 40 days of Lent is because of the many uses of the number 40 in scripture. When Noah built the ark, it rained for 40 days. When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, it took them 40 years to reach the promised land. Moses himself fasted on top of Mt. Sinai for 40 days; twice he did this. And Jesus, after his baptism, also fasted for 40 days, in the wilderness, where he faced temptation.
Also, tradition says that Jesus was in the tomb for 40 hours, between his crucifixion and his resurrection.
As an introduction to the season, the first Sunday of Lent usually features the Bible story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness for 40 days. This story appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
This year, we have it from Mark's gospel, which is the most concise; and by “concise,” I mean: it provides practically nothing. No details, other than to say that the Spirit took Jesus to the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan, among the wild animals, with angels taking care of him.
But there is something fascinating in that very brief description.
Mark says that the Spirit led Jesus, took Jesus, forced Jesus out to the wilderness, where Jesus was tempted.
We had an interesting discussion at our most recent elders meeting about temptation. One of our elders mentioned the Pope’s recent statement that the words of the Lord's Prayer should be changed. The Pope said we shouldn't pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” because God would never lead us into temptation. A better way to translate it, according to the Pope, is “Don't let us fall into temptation.”
And it's true, I think, that God isn't going to try to trick us into sin. God is not like that evil clown from Stephen King’s It, hiding in the storm drain, beckoning us to follow him into hell with a bag full of candy…
But at the same time, we have this scripture today, in which it is God's Spirit that actually takes Jesus - forces Jesus - to the wilderness, to face temptation.
Why does God’s Spirit take Jesus to where he will face temptation? Why doesn’t the Spirit lead Jesus away from temptation?
Here’s what I think.
God doesn't trick us into sin. God does not tempt us. God doesn't offer us riches or power in exchange for our soul. Our temptations are our own. We need to own them.
However: God does sometimes lead us out into the wilderness, to face our temptations head on, to acknowledge our temptations, to stare them down, to look our temptations in the eye, and see them for what they really are.

We are tempted to ignore our temptations. I’ll say that again: we are tempted to ignore our temptations. But God doesn’t let us do that. God didn’t allow Jesus to ignore temptation. Instead of leading Jesus away from temptation, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, where Jesus met temptation head-on.
I remember reading, many years ago, a short story by Mark Twain called The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg. In this story, the small town of Hadleyburg is described as “the most honest and upright town in all the region round about.” The town’s official motto was, “Lead Us Not Into Temptation.” It’s been a long time, and I don’t remember all the details of that story, but I do remember that by the end, the town had decided to change its official motto to “Lead Us Into Temptation.” They had discovered that facing one’s temptations, though painful and challenging, can be helpful in the long run.

So maybe we should stop running, turn around, and face temptation. Look temptation in the eye. At first it may seem that temptation has power over you, but remember that God is on your side, standing with you, surrounding you, holding you, giving you strength.

As a church body, we in the Disciples of Christ have learned - and are continuing to learn - to confront the sin of racism. We’ve been learning that the temptation to judge people based on their race is one that we all face, and one that is particularly problematic for white people, since white people have historically held a disproportionate amount of the power and authority in this country, and continue to do so.
And one significant temptation is for us to not talk about racism. Talking about racism makes us uncomfortable. The devil comes to us and says, “Just don’t talk about it.” The devil (those of you who know me well know that I usually speak of the devil metaphorically, not literally, but that doesn’t really matter)... the devil comes to us and says “racism isn’t an issue. Don’t talk about it. Don’t worry about it. Why do you always have to make everything about race?”
And for people like me, with skin that looks like mine, that is a temptation.
We refuse to face the issue of race… until the Spirit leads us into the wilderness and says, “look.” ...Until the Spirit leads us into the wilderness and says: “confront your temptation to sin.”
Martin Luther King Jr. talked about the “three triplets” of racism, consumerism, and militarism. We don’t like to talk about any of these things. People didn’t want Martin Luther King to talk about them. Talking about racism was bad enough, but also mentioning our temptation to consume more and more, and how that is destroying us, and talking about our temptation to solve problems by military might, led people to criticize him. Even other civil rights leaders asked him to not talk about the military or the war in Vietnam.
And I suspect this was a great temptation for him.
But King could not keep silent. In a speech he gave one year before his death, King said, “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Martin Luther King Jr. took America to the wilderness to face its sins, but many didn’t want to go. Many still don’t want to go.
And when we celebrate MLK day, we sugar-coat his message and tame it down so that it doesn’t make us too uncomfortable.
That, too, is a temptation we face.
Jesus, however, did talk about such things. Jesus talked about money, how money is spent, and even said that it is impossible to love both God and wealth. We are taught that our love of God should dictate how we use our money, but the temptation of money is too great, and we end up allowing our love of money to dictate how we worship God.  God should be the one who shapes our finances, but our finances end up being what shapes our love of God.
And Jesus talked about the temptation to use violence. “Blessed are those who make peace,” he said. “The way of the sword is not my way,” he said.
The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to face his temptations, to see what sins he himself would be tempted to commit.
The Spirit leads us into the wilderness as well, to face our temptations, to take a good hard look at the things that tempt us. Things like money. Self-righteousness. Pride. Power. Fame.
Even churches face temptation. What is Bixby Knolls Christian Church’s temptation?
Through the New Beginnings program, we have embarked on a journey that, we hope, will help us transform & re-create our ministry so that it is sustainable and vital for years to come. We want this ministry to be more faithful to the calling we have from God.
But I think we are going to be tempted, over and over, to seek what WE want for this church, rather than what GOD wants…
I think we are going to be tempted, as we always are, to seek our will, rather than God’s will.
This was certainly one of Jesus’s temptations, so he prayed to God: Not my will, but your will be done.
That needs to be our prayer as well. Not our will, God, but your will be done.
The thing is, we need to spend some time in the wilderness figuring out just what is God’s will, and just what is our will. The two can get a little mixed up in our minds. We think we’re doing God’s will, but sometimes we aren’t. We’re doing our will.
We need to spend some time in the wilderness, so that the Spirit can help us sort it all out.
Is this really my will, or is it God’s will? Am I helping accomplish God’s will, or have I become a roadblock standing in the way?
The 40 days of Lent are a time to look closely at our temptation, to seek God’s help in figuring these things out, so that we may be more-faithful followers of Jesus.