The Luring Voice of Temptation

Sermon Preached Lent 1A (Feb. 10, 2008)
St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay, Villas

I’ve often wondered where we could go today in order to have an experience like Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. When I posed that question to my clergy colleagues at our weekly Bible study, one of them commented that Henri Nouwen had a similar question when he mused that the only desert America once had has become cluttered by the neon lights of Las Vegas. And it’s a shame really, because sometimes the desert is exactly where we are supposed to go.

Today’s gospel story is one most of us are quite familiar with: Jesus goes into the desert for 40 days and is tempted by the devil. He is hungry and the devil encourages him to turn the stones into loaves of bread. Though famished, Jesus resists the temptation of physical nourishment preferring instead being nourished by the word of God. Next the devil takes him to the very top of the temple in Jerusalem and tells him to throw himself down because if he is truly the Son of God, angels will protect him. Again, Jesus resists. This time the temptation of meaningless miracles and flaunting invincibility are nothing to be toyed with. God is not to be tested. Finally, the devil offers Jesus all the power in the world – he can be ruler of all the kingdoms of the world if only he acquiesces to worshipping Satan. And, most notably, Jesus replies, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

So it is a familiar story. But can any of you remember why he is out in the desert in the first place? Jesus is in the desert because he has been led there by the Spirit. “After Jesus was baptized, he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” The Spirit of God took Jesus to the desert in order that he would be tested by the devil. How crazy is that? And yet, what happens to Jesus in the desert is remarkable – that which tempts him is made clear and that which is central to his life is made clear. Jesus is able to find clarity in the desert.

Our own desert of Las Vegas can perhaps be seen as a metaphor for the clutter in our lives that make it difficult for us to clearly hear the difference between the voice of temptation and the voice of God. Is it possible that you and I do not fully know what tempts us because we have not dared to enter the desert to find out? And yet, during this season of Lent, we are, in fact, invited by God to enter the desert of our temptations in order to discover what is truly central, truly meaningful in our lives – just as Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to clarify that the love and worship of God was the central tenet of his life.

Now some would say that all we have to do in order to know God’s will for us is to read and obey Scripture. But, be careful! For, in today’s reading from Matthew, we learn that the tempter is as well-versed in Scripture as is Jesus. Satan quotes a portion of Psalm 91: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”[1] And Jesus responds with a portion of Deuteronomy 6, “Do not put the LORD your God to the test.”[2] Both the devil and God use Scripture – but it is in the wilderness, in the desert, that one is able to tell the difference between these two powerful voices.

Last night I went to see the movie The Bucket List. Perhaps some of you have seen it. The premise of the movie is that two roommates in a hospital learn that they have less than one year to live and so they write a “bucket list” – a list of things they want to accomplish before they kick the bucket. The list includes a variety of things from the comical – getting a tattoo – to the crazy – sky diving – to the mystical – experiencing something majestic. Out of the hospital, they set about the task of accomplishing the items on the bucket list. But, as they do each of the things on the list – in some instances toying with temptation - an amazing transformation occurs as each comes to recognize what is truly central in their lives, what is of true value. What they come to recognize, however, is nothing more than what they already have. But, without the journey into the wilderness of temptations – their bucket list – they would never have recognized this.

And so it is with us. We must be willing to create moments of stillness where we can clearly hear the voice of temptation and the voice of God. Because if we cannot hear the difference, if there is too much clutter around us – too many neon lights and too many appointments in our hectic schedules – we may never discover what is truly central in our lives.

Throughout Lent, we will be using silence as part of our worship on Sunday mornings. Already you experienced the time of silence at the beginning of the service. We will share another time of silence after the sermon each week and again after all have received communion. These are small windows of opportunity for each of us to begin to listen for God’s voice amidst the noisy barrage of thoughts and emotions that zoom through our minds. I hope that you will use these brief times of silence to muster up the courage to follow the Spirit of God into a larger wilderness where you can meet the things that tempt and taunt you head on with the faith and confidence that God is with you to sustain you and aid you in your search for those truly meaningful things in your life.

[1] Psalm 91:11-12
[2] Deuteronomy 6:16a.