The First Step

March 9, 2014                        Matthew 4. 1-11

As an adolescent, I was a Boy Scout.  I loved the challenges of hiking and the skills needed in the great outdoors. I enjoyed the comrades in the troop.  I practiced my knot tying on my younger brothers who loved overcoming these bonds much like Houdini escaping (I had to tie it very loosely).  I was collecting merit badges on my way to becoming an Eagle Scout…when that part of my life collided with a bully.  I was a very slight and small 14-year-old and my nemesis was my age, but over six foot tall and a muscular 160 pounds with a five o’clock shadow that gave him a sinister look.  He made my life miserable with beatings, harassment, and ridicule.  That’s why I felt I had to walk away.  At the time, I thought I had no one there who knew or cared to stand with me against the brutality that I faced every week at our meetings, and I was afraid to ask for help too.  I didn’t know what to do. I never became an Eagle Scout.  But my story isn’t unique and all of us have faced our own bullies.  

Today I want to talk about another bully…one we’ve all had to face down. Sometimes it’s a gruesome face, but most of the time…not.  More frequently it seduces us rather than forcing our compliance.  It can isolate us by drawing us off into private quests for satiation.  Jesus faced it in the Scriptures today.  I’m talking about temptation.  I know we joke about it, like when the actress Mae West famously said, “I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.” Or the writer Oscar Wilde who said, “I can resist anything, except temptation.”  Jesus taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation” even though we’re perfectly capable of finding it all by ourselves.  

The thing that’s insidious about temptation is that it’s addressed to our felt needs.  And needs are called “needs” because we are feel that their fulfillment is necessary.  As the story about the temptation in the Garden of Eden shows, we believe that by responding to temptation, we will be empowering ourselves. Notice that Jesus is tempted with bread or food (don’t we all need to eat?) and with the promise of being empowered against physical challenges and against those who would try to dominate or bully us?  What could be wrong with saying, “Yes!” to those kinds of offers?  Boy, wouldn’t I have said “Yes” in a minute, if it meant that I could punch back at Deanie Young!  I would have annihilated him in holy righteousness!  I would have savored dishing out to him the same stuff he force fed me!  But looking back on all that…I’m certain that wouldn’t have made a better or happier story.  

So, how could it become a better story?  That’s the question that I hope we will honestly confront this Lenten season.  We’ve all heard that a “journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. But it also helps to know where we’re going and how to get there!

It’s a good idea to move closer to God, but every crazy thought that we hear as we try to make the journey to be closer to God, and every malevolent and misguided thought, and every confused and mistaken idea that comes into our heads, steers us off in completely different direction.  That’s what temptation is about.  It’s about being drawn away from a clear sense of where we want to go and how we might get there…so we go off into things that are either irrelevant or destructive.  I saw a cartoon the other day that showed a middle-aged couple standing at a street crossing waiting for the light to change.   And next to them is a street sign that says “Absolutely No Machete Juggling Here to the Corner”.  And the man says to his wife, “All of a sudden I have an irresistible urge to juggle machetes.”  When most of us hear the word “NO,” we begin imaginatively looking for ways to get around it.  That’s the root of the conspiracy against the God’s directions to Adam and Eve, which they disobeyed.  Temptation is when we go off in the wrong direction and we stumble and fall down.  That’s the result of sin.

As you probably already know, the Biblical word for “sin” was originally an archery term. When an arrow did not hit the mark, the spotter who stood nearer the target would shout back to the archer, “Hamartia” meaning, “You missed”.  Sin is missing the mark.  The laws of God are the target, but we often miss.  As a result, sin is a pervasive, reality in our world.

But rather than denying our sin or separating himself from sinners, Jesus sat down and broke bread with sinners.  All of us have made destructive and hurtful choices, but Jesus taught that God strives to bring us home like wayward children.  And we know from when our children make poor choices, (we may be angry with them or upset with them), but we don’t seek their destruction…or wish them dead, but we try to guide, correct, and welcome them back into our good graces with some amendment of life. 

Would we expect anything less from God?  In high school, when I wrecked my dad’s car, I called him and woke him up late at night, and I told him I’d had a wreck, his first question to me was not, “Was it your fault?” or “Is it drivable?”  No, his first question was, “Are you OK?”  I sometimes hear people talk about God as if God were the meanest, most cruel bully in the cosmos.  It’s as if all of us sinners were not just outside God’s graces, but as a result of our sin, God had painted a bull’s eye on us and wants to annihilate us.  I don’t believe that.

But as the story of Jesus’ temptation in the gospel today tells us…we are constantly being distracted from our walk with God, AND God knows that!  That’s why the Holy Spirit of God is constantly encouraging, and inspiring, and reminding us where we’ve come from, and where we’re going just as the angels ministered to Jesus.  There are signs along the way to guide us in our walk, and occasionally there be one prohibiting machete juggling, but chances are we’ll hear some positive reminders from our Lord.  They tell us that we are children of God even when we have wrecks.  Temptations will always there, but they can be deflected as we remember whose child we are.  So, don’t let temptation bully you and beat you up, rather talk to God, seek the counsel and fellowship of others, and keep your focus on where you need to be going with your journey.  And in that you will surely feel that you are making a journey to God and that you are right on target with where you need to be.  Amen.

The Reverend Wayne A. Ray