Avoiding Sin, Avoiding Grace – A Homily for The First Sunday in Lent

 

Image credit: Simon Smith

The First Sunday in Lent (year C) – Luke 4: 1-13


 

When I was 18 years old, I found myself surrounded by temptation – quite literally (in my eyes).  The source of temptation may have seemed innocent enough, but the guilt was real. You see, the university I attended had a gender ratio of roughly 1 male, to every 4 females. While baggy jeans were still in style for guys, let’s just say the feminine fashion often took the “less is more” approach.

There was a Puritanical streak in the Baptist circles I ran in at the time, and so teenage boys were taught strategies for how not to give in to temptation and gawk at the girls.

Strategy one was to look at the attractive girl as you would your sister. No one would stare at their sister like that, would they? Unfortunately, not only did this strategy not work, it also left you feeling slightly incestuous.

Strategy two for dealing with temptation was to avert your eyes by looking at your shoes. Seriously. Your shoes. As if your shoes are anywhere near as interesting as the looker who just walked by. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon to see a group of guys all staring at our boots as we passed our female peers. Avert your eyes, was the idea, plug your ears and listen not to the Sirens’ song.

But perhaps my favorite technique for avoiding temptation I learned from an old, learned professor who taught Philosophy of Religion. In a discussion one day about creation, temptation, and sin, Dr. Sampson shared this nugget of wisdom:

“The first glance,” he reasoned, “is a natural God-given attraction. Our sexuality is a gift. The problem,” he went on to say, “is that double take, the second glance. The lustful, devouring look that objectifies a fellow human being, created in the image of God.”

Silence filled the classroom.

“The secret to avoiding temptation and sin,” he half-joked, “is to appreciate the first glance, without giving in to the second.”

A classmate leaned over and whispered, “Did he just give us permission to stare at girls?”

“Yes,” I told him. “As long as you’re wearing your sister’s boots.” (or something like that)

Now, I tell you this story, not to make a mockery of temptation, but to make the point that at the root of temptation, there is often a reasonable longing, an original good, a God-given desire. 

An eighteen-year-old’s sexual attraction is hardly sinful in and of itself. It is how one goes about fulfilling that desire where trouble often abounds.

If we imagine the life of faith to be merely a matter of rules and regulations, a set of moral codes that shan’t ever be broken, we have missed the point altogether. Sin is less about ought nots and should nots than it is a distortion of the good. I’d challenge you to think of any sin that does not have at its core, a longing, a desire for something good.

Take, for instance, the first temptation of Jesus: “If you are the Son of God,” suggests the devil, “command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” If Moses did it for the Israelites in the desert, surely the Son of God can summon up a baguette or two.

The body needs bread, right? Nothing morally wrong or shameful about a basic human need.

Ah yes, but that’s not all we need, says Jesus, “One does not live by bread alone.”

Now, of course, physical hunger and bread are not evil, they are natural, normal elements of human existence. Parker Palmer notes this well in his book The Active Life:

“Ironically, this quotation (“one does not live by bread alone”) has caused some Christians to succumb to a sin that the devil himself must applaud, the sin of spiritualizing basic human needs to the point of ignoring poverty and starvation. These Christians have been deluded into thinking that Jesus’ words justify the attempt to ‘save the souls’ of the starving without feeding them, to address the ‘spiritual’ needs of the poor without putting food in their mouths and without challenging the injustice that deprives them of their fair share. But these words of Jesus, his refusal to turn stone into bread, are his response to the devil, not starving people.”

Henri Nouwen calls this particular test, to turn stone to bread, the temptation to be relevant. Sacrificing the deeper need of sustenance from God for a cheap snack.

Sustaining his fast Jesus is then led by the devil up to see “in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.” “It, too, can be yours,” says the slick salesman, “if only you were to worship me.”

Now, I think it would be a safe assumption to say that the devil is not tempting Jesus with something Jesus doesn’t want. If we don’t at all desire it, is it really a temptation?

Later in his ministry, Jesus will lament over Jerusalem crying, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” Jesus longs to gather up these kingdoms into his care.

But what the devil is distorting here is that what he describes is power over, instead of power with and for the other. Power over is exactly the type of social sin that leads to racism, sexism, and unwarranted privilege. Power over leads to the objectification of women, the subjugation of black lives, and economic inequality that keeps the poor powerless. Power over the other is the only kind of power the devil knows, and he knows just how tempting it can be.

On the other hand, power with and for is the kind of self-emptying power Jesus demonstrates in what is called kenosis, an intentional giving up of power over in order to stand in solidarity with those who have no power. This kind of giving up of power over is more than a photo op or press release. Jesus did not just stand in solidarity with the poor, Jesus was poor. Jesus did not merely feel bad for the sick, he touched them, talked to them, gave them hope and acknowledged their faith. There is, in the incarnation of Christ, the great potential for power over to be transformed into power with and for. 

“Worship the Lord, and serve him only.” Jesus responds to this temptation. Not power over, not prestige, money or material goods…Worship the Lord, and give no one else power over you.

In the last of the desert temptations, we read that Jesus is led to the temple mount, where the devil takes a different approach to tempt Jesus. If he won’t listen to the words of the devil, surely he’ll listen to the words of Holy Scripture.

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

This is an example where the devil clearly knows the letter of the law, but lacks the spirit. Again, Parker Palmer says that at some time or another “all religious people are ‘selective fundamentalists,’ – we all emphasize whatever portions of Holy Writ serve our purposes at the moment.”

In this temptation, we see that the devil is the original fundamentalist. His literal interpretation of scripture leads not to genuine trust, but to a manipulation of the Divine.

Jesus, however, displays a deeper integration, a deeper understanding of the Scripture when he refuses to put God to the test.

Time and time again, in these temptation tales, the devil questions Jesus’ identity. But in the scene immediately preceding the temptations, God has spoken definitively about who this is, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Time and time again we, too, find that we are deceived about our God given identities. Either we buy into the lies that we are self-sufficiently impressive, or we succumb to the lies that we are worthless dirt.

But in the creation stories of Genesis we learn that we are not worthless dirt, we are beloved dust. This sacred worth is our birthright as we are created in the image and likeness of God. We, like Jesus, are marked as beloved.

Beyond staring at our boots and keeping our heads down to avoid temptation, beyond moral checklists and keeping the letter of the law, may we have the grace to live in to our identity as beloved children of God.

After all, the life of faith is about much more than merely the avoidance of sin.  Faith is about trust. Trust that you are, in fact, who God says you are.

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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