Our theme for today, the first Sunday of Lent, is ‘Temptation’. And we have to face up to the fact, right from the start, that this is not the sexiest theme on the planet!
Well, maybe for some people it actually is the sexiest theme on the planet. Because to some people, that’s what the word ‘temptation’ is all about – seductive music, low-cut silk dresses, that air of danger, that fiction of attempting to resist, while all the time you know you’re not going to resist for long. ‘Temptation’ and ‘sex’ are two words that go together in a lot of people’s minds.
And the other word that often goes with ‘temptation’, of course, is ‘chocolate’! It’s dark, it’s mysterious, it’s sweet, it can be bad for us in excess, but it tastes so good! Who can resist it? Not many of us – at least, not for long!
So we have a communication issue here. Something which the biblical writers – and our Christian ancestors – considered to be a very serious, and very dangerous, part of our spiritual experience, has become something funny, or even something enjoyable – a ‘sinful pleasure’, we might say. How are we going to rehabilitate this word, to the point that we take it seriously?
I think we have to start with another word that’s lost its power to communicate: the word ‘sin’. Once again, it’s not a word that’s used very often these days. It tends to be associated with moralistic preachers going on about hellfire and brimstone and trying to control people and taking all the pleasure out of their lives. Or, alternatively, it has that same comic feel to it as the word ‘temptation’. When people of our day talk about something being ‘a sinful pleasure’, they don’t usually mean that it’s a bad thing, do they? They might even use the term ‘sinfully delicious’ – not just delicious, but delicious with that extra ‘zing’ of indulging yourself in something that someone else thinks you should stay away from – which just adds to the overall deliciousness, doesn’t it? ‘Take that, you killjoys!’
It’s this total loss of horror over the evil of sin – the evil of our own sin – that makes some preachers and Christian writers avoid the word altogether. But others have taken a different approach. I mentioned a few weeks ago Francis Spufford’s brilliant little book Unapologetic, which is subtitled Why, Despite Everything, Christianity can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. As I said last time, Spufford uses a snappy little phrase as an alternative to the word ‘sin’. His phrase uses a rather offensive swear word that I’m not going to repeat in this pulpit, but when I tell you that my slightly edited version of his phrase is ‘Our human propensity to mess things up’, I’m sure you can guess the word he used instead of ‘mess’!
But this is brilliant, isn’t it? Here’s part of what Spufford has to say about it:
‘What we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch’.
I think we all recognize this in ourselves, or at least, I hope we do. But we tend to be brought face to face with it in those horrible moments when we become aware of failure: a marriage ends, or a job disappears, or a relationship with an adult child becomes more and more distant until we wake up one day and realize we hardly ever see them again, or they never call. Or perhaps we realize that the extra glass of wine after supper has become two, or three, or four, and has started to have an impact on the rest of our life – a negative impact. Or the doctor tells us it’s time to start taking blood pressure pills or cholesterol medication, and we say, “I’m too young for that, aren’t I?” and she replies, “Well, some of your lifestyle choices might not have been very wise”.
Or maybe it’s none of that. Maybe we just catch ourselves one night in a reflective mood, thinking about what our life has become, and we suddenly remember all the bright dreams we had when we were in high school, and we think “What happened to all that?” and we’re consumed with regret, because none of the choices we made seemed that bad in themselves, but as we look back we can see how they’ve led inexorably to the person we’ve become.
Okay, so this is what we mean by ‘sin’. We have a life, one precious life, entrusted to us by a God who loves us and wants nothing but good for us. But he’s given us free will, which means that we can make real choices that have real consequences. And all of us, without exception, have this mysterious propensity to make bad choices. When we’re faced with that bright shiny thing that looks so good, or that choice between short term pleasure and long term good, over and over again we make the wrong choice. I do it. You do it. Everybody does it. And because we all live in a network of relationships, it doesn’t just effect us. The person I’m becoming effects the people I love, and the people I work with, and the barista I snap at when I buy my morning coffee, and so on, and so on, reaching out to the people in South Sudan who are currently heading inexorably toward a deadly famine caused entirely, so the experts say, by civil war. We are communal beings, and we sin as communal beings.
What do we have to say about this as Christians?
First, we’re in this together. None of us has the right to look down on someone else and judge them, because we’ve all been infected with the same disease. In A.A. everyone says “Hi, I’m Jack, and I’m an alcoholic”. Well, I’m Tim, and I’m a sinner. I mess things up. I break things and people that are precious to me. I have a lot of regrets. Every sane person does. We’re all in this together.
That’s why our Old Testament reading from Genesis is so important. It’s not about something that happened a long long time ago in a mythical time when snakes could talk. It’s about a fundamental characteristic of human beings, something that was as obvious to the original authors as it is to us today.
God creates us out of love and puts us in a beautiful garden where we have everything we could possibly want and more besides. We know God instinctively, as many children do even today, and we walk consciously with God. And we’re glad to follow God’s wise guidance, because we know from experience that things do tend to work out better for us when we do.
But then something catches our attention, something so beautiful that it takes our breath away. Immediately everything else fades from view and we find ourselves consumed with longing for this thing, this forbidden fruit. We know it’s forbidden, but we find ourselves doubting the wisdom of that command. ‘What would be wrong with it?’ we ask ourselves.
And then we hear the voice. “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’” (Genesis 3:1). Of course not, but the voice is a cunning one; it wants us to think that God’s out to spoil our fun. It wants us to resent God. And so it makes out God’s commands to be a lot more burdensome than they actually are. “You could have so much fun; there are so many wonderful things you could enjoy if it wasn’t for these silly, puritanical commandments. Why do you put up with them? You’re not really going to enjoy life to the full unless you ignore God on this point, and do what your instincts tell you to do”.
And so we give in, and we know right away that things have gone dreadfully wrong. The thought of God isn’t a delight any more; in fact, we’re scared of him, and we hide from him. We try to avoid thinking about him, because the thought of him and the thought of what we’ve done just can’t fit together in our minds.
But when he breaks through all that fog – when the stab of conscience succeeds in hitting us – we look around for someone to blame. “The woman – whom you gave to be with me – she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate”. It’s her fault – I wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t provoked me – and where did she come from, anyway? Wasn’t she your idea in the first place?” Or, “the serpent tricked me, and I ate” (in other words, “the devil made me do it!”).
We hide from God, and we blame others instead of accepting our own responsibility. And the result is that paradise is lost to us – we have to leave our beautiful home. We feel ashamed of ourselves, so we make clothes – in other words, we hide from each other, we wear masks with each other, because we’re afraid that if other people knew us as we really are, as we really know ourselves to be, they wouldn’t love us, or even like us. So we perform for each other, playing a role instead of being ourselves, out of fear of rejection. And the sad story goes on. In the next chapter of the book of Genesis, brother murders brother and then tries to hide the deed.
This is us; this is what we do. And we have to take it seriously. Christianity is against that facile view of human nature that says we’re all basically good people. That doesn’t make sense of all the despicable things we do to each other. Yes, we’re made as good people by a good God, but we’ve somehow gotten infected with this disease of selfishness and self-centredness – this human propensity to mess things up. And when we admit that, we can be patient with one another, because we know that we’re in the same struggle together.
And there is forgiveness. That’s the next thing Christianity has to say. Our fear of God turns out to be not the whole story. Yes, he’s angry, because he loves us and hates to see us putting ourselves through so much pain. But he’s not our enemy. And so in our psalm today we come across this incredible surprise; we can almost hear the astonishment in the author’s voice:
‘Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin’ (Psalm 32:5).
‘You forgave the guilt of my sin’. What an amazing thing! We sin against love, we turn away from the love that made us, and when he comes among us and tries to win us back, we nail him to a cross and string him up to die. And what does he do? He says, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”. We may be his enemies, but he appears to be in the habit of loving his enemies! And so we’re encouraged to come clean, not to ‘hide our iniquity’, but to turn to God and confess it. He knows about it anyway, so why should we pretend? “This is me, God; this is what I’ve done. No denials, no excuses. Will you forgive me, please?” And the reply? “My son, my daughter, your sins are forgiven. And by the way, I’m so glad you’re back, so we’re going to kill the fatted calf and have a feast!”
That’s the wonder of the Gospel. Do you believe it? If you do, you’ll go out of this church today with a new light in your eyes and a new joy in your heart. You looked into the face of your judge, and to your amazement you discovered a Saviour. And now you just can’t get over it!
But there’s more. We’re not condemned to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Yes, we won’t get entirely free of the infection, not while we live in this frail mortal flesh. Sin still weaves a tangled web, and even the holiest and most mature Christian gets caught in it sometimes. But salvation is possible. Progress in holiness is possible. And someone has walked that path before us.
That’s why the story of Jesus’ temptations is our gospel reading for today. This was not just play acting. Some people say, “Ah, but he was God, so he was never really going to fall to temptation, was he?” But that’s not taking the Incarnation seriously. “He was God” is not a completely exhaustive statement about Jesus. He was also a human being, subject to the same fears and doubts and tests and desires as us. Specifically, the desire to avoid the Cross. That’s what the devil was tempting him to do, wasn’t it? ‘You don’t have to walk this path of the cross. You can give them all free bread, or you can do some amazing miracle that makes it plain to them who you really are – that’ll impress them, won’t it? Or you can worship me, and then I’ll give them all to you as a gift’. No need for the nails, the spear, the crown of thorns. You can have it all for free.
Why did Jesus say ‘no’? This is really important; we need to know this. My own experience is that fighting against temptation is never a very effective way of fighting against temptation! Do you know what I mean? I’m tempted to buy something I don’t really need and I know I can’t really afford, but the temptation won’t go away, so each time it comes around I struggle against it. But when I’m struggling against it I’m still thinking about it, aren’t I? So this deliciously sinful thing gets bigger and bigger in my mind even as I’m fighting against it, and eventually, inevitably, I give in.
There’s a very significant verse in the letter to the Hebrews that offers us a different strategy. Let me read it to you:
‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God’ (Hebrews 12:1-2).
‘The joy that was set before him’. That’s what Jesus was focussing on when he was tempted. He wasn’t focussing on avoiding the sin. He was focussing on gaining the joy. He refused to let the temptation grow in his mind, so he turned his attention away from it, to something completely different.
We can do that too. What is ‘the joy that is set before us’? It’s the joy of knowing God better and better every day. Isn’t that an amazing thought – that we can know the creator of the universe, because he wants to know us? It’s the joy of having a clear conscience, or waking up in the morning without that heavy weight of guilt pressing on our hearts. It’s the joy of knowing that God has a dream for us and we’re making steady progress toward it. It’s the joy of working toward reconciliation and building better, more lasting relationships: good marriages, strong families, positive friendships, and even, as much as it lies within us, being at peace with those who don’t especially like us. It’s the joy of living in harmony with the person God created us to be.
That’s what we need to focus on this Lent: the joy that is set before us.
So yes – we have this human tendency to mess things up. We’re all infected by it, and it can lead us to do some awful, despicable things – things that hurt us, and that hurt the people around us. We all struggle with this, so none of us can sit in judgement on each other. We’re in this together.
And God’s in it together with us. He’s not itching to damn us to hell for it. He wants to forgive us, because that’s his nature: he’s a God of grace, a God who loves his enemies and blesses those who hate him.
He’s in it so much, in fact, that he came among us and walked the earth as one of us, to show us what he’s like, and to show us the way. And now he comes and lives among us again, living in us, in fact, by his Holy Spirit. We’ve all been infected by sin, but he’s spreading a good infection – the love of God. As we walk with him each day, that good infection grows stronger, helping us to defeat our human propensity to mess things up.
And we do this by focussing on the joy set before us. To know God is to know joy. That joy is the whole purpose of Lent. So don’t just focus on giving stuff up. Focus on knowing God and walking with God. In the end, that’s what Lent is all about.