Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘temptation’

Are We Out of the Woods?

Matthew 4:1-11 NRSV

The 40 days of Lent, for Christians around the world, are an opportunity. Now I don’t know where you are in terms of Christian traditions or Lent. Maybe for you, Lent is a strange word that sounds like the small amount of fuzz in your pants pockets [i.e. lint] or the past tense of a word meaning to borrow. Some of you may have grown up in the Roman Catholic tradition, and so Lent may remind you of giving something up, like candy, alcohol, or meat [on certain days]. I also know that many of you have no history with this thing called Lent whatsoever. So let’s focus on the number 40, shall we? And on the journey story of Jesus of Nazareth, which begins with a 40 day period of self-discovery.

And as a help in our own journey of self-discovery, allow me to introduce another story.

wild
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, a memoir written by Cheryl Strayed that describes her 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995 as a journey of self-discovery. Her story was made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. Cheryl Strayed, at the age of 22, saw her mother die of lung cancer at the age of 45. Afterwards, her family was incredibly distant and disconnected and she began a path of self-destruction, leading to broken relationships and heroin addiction. Four years later, Strayed, with no hiking experience, set out to tackle the Pacific Crest Trail that begins in the Mojave Desert and continues through California and Oregon to the Bridge of the Gods into Washington State. Her story recounts Cheryl’s life before and after this hike, describing her physical challenges and spiritual realizations. Let’s watch the trailer:

Cheryl Strayed’s story is an appropriate one for us to look at during this season. It leads us to Jesus’ story in the Gospel of Matthew. This 40 day journey of Jesus is told by Mark, Luke, and Matthew, though today we are focusing on Matthew’s version, and there are some differences that I need to point out.

First, Matthew’s author says that Spirit “takes Jesus up” into the wilderness, he fasts for forty days and only afterward is he hungry. Matthew’s Gospel was written for a primarily Jewish audience, so no surprise that this version of the story makes two connections with Israel. The number 40 refers to the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years and the phrase “forty days and forty nights” refers to Moses in the book of Exodus who was on Mt. Sinai for “forty days and forty nights.”  Further, Matthew’s story defines the character of “the tempter” in various ways, calling him devil, Satan, the evil one, the enemy, prince of demons, and even Beelzebul.

Speaking of the temptations. And no, not the Motown group, though they were AMAZING.

temptationsgroupThis is Jesus’ temptation experience and Matthew switches things up. First, Jesus is told to turn stones [plural] into loaves of bread. Then, Jesus is tempted at the pinnacle of the temple [order change], and lastly, Jesus is tempted up on a mountain [see earlier Exodus/Moses references]. The plural of stones and loaves is important because Matthew is making the point that if Jesus is who he says he is, why not feed the world? Why not use his magic power to do something like that? Jesus rebuffs the temptation by retelling the story of the Israelites in the wilderness and waiting for food, and in that waiting and humility, they were finally able to be ready to receive the manna [bread] that Yahweh provided.

The second test is in Jesus exploiting his supposed religious power as God’s son. This is about the religious elite of Jesus’ day, and how they wielded power over the marginalized of society. Jesus, in Matthew’s story, again refers to Moses, this time to a story in which people were thirsty and Moses asked God to make water flow from a rock.

And lastly, when Jesus is up on a high mountain [so high that he not only sees the promised land but the whole cosmos], he is tempted by the question: who is the divine? Is Yahweh God? Is the tempter God? And it follows: how is Jesus really? That last question, of course, has been the crazy controversy of Christianity since probably around the 3-4th century.

The identity question within Jesus’ wilderness story is the point for us. Just like in the story of the Wild, someone is challenged to look deeply at who they are, facing temptations, anger, sadness, the past, and the present.

I will pretty much leave this here for now, because we need to take this journey appropriately—with patience and care. Self-examination /change/personal growth are not quick-fixes. This is more than just learning a new skill, giving up something, or practicing some sort of religious thing. This is a change not just in what you do but in who you are. Each step of your journey is important. And we all must start where we are. Doesn’t matter what mistakes you’ve made or the state of your life currently. This is where you are. Just take the next step, whatever that is. Take the first step.

See the trail, the wilderness, the journey—as an opportunity. Embrace it. What would it be like for you to forgive yourself? What would it be like for you to embrace your own journey? What is your first step to change that will help to make you a healthier, balanced, and whole person?

 

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Temptation to Imagination

Luke 4:1-13

Temptation

What does it mean for you to be yourself?

Think about that for a moment.

What does it mean for you to be yourself?

For Christians, the season of Lent began with Ash Wednesday. Lent is a period of 40 days [not counting Sundays]. The forty days of Lent is about one tenth of a year. So observing Lent is like giving one tenth of your year to do something different. Of course, many people assume that Lent is all about giving up something for forty days, like chocolate or TV. But it’s not really about that. You don’t have to give up something for Lent. This period of forty days is supposed to be about self-reflection that leads to personal growth and also to doing good in the world and helping others.

So during Lent, I’ll be asking myself [and you] to use our imaginations. Return to the initial question:

What does it mean for you to be yourself?

The Gospel stories, including Luke, say in their story, that after being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus of Nazareth went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking: what does it mean to be me, Jesus of Nazareth?

And during that process, the stories tell us that Jesus faced temptations. I’ll leave it up to you how you wish to interpret the symbolism in the story. From my perspective, I don’t take it literally, but certainly embrace the symbolic meaning in the text. For example, it’s no secret that the Gospels have Jesus start his ministry in the wilderness and then end it in Jerusalem. The wilderness, in the Hebrew tradition, was a symbolic place where people were challenged and pushed to their limits; but the wilderness was also where people learned and grew as human beings. Jesus starts there, but he eventually makes it to the religious and cultural epicenter of that part of the world—Jerusalem. The Gospels tell the story in this way to remind us that it was necessary for Jesus to have sufficient time in the wilderness before tackling the challenges he would face in Jerusalem.

Also, there is the obvious parallel to the Moses story. Moses and the Israelites left Egypt and wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Then, eventually they made it to Jerusalem. So you’ll need to embrace the symbolism of the number 40 to dig deeper into the meaning. The 40 days of Lent don’t necessarily have to be a literal 40 days. It’s just symbolism to remind us that at certain times in life we need a time in the wilderness for learning and growth.

wildernessSpecifically, the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness have their own symbolic meaning. First, Jesus was hungry because he had been fasting, like many other religious ascetics did in his time. After his fast Jesus was tempted by bread. But this was not just about controlling his appetite. Later in the Gospel stories this same Jesus would feed the five thousand and the four thousand. He chose to help them find nourishment because they were in need. This is important to note, because Jesus did NOT choose to feed, heal, or bless people because he was driven by fear or by the voice of someone or something else in his head. He chose to do those things himself because it came naturally to him. So perhaps the first temptation was more about facing the common temptation to act out of fear or desperation. Trusting that bread will be provided enables one to provide bread for others.

The second temptation is also fear-related.

Prove, says the tempter’s voice, that you are God’s Son and jump off the pinnacle of the temple. I think that Jesus was most certainly human in every way, and so I also think that from time to time he feared failure and felt inadequate. Any leader feels this sometimes. So the second temptation was to face the possibility that things would not always go as he hoped—that his followers and friends may not always join with him and that others would criticize and reject him. I mean, who doesn’t fear rejection, right? So by not jumping off the temple roof, Jesus claims a truth that regardless of what people say or do, his real self will not be harmed.

The third and final temptation is all about power. Even good people with good intentions struggle with this. If you know that you want the best for people and the world, shouldn’t the world then conform to your ideas of how things should be? Who better to rule the world than the person who has good intentions, right? I mean, who would blame Jesus for claiming the throne to better spread his message and revolution of love? But that’s the temptation.

Regardless of how good our intentions may be, taking power eventually leads to trampling others.

Perhaps this was the hardest temptation. Would Jesus claim the power that so many wanted him to have? His answer of “no” to that question changed the whole story, didn’t it?

Speaking of the story, the very next thing that happened after Jesus’ time in the wilderness should come as no surprise. Jesus left the wilderness and found people [in this case, Peter, James, and John]. He shared his experience with them and they made connections. You see, Jesus’ personal spiritual experience of 40 days wasn’t just an isolated time of prayer and meditation. It was purposeful. His self-reflection led to deeper connections with other human beings.

That’s what inspires me the most, because often spiritual practices like prayer and meditation and even worship stay in the wilderness or the sanctuary or a building.

Unfortunately, it is tempting in every religion to become isolated from others in the world and to forget that any spiritual practice should not only make you a better person, but it should connect you to others in a meaningful way.

So may your forty days be a time for self-reflection, asking the question: what does it mean for you to truly be yourself, and may you discover not only who you are but what you are becoming. This process truly is worthwhile.

I close with an excerpt from Edwina Gateley’s poem, Called to Become from There Was No Path So I Trod One (1996, 2013):

You are called to become a perfect creation.
No one is called to become who you are called to be.
This becoming may be gentle or harsh.
Subtle or violent.
But it never ceases.
Never pauses or hesitates.
Only is—Creative force—Calling you.

Calling you to become a perfect creation.

 

A Trusting Identity: We Are a People of Continuing Testament

Luke 4:1-13     

These 40 days of Lent is a time to reflect on identity. Who am I? Who is God? Who is my neighbor? Who are we? Whenever we look deeply at our own identity, if we are open, we can even surprise ourselves. We can find out something new that we didn’t recognize before. And always, always, identity formation is enhanced in community. The people around us help us to know ourselves better. I can certainly say that this has been true for me. Throughout my life, there have been people who have helped to shape and form my identity. Some were family; some were friends; some were teachers, mentors; and of course, the people we love deeply and commit our lives to [like life partners and spouses] help us see ourselves differently.

But there is trust involved. We won’t embrace someone’s viewpoint of ourselves if we don’t trust that person. If someone challenges us or encourages us to try something new or to change in a certain way, we do so because we trust that person’s knowledge of us. And we also trust that he/she has our best interests in mind and that this person loves us enough to tell it like it is—to be honest.

One of my struggles in all the churches I have been part of is the lack of trust I have often observed. There are a lot of people in the pews or on the church rolls who read the Bible, pray, serve on committees or boards, even preach and teach Sunday school. But they rarely [if ever] move past the superficial conversations to reveal doubts about God; or say that they aren’t sure about the Bible; or that sometimes there are not answers to life’s greatest questions. Likewise, there seems to be a lack of trust related to our tendency to check our brains outside the sanctuary’s doors. It’s weird, but once many church people are inside the sanctuary, they don’t think or ask questions.

As people of faith who then form communities of faith, our identities are formed by how we see the scriptures [the Bible], and our theology [how we think about God]. There is an identity phrase used by the United Church of Christ: God is Still Speaking. This phrase has sort of become the denomination’s unofficial slogan. There is a story behind it, as there always is. Some of you may remember the comedian George Burns. His wife was also a performer, Gracie Allen.

GracieAllenThey had their own show together. The story goes that after Gracie died, George found among her papers a letter left for him. The letter included the phrase Never place a period where God has placed a comma.[1] A few years ago, when the UCC was in the midst of developing an identity campaign, a man called Ron Buford was charged with leading the creative efforts. So he gathered ideas from people in local congregations around the UCC.

Ron was first inspired by a quote from one of the founders of the Congregationalist Church, John Robinson: O God, grant yet more light and truth to break forth from your word. The idea that there was more light to break forth and no period where God has placed a comma became God is still speaking.

CommaIt was not and is not a new idea, actually. Revelation continues; testament [literally, witness] continues. The Bible, though full of different religious traditions and a mash-up of different time periods and writers, we say is inspired by God. There is not a period. This means that one interpretation of a Bible passage or one theology is not the final one or the best one. God is still speaking means that what Reformed theologians like John Calvin or Martin Luther wrote or said or what Councils in Nicaea or Rome decided is not by any means the final word. God is still speaking recognizes that their perspectives were limited to their culture and time period and agendas. What about other voices and interpretations? This is what continuing testament is all about—trusting that there still light [new perspectives] to break forth.

For some, this is difficult to accept, and why people [within the Christian community] say that UCC stands for Utterly Confused Christians or Unitarians Considering Christ. The openness of the idea, however, of God is still speaking does not mean that we’re all relativists [and neither are Unitarians, actually]. In other words, we are not just interpreting the scriptures in a way that is convenient or consistent with our cultural practices, political beliefs, or just simply put—we are not seeking to interpret the Bible to mirror what we like and already think.

God is still speaking is about opening up the mind and heart to different and even difficult interpretations—perspectives that challenge our comfort zones and move us to humility and love-action. And yes, if we’re really open and ready to listen, we will find that some of our doctrines and dogmas were and are oppressive, racist, close-minded, and downright awful. Throughout history, people [and the church] have interpreted scripture in order to do something bad to other people. It still happens quite often today, I am sad to say.

This is one of the main reasons I decided to be an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ–precisely because I do believe that there is a LOT of wisdom, light, and meaning yet to be discovered. It’s really never-ending. I have no trust in a Biblical interpretation that cuts down other people. You’re Muslim—well, too bad! The Bible says you are going to hell unless you believe in Jesus; tough luck. Oh, you’re gay? That’s too bad, because even though Jesus loves everybody else, he doesn’t love you! You pray that way? Eat that food? Speak that language? Believe that about God? Good luck, because my Bible says: See ya!

 And yet, if God is God, how in the world could we possibly limit this God by slapping a period down at the end and saying: That’s it! There’s only one way to look at it! The Bible as a whole contradicts this. Have you ever compared the four Gospels? Their views of Jesus–what he did and who he was–are sometimes very far apart, and rightly so. Each part of the Bible has its own unique voice. Continuing testament, God is still speaking—the idea is nothing new. The Bible itself is made up of different viewpoints, theologies, and religious practices. Continuing testament is about being attentive to God’s creative movement in the world.

God’s not stuck in a book; or in an era; or even in a religion. God is love and that love is free.

It is with that effort to hear a Still-Speaking God in the Bible stories that we turn to Jesus’ retreat story. Notice I didn’t say Jesus’ temptation. I’m borrowing from Dr. Bruce Epperly, professor at Claremont University. Bruce equates Jesus’ so-called temptation in the wilderness with a spiritual retreat.[2] He argues that our take on the story is quite full of devil-baggage and thus, we miss the Gospel writer’s point. Jesus is on spiritual retreat—trying to find his identity after being baptized by John. Jesus goes to pray and think and journey. And in that process he comes face to face with himself.

devilIt is true that our view of this story is often clouded by our view of the age-old character, the devil. Yes, that evil dude with the goatee, horns, red suit, and trident/pitchfork. Honestly, there is probably no better example of a mishmash of history and legend than the character of Satan. Of course, less than 1% of how the devil is portrayed in popular culture actually includes what the Bible says! In fact, there is no devil in the Hebrew Scriptures [what Christians call the OT]. Evil yes; devil no. Even in the NT of the Bible, the personification of the devil is hotly debated. Yes, there are demons [evil, angry spirits], but always in people or in some cases, in animals. The devil as a personified character is never described physically. There are evil voices and people who do evil things—that’s it.

You see, over the centuries various cultures have defined evil in different ways. The U.S. concept of Satan or the devil is a combo of various Anglo-Saxon and other European traditions—mixing in a bit of Greek mythology.

FaustThe German tradition of Faust is often mistakenly combined with Jesus’ wilderness story. Of course, Faust, in the story, is a highly successful scholar who is dissatisfied with life in general and so he makes a deal with the devil to acquire unlimited knowledge. Many see Jesus’ wilderness experience as this personified devil trying to seduce him to make a deal. And this kind of thinking leads us to the idea that the devil appears in our heads or on our shoulders, trying to persuade us to do bad things. Finally, we come up with the famous but ridiculous phrase: the devil made me do it.

 

HomerEventually, we start to feel a bit like Homer Simpson who carried the burden of Good Homer and Evil Homer. Again, though, is this really what Jesus’ wilderness experience is about? Is there one guy who is pure evil and makes us do evil things? Do we make that guy responsible for the things we do? Honestly, I think this is harmful and certainly not truthful. All of us are responsible for what we do and say. Sure, we are all capable of evil. No doubt about that. It doesn’t take long to see that we are all capable of hurting, killing, destroying, stealing, lying, and hating.

But I argue that it is less about a pitch fork-wielding devil and more about a lack of trust. In Jesus’ wilderness retreat, he is “tempted” three times, but each time it is about trust. If Jesus did not trust that he would have enough to eat, then by all means, he would have turned the stone to bread. If Jesus did not trust that he had what he needed, he would feel the need to take power for himself; and if Jesus thought that God really didn’t care, he would throw himself down to test that theory. It is all about trust.

That’s the message I hear. In our identity as people of faith, it is about trust. We are in a relationship with a trustworthy God who loves us unconditionally as we are, creates all of us equally human; and leaves us with an incredible natural creation to care for and love. And God entrusts us with relationships, which are supposed to be built on trust.

Temptation, then, is really planting the seeds of mistrust in relationships.

We are tempted to lie if we don’t trust that a person will accept our truth.

We are tempted to be passive-aggressive and not talk with someone face to face, because we do not trust them to listen.

We are tempted to hurt another if we think that person will hurt us.

We are tempted to steal if we don’t trust that we will have what we need.

We are tempted to hate if we don’t trust that differences are okay.

We are tempted to be apathetic and individualistic because we don’t trust that our actions make a difference.

It is about trust.

And so, let us form an identity of trust.

First, trust that God loves and doesn’t hate. God creates and doesn’t destroy. God is engaged in merciful action and not legalistic judging.

And then, trust yourself enough to love someone as she is. Trust yourself enough to accept differences and even embrace them. Trust enough to stand up for someone when no one else will. Trust enough to be honest, and generous, and forgiving, and passionate about helping.

Trust.

There is more light to break forth.

God IS still speaking through your actions of justice, love, and mercy.

The testament continues…in you. Amen.


[1] Two Minutes for God : Quick Fixes for the Spirit (2007) by Peter B. Panagore

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