Temptations and Spiritual Battles

Photo by Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

A sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, March 9, 2014.  The lectionary readings are Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19, and Matthew 4:1-11.

Some years ago, as I was serving as seminarian at a church, a part of my job was to stop in with the Sunday school classes, see what they were doing, and have a quick prayer with them.  I remember being surprised on the First Sunday in Lent when I walked into a class led by a creative teacher.  She turned to the Bible for her inspiration and found it in the New Testament Letter to the Ephesians.  Using chapter 6, she made outfits for the children so that they were living examples of the text.  By the time I got to class, the kids were decked out, and they were decked out for battle.  Ephesians says, “Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. The children had done just that—they had put on their armor—and just as Ephesians names the various articles, there the kids were with a “belt of truth around their waist, a breastplate of righteousness, [and] as shoes for their feet, whatever would make them ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” (They had peace signs on their sneakers.) They wore a “shield of faith,” with which they would be able to “quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And as the ultimate Ephesian accessories, they wore “helmets of salvation, and carried “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

At that point in my life, I was a little shocked at the militaristic imagery, but over the years, I’ve thought of the various lessons that teacher was giving those children.  This wasn’t taking a position on the Gulf War, any more than singing hymns with military images are supportive of the battles of our day. Instead, like the words to the church in Ephesus, that Sunday school teacher was helping the children begin to learn that in the spiritual life, there are battles.  Sometimes these are as clear as a battle between good and evil, between right and wrong, between just and unjust; but much more often, the battle is a subtle and tricky one.

In today’s scriptures, Genesis gives us a sense of the origin of sin and its early crafty, wily, power.  The second reading, to the Romans, gives hope that there’s a way forward, a way that has to do with grace from God and life in Jesus Christ.

In the Gospel, we Jesus himself doing battle and giving us a sense of how to follow him—even with the tricky dealings of the devil try to trap us.

It’s helpful, I think, to recall that one of the names of the devil is Lucifer, a word that comes from the Latin, meaning “light.” It is the great trick of the devil that, when we are (most of us) most afraid of the dark, we look for light—for brightness, for the good, the happy, the comfortable, all that enriches and assures and enlivens.

That’s only natural. But there is the possibility of evil in the light. Temptation often presents us with the choice between true light and the bright, shiny things that only look like light, while in reality they are only poor reflectors of light.

And often, we are tempted by things that are within our reach. The things that most tempt me are not only things that I might want, but also, they’re usually things that, with the right shift of resources and energy, I can attain. They are things that I conceivably might have.

What made the temptations alluring for Jesus was precisely that they fell within the range of what he could have done and could have had. Jesus, being full of the Holy Spirit, is led into the wilderness for forty days. He fasts, and near the end, he must be hungry. The devil appears to him and says “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Surely the God who parted the seas, who made manna fall in the desert and who enabled Jesus to be born to begin with, could certainly have done a magic trick with the rocks.

Next the devil takes Jesus to the highest pinnacle of the temple and taunts him with the psalm that promises the safety of angels’ wings. Again, it must have been tempting, but again, Jesus quotes scripture to the devil.

Finally, the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain and promises him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, with just one detail: it can all be had if only Jesus will just bow down and worship the devil. (It’s just a show of allegiance, just a symbolic act, not to worry too much about it.) It must have been tempting. For a split second, perhaps it even seemed to fit with God’s will. Especially with the disciples constantly suggesting to Jesus that his could be a worldly kingdom, he surely must have wondered. But again, Jesus quotes scripture back at the devil, and the devil finally leaves him alone.

I imagine Jesus being tempted throughout his life. When he was confronted by the Pharisees in their tedious arguments over the jot and tittle of the law, I would imagine Jesus was tempted to let them have it. When the people were always wanting quick miracles, easy answers and immediate healings, I bet Jesus was tempted to respond in some all-too-human way. When the woman at the well insisted that she and her people also be included in salvation, I think we see a little of Jesus’s temptation to turn his back, call it a day, and keep to his own understanding of the plan.  But in the face of each temptation, Jesus makes a choice.  He chooses God’s way.

Temptation does that to us, as well—it asks us to choose. D.T. Niles was a twentieth century Sri Lankan theologian who suggests that temptation really comes down to our making a choice between God and every other god. He writes, “The choice between God and every other god is a real choice. Both make promises, both demand loyalty. It is possible to live by both. If there were no real alternative to God, then all humanity would choose God.” [The Bible Through Asian Eyes.]

The God of Jesus Christ asks that we live by faith—faith in Him, faith in his care sufficient for the future, faith in God’s grace sufficient for today. Compare this with the other gods we might serve– gods that promise immediate results that promise the things we can see and accumulate and hoard. Each of the temptations the devil puts to Jesus has to do with immediate things. You’re hungry? Then, let’s eat. You’re competent and smart—you shouldn’t let that talent go to waste, you should go into politics. You should get what you deserve. The devil even gets a little sloppy and desperate—“jump of this pinnacle and put God to the test, just test God and see if he’ll deliver you.”

Against the devil’s temptations of the immediate, the present and readily available, Jesus remains calm and speaks out of his own faith and experience in God. Jesus knows that God will provide bread in its time. He knows that God’s promise of the angels’ care is not meant as an instant solution to a random moment of whim. And Jesus knows that God is using his abilities and talents in a way that is appropriate to God’s will.

I mentioned the Sunday school teacher using Ephesians to outfit her class for spiritual battle.  That chapter to the Ephesians explains that this is much more than child’s play.  It’s serious stuff, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Prayer, spiritual disciplines, self-reflection, growth in faith—all of this is training for spiritual battle.  I have thought of those costumes from the Bible—the shield of faith, the sword of the spirit—as I’ve looked at these amazing photographs from Kiev, showing Ukrainian Orthodox priests in the middle of the protests.  They wear vestments, carry crosses, and maintain a kind of stately defiance in the face of people who want action and change now, and those on the other side who are out to preserve order and hold the line.

One photograph, in particular, from shows a priest holding a cross in one hand and using his other hand as if to say, “hold on, wait, breathe, peace.”  Just to behind him, the picture shows the military, all in a line, and one soldier’s gun is aimed directly at the priest.

My guess is that these Ukrainian religious have done a lot of spiritual battle in their prayers, in their churches, in their own souls.  That’s what enables them to stand up when they need to, to speak out when they need to, to be the Body of Christ in the midst of every kind of temptation, confusion, and chaos.

The season of lent invites us to think about the choices we make. It invites us to work on our skills in discerning the difference between God and gods, between real light and shiny things.

Spiritual disciplines help us to do this. The church reminds us of classic spiritual disciplines such as spiritual reading or meditating on scripture, praying in a new way, saving money for a particular project or cause and giving it, fasting (whether that means giving up a particular food or drink, or fasting in a more creative way—avoiding waste, or limiting the use of water or plastic or gasoline.) Other things might easily become spiritual disciplines to clarify and steady: a daily walk, a time of reading or sitting still or writing in a journal. All of these, almost anything, really, if given over to God, if done with intention and mindfulness and a willingness to be used by God, can become spiritual disciplines to sharpen us and help us know when we’re being tempted. They help us focus. They bring clarity.

So often in our world, in our culture, we are overwhelmed and it’s difficult to know what to do or where to start. As odd as it might seem the words of an 18th century Russian monk and mystic, Seraphim of Sarov. Seraphim counseled, “Be at peace, and thousands around you will be saved.”

As we move through these forty days together, let Lenten disciplines inform us, shape us, clean us and help us to be at peace, come what may.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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