St. James the Less #80
Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. Matthew 4:1-11
Seven Deadly Sins
Last summer you may remember we partnered with the Episcopal church in Gallatin to do a three-week pub theology event. A month before the first night, Fr. Jacob and I were bouncing around several ideas that we thought might be interesting topics.
We jokingly said, “How about the Seven Deadly Sins.” You know that great Medieval list of sins: pride, envy, anger, sloth, covetousness, gluttony, and lust. But the more we thought about it, the more we were intrigued about discussing these various sins. But we were legitimately worried that we would get a low turnout because of the topic. Who wants to go to a bar, grab a beer, and then spend the next hour talking about deadly sins?
We decided to go through with it not because of the crowds that it would bring, or better yet, the crowds we’d scare away, but because of the importance of the topic. We felt like we had to do it because nowadays we just don’t talk about sin that much, especially in the Episcopal church.
Though we decided to call it something else. We agreed on the title, “The Seven Sexy Passions,” which sounds a little more intriguing and guest friendly than the Seven Deadly Sins.
But we also had an actual reason for naming it that. With all of these sins there is something appealing about them. They call to us, some more than others, but either way, they can be tempting or desirable or dare I say…sexy?
One of the greatest American philosophers of all time, Mark Twain said, “There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable.”
So whether you call them sins or passions, they are in fact attractive to us, they call our name, they know our weakness, and they can quite easily lead us astray. We wouldn’t sin the ways we do unless we liked doing it.
And I think that is why Mark Twain’s quote hits the nail on the head. Sin is charming and even desirable because, even though we know it is not good for us, we still do it. But even if we playfully call them the “Sexy Passions” we must not forget the seriousness of sin. There is a reason after all they were called “deadly” sins.
Sin is the one thing that separates us from God. It is the barrier between the fallen creation and the perfect Creator. We are in the mess we’re in as humanity because we continue to get stuck in the same of ruts of pride, envy, anger, sloth, covetousness, gluttony, and lust. And we have to battle these temptations on a daily basis.
In our gospel lesson today, we are told that after Jesus’ baptism he is driven out by the Spirit into the wilderness. It was a dry and arid land with no trees for shade or vegetation for food.
You may remember a month ago we talked about the Watershed Ridge Route which was the main road from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. This was the road that Mary and Joseph used to go to the Temple and the one that the wise men traveled on to meet Jesus.
We said how this road was the geographical marker where the rain would fall. The clouds would hit the ridge and water one side and leave nothing for the other side. We talked about how if you were standing on the ridge looking to your right everything was green, and everything to your left was brown and dull.
If you looked out in the distance on that brown and lifeless side of the ridge, you would see the edges of the wilderness; the very same wilderness that Jesus went to be tempted.
And so, it is in this hot and lifeless terrain that sinless Jesus is put to the test. Like the people of Israel who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, preparing themselves to enter the Promised Land, so Jesus goes for 40 days before beginning his ministry.
We are told that he is tempted by the devil. We are not given any details about what the devil looks like. We aren’t even told that he has any form whatsoever, there is a complete lack of a physical description.
Though we aren’t given many details about this tempter, one thing is clear: he exists and persists in his goal of destroying God’s work in the world.
His name is Greek, “diabolos” can be traced to the verb that means “to split.” And if you think about it “from the earliest chapters in the Bible there is an anti-God force at work in the world, trying to split us and God” (Bruner 119).
The author Jeffery Russell wrote three volumes on the historical and theological background of the devil. In it he traces the earliest places the devil is mentioned it the Bible, and then goes up to modern times about how different people and cultures have talked about the devil.
At the very end of this long work Russell concludes with his final, personal thoughts on the matter, and this is what he says, “A real force is actively present in the [world], urging to evil. This evil force has a purposive center that actively hates good, the [world], and every individual in the [world]. It urges us to hate good, the [world], other individuals, and [even] ourselves. It has terrible and immense effects, but it is ultimately futile; every individual can defeat it in himself or herself by drawing on the loving power of God. For Christians, then, the person of the Devil may be a metaphor, but it is a metaphor for something that is real, that really brings horror to the world every day and [that] threatens to lay the entire world waste” (Bruner 121).
This evil force, the great tempter himself, is the one who was actively at work in the wilderness against Jesus, and is actively working to come between us and God as well.
It is important to note that in all three temptations the devil is trying to sow seeds of doubt in Jesus’ mind. Doubt of his divine call at baptism when he heard his Heavenly Father say, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” The devil also sows doubt of God’s faithfulness and protection. And even doubt in the Scripture that Jesus keeps quoting.
For the devil, “Doubt is the lever of temptation” (Bruner 123). It pries and splits us from God. And each time Jesus conquers those doubts by returning to Scripture. He relies on the Word of God and on the voice he heard at his baptism to defeat the stalking of the evil one.
It should be no surprise then, that in our own baptismal service, the priest asks the candidate for holy baptism, “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?” And each time the candidate says, “I renounce them.”
At the very beginning of this new life in Christ, the baptized person says that they will not allow the powers of evil and sin to create a wedge that will split them from God.
Let’s be clear: the Bible and the service for Holy Baptism don’t make an argument for the existence of the devil. Rather, it not only assumes his existence, but that he is actively trying to draw us away from God with the same old vices that have plagued humanity from the beginning.
Call them sexy passions or deadly sins, call them what you want, they continue to split us from the love of God, and it is only by the power of God that they can be conquered.
Our 40 days in the wilderness of Lent have already begun. This is the prime opportunity to assess the damage of sin, and how it has muddled and wrecked our relationship with God and our loved ones.
It’s a time where we call a spade a spade and accept that we are broken and in need of serious mending--that the reason we continue to sin is because we continue to find sin enjoyable. It is only when we ask God to break our addictions, our unhealthy and sinful habits, that we can truly live the life he has called us to live.
Lent can be the perfect chance to break the cycle and get us out of the rut. But we have to be willing to name the sin in our life, and to seek reconciliation through true repentance and amendment of life.
Like Jesus in the wilderness we can rely on two things for sure. We can rely on his Holy Word. When in doubt seek comfort and wisdom in the words of Scripture. If it was good enough for Jesus during his temptation, it’s good enough for us.
We can also rely on the grace of our baptism. Jesus heard the voice of God affirming him as the Son of God as he rose out of the Jordan River. We too through the waters of baptism have been “sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Those aren’t just words. They mean something in this great battle with sin. They are a sacred promise that God is with us even during temptation.
The journey of Lent of is long road, and we have merely begun…but if taken seriously and with God’s help, it can lead to our own healing and transformation. May it be so for all of us.
First Sunday of Lent. Year A. Matthew 4:1-11. D. Bruner’s commentary Matthew vol. 1.