This sermon was given by our Kellogg Fellow, Emily Garcia, on March 9th at the Episcopal Chaplaincy's service for the first Sunday in Lent. The readings for the day can be found here.
Good evening, and welcome to Lent! This is my favorite season. Each season of the church year lifts up different aspects of our relationship with God. During Lent, we slow down a little, and pay more attention to the difference between our nature and God’s nature: namely, that God is perfect, infinite, perfect love, holy, and righteous—and we are not. We are finite, our world is broken and hurt in some way, and we are not perfect—we’re human. God's love reaches across that distance, but the difference remains, and that’s part of what Lent is about.
Our Gospel today shows us both sides of this, in showing us how human Jesus was, and how very much he was God. After his baptism, Jesus is led by God’s Spirit into the wilderness, and he’s there for forty days and forty nights. At the end, “famished,” the tempter comes to him. Jesus is presented with three temptations, each of which he apparently rebuffs with only his good memory of Scriptures. On the surface of the story, there is no indication of struggle. But if we believe that Jesus was in fact tempted, then there was a moment when Jesus considered saying yes to the tempter. A moment when he actually made a choice, when he may have said either yes or no. Gregory the Great in the sixth century said that temptation proceeds by suggestion, then taking delight in the suggestion, and then by consent. If Jesus was tempted, then he must have considered consenting.
But Jesus was and is God, and was able to resist temptation his entire life. We are not God, but we are also faced with many choices—as the Collect says, “assaulted by many temptations,” and “weak”, each in our own way. And although our temptations look very different from Jesus’s, some of the essential qualities are the same as these three.* I have seen many rocks without ever once feeling the urge to change them to bread—but I have wanted to use my God-given gifts simply for my own nourishment—for me and only me. I’ve never been tempted to be caught by angels in front of a crowd, but I have been tempted to be apparently the most holy one in a room, to be seen as the closest to God. I’ve never been offered kingdoms and splendor, but I have had some chances at acclaim, the ears and attention of many, power.
Most of us have faced and will face temptations like this—opportunities for satiety, attention, and power, which although they could be used for the greater glory of God, are often acquired and used for our own satisfaction.
Now, temptation itself is not a sin.
Many of our feelings and thoughts come to us from our bodies, our neurochemistry, our subconscious. These are the “suggestions” that Gregory the Great talked about, and hearing them, finding them appealing even, is not a sin at all.
The first temptations that I always think of are anger and selfishness. I am often tempted by a sudden rush of feeling that comes unbidden—as if someone flipped a switch in my brain, and all of the lights and alarms in my head go off. If I’m angry, I feel like I want to shout at someone, or kick something. If it’s selfishness, I want what I think is mine, what I think I deserve, and I don’t want to wait and I don’t want to share.
So you can probably hear why I work with kids! Most of my temptations are very kid-like temptations! But for many of us grown-ups, our temptations come on a bit more slowly, or a bit more quietly. They’re the sneaky unspoken assumptions beneath our choices. It’s when we find ourselves thinking, “I don’t want to listen to this; I don’t have to; their feelings don’t especially matter.” Or, “I’m in a hurry—it’s fine if I’m a little pushy with this person, I’m busy and he doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere important.” Or, “I know what’s best—why should I consider what these people think?” Or, “I’m obviously the most important person here—people should be listening to me.” Or, “This person is kind of weird—I’m going to let them know I think they’re out of place.”
Temptations like this often build incrementally, over time. We feel that initial rush of emotion that I mentioned, or we hear these quiet little voices, and we get used to them, and our initial resistance starts to fade as we get used to it, and one day we say Yes, and it gets easier to say Yes—and eventually consenting to this appealing suggestion, giving into temptation, becomes a habit.
Temptation, that first suggestion, isn’t a sin—but it presents us with a choice. Will we turn towards God, and away from our impulse? Or will we stay there, our backs to God, making ourselves at home in our little space of selfishness, or anger, or arrogance?
Me, I normally choose that latter course. I let myself feel so justified in whatever petty feeling comes up that I just stay there, stewing in it, and it keeps boiling away in my thoughts, stinking up the day—and then it comes out of me as thoughtless actions, or mean words.
I love the lines in the confession of sin that say, “thought, word, or deed—things done or left undone.” These are all ways of giving into temptation. And in the older confession, it says, “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.” I wonder what the devices and desires of your heart are? I wonder what thoughts, words, and deeds you are tempted by? I know that I do follow too much the devices of my own heart. Most of us do, I think.
BUT! Here’s the good news! It doesn’t always have to be like that! (That’s the good news of Christ all around—it doesn’t always have to be like that!)
We can resist temptation—and we can get better and better at resisting temptation. We do this with God’s grace. Or rather, GOD does this IN us with God’s grace.
God’s grace is a free gift, like Paul says. Sometimes it works in us like lightning—a sudden strike from nowhere and a person is transformed. Paul himself is a good example, and maybe you know someone else with a similar story. I have a friend who gave up an addiction after a sudden moment in which he felt God offered him love and healing, and my friend accepted it in his heart—and has been a different person ever since.
But for most of us, God’s grace is incremental. It’s a grace of mountains and snails instead of lightning. We change slowly over the days and years of our lives, growing closer and closer to God. Sometimes we see it; most of the time we don’t. But over time our thoughts, words, and deeds are transformed. And the devices and desires of our hearts are themselves changed.
Since this grace is a free gift, you have to say YES to it! God isn’t a bully—he’s not going to shove the gift into your face. He’s going to wait, and keep offering, until you say yes to him. And since for most of us it’s an incremental grace, we have to keep saying yes!
I think there are two main ways we keep saying yes to God’s grace, that we receive this grace that allows us to change.
The first is in relationships with other people, and in loving communities with each other. We are born with our own natural virtues as well as our own natural weaknesses, and God has given us each other so that we can learn from each other’s witness. We also learn simply by being in relationships with other people. Sometimes these loving communities are in and around church services—but often they’re not! Grace is not, praise God, confined to the sanctuary walls.
The second way we keep saying yes to God’s grace is in prayer. Not just in common worship—but in time spent carefully listening to what God has to say about our lives. Sometimes Episcopalians forget that prayer doesn’t mean “words put together in a beautiful cadenced order”—that’s the BCP! PRAYER means TALKING WITH GOD. Talking with—so both speaking, and listening. Time spent with God is like time spent with other loved ones—the more time you spend with someone, the more they rub off on you, the more you hear their voice in your head or know how they might react to a situation. The difference is—this is the creator of the universe who wants to talk with you, and their way of being that’s going to rub off on you is perfection and goodness itself.
The more we are in loving relationships with other people, and the more time we spend listening for God’s voice, the more we find that the devices and desires of our hearts are being changed. The more we say YES to God’s free gift of grace, the less we hear the whispers or shouts of our temptations. The more we say YES to God, the clearer his voice comes to our ears.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, we are weak, but you are strong. We are tempted, like you were tempted; help us to say yes to your free gift of grace, and transform the desires of our hearts to a desire for you and your love. In your Holy Name we pray,
*I'm grateful for this analysis and similar comparisons from Br. David Vryhof, in his Workshop on Discernment in Prayer.