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In 1988, New Zealander Neil Finn, who I consider to be amongst the best living songwriters, wrote a song called “Into Temptation” for his group Crowded House. It was a song about an affair, or maybe just a potential affair, but Finn doesn’t stop there. He wonders in the quirky lyrics about the ridiculous theological claim often made that our sinful actions lead to God’s retribution in earthquakes or hurricanes, and also about the nature of temptation itself – the way that we are often enticed to actions that we know aren’t good for us, or, more often to short term gratification with long term consequences.
It’s a line from the song that has become the title of this sermon – safe in the wide open arms of hell, a line that speaks to how the things that tempt us are often quite welcoming, very comforting, safe, even lifted up as wise or at least prudent. It’s not something clearly evil that we most often resist, not the bitter lie or the angry attack, it is far more often the thing that seems OK, the thing that looks comforting. The lie that is just a “little one” to save face, the small step over the ethical boundaries for a big personal gain, the hating of the hater. That’s so much more the kind of temptation that confronts us – sly and creative and seemingly innocuous, plying us with comfort or security or even praise. That’s what tempts us to the truly destructive things – abuse of power, hate, vengeance. See, in this story, everything that the tempter says is true. He tells Jesus that as God’s Son, scripture says he can find bread in the desert, which evokes the memory of manna from heaven in Exodus, a story the Jewish Jesus would have been quite familiar with – true. Then he says that scripture tells Jesus that the angels will catch him if he falls, bearing out a biblical metaphor that demonstrates God’s love for us and desire that we be safe and protected. Also true. And when those don’t “work” for the tempter, he goes for the jugular – OK, just abandon all that scriptural nonsense. Obey me, prostrate in front of me, worship me and I will give you power over everything you see. And this time it’s Jesus who uses scripture to rebuke him.
All of this dramatizes what lies at the foundation of temptation. It isn’t “original sin” as has been suggested by theologians of the past, and still sold today as the white-hot center of your sinfulness. No, it is something more like what theologian David Lose calls “original insecurity.” Adam and Eve, in the creation myth, suddenly understand, with a little help from a snake, that there is something incomplete in them, and the snake says that the hole in their hearts can be filled…it’s fruit shaped. Oh, hey – look! Some fruit! But that doesn’t fill the hole at all. All of the tempter’s language is “if” language – IF you do this, then you get that – which sounds as much like a commercial as anything. Here – the missing thing in your life is car-shaped, or spouse-shaped, or beer-shaped…well, actually the hole in my life IS actually beer-shaped so don’t go preaching my sermon back at me later.
What this story shows us is that the model of Jesus gives us a way to resist temptation by finding our identity in God. Now please hear me – I’m not talking about resisting the piece of chocolate or the french fries – this is the temptation for us to choose fear and the illusion of security over the risk of relationship, or the lie of might makes right, or the falsehood that we can achieve peace with war. The world can withstand that hot fudge sundae you might be tempted by, but the temptation to give into hate, or to trust in possessions or domination, that has much more serious impact.
My friends who went on the interfaith tour of Israel and Palestine found out that we have two ways set before us. One believes that our safety is found in war and walls, checkpoints and checkbooks. The other believes that our trust lies in God who would have us seek to understand rather than be understood, to hope rather than fear. Now these are not absolute positions – sometimes war is a regrettable part of our reality, and sometimes hope is untenable, or even invisible. Like our struggle with temptation, these are practices with which we engage, not final points on some sort of acquisition of enlightenment. I saw them again on display at the capitol on Thursday, when we gathered for Muslim Day as a peaceful presence, choosing to meet the hatred and vitriol of some people with a display of love for people who have become friends because we did not give into the temptation to alienate…a temptation that we’re told is “right” and “just” by many voices who seem to offer us comfort or protection.
When the desert sets in around us, and we’re tired and hungry, tempted by the easy, the “everyone else is doing it”, the default – that is when it matters in what direction we are pointed. It matters what we can resist. For if the cry right now is to resist, we will need to be very clear and certain about what we are resisting as we move through what we believe to be contained in an election cycle. May we learn the sacred skill of endurance, not as a self-flagellation, but as the strength and stamina needed to endure the trials of a life lived with purpose. I hope this Lent we will give up things that matter – leave the chocolate and the wine, give up the blaming and the apathy and add things instead – a capacity for listening, a heart for understanding — spiritual skills that we help us change ourselves and then the world. Because temptation can be tricky, and manipulative, we must learn to understand how very comforting the road to hell can seem, paved with the best of intentions. And then we must resist that temptation, and begin the work for peace, the building of the kin-dom, the great mending of the world, in the desert of our own hearts.