Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee
February 21, 2002


Surrounded by Temptation
The Rev. Dr. Daniel P. Matthews
Rector, Trinity Church, Wall Street
New York, New York

Oh, Holy Spirit of God,
Take our minds and think through them.
Take my lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Thee
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Jesus was alone, all alone. After all the excitement of the baptism and John the Baptist, he went off for forty days into the wilderness. That’s where we get Lent--from that forty-day experience that Jesus had. All alone he had these experiences, maybe many more, but we know of the three written up in all the Gospels. They’re the beginning of Lent for us, the Temptations of Christ.

Jesus looked around this wilderness area (scholars tell us it was maybe sixty miles long) and saw desolation--no trees, no grass, nothing but dry, parched, rocky soil. He probably looked down and saw the stones, that maybe were the size of loaves of bread, and the devil said, "Turn the stones into bread. You could feed people." That was the first temptation.

In the second temptation, the devil used the temple high point, which was quite a dramatic spot, evidently. On one side was the Kidron valley, maybe a 450 foot drop. On the other side would have been the pavement or the courtyard, maybe a 50-foot drop. The idea was that Jesus could jump from the 50-foot top of the temple down onto the pavement, and the angels would come and catch him so that he did not gash his foot against the stone. This would be such a dramatic moment that all people would follow him.

The third temptation was delivered from the top of a mountain: Look at the whole world, all of the kingdoms of the earth, and you can have them. They’re yours. Be the Ruler, the King, the Controller of all that is.

You and I face temptation, and it’s usually when we are alone, also. Being alone has something to do with the business of seeing yourself as vulnerable, as perhaps more susceptible. Our culture loves the individual, but the individualistic concept breeds in us a kind of loneliness that is very difficult. We find ourselves feeling the rush of loneliness even in a crowd of people, even with friends. It’s a kind of a secret despair, even though people are around us and we have friends, and we know people who care about us.

Loneliness and the solitary life are right below the surface, whether you live alone or not. That’s not the issue. It’s that loneliness that comes when you feel that somehow your life is all by itself very, very vulnerable.

In our culture we don’t live in tribes. We don’t live in clans. Perhaps we did a long time ago, but no, we live individual lives-- not in a family extended, not in twelve people in one big old house--no, we live with two, three, four or five at the most. And many of us live literally by ourselves, and that enhances for us that aloneness that brings on the possibility of despair and temptation. ...

You and I don’t have the help of the culture in relationship to the temptations we face. The forty days of Lent is about dealing with the temptations, talking about those things that we do that aren’t good for us, things that don’t add to our spiritual or physical health and well-being. And many of them we don’t even know about. Many of them are just things of habit and things of the culture that we just do. Things of peer group pressure. And it never occurs to us that they’re unhealthy, or they are not good for our soul’s journey....

There are lots of things we embrace that are not healthy and good for us. That’s what Lent is all about, isn’t it? To try to analyze and see those things that are very popular for everyone to do, and figure out which things aren’t good for us. And yet, I propose that it is very, very hard for you and me to do anything in our culture about temptation.

Our whole system, our whole way of life, our whole economic engine, this whole thing that we love so much is motivated and driven by temptation. That’s the bottom line. Oh, we don’t call it that. We don’t call it temptation. We call it marketing, PR, advertising. What if we stopped our ads for forty days? We’d fall apart because the essence of what drives you and me is that thing called advertising. And, of course, advertising is nothing but constant temptation, isn’t it?

Think about this morning. You got up and read the daily paper. And what did you see? Page after page of ads trying to get you to be tempted to go someplace, see a movie, do something. Go home right after church today. Turn on the television. Thirty seconds after thirty seconds of temptation to try to get you to do something. Look at the magazines on the coffee table. Page after page of temptation, of course. It’s just endless in our culture, isn’t it? ...

No wonder it’s hard for you and me to really say that prayer the Lord taught us, "Lead us not into temptation," in a culture that worships it. The reason most of us can’t fulfill the temptation is we just don’t have enough money. We run out after a while. If we had a little more, we would buy more and go more and do more and see more. So, for you and me, to have forty days in which we talk about temptation in a culture that’s built on it becomes very difficult.

What is Lent, then? Alcoholics Anonymous has it right. By your willpower you are never going to change your addiction. It’s only when you let go and let God. No other way! You can’t do it by will. It doesn’t work that way. It’s only when you allow the power of God’s presence, or, as they call it, a power greater than yourself, can you resist temptation.

The Quakers have an old saying that I love. They call it "centering down"--beginning to take yourself out of the center and letting God be in the center of your being. What Lent is really all about is a brand new way in which you let God be central in your life. It’s a tithe of the year, about ten percent. You take that ten percent in saying, "I’m going to let go and let God. For it’s only by the power of the Spirit of the Holy God in my life that I can resist those things that are unhealthy for me and for my life."

Lent--a tithe of the year, a time to center down. A time to let go and let God in a culture so full of temptation that it’s only in the power and presence of God that we can be released and live in the freedom of God’s love.

Copyright 2002 The Rev. Dr. Daniel P. Matthews

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