Temptation

First Presbyterian – Lafayette, Louisiana
February 26, 2012 – Lent (1B)
Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
Mark 1:9-15

In July of 1999 I was leading a group of campers from Camp Glenkirk on a canoe trip down the Shenandoah River. It was about the middle of the summer, and I had taken enough groups downriver to feel slightly cocky about my abilities. The river was low, creating a maze out of its naturally lazy curves and the diagonal formations of shale jutting out from the mountain like the skeletal frame of some ancient beast. The word “portage” (the practice of carrying your canoe from one navigable body of water to another) became as important to our vocabulary as the concepts of grace and mercy.

On this particular run of the river it began to rain, and we were overjoyed- for a little while. Then it kept on raining, and raining, and raining. Three things very quickly became apparent to us. The first is that the river was the only place in the valley consistently devoid of trees. This is something one takes for granted about a river until it becomes a wind tunnel. The second is that not all campers (or staff) were adequately prepared for several hours on a river in wet clothes and high winds. This is about the point where the training videos on hypothermia began to dance in heads of the fearless river staff without remorse, though we were undeterred.

The third realization came with the rolling rumble and final clap of thunder. With this sound we realized the fact that not only were we the highest objects on the relative landscape of the river (trees not withstanding), but we were sitting on water in metal canoes. Strangely enough, the entire crew of campers and staff alike figured this out simultaneously and moved with one accord to the shore by the second clap of thunder!

There wasn’t really a safe place to be at that point, but we found a spot under the least lightning prone trees we could find and huddled together for warmth. This is not an easy task for Middle School co-eds, but we made it work in gender appropriate clumps. While we shivered and waited for the storm to pass, we had the most meaningful Bible study on the story of Noah that I can recall ever having before or since.

Mostly we talked about the fear of those caught in the storm and the hope of those delivered from it. We talked about the promise of the rainbow, and we waited and watched for God to tell us once more, “I will never let the chaos win again.” By the grace of God, no one contracted hypothermia. By the grace of God, we were able to share our resources - our food, clothing, and even the warmth of our bodies huddled in prayer.

Although I believe we were sustained by the very presence of God, I am not naive enough to think that there is some reason we were preserved when others in similar situations have not been. For one - the conditions were not safe, but they were not essentially life threatening. For another - grace and mercy are never dependent on my worth, my decisions, my actions, or something I have not yet done. Grace and mercy are always and only the result of God’s decisions and God’s activity.

The temptation I face when I receive God’s grace is always the same. I just can’t help but wonder what it is about me that made God want to do that. What does God want from me now - now that I know that I have been held by the one who wove and formed the very fabric of the universe?

Could anyone in all of recorded history have felt this more particularly than Noah and his family, as they watched the flood waters recede from the earth? Perhaps there is not, although it should be said that there are flood narratives in almost every culture with a recorded history. On the one hand that raises the question as to whether or not this was the only experience of the flood, and that - say the skeptics - is reason enough to doubt the whole thing. Perhaps there is, but the deeper question is, “Why?”

Why does the flood narrative ring true throughout so much of human experience? Because the flood isn’t just a flood - that’s why. The story of the flood is the recognition of the basic fear that the forces of chaos that were separated and given the ordered nature of creation might just get tired of being subdued. The story of the flood is the answer to the question of how far can we push against God and still trust God to love us and provide for us.

And not only that, the story of the flood is the assurance that even if we think that God might be tempted to wipe the slate clean and start over, God has become bound by God’s own promise to never again allow chaos to overtake order. It is this promise that the Psalmist refers to when asking God not to remember our shortcomings, but instead to be mindful of the steadfast love and mercy by which we know God to be God.

The Psalmist wants to be remembered in times of need. To “re-member” someone is to reconstitute - to mentally remake - a person based on the experiences you have shared with that person. For example, I have no idea how the others on that canoe trip have held or denied that memory, but for me it was significant. It matters to me, and thinking of it reminds me of people who matter to me. The Psalmist wants to remain with God in the same way. And so each of us hopes to remain with God - the one who thought and spoke creation into being. How terrible it would be to expect God to remember the way that we remember, only holding dear those moments and people that benefit us. How good and amazing it is to know that God’s memory is not grounded in our imperfect actions but instead in God’s character of steadfast love and mercy!

And yet there is still the matter of temptation. Even the rule of love, even the covenant of unconditional love, creates the opportunity to act in ways that are not loving. Perhaps those opportunities were there all along, but the existence of an agreement brings with it the chance that the agreement might be broken. Not broken by God - God cannot go back on God’s word and still be understood as God. God is not capricious. God simply is. God is unlimited, except for those limitations that God accepts and creates so that we can know that God is God.

We, on the other hand, are limited. We are unable to see past our experiences and memories - our triumphs and our failures. We are naturally predisposed to do what will benefit us and those who are like us. Jesus, as God’s beloved son, experienced the same limitations we do - and it immediately drove him into the wilderness to be tempted and tended to at the same time.

A friend recently commented on the ridiculous claims that the story of Jesus’ baptism makes on his followers. She suggested that this is one of the many stories that just seem like a P.R. (public relations) nightmare. In today’s world of pithy statements and bumper stickers it reads something like, “Follow Jesus - Bad Things Will Happen!”

Of course the reality is that bad things happen in every life, and anyone who tells you any different is selling you something (perhaps a nice piece of river property along Denial). Life is a constant process of things falling apart and things becoming renewed. Within that is the temptation to assume that your current state is permanent - or the temptation to try to make it so.

So we begin Lent by hearing that Jesus was sent into the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by Satan and attended by angels. And what is temptation but the desire to be in control, to be in charge, to do everything within our power to keep from being in a place of need? Yet Jesus starts his public ministry by intentionally making himself vulnerable. Jesus begins responding to God’s claim on his life by putting himself in a position of need.

Why? Or better yet, why have we kept this memory of this story of Jesus? I believe we have kept this story of Jesus for two reasons. The first is to give credibility to his call for repentance. How else could he demonstrate to others what it means to re-orient their lives toward God’s desires other than removing any doubt that he had done it himself?

The second reason we have kept this story is that it fits. It fits in with our understanding of who God is, what God has done, and what God is still doing. Forty days in the wilderness reminds us of forty days in the ark. Temptation, stress, and wild things that should normally overtake us are held back because God is telling us to remember God’s promise to keep the chaos from taking over.

And so we begin again with the season of Lent - a time to remember God’s covenant with us and all of creation. A lot of people give things up for Lent, and though that is not a particularly Presbyterian or Reformed practice, it is not something we discourage. Even so, I must admit that sometimes I think of church seasons similarly to other secular traditions - an annoying expectation for me to act like I want or need to modify my behavior when I have absolutely no desire to do so.

Valentine’s Day is a good example. If I am told that I am supposed to express my feelings I probably won’t. I would really rather stick love notes in my family’s lunch boxes on a random Tuesday than wait until a special day gives me permission. (I was affirmed to see this same position reflected in my cousin’s blog . She is a much more entertaining author than I, and she is often more faithful in her interpretation of living as a forgiven sinner.)

Still, if we believe that God has called the church into being and that we offer in some small way a glimpse of the Kingdom that is both present and yet to come, then I suppose the seasons of the Church’s liturgy need a little more consideration. Personally, I have only successfully given things up for Lent once. I will also confess that is because I have only really tried once.

I think the main reason I have never tried is because I know that it does not make or break my salvation. There are plenty of other selfish reasons, but that all just boils down to the fact that I have not really seen the value in it. Yet here we have this Jesus, calling my bluff and assuring me that I cannot rely on God without putting myself in a position to need God.

That is the true value of temptation; it allows us to know where we stand, where we are lacking, and where we are provided for even when we do not know we are being provided for. As I consider my own need for discipline, I’ve decided that I am - once again - not going to give anything up for Lent this year. Instead I am going to pick something up - I’m going to portage my spiritual canoe. I’m going to pick up something that makes me feel vulnerable, something that may just be heavy enough to make me put some other things down. It may sound funny to you, but I am going to pick up the habit of writing thank you notes. I am terrible at gratitude.

Just the other day I had the thought, “Where is my motivation?” Somehow another voice answered, “Over next to your gratitude.” As we move through the season of Lent together, may we be motivated by our knowledge of a God who remembers us - remakes us - through God’s character of steadfast love. For that we give thanks. Because of that we repent - we change our orientation from self interest to God's interests. And in God’s amazing memory we see and understand ourselves as God’s beloved - whether the Spirit drives us into the wilderness or calls us to proclaim, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Amen!
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