The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio.
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Those six verses from Mark’s gospel which you just heard have to be some of the most tersely written in all of the Bible. With breathtaking brevity we encounter Jesus’ baptism, his immediately being driven into the wilderness by the same Spirit that descended upon him at his baptism to be tempted for 40 days by Satan, keeping company with wild beasts and angels. Immediately after that 40-day testing period he launches his public ministry and proclaims the Good News. I think it’s not a coincidence that those three seminal aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry come in that order: his baptism—hearing directly from God that he is God’s own son, beloved with whom God is well pleased, at the peak of his power and affirmation; then being immediately thrown into the wilderness—some translations say hurled—to be tempted by Satan for 40 days, dealing with his own wild beasts and the angels; and at the end of that temptation period and testing period, to emerge stronger, clearer on who he is and what his ministry is as he begins to proclaim the Good News to a people who desperately needed to hear it.
In this season of Lent we, too, are called to deal with the wild beasts and hopefully the angels in our wilderness as over this 40-day period, we journey with Jesus to Jerusalem, preparing ourselves, getting clear on who we are, whose we are, as we prepare to receive the greatest gift God could ever give us in the form of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That Christ at his resurrection overcame sin and death in that day, in our day, and for all time. You can’t race through it; and as you heard in the collect for this day, we pray for God to come quickly to help us as we are daily assailed by our own temptations. And so this morning I’d like to visit with you for a little bit about temptation. I do so recognizing that you’ve already proven yourselves to be Olympians as it pertains to temptation. I can’t and I won’t ask for a show of hands of how many of you were tempted to stay in bed and stay home on such a poor weather day, but, nevertheless, here you are.
One of the aspects that I think that we can take from Jesus’ story of being tempted right after his baptism is, when we think of temptation, I think so often we are aware that we are most vulnerable when were at our low points: when we are alone or afraid or in broken relationships or have health problems or employment problems. That is true; but it is also true that we are susceptible when we are at the peak of our power and our promise. One need only listen to the news to get a daily diet of someone in public life who has fallen from grace because they succumbed to temptation and made a mess of their own lives and someone else’s, usually their family.
One of my favorite professors in seminary was my ethics professor Dr. Sondra Wheeler and she made this point about temptation: that there are really only two fundamental kinds of moral challenge in life. There is perplexity, when we genuinely do not know what we ought to do. And there is temptation, when we clearly know what we ought to do. What we don’t know is how to get ourselves to do it. The most insidious form of self-deception is persuading ourselves that we are perplexed when in reality we are merely facing temptation.
As I thought about how easy it is to slip into those subtle, seemingly innocuous moments, I was reminded of a chapter from my own life. Some of you know that many years ago I was on the senior staff in the White House. I was Deputy Director of Presidential Personnel. As such, I helped to oversee that aspect of the White House that was responsible for all of the president’s political appointments: everything from a cabinet secretary to someone serving on a part-time board and commission such as the Kennedy Center. Not surprisingly, this being Washington, the moment I set foot in the White House, I instantly was incredibly popular. My jokes were funnier; people thought I was smarter. Of course, none of those things were true. But you can get seduced into believing it. Think how many people in this town fall from grace because they believe their own press clips.
About three months into my position, after I had been working literally around-the-clock, seven days a week, because there’s such intense pressure to get people appointed and in their positions, I received a call from a social friend, but someone I also knew was a close friend of the president. She called me up and said, “You know, Jan, you’ve been working so very hard and you’ve been doing such great work on behalf of the president and for the administration and really for our country, let’s, you know, be honest. I think you really need to take a little break. I know you never get out but why don’t you just come to lunch and we can just have a friendly catch up and, you know, you can tell me how things are going, etc.” And, of course, I was thinking well, you know, I have been working really hard and I’m sure I am doing something really important for the president and this country, and so I accepted.
You should also know that part of my responsibility in my position was to help people teach the rules of ethics, knowing clearly what we can do and what we cannot do. I knew that as a presidential appointee and a member of the president’s senior staff that I could accept lunch with a friend up to a certain dollar amount as long as we didn’t discuss appointments. That, my friends, is known as influence peddling or favors. So I went to this very fancy restaurant feeling pretty good about myself. Ten minutes into the conversation, after the normal catch-up chitchat, she clearly told me which presidential body she wanted to be appointed to and that she knew I would directly tell the president how qualified she was for said position.
In an instant I realized what a fool I was. You know the moniker, “there is no free lunch.” I knew the moniker, “there is no free lunch,” but I was seduced into believing that it was really just sort of a catch-up because I was, you know, such an earnest and hard worker on behalf of the president and government. What I remember about that lunch is essentially two things: that I had to pay $50 for lunch out of my own pocket which is a lot of money today—it was a fortune then, particularly on government salary. I don’t remember what I ate at this very fancy restaurant and I never accepted an invitation like that again. You see, I think some of the temptations come to us so subtly, so seductively, seemingly so innocuous that it’s easy to trip up.
So how are we in this time of Lent to wrestle with the wild beasts in our wilderness? How are we to prepare ourselves with self-reflection and repentance to fully receive the gift that God has in store for us on Easter Day? Well, I think there are several ways to do that. One is to be aware, not just of the obvious things, like you’re dieting and you really want that doughnut. Some things are obvious. Some things are obvious because of their salacious nature. Mae West once quipped, “I was once pure as the driven snow, until I drifted.”
My resource for you this morning comes from a wonderful book that was written some years ago by Peter Gomes who was the minister of Memorial Church at Harvard University. The book is called The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart. He has an entire chapter dedicated to the Bible and temptation. In his wonderfully witty way he makes the point that temptation is older than sin and the mother of shame. And that if you really study Scripture you’ll find that the Bible is an essay on the genealogy of temptation. In that chapter he highlights three different examples in the Bible of temptation and how that was dealt with. Not surprisingly, he begins with the beginning, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the snake named Tempter, just so we won’t miss it. He moves on to Jesus in the wilderness, the gospel story that you heard this morning. The third is Paul with the thorn in the flesh making a point, in Paul’s case, that it is sometimes our greatest strength that is also our greatest weakness: spiritual pride, in Paul’s case.
What he notes in Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, drawing on all of the different gospel accounts, is that on its face things may look like a good thing. If I have more power, think of all the good I could do. If I have more resources, think all of that I could do and so it goes. In each case Jesus comes back with what he knows from Scripture and from what he has inherited in his faith. He relies on those things that he knows to be true and trustworthy. So, too we draw on those things, knowing that when we are in the wilderness we are never alone. God is with us.
At the end of the chapter Peter Gomes lists four things that are important points that you can draw from Scripture and our faith tradition in terms of dealing with temptation. Number one: name the temptation. When you do, you take away some of its power. Name the tempter; who or what is leading you in a particular direction? Three, resist temptation. Well, of course, that sounds like common sense but he makes the point that when we practice prayer more faithfully and fully we get in a deeper and deeper and closer and closer relationship with God. So, too, he makes the point that virtue is a habit. The more that we practice it, the more that we inhabit it. And fourth, call for help. Again, a piece from our collect this morning: ask God to help show you the way. Ask a close friend, a family member, a church friend, a spiritual director, a minister, someone who knows you and loves you and will journey with you as you try and sort through some of the vagaries of life that find us in situations where we’re a little confused between perplexity and temptation.
Easter is really not all that far away. Much like you can’t race through Advent and fully experience Christmas, I bid you this day to enter this season reflecting, repenting, going deeper with God, so that as you make your way to Jerusalem and the great gift of Easter, you, too, will be prepared to embrace it fully, wholly, and proclaim the Good News to all who would hear it, remembering that Christ came not just to give us life, but to give us life more abundantly. Amen.