The Evolution of Temptation

We’re going to talk about temptation today.

Whenever I say that word, a part of me wants to say it like an old-timey southern gospel preacher: Temp-TAY-shun!

I could tell you stories…

I’ve been to southern revivals, after all.

I could go on about the wrath of God and the fires of hell for those who give in to temptation.  But I’m going to that to you.  I sat through enough of those sermons as a teenager to know that they don’t really work.  Those hellfire-and-brimstone sermons didn’t really make me and my friends into better Christians or better human beings.

In fact, they didn’t even help us to resist temptation.  All they did was scare us into thinking that God was an angry judge up in the sky who wants to throw people into hell for eternity.

Scientists have done studies on the effectiveness of those kinds of scare tactics for changing patterns of human behavior.  What they found out is that, while fear and guilt do yield some short-term results, they lack the power to effect long-term change in the way people live.  In order to do that, people need positive, stable communities where they know they will be accepted and encouraged to pursue worthy goals and common values.  Furthermore, they need to have a sense of meaning and purpose in their connection to the larger community.  Give people this and they will be more likely to develop healthy patterns of behavior that enable them to resist temptation.

So, you’re not going to get any fire and brimstone from me this morning.  That’s not what this church is about, anyway.  But we are going to talk about temptation.  We’re going to talk about it in a way that gets us away from the blame and shame game.

In order to do this, I’m going to use two, very common, almost stereotypical examples of the kinds of temptation that plague men and women in this society.

For men, the stereotypical temptation and potential source of shame has to do with sex.  The message we men receive is that we are animalistic Neanderthals who think of nothing but sex all day.  We hear messages like this: “You’re looking at that person?!  How could you?!  Don’t you love me?!  You men are all such filthy pigs!  You couldn’t keep your one-track minds out of the gutter if your lives depended on it!”  Sound familiar, guys?  Ladies, I want to let you in on a little secret this morning: you’re not the only ones saying these things to us.  We say it to ourselves.  We live in a society that trains us to be simultaneously obsessed with and ashamed of our sex drives.  With that kind of split thinking, even the best of us are bound to get confused on occasion.  What’s worse is that this same society has also trained us to think that real men don’t talk about their feelings (especially with each other), so we end up thinking that we have to bear the burden of this confusion alone, lest we admit it and look like wimps to our fellow men and perverts to the women in our lives (who have themselves been trained by society to believe that women aren’t supposed think about sex, which is also not true).  So, you can plainly see: there is a lot of shame and confusion going around about men and sex.

Now, let’s talk about women for a minute.  Think about this: you’re at Applebee’s and a commercial comes on with some bikini model selling Budweiser, and every heterosexual male head in the restaurant is turning toward the TV.  Now imagine this: the person sitting next to you at your table orders that double-sized piece of chocolate cake with the warm fudge topping flowing like lava down the slopes of a sweet, delicious volcano… am I provoking some kind of reaction with this mental image?  How about this one: you come home after a long, bad day at work.  Your significant other is away for the night, so you’re exhausted, on your own, and you happen to know that there is a mostly full container of rocky road ice cream in the freezer… do you see where I’m going with this?  Be honest: are you even going to bother getting a bowl or is that spoon going right into the carton?  I think you see my point: For women, the stereotypical temptation and source of shame has to do with food.

From an outsider’s perspective, this temptation might seem more benign or acceptable than sexual temptation.  After all, when was the last time you heard about a politician being impeached over a bucket of fried chicken?  But then there’s the pressure that society puts on women to conform to a particular body type.  Even if you have the most loving and supportive spouse or parents in the world, they cannot drown out the screaming chorus of voices shaming you because of the way you look.  And you’re told that it’s all because of your desire for food.  What most men don’t understand is that this critical voice, when it comes from inside your own head, gets you saying things to yourself like: “I’m disgusting!  What a pig!  I can’t believe I just ate that.  I’m going to look like beached whale!”  The men who love you would never let another person talk to you that way, but we don’t get that the voice of shame in your head talks to you that way on a daily basis.  And even though indulgence in food is more socially acceptable than indulgence in sex, the struggle between temptation and shame is just as real and just as damaging in its own way.

What I’d like to do today is explore some ways for dealing effectively with temptation that don’t involve launching people into these shame spirals that never lead anywhere positive.  And I’d like to do that by looking at Jesus’ struggle with temptation in Luke 4.

The story opens just after Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River.  During that ritual, Jesus has a vision of a dove landing on him and a voice from heaven telling him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  The truth of who he is as the Son of God has just hit home with him.  He needs to process this new information, so he heads out, away from civilization, to fast and pray in the desert.

While he’s out there, he is tested by the devil, who tempts him to misuse the gift he’s been given.  The devil tempts Jesus to do three things: to turn stones in to bread, to bow down and worship him, and to throw himself from the top of the temple.

Some movies portray this scene in a very dramatic fashion.  The devil is portrayed as a talking snake or a man in a business suit with slicked back hair who wants to make a deal with Jesus.  Personally, I like to imagine Jesus hearing that voice as if it was coming from inside his own head.

It seems that Jesus was wrestling with his own sense of identity and purpose.  In light of what he had just seen and heard at his baptism, Jesus had to work out for himself what it all meant.  Should he use his status as God’s Son to offer quick fixes to the world’s problems, like ending global hunger?  Should he opt for the way of power over the way of suffering?  Should he make a spectacle of himself to gather followers and build a movement powerful enough to challenge the Roman Empire?  In the end, Jesus said no to all of the above.  Those ideas weren’t consistent with who he was and what he was meant to do in life.  He came back from his time in the wilderness with a much deeper level of self-understanding and self-acceptance.

I think this story has some important implications for us as well.  I think it gives us a paradigm for dealing with temptation in ways that don’t buy in to that old shame and blame game.  Like Jesus, we too are on a journey to understand ourselves as beloved children of God.  Those parts of ourselves that we wrestle with are divinely-given parts of who we are.  We don’t need to despise them as dirty in order to keep them from throwing our lives out of balance.

We can even look at those parts of our lives from a more scientifically informed perspective that, if properly understood, can help us understand and accept ourselves better.

Let’s look at the sex-drive again.  We already covered the confusion and shame that surrounds this subject for most men.  We think of ourselves as bad or dirty because we have these impulses we can’t shake.

But let’s think for a minute about the purposes those impulses served for our ancestors.  The first is obvious: making sure that our genes are passed on to future generations.  But that’s not all.  Sex is also a social bonding ritual.  We feel instinctively drawn toward one another in ways that go far beyond mere reproduction.  We form families to pool our skills and resources.  This capacity gave our ancestors the advantage they needed to survive in a world full of predators that were faster and stronger than them.  Without that basic attraction toward each other, our species never would have survived.  Sexual desire was the first impulse that made family and civilization possible.  It’s a good thing.  We need it.  Human society wouldn’t be here without it.  We should seek to understand and honor its presence within us before we pass judgment on it.

Let’s look at our impulse for food as well.

(By the way, I’m borrowing most of what I’m about to say from Michael Dowd’s book Thank God for Evolution, which our Monday night Vespers group is currently studying.)

The three so-called “bad” foods that we tend to crave most often are sugars, fats, and salts.  Whenever we get the urge to indulge our palette, it’s usually an urge for foods in one or more of the above categories.  Have you ever wondered why we so many cravings for those particular flavors?

Well, as it turns out, sugars, fats, and salts were pretty hard to come by in prehistoric times.  Our foraging ancestors had to eat all they could find in order to stay alive in the jungle.  Their craving for these foods gave them an evolutionary advantage over others.  The folks who ate more sugars, fats, and salts were more likely to stay alive and healthy for their next meal.  When we feel those cravings within us, we’re tapping into a part of our biology that has a noble and triumphant heritage.  Our very existence is proof that our ancestors did well in eating all the sugars, fats, and salts they could get their hands on.  We should be grateful for those cravings before we pass judgment on them.

So, those are the evolutionary explanations for our sex drive and food cravings.  They are a part of who we are as human beings.  We wouldn’t even be here without them.  We should honor their presence and function in our lives.  We should call them good because that’s exactly what they are.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s always a good thing to indulge such impulses.  Sugars, fats, and salts were rare for our ancestors in the jungle, but we’re surrounded by them in our current setting.  Likewise, acting on every sexual impulse is more likely to break up a family than build one.  We shouldn’t forget that nature gave us brains as well and expects us to use them for making good decisions.  Accepting yourself and understanding yourself do not necessarily mean indulging yourself.

What self-acceptance and self-understanding do mean is that we can finally give ourselves permission to call a time-out on the blame and shame game.  Just like Jesus did in the desert, you and I are coming to grips with who we really are.  Our desires are part of that.  Temptation is really just one of our natural survival instincts acting out of context and out of proportion.  That, hopefully, is where our higher-level brains can kick in and override the software that would otherwise lead us to unfavorable consequences.

There’s no need to be ashamed.  There’s no need to beat yourself up.  Simply say Thank You to your temptations and honor the place those impulses hold in our species’ evolutionary past.

“God don’t make no junk.”  That includes you and every natural thing about you.  It’s all good.  It’s all sacred.  It’s all blessed.  Remember that the next time you’re facing temptation, and maybe you too will hear that voice from heaven, saying to you, “You are my Son/Daughter, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Into the Wilderness

Cordelia Chase from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"

This week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.  The text is Matthew 4:1-11.

Today marks the first Sunday in the season of Lent.  They say that Lent is a time for admitting and giving up your vices.  I’ve got one that I’m not quite ready to give up yet, but I don’t mind admitting it to you: I watch too much TV.  That may not sound like much at first, but it gets more impressive when you realize that I don’t actually have a TV in the strictest sense of the term.  My wife and I have a unit on which we can watch videos and DVDs, but it receives no signal from the airwaves.  So, whenever we want to watch something new, we have to go through the effort of procuring our own material.  So, when I tell you that I watch too much TV, believe me when I tell you that it’s a lot of work!

Lately, I’ve been indulging my addiction with a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a ridiculous story about an average high school student named Buffy in Sunnydale, California who happens to hunt vampires and other monsters in her spare time.  She does this with the help of her school librarian and a few misfit friends.

One recurring character in the show is a classmate of Buffy’s named Cordelia Chase.  Cordelia is “the popular girl” at Sunnydale High.  She is as shallow as her family is rich.  She looks down on Buffy and her friends.  Most of the time, Cordelia is just a bully who blocks Buffy’s path to acceptance and happiness in high school.

Anybody who went to high school probably knew someone like Cordelia Chase.  Unfortunately, the entire experience of teenage politics is usually defined by people like that.  Individuals gain power by sucking up to the popular and stepping on the unpopular.  What’s even sadder is that the rest of the world seems to operate on the same principle.  The politics of the board room are remarkably similar to the politics of the locker room.  Some people just never outgrow those manipulative games.  It’s just the way the world is.

I think we get a taste of that world in today’s gospel reading.  It’s the famous story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  In this story, Jesus comes face to face (and toe to toe) with the spirit of this world system and all its power-mongering.  The question on the table in this scene is, “What does it mean to be the Son of God?”  In other words, will Jesus be a king like all the other powerful rulers on earth or will he be different?  Jesus faces three separate temptations, but beneath them all is this one, lingering question.

We’ve already read the story, so you know what the three temptations are: to turn stones into bread, to throw himself from the pinnacle of the Temple, and to worship the devil.  Let’s look at them one at a time:

First, the devil tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread.  Remember that Jesus was fasting and hadn’t eaten for forty days.  The temptation here is for Jesus to make use of his power to meet his own needs first.  Isn’t that how powerful people act in times of scarcity?  They circle the wagons and look out for themselves.  They take of their own needs first.  Is that the kind of king that Jesus is going to be?  As it turns out, Jesus says no.

In the second temptation, the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and invites him to make a spectacular leap from the top.  The kings of this world rely on “shock and awe” techniques and dramatic displays of power in order to foster loyalty.  Will Jesus do the same?  Jesus says no.

In the third temptation, the devil shows Jesus the splendor of all the kingdoms of the world and promises to hand them over if only Jesus will bow down to Satan.  The devil knows that Jesus has come to establish a kingdom.  He offers Jesus the chance to pursue God’s ends through Satan’s means.  It’s an apparent shortcut to power.  The rulers of this world often justify their means by their ends.  As long as you’re going somewhere good, what does it matter how you get there?  You and I are asked to sacrifice our integrity for gain on a daily basis.  But Jesus says no.  For Jesus, who you are and how you get there is just as important as where you’re going.

There is one detail in the second temptation that’s particularly interesting to me.  It has to do with place and movement.  The devil moves Jesus to the pinnacle of the Jerusalem Temple.  This was the holiest spot in the holiest city on earth.  Isn’t it ironic that the devil is leading Jesus toward church?  We usually think of him doing the opposite.  What’s even stranger is that, once they’ve arrived, the devil starts reading from the Bible, quoting Psalm 91.  Get this: the devil is reading scripture in church.  We usually think of this place as a sanctuary from the brutality of the world, but those who have been around for a while know that even church can be a pretty dark place sometimes.  Power-hungry people of all ideological stripes co-opt pulpits and twist the Bible to fit their agendas.  In this passage, it looks like Satan comes dressed in a clerical collar and a stole.

So, where is God in all of this?  The fate of Jesus’ ministry is hanging in the balance and a power-hungry devil is reading the Bible in church.  Is God absent or silent while this is going on?

Well, we get lots of little hints scattered throughout the text.  Let’s look again at location and movement in the text.  We read in verse one that the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness.  Isn’t that interesting?  The devil leads Jesus closer to the center of religion and power (Jerusalem) while the Holy Spirit is leading him out toward the edges (the wilderness).  There aren’t many literal deserts in this part of New York, so what might this mean for us?  I wonder where the “edges” of life are for people in our community?  Where are the places that are farthest from the centers of power and religious practice?  Who lives there?  What kind of people are they?  Who in our community is least likely to come to church?  Could it be that the Holy Spirit is leading us to walk out to meet them, rather than waiting for them to come in here?

It’s a powerful and disturbing image: the devil is preaching from the Bible at the front of the church while the Holy Spirit is ushering Jesus out the door.  I want to let that image sink in.

I don’t think we all need to get up right now, leave, and never come back to church.  But I should also confess that I have a conflict of interest there, since my salary depends on you staying!  But can we at least look at the movement in this passage and focus our attention toward the direction in which the Spirit is moving?  Let’s follow the Spirit’s leading into the “wilderness” of our community where people are famished in more ways than one.

This is the way that Jesus walked.  Jesus says no to turning the stones into bread for himself, but he says yes to miraculously providing bread for a hungry crowd later on.  Jesus says no to a spectacular display of power in the religious center, but he says yes to teaching and healing large crowds of hurting people on the hills and in the streets.  Jesus says no to sacrificing his integrity for power, but he says yes to sacrificing his life for us.  The devil wanted Jesus to wear a crown of gold and sit on a throne, but Jesus chose to wear a crown of thorns and hang on a cross.

In the TV show I’ve been watching, Cordelia Chase eventually walks the way of the “wilderness” as well.  She keeps crossing paths with Buffy and her nerdy, vampire-hunting friends.  Slowly but surely, she is drawn into their misfit community and away from the popular crowds.  In time, Cordelia is transformed from a bully into a sympathetic character who cares deeply about the needs and pain of others.  In the end, she even becomes one of the heroes.

How might the Spirit be calling us to follow Jesus into the wilderness?  What will our church family start to look like as we reach out beyond the walls of our sanctuary and touch the lives of those who are farthest from it?  How will we be changed as we let go of this world’s power-grabbing tactics and embrace the way of the cross?

I want to leave these questions open for you to ponder as we move through Lent toward Easter.  As you let these questions take root in your imagination, you will be opening yourself to the leading of the Spirit in new ways.  And I believe that you too will be able to sense the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead bringing new life to you, to your community, and to our church as well.

Temptation

This is my reflection on tonight’s Bible study at St. James Mission.  Our text was Luke 4:1-13.

Have you ever noticed that movie villains are way more interesting than heroes?

Darth Vader is a much more complex character than the whiny Luke Skywalker.  A full century after her first appearance, the Wicked Witch of the West (‘Elphaba’ to those who know) got her own novel and Broadway musical.

I can think of several reasons why we feel more drawn to these characters than we do to the ‘good guys’.  Rather than exploring all of them, I’d like to focus on one in particular:

Evil is more obvious than good.

Especially when we go through times of crisis, it’s very easy to look only at what’s wrong with the world.  Human beings have a tendency to ‘awful-ize’  their lives.  It seems that this tendency affects the way in which we Christians interpret our Scriptures.

During tonight’s Bible study on the Temptation of Jesus in Luke’s gospel, we spent a great deal of time asking questions about Satan.  Is the devil real?  Do the nations of the earth really belong to him?  Does our cultural image of the devil come from the Bible or somewhere else?  And so on…

At one point in our discussion, someone noticed how the text says that Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” as he entered this time of testing.  It’s interesting how God will meet us in the midst of stressful situations and will spiritually empower us to make it through in one piece.

Just recently, there was an inmate in one of our local prisons who had refused to eat for an extended period of time.  His physical health had deteriorated to the point where he was near death.  The court had ordered that the inmate be force-fed, but the medical staff was loathe to do so.

One of the nurses, who happened to be a Christian, felt an urge to talk to this inmate (who had a reputation for violence) about the liberating power of forgiving others.  Forgiveness “is about letting go of another person’s throat”, as Wm. Paul Young wrote.

As it turns out, that was exactly what this inmate needed to hear.  A short time later, he started to eat again and has already regained sixty pounds.  In this situation of crisis, the hospital staff was caught between a rock and a hard place.  They could violate their ethics and override the conscience of a hunger-striking inmate, or they could stand by, watch the inmate die, and face the wrath of the criminal justice system.  The presence of evil in this catch-22 was obvious.  Yet even in the midst of crisis, God was quietly at work through one Spirit-filled person who was willing to reach out in the name of love.

When we read the story of Jesus being tested in the wilderness, it’s easy to notice how the devil looms large.  Satan does and says a lot of things in an attempt to distract Jesus and undermine the Father’s work in his life.  But Jesus, full of God’s Holy Spirit, is able to meet that chaos with the right words at the right time.

As Bishop Gene Robinson is fond of saying, “Sometimes God calms the storm, and sometimes God calms his child.”