Fifty Shades of Temptation

February 22, 2015

Text: Isaiah 58: 9 – 11 & Matthew 4: 1 – 11

 A few weeks back, I shared the interesting statistics that hugs improve our immune systems, lower our blood pressure and improve heart health. Last week I quoted some other statistics that claim that going to church regularly improves our general health, strengthens our immune system and can add 2 or 3 years to our life!   This week, I read that listening to 5 to 10 songs a day can improve memory, strengthen immune systems and reduce depression by 80%!!   So….. I decided that we have it all here at Union Church….a full service spiritual spa! Music, hugs and worship! How can we go wrong!?

Whenever you are TEMPTED to stay home in bed on Sunday morning, remember that you will be missing your important worship workout!

Life is cluttered with temptation, for good or evil, and the precious freedom that many of us have to choose our path, frequently challenges our ethical decisions, lifestyles and relationships. Do we pause and consider how best to respond to any given situation, problem, confrontation?

I saw a poster that said, “Life is a test. It is only a test. Had this been real life you would have been instructed where to go and what to do.”

Perhaps that would make things easier for us! Freedom of choice is often a painful, time consuming process!

The story is told of four high school boys who couldn’t resist the temptation to skip morning classes. Each had been smitten with a bad case of spring fever. ( As we will all be when it arrives THIS year!) After lunch they showed up at school and reported to the teacher that their car had a flat tire. Much to their relief, she smiled and said, “Well, you missed a quiz this morning, so take your seats and get out a pencil and paper.” Still smiling, she waited as they settled down and got ready for her questions. Then she said, “First question–which tire was flat?” OOPS!

We may relate to the “Frank and Ernest” cartoon which shows a lawyer and his client sitting in the law office and the client says to the lawyer, “The question of right and wrong is very clear. I want you to cloud it up for me.”

We may revel in Mae West’s comment that whenever she had to choose between two evils, she picked the one she hadn’t tried yet.

Or in this remark by Henny Youngman:

“If you’re going to do something tonight that you’ll be sorry for tomorrow morning, sleep late.”

We may cry out, like comedian Flip Wilson: “The Devil made me do it!”    Not my fault!!

Author Johnny Dean, wrote in his essay Dealing with the Devil: I used to believe that children were born pure and innocent. Then I became a parent. Now I believe in original sin.

He goes on to say: “When my oldest son was about three years old, I was outside doing some yard work one afternoon. I took Kevin outside to play while I trimmed the hedges. Holding his hand, I knelt down beside him so that we could look at each other face to face. Slowly and carefully I said, “Now, Kevin, you can play here in our front yard. You can go next door and play in your friend’s front yard. You can ride your Big Wheel up and down the driveway. You can go in the back yard and play with the dog or play on your swing. You can go back inside and watch television. You can stay here and watch me trim the hedges. These are all the things you have my permission to do. But you can NOT go out into the street. It is very dangerous there. You cannot play in the street. Do you understand what I’m saying?” And Kevin solemnly nodded his head. “Yes, Daddy,” he said. I let go of his hand and he ran straight to the curb, put one foot in the street, and then turned his head toward me and smiled, as if to say, “Foolish mortal!”

Right then and there, I knew something of the way God must have felt in the Garden of Eden. What is there in our genetic makeup that seems to be drawn to the forbidden, that’s preoccupied with whatever is denied to us, that ignores the tremendous amount of freedom we enjoy and instead focuses on the limitations of our lives and inevitably, almost instinctively, rebels against them? We certainly don’t get that from studying the life of Jesus, do we? Does the devil make us do it, as we so often claim?”

The scripture message from the gospel of Matthew that you heard Jerrie read moments ago is nearly as familiar to us as the Christmas and Easter narratives that we read every year.   When the 40 day period of Lent comes around, the story of Jesus’ retreat into the wilderness … his struggle with temptation is one we turn to again and again. This story recorded in all three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke is suggested in all the lectionary cycles for the first Sunday of Lent. And so we look at it again today in search of new insight for our spiritual journey.

According to the gospel narratives, Jesus went into the wilderness after his baptism in the River Jordan…. to commune with God…. in preparation for his ministry. It was a time of spiritual crisis for Jesus as he wrestled with his relationship with God…. his mission…. his humanity and his divinity.

Author Joyce Rupp writes: “ Jesus did not decide on his own to go into the desert. He was led there by the Spirit. Jesus would probably not have chosen to go there any more than any of us would choose to enter into an extended time of struggle. Yet in those 40 challenging days, Jesus experienced his inner strength and found clear direction for his future ministry. Out of that empty and hostile sojourn, Jesus came forth ‘with the power of the Spirit in him.’ Jesus’ time in the wilderness for forty days is, in fact, our model for Lent. Like Jesus, we seek to spend a special time – a span of forty days – preparing, reflecting, praying ….. readying ourselves, dealing with some tough stuff that might confront us, anticipating the joyous Easter celebration that follows.

A seeker after truth came to a sage for guidance.

“Tell me, wise one, how did you become holy?”

“Two words.”

“And what are they, please?”

“Right choices.”

The seeker was fascinated. “How does one learn to choose rightly?”

“One word.”

“One word! May I have it, please?” the seeker asked.


The seeker was thrilled. “How does one grow?”

“Two words.”

“What are they, pray tell?”

“Wrong choices.”

As we journey through Lent this year, many of us will basically ignore it as we usually do…. waiting for it to be over which will mean Spring is here!   Some of us will give up chocolate, or swearing, or desserts or coffee. Others will decide to really get into it! To enter the wilderness and do the spiritual work that Jesus did to come to a deeper relationship with God and with our inner kingdoms of divine love.

This year, wouldn’t it be lovely if Lent could be more than just a count down until Easter….if we can embrace it as the perfect opportunity for digging deeper spiritually, looking inside of ourselves… clearing the spiritual clutter to make room for the wondrous encounters that come our way….and they will come. We just have to be aware of them! It’s a wonderful opportunity to examine the life path we are walking, to be alert for crossroads and new trails to explore. Plan to come to the soup and sharing sessions!!!!

Mystical poet, Khalil Gibran wrote in 
The Prophet:

Say not, “I have found the one true path of the Spirit!” Say rather, “I have met the Spirit walking on my path.”   For the Spirit walks on all paths.

Lent is a time to empty ourselves …to lay down our burdens….to release the clutter that confines us to a routine that is no longer fulfilling or fruitful….to allow the Spirit to guide and heal us.

Each week of Lent this year, we will investigate the wisdom of Fr. Richard Rohr in his Lenten devotional book Wondrous Encounters.

Richard Rohr is a Franciscan monk, a prolific author, spiritual mystic and biblical scholar.   Most always he offers us a fresh new perspective on traditional thought, theology and biblical understanding. We may not always agree, though I usually do!….. but it makes us go deeper….and expand our thinking and doing.   Hear his take on Jesus’ wilderness retreat with which he begins this book.

“ I see the three temptations as the primal and universal temptations that all humans must face before they take on any kind of power – as Jesus is about to do. They are all temptations to the misuse of power for purposes less than God’s purpose. They are sequentially the misuse of (1.) practical everyday power, (2.) the misuse of religious power and (3.) the misuse of political power. These are the constant tragedies that keep defeating humanity. Jesus passes all three tests, and thus the “devil” left him because he could not be used for lesser purposes.”

The utter wisdom ….and truth of this perspective left me in awe.   Misuse of power! Of course! Jesus was dealing with this issue as he was setting out to transform people’s understanding of God and challenging their religious practice. Would he choose to be spectacular, manipulative, militant, ….using his influence for personal power and glory?

I’m sure you have all been as heartbroken, shocked and angry as I have been about the unfathomable cruelty of ISIS, beheading Christians and burning innocent people to death. Talk about misuse of power…. of submitting to the most horrific evil imaginable. It is beyond belief.

Fortunately, most of us are not faced with temptations to kill or not to kill…consumed with violent hatred.   Yet we are capable of wielding power over others in subtle ways, demonstrating oppressive behavior when we want something, suppressing divergent ideas, ridiculing and manipulating others…..whether in religious and political organizations, communities and corporations and even in our schools and homes.   There is an enormous number of people in our global community who have little or no power, who have no voice…and an astounding number of people who drastically abuse the power that they do have.     Right now, as we consider our personal spiritual journeys, we may want to consider our individual power for good or evil.

A young man filled out an application for admission to a University. In response to a request to “List your personal strengths,” he wrote, “Sometimes I am trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” Where the form said, “List Your Weaknesses,” he wrote: “Sometimes I am not trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”

Fr. Rohr says: “ Most people’s daily ethical choices are not between total good and total evil, but between various shades of good, a partial good that is wrongly perceived as an absolute good, or even evil that disguises itself as good. These are what get us in trouble.   Jesus is the master or spiritual discernment here, which is always more subtle and particular than mere obedience to external laws.”

What temptations do we face on a daily basis, to abuse our power, to act in a way that denies another his or her freedom of choice, that suppresses rather than encourages the personal power of others? How difficult is it for us to relinquish our power to the Holy Spirit….to be the operative guiding force in on our life journey? Will we make time for the silence….to empty ourselves of

In Strangers and Sojourners, Michael D. O’Brien writes: Looking at me in the gentlest manner, the hermit said,

“ You are afraid, aren’t you? You don’t need to be afraid.” His power lay in that he had no power. He merely looked deeply into my soul.

A tension broke within me, and much to my horror, I began to weep. The tears quietly drained the hurt and terror from me and replaced it with peace.

“We are all deaf. The way of emptiness teaches us to hear…. One day you will know that emptiness is your friend.”

In his book, Hurryin’ Big For Little Reasons, Ronald Meredith describes this one quiet night in early spring: Suddenly out of the night came the sound of wild geese flying. I ran to the house and breathlessly announced the excitement I felt. What is to compare with wild geese across the moon? It might have ended there except for the sight of our tame mallards on the pond. They heard the wild call they had once known. The honking out of the night sent little arrows of prompting deep into their wild yesterdays. Their wings fluttered a feeble response. The urge to fly–to take their place in the sky for which God made them– was sounding in their feathered breasts, but they never raised from the water. The matter had been settled long ago. The corn of the barnyard was too tempting! Now their desire to fly only made them uncomfortable. Temptation is always enjoyed at the price of losing the capacity for flight.

It is often the seemingly little choices we make that make a HUGE difference in the life of someone else….. like Michael and Cara stopping to help the turtle across the road, like those shoveling out fire hydrants…. you have all heard the countless heartwarming stories of compassion which restore our faith in humanity. This is a true happening that my son Rev. Scott Cousineau reported in his newsletter this week.

“Many of you that attended church over the course of the last two months will remember our foster dog Noah.  Noah is a special dog that suffered significant abuse and neglect before he was rescued.  It broke my heart when he was ready to be posted for adoption.  It broke my heart that applications came in so quickly.  And it devastated me to drop him off with his forever family two weeks ago.  The whole way home Renee and I discussed turning around and going back to pick him up.  We tried to dream up some excuse that we could use to revoke their adoption approval.

Since that time, we have received several updates from Noah’s new “mom,” Kelly.  She has shared how well he is doing and has included photographs of him playing with their other dog.  One photo showed Kelly’s six year old daughter petting Noah.  I must be honest.  I was so selfish that these positive reports actually made me sad.  Shame on me.

And then we received today’s update.  Kelly and her husband, Tim, serve as foster parents.  This week, they took in a four year old boy that had suffered physical and emotional abuse.  Kelly wrote that within minutes Noah approached the little boy and consoled him.  The two have been best friends ever since.  As I said, I knew that Noah was a special dog.  I just did not realize how special he was.  Had I followed through with my selfish plan, this little boy would never have received the tender caring touch that Noah gave him.  I still miss Noah every day, but I am thankful that he is in a place where he can share his special gift.

God uses our hands and our hearts to minister unto others.  And sometimes God uses paws.