Tuesday, March 7, 2017

False Promises -- First Sunday in Lent

"Popular" was sung during the sermon by my talented daughter, Phoebe Perkins. 
It was a planned interruption, and quite dramatic.
 Sadly, that drama does not fully translate to the page.
 Suffice it to say, you had to be there.

Matthew 4:1-11
March 5, 2017

            One of the challenges of preaching on this particular Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent, is that every year the gospel passage focuses on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. It makes sense that it does, but the challenge lies in trying to find some new insight that I have not preached before. What new word can I offer you? What new message can I find that speaks to us today?
            I know that this not a new thought, but when it comes the story of Jesus’ temptation – regardless of what gospel I’m preaching from – I like to take a moment and think about what it is that tempts me. Is it money? Does power and influence sound a siren song for me? Or am I really tempted by the desire for the “good life;” you know a big, nice house, a big, nice car, etc? All those things are tempting to me, but is there something else that has the ability to lead me astray, to lead me away from what God is calling me to do?
“Popular! You’re gonna be popular!
I’ll teach you the proper poise when you talk to boys
Little ways to flirt and flounce, ooh!
I’ll show you what shoes to wear, how to fix your hair,
Everything that really counts to be popular!
I’ll help you be popular! You’ll hang with the right cohorts
You’ll be good at sports, know the slang you’ve got to know
So let’s start ‘cause you’ve got an awfully long way to go;
Don’t be offended by my frank analysis, think of it as personality dialysis.
Now that I’ve chosen to become a pal, a sister and adviser
There’s nobody wiser, not when it comes to popular –
I know about popular! And with an assist from me to be who’ll you’ll be
Instead of dreary who you were – well are!
There’s nothing that can stop you from becoming popular – lar
La la, la la
We’re gonna make you pop-u-lar!
When I see depressing creatures, with unprepossessing features
I remind them on their own behalf to think of
Celebrated heads of state or specially great communicators
Did they have brains or knowledge?
Don’t make me laugh! They were popular! Please –
It’s all about popular! It’s not about aptitude; it’s the way you’re viewed
So it’s very shrewd to be very, very popular like me!
And though you protest your disinterest,
I know clandestinely
You’re gonna grin and bear it, your new found popularity – Ah!
La la, la la
You’ll be popular!
Just not quite as popular as me!”[i]

            Okay, so maybe being popular does tempt me. It isn’t so much that I want lots of friends and to be everybody’s favorite – well, not everybody’s favorite. It’s that I want people to like me. I want people to appreciate me. I want to keep people happy. I do not want to make people mad. That is true in everyday life, and that is true in the pulpit as well. Popularity offers me the false promise that I won’t get under people’s kin. Yet, as I have said in other sermons, there is often a fine line between preaching the gospel and upsetting or offending people. The gospel is, more often than we care to admit, an offense to our sensibilities and our understanding of the world. So, if you’re going to preach the gospel, the chances are good that you’ll set someone’s teeth on edge.
            Don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into a fiery, prophetic sermon. There will be no yelling, ala John the Baptizer, about “you brood of vipers.” Not this week, anyway. Rather, I’m trying to get at the heart of temptation; what tempts me, what tempts you, what tempted Jesus.
            Dr. Karoline Lewis, professor at Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, wrote that temptation is not just about something we give up. It is not about avoidance. I’m tempted by chocolate, so I’m just going to send the desert cart away. No, we have to face what tempts us. We have to look at it, confront it, take stock of it. Temptation is not just a one time occurrence. We are tempted over and over again. We may overcome it today, but that does not meant that the temptation won’ show up again – most likely in a new guise – tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day after that.
            If being popular is tempting for me, then I have to confront it. Why is popularity so tempting, especially as a pastor? Maybe I’m afraid that if I get too prophetic, too honest, I’ll lose my job. Maybe I’m afraid of doing more damage to the congregation. After all, we are a small, but mighty, gathering. But if I do not say what people want to heart, will we get even smaller? Maybe I want to be popular as a counter to the fact that I am afraid that I cannot do what God has called me to do. Perhaps I am afraid that I cannot live up to God’s expectations and your expectations and my own expectations. So giving into the temptation of popularity is a way to avoid, deny and run away from my own fear and self-doubt. Giving into my desire for popularity not only keeps me from dealing with myself, it takes me away from God. It pulls me out of relationship with God. Giving into temptation allows me to keep God at a distance. After all, if God and I are distant, God’s call and expectations might not matter so much.
            It seems to me that this might be why Jesus was tempted as well. Was he tempted just to be our role model? Was he tempted just to prove that he was the Son of God, the perfect human? Or was he tempted so that he could clearly see what might pull him off the path God set before him, so that he could recognize the false promises offered by temptation versus the true, eternal promises of God? Was he tempted so that he could understand how easily and how quickly God’s call could be subverted by those false promises?
            If Jesus was as tempted as we are in our everyday life, then surely the temptations the devil threw at him were as real for him as they are for us. Jesus was hungry. He was vulnerable. He was tired. He had been in that wilderness for forty days and forty nights. How easy it would have been for him to give in, to give sway, to all that the tempter offered. How easy it would have been for Jesus to believe those false promises? Yet, perhaps what Jesus understood better than most of us every do is that temptation is that which takes us away from God. Temptation and giving into that temptation takes us out of relationship with God. Jesus knew that what the tempter offered him were false promises. It seems to me that one lesson we may need to learn from this passage is not just that Jesus was better able at his most vulnerable moment to withstand temptation than we are at our strongest; but that Jesus understood the fundamental truth of temptation. Temptation is a false promise. Being popular won’t keep me out of trouble in the parish or in the pulpit – it might even land me in more trouble. Jesus knew that even if he had take up the offer to turn stones into bread, he would not have been able to feed all the world’s hungry people. Jesus knew that the temptations offered by the devil were false promises. And he knew that those false promises would show up again and again, constantly threatening to pull him away from God. Our temptations are false promises, and they threaten to do the same to us as well.
            But the good news is that no matter how many temptations cross our paths, no matter how tempted we are to give into their false promises and leave relationship with God, God does not leave relationship with us. The false promises of temptation can never overcome God’s promise of abundant life and love. Our God is the God of true promises and those promises are kept. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

[i] “Popular” from the musical, Wicked; words and music by Stephen Schwartz ©2003.

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