Lent 1 - Year B
February 22, 2015, 12:00 AM

Lent I

Year B

Christ the King, Quincy


    Great things, Thou hast done, O Lord, my God. I would name them and proclaim them, but they are more than I can tell. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen. 


    Traditionally, the Gospel for the first Sunday in Lent is always the story of the temptation of Christ. Matthew and Luke go into a good deal of detail about the exact form which these temptations took, while Mark gives us only the intriguing statement that once the voice from heaven proclaimed, "Thou are my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased." Then "the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan." Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark leaves it to our own imagination to speculated about the nature of the temptations which Jesus faced and successfully overcame.

    This also provides us with the license to think for ourselves about the nature of the temptations we all face and hope to overcome. When we first think about the idea of temptation, the picture that immediately comes to mind is the idea of being tempted to do something wrong or immoral, like a child tempted to steal a cookie, or an adult tempted to fudge a little on their tax deductions. We most often think of temptation in terms of doing something we know we should not do.

    That kind of temptation comes in rather stark moral colors of black and white, and we must choose between what we know to be right and what we know to be wrong. But, at least in my experience, temptation rarely appears in such stark contrast. If it did, I think, it would be much easier to resist the wrong and side with the right. I cannot think of many people who would knowingly and deliberately set out to do what they knew to be wrong. In most case, then, I do not think that temptation is about doing what is right or doing what is wrong; temptation most often comes into play when we are trying to define what is right and what is wrong.

    Human beings want to believe, seem to need to believe, that they are doing the right thing, even when sometimes they are not. Whatever it is that we want to do, we need to believe that it is not only what we want, but that it is the right thing to do as well. And that for me is what temptation is all about, it is the temptation to deceive ourselves about what is right and wrong. 

    Maybe an example would help to explain what I mean. Suppose someone were to decide to do a little creative accounting on their income taxes this year. They would not sit down and say to themselves, "Well, I think I'll just cheat and lie on my returns." No one intentionally starts off to cheat and lie. But what they might say to themselves is something like this: "These taxes just aren't fair. I pay the same portion of my income as a multimillionaire and I don't make a tenth of what they make, and heck, most of them avoid taxes altogether. Why should I get stuck, when they get off scott free, and most of the money the government takes, it wastes on one boondoggle or another. It isn't right. So if I fudge a little on my deductions and forget to report a little cash income, it only balances the scales. Why should I be the only one who pays the full rate."

    You see, I hope, where I'm going. We don't set out to do what we know to be wrong. In a real sense our consciences would not allow it. The real temptation is not simply to cheat, it is the temptation to delude ourselves that our cheating, or other sins are really alright. Our temptation is not so much to a sinful act as to believing the lies that would justify our sins. The tempting rationale comes before the sin itself. 

    M. Scott Peck, in his book People of the Lie, calls Satan by a very interesting name. He calls him the "Father of Lies". And when we are talking about temptation, I think that name is very compelling. It is not so much the things we do, but the lies which we are tempted to tell ourselves that are the occasion for sin. 

    A full list of these lies which we are sorely tempted to believe would be even longer than this morning's confession, but taken together they present us with a view of the world that looks something like this. Each of us is solely responsible for our own well-being. That in this struggle for survival, those who are the smartest, those who work the hardest, those who are the shrewdest will prevail and gain the rewards they seek. We did not make up the rules of the game, we tell ourselves, we may not even like the rules,  but if that is the way it is going to be played, we will play to win. If self-assertion and aggressiveness are the traits that it takes to survive and win, then we will practice these skills, and gain the rewards we seek, the rewards we deserve for ourselves and our families. And finally, what is probably the ultimate delusion, the ultimate temptation, that I can play the game by the world's rules and still keep by own values my own soul in tact. That how I act in the world can be separated from who I truly am as a person. 

    Described in these stark terms, the flaws in these tempting lies are readily apparent. But when we look at the real world about us, it would be naive to underestimate their power. Pick up the newspaper, or turn on the TV and you will see a whole array of goods and service almost, almost, guaranteed to make you happy and successful. Need a new car, not just any car will do for transportation, a car must now be a symbol which shows the world how successful you have become. Everyone needs a home, but not just any home, a home that is large enough, modern enough, in the right neighborhood to be a projection of our success. And what about children? Even they must be taught to compete, their lives must be structured and graded and ranked, so that they will develop the skills and attitudes needed to succeed in a world they did not create.     The tempting lies which the world whispers in our ear, lead us further and further from what we are called to be, and they never provide the happiness and security they so seductively claim to offer. For how much is ever enough? Just a little more, the world temptingly whispers, just a little more and you'll have it all. Just a few more hours a day, just a few more deals, just a little longer, and we will finally have it. Finally there will be enough, and we can go back to living the way we really want to. But is there ever quite enough?

    And, even more tragically, what happens to the person who can no longer compete? What happens to the person, who through no fault of their own, fins themselves without a way to compete, without a job? Not only is their economic survival in grave jeopardy, but according to the tempting lies of the world, their whole sense of self worth is up for grabs too. If our worth is based upon our ability to compete, if we can no longer compete effectively, what are we worth? And, again what about our children. My generation has suffered a massive identity crisis. Our parents rode a tide of unparalleled economic prosperity—they lived in a place and time where hard work was roughly commensurate with economic success. But the markets my generation now navigates does not come with the same sense of security. There is a great deal of personal anxiety among people my generation who have bought into the lie that their take-home salary and self worth are somehow linked. Many of us feel valueless because they have not been able to attain the rewards we have been taught to covet and enjoy? If we value our children because they succeed, what if the world deprives them of that opportunity, or what if they choose to seek success in some other way? Are they to view themselves as failures because they don't have as much as we do?

    All these are, I believe, the tragic and unavoidable consequences of the lie of competition which our society, which Satan if you will, would tempt us to believe. And to all of these lies, Christianity shouts "No". No, that is not how the world was made, that is not how the world is, that is not how God intends us to live, that is not where true happiness is to be found.

    As St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothings things that are". That is not a lie, that is God's truth.

    And God's truth will, as St. Paul points out, always seem out of place, always stand in stark contrast to the lies of the world. The Christian will never be at home in this world, the Christian must stand for the truth in face of the world's tempting lies, and that will always mark the Christian as an outsider, as someone who does not belong.

    In the early third century, an unknown Christian wrote a letter to another christian by the name of Diognetus, that letter has been preserved through all the centuries, and it includes this picture of what it means to be a Christian in a world which espouses lies.

    "Christians are not different from the rest of men in nationality, speech, or customs; they do not live in states of their own, nor do they use a special language, nor adopt a peculiar way of life. Their teaching is not the kind of thing that could be discovered by the wisdom or reflection of mere active-minded men; indeed, they are not outstanding in human learning as others are. They live, each in his native land - but as though there were not really at home there. ...In the flesh they are, yet they do not live according to the flesh. They dwell on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the laws that men make, but their lives are better than the laws. They love all men, but are persecuted by all. They are unknown, and yet they are condemned. They are put to death, yet are more alive than ever. They are paupers, but they make many rich. They lack all things, and yet in all things they abound. In a word, what the soul is to the body Christians are to the world."

    That I think is part of our calling. To resist the tempting lies of the world, and to act as a soul for the world. To constantly remind each other, and anyone who will listen, that true happiness lies not in competition and acquisition, but in sharing and giving compassion. That humility, not self-assertion, is our calling. And that truth is stronger than falsehood, life is greater than death, and that in God's own good time, that the truth will indeed prevail. If we will reject the lie, and live in the truth. 

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