If Only . . .
A sermon on Luke 4: 1-13 by Nathan Nettleton, 21 February 2010
© LaughingBird.net


Message
Demonic temptations do not usually look demonic, but are usually a subtle undermining of our sense of who we are that cause us to grasp for quick fixes.

Sermon

What I have here in my hand is a pizza menu from Hell. I’ve only been to Hell for a pizza once, not because it was a hellish experience, but because Hell is just around the corner from my cousin’s place in Christchurch, New Zealand, and that’s a bit for to go for pizza on a regular basis! Actually, I think it is a chain of stores, but they’re all in New Zealand. My cousin wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do to take her pastor-cousin to a pizza shop called “Hell”, and she was relieved to find that I thought it was funny and was keen to check it out. Then again, I’m always happy to check out a suitably wicked pizza! They have pizzas with names like Wrath, Mayhem, Cursed, Brimstone and Sinister, and if you’re ever in Hell’s neighbourhood, I can recommend them. The Underworld was particularly good.

Of course, there will be Christians who wouldn’t go near that shop and will be horrified at me talking so light-heartedly about Hell. They would suggest that I’m not taking the demonic power of evil seriously enough and that I am therefore leaving myself vulnerable to its influence. But it seems to me that the opposite is, in fact, the more prevalent problem. By focussing our resistance on the imagery of hell, we can be so distracted by a literalised reading of that imagery that we are easy prey for the way evil usually presents itself, which is clothed in a veneer of light and goodness and wholesomeness.

Take the story we heard a few minutes ago, for example. Jesus is tempted by the devil in the wilderness. If we have invested too much in the stylised images of the demonic world, we begin to read them into this story. We begin to see a devil with horns and a tail and handfuls of flame suggesting to Jesus that he should come over to the dark side because evil is so much more fun. But, in fact, the story doesn’t say that the devil appeared to Jesus at all. The devil comes to him, and speaks to him, and leads him somewhere and shows him something, but it doesn’t anywhere say that the devil appeared to him. And even if he did, he wouldn’t have been wearing a name tag with a job description. There is almost certainly nothing in this story that would have looked anything like what the graphic designer for Hell Pizza has come up with. Although possibly if the devil had suggested that Jesus turn the stone into pizza instead of bread he might have had more success!

I don’t know how many of you remember the movie Jesus of Montreal. It was about a group of French-Canadian actors putting on a passion play, and over the weeks of rehearsal, the story begins to take over the lives of the actors and the biblical scenes play out in real-life situations in their lives. The scene that most startled me was the temptations scene, because I didn’t recognise it until it was almost all the way through. The temptations put to the actor were eerily similar to those put to Jesus, but set in the normality of a struggling actor’s life and so coming in the way these temptations normally come to us, they snuck up on me and I was horrified to realise how slow I was to see their dark side. And that’s the reality of temptations; they don’t get presented to us by a guy with fiery red skin and horns and all neatly labelled, “Temptation from the pit of Hell”. They didn’t for Jesus either, and even the way this story is told is surely more a summary of the kinds of temptation he faced throughout his life rather than a single incident that got temptation over and done with. As another great movie, The Last Temptation of Christ showed, temptation was something that Jesus dealt with all through his life and ministry, even if the only other specific insight we’re given into it is his struggle with the temptation to give up in the Garden of Gethsemene. Actually, Last Temptation wasn’t really a great movie. In movie making terms it was a bit crappy really, but it was an excellent piece of theology.

With apologies to anyone here who works in the advertising industry, a good source on information on how temptation usually presents itself to us is observation of the techniques that are used in advertising. I’m not saying that advertising is inherently evil, although at times it has a lot to answer for, but it is the job of the advertisers to find successful ways of tempting us to buy things we might not have otherwise bought or do things we might not have otherwise done. And therefore, outside of hell itself, they are the experts on the mechanics of temptation.

For the most part, neither advertising nor demonic temptation present to you with a rational proposal that seeks to persuade you that this acton or product or viewpoint is superior to the alternatives. There was an article in the paper about this today that spelt it out: “advertisers tend to dispense with the appeal to reason altogether, preferring more basic levers such as humour, greed, gluttony, sympathy and arousal.” And one of the things it said is most in play in a great deal of advertising, is yearning. It seeks to fan the embers of a vague dissatisfaction, a vague feeling that there must be something more that I’m missing out on. If they can make me feel a yearning for something more, for something that presently leaves my life a little incomplete, and then make me feel that satisfaction is at hand and it has something to do with their product, then they are well on the way to seducing me into pulling out the credit card.

Often the creation of this yearning is done by questioning my image of myself. If you were the man you should be, wouldn’t your face feel smooth every time your beloved touched your skin? If you were the lover you should be, wouldn’t you be making love a lot more often and for a lot longer? If you were the parent you should be, wouldn’t you be driving a safer car than the one you presently have? If you were the pastor you should be, wouldn’t you be using this program that is winning souls in California? If, if, if. And the yearning is triggered. If only . . . If only . . . And if that yearning works its way into me, and I don’t counter it with an antidote, I begin to succumb to the temptation to reach for the offered quick fix. I might not even really believe it. I might be laughing at the unlikeliness of it. But if it goes unchecked, I will eventually secretly think, “There’s nothing to lose by trying it, is there?” and I’ll reach for my wallet.

This is exactly what the Apostle Luke tells us the devil did to Jesus. If, if, if. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.” Can you hear that? “If you were the sort of son of God you should be, wouldn’t you be doing something about the problem of hunger?” “If you were the sort of son of God you should be, wouldn’t you be letting everyone see what you can do so that they would know to follow you and trust you?” Even the temptation to worship the devil in return for authority is not that obviously evil when you think about it. “If you were the sort of leader of humanity you should be, wouldn’t it be more realistic to cut a deal with me in return for the authority to fulfil your mission unopposed. Just pay the bribe and its all yours.” The second half sounds like an appeal to reason and logic, but the real power of the temptation is in the first half: “If you were the man you should be . . .” “Shouldn’t you be more? Isn’t there something missing? We can help?”

So, if one of the themes of this season of Lent is toughening ourselves up in the face of temptation, what can we learn here about boosting our resistance? Let me suggest four things you can do.

The traditional Lenten practice of fasting is not a bad start. The gospel story told us that Jesus had fasted for forty days, but I recommend that you start with something rather more modest. Forty days is about the most that is possible for a very healthy and strong individual without doing permanent damage, but most of us would be better starting with a day or two. One of the things it does is give us some practice in the art of saying no to powerful hungers. If we can learn to control one appetite, there will be spillover benefits in our ability to understand and say no to others. Fasting from food is the most common traditional form, but other things might be more relevant for you. Maybe fasting from watching television, or from accessing internet porn, or from buying new clothes. For anorexics, fasting from fasting might be an excellent discipline!

A second thing you can do is also seen in Jesus’ response to the bread-making temptation. “No-one lives by bread alone,” he says. The temptation might not be rational, but the application of reason can be a good antidote. What is this temptation really about if I question it? That article in today’s paper made this point too in relation to cutting the power of advertising. It said, “Strip away the manipulation and examine the information, and you'll generally find you're left with a handful of nothing.” It is quite a good exercise if you are watching commercial television, which I find much harder to avoid when the winter Olympics are on. Do it yourself, or with kids if you’re watching together. Question the ads. “What is that ad trying to make us feel?” “What is that ad saying about us?” Unmask them.

The third thing can be seen in Jesus’ response to the “just worship me” temptation. Jesus says “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Only God. There is a reminder here that the message that you can have it all, that you can have it both ways, that you can have your cake and eat it too, is usually a lie. You can’t have this, and that too. There are many things that are simply incompatible with each other, and reaching for the next fix to make you feel better is very often done at the expense of the perfectly adequate things you already have in your possession. You don’t need more. You don’t need another car, another television, another deodorant, another pair of shoes, another husband. Part of the creation of the yearning is to fan discontent with what you’ve got. Make choices and accept that choosing one means saying no to another, and then make the most of what you have.

And finally, pray. The number one Lenten discipline: pray. Pray for insight and wisdom and strength. When yearning temptations are stirring, pray that God will help you to see them for what they are. Pray through stories like the one we heard tonight and ask God to show you where those sorts of temptations play themselves out in your life. The best antidote to “If only, if only, if only” is “Pray, pray, pray.”