A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at St. Matthew’s UMC March 13, 2011, the first Sunday in Lent and the occasion of receiving new persons into covenant.
Text: Matthew 4:1-11
Do any of you remember that old country song called “Lookin’ for Love?” “Lookin’ for love in all the wrong places, lookin’ for love in too many faces, searchin’ your eyes, lookin’ for traces of what I’m dreaming of…” Waylon Jennings captures a common human experience in these lines. We are all looking for love, for happiness, for peace. And so often, we try to find what our hearts most seek in all the wrong places. But if all those wrong places didn’t hold some promise we probably wouldn’t even bother. Temptation is tricky that way—it masquerades as full of life and benefit for us, it tells half-truths and distracts us from the very source of what will fulfill the yearning and hunger of our hearts. Yes, all of us are hungry for love, for meaning, for happiness, for peace. And if St. Augustine and Waylon Jennings were ever to meet and discuss this issue, Augustine might offer good ol’ Waylon his well-known prayer: “O God our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”
Today we find Jesus beginning his journey into public ministry. I don’t think it is an accident that we are told that Jesus fasted and was famished. Jesus’ hunger is like our own—a hunger that is restless and wandering, seeking that which will provide peace. What we learn here is that this hunger, our restlessness, is satisfied by God and God alone. Jesus’ journey is a journey toward God. This is our journey too if we choose to follow.
As we begin this 40 day journey of Lent, we get off to a less than promising start, because the journey begins with temptation. Who wants to take that trip?! But as professor and pastor Diogenes Allen points out, Jesus is the trail-blazer of our spiritual journey, the one who shows us how we can travel the same path that he traveled, and in doing so, experience a new kind of life—the kind of life in which we receive strength, understanding, and encouragement through close relationship with God. Jesus’ journey began with temptation; his opening encounter was with choices that each one of us must face if we are to journey into new life with God. And the temptations we meet in this opening encounter are so foundational to our experience that we would do well to learn how to recognize them—because they are part of our lives. All the time. They are the temptations of material goods, security, and prestige.
Bread alone does not fill the deepest hunger of the human heart—bread, money, possessions—none of this is enough. We might all remember some time in our lives when we thought to ourselves, “If only I had—a what? Whatever it was, you fill it in. And remember when you got it? How wonderful it was? Remember how after a while it didn’t matter so much and you wanted other things? Such experiences are of vital importance. They tell us about our restless heart, our craving. For we are tempted to forget the one thing that points us to God: our restlessness with all that the world has to offer. Only God can fill that void.”[i] And even if we ourselves are quite content with what we have, we can still get overly focused on these things through worrying that others don’t have enough of what the world has to offer. Our temptation is always to think that material goods, if only we can get them for ourselves or for others, will satisfy, will bring peace and happiness. Of course we need to care for the basic human needs of ourselves, our families, our communities. So much of our spiritual teaching calls us to care in these ways. The temptation, however, is to believe that we can live “by bread alone.” We cannot. The choice before us is whether to seek first God or worldly possessions.
And here it seems that the first temptation is linked with the second. “When we are told that we do not live by bread alone, when we are told to seek first the kingdom, when we are called to give up a lot of desires—I think we could do it if…if we were sure that there is a kingdom. We could turn from our restless craving to possess, if we just knew for sure that there is a God. The first temptation would not be so powerful, so overwhelming, if we just knew. But that is just what we encounter in the second temptation: the absence of security. This time it is the security of a knowledge that would enable us to overcome the lust for this world, a knowledge that would assure us that we don’t have to cheat, to drive ourselves into the ground, to consume ourselves with envy of others—because we have a heavenly Father. We could know that we have such a Father by seeing his care for us; by having disease and accident and danger removed from us when we pray.”[ii] If only God protected us and those we love from harm, if there were just no suffering in the world, if God would just answer my prayers the way I want them answered, then I could be secure in my faith. In this world in which we seek to control everything, including nature, life, and death, we also are tempted to try to use God to get what we want. The temptation is to make God part of our technology, and if the technology doesn’t work the way we want it to, then we are likely to throw it out with the trash. And this temptation can show up in very sneaky ways. So much of it has to do with this business of our getting what we want—and what we want is for God to look after us the way we think God should look after us. [This is an assumption made by the pious and the non-believer alike: “one thinks God looks after us here; the other thinks God will look after us in heaven; the third thinks God’s failure to look after us proves God doesn’t exist.”[iii] Do you see the common assumption?] As long as we fail to see that what we’re offered by God is not the kind of security we seek, but rather, the promise of a peace that passes all human understanding—not instead of suffering or insecurity or doubt, but in the midst of all these things of life. We may receive God’s peace and a joy that is only known in relationship with God whether we get what we ask for or not… The choice before us is whether to test God or to trust God to help us learn and grow even in the midst of suffering and insecurity.
The final temptation has to do with how others see us and how we see other people. It has to do with buying in—or not—to the ways of worldly kingdoms that value people based on might and status and position. Jesus was tempted to buy in to the ways of the world, to use all the power at his disposal to get his own way, to force people by a great show of power and force that he was sovereign, to take power and use it, setting himself up as the ruler of the world. While we may not find ourselves in a position to rule the world, our temptation is to see others as more or as less than ourselves based on where we all fall on the ladder of success. The temptation is also to focus so much on how others see us (whether we perceive that they see us as fabulous and important or if we believe they don’t see us at all) that there is little room left for any other concern; we can unwittingly make of ourselves the center of the universe. The alternative is humility, the humble use of whatever power we have been given, the realization that our identity is found not in the labels or luck-of-the-draw positions that we may find ourselves bearing in this life; but rather our identity—like that of all other humans, regardless of status, is found in relationship to God as God’s beloved children. For us, the choice has to do with whether or not we will see ourselves and others honestly, humbly, compassionately, as human beings, all of whom are just trying to find their way—and this regardless of where we find ourselves or others on the social scale.
What if all these temptations are a gateway into a closer life with God? Seen in this way, temptations may be seen as gifts—for when we recognize ourselves caught in a moment of having to choose God’s way or the alternative, we are already being given the gift of knowing that we stand near the gateway to a new path. In order to receive these blessings, we first have to renounce the things that bar us from passing through into God’s life. It is not by chance that the ancient profession of faith made at the Baptismal font begins with a renunciation of evil. It is the beginning of faith, the beginning of a journey into closer communion with God. In our desire to be happy, to be at peace, to find love, we are tempted all along our life’s journey to look in the wrong places, to rely on material things, to seek security at all costs, and to try to find those things through attaining some status or power in the world. What we learn today is that all these things may satisfy for a time, but ultimately we will still be hungry, restless, unfulfilled. The invitation today is to follow where Jesus has walked, to enter the mystery that is human life, love, suffering, limitation, and to be met with the overwhelming love of God, the greatest mystery of all. For there we will find all we’re looking for…and much, much more.
[i] Diogenes Allen, Temptation, Princeton, NJ: Caroline Press, 1986, p. 26.
[ii] Ibid., p. 46.
[iii] Ibid., p. 47.