A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on the First Sunday in Lent, March 13, 2011
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
A brief scan of the ads on a typical half hour of television tells you right away that we live in a culture where giving in to temptation is not considered a vice, but a virtue.
We are regularly encouraged to “go ahead and treat yourself!”, to pamper yourself, to give in to temptation and satisfy that desire. Putting oneself first is touted as the thing to do. Indulge your desires – you deserve it! You and your desires are the most important thing to consider! In fact, a lot of advertising is even calculated to help initiate desires that you didn’t even know you had!
This is just one of many indications of our cultural obsession with self-gratification, self-indulgence, and even a kind of pervasive sense of entitlement to the things that make your life more easy or enjoyable or to be envied by others. Kids grow up feeling deprived if they don’t have the latest and greatest new thing, and many parents would never want their kids to have to feel they had less than others. And, of course, children learn this not only from the thousands of advertising messages they see every day, but from the examples they see from the rest of us, too.
Seldom are we encouraged to resist temptation or question our desires. We learned from Freud not to trust anything that seems repressive of our desires or our emotions. So, what do we do? We indulge them! To do otherwise would be… well, unnatural, and harmful to our psyches. This is the story we have been told, and by most indications, it has worked its way deeply into our lives.
Many of the messages we’re sent in our culture are inspired by the demands for growth in a consumer economy. And so there’s not much attention being paid to the difference between true desire and false desire. There is a big difference. True desire is what we most deeply desire, below the level of conscious thought. It is our longing for connection and relationship, for fidelity and trust – ultimately what can only be described as our desire for life with God. Our false desires are the substitutes we use for satisfying this one deepest desire.
But such a distinction is often deliberately ignored in our culture, because satisfying our true desire usually does not require us to buy anything, or go to a particular place, or to look a certain way.
We heard in the Genesis reading today that most primal story about the “Garden of desire,” which together with our epistle reading from Romans both speak of the “deep, insatiable human propensity to live out of sync with God through an uncontrolled ([and perhaps] uncontrollable?) desire.” Walter Brueggemann says that we are “propelled in ways that we do not understand to live in willful self-assertion or in willful abdication – either way refusing the covenantal, dialogical invitation to be God’s partner in the life of the world.” I think what he means by that is that we are often not conscious of just how much our own willfulness, our own certainty about what we think we really want, keep us from enjoying the life God really intends for us, because we’re more willing to settle for false substitutes than we are to check ourselves, and ask the hard questions, and to resist the temptation to settle for what is not real.
Katerina Whitley says that temptation is “…to be pulled away from our Creator by substituting the temporal for the eternal. We are pulled away from the purpose for which we were created: to live in God, to be one with God, to delight in God, to know the mind of God.”
We can see this in the kinds of temptations we so often face:
· to spend what we do not have for things we do not need
· to substitute fleeting or illusory relationships for true commitment and fidelity
· to lie to ourselves (or even to others) about what we need or want
· to indulge our own desires without regard for the greater good or for the long term consequences of our actions
Jesus’ own temptation in the wilderness is a model for us. The story we heard from Matthew in our gospel today shows Jesus as able to resist every tempting desire – even for things that were arguably and rightfully his. Who could fault him for desiring bread after fasting for forty days? Wasn’t he in fact the Son of God, and couldn’t he legitimately command the angels to bear him up? And how about all those kingdoms? Weren’t they his anyway?
In each case, Jesus refused to submit to false desires or to substitute what was temporal for what was most enduring and true.
How can you and I learn to do the same?
We begin by recognizing that every desire we feel is rooted in something deep and profound that has to do with our life in God, and it is something we are being called to explore and to embrace. But we too easily satiate that desire with things that will not last, and in doing so we miss the opportunity to ask the deeper question: what do I really desire?
The answer to this question will ultimately lead us to a deeper life with God and to a place where the lie of false substitutes for God is exposed.
These forty days of Lent which we have just begun are for us an opportunity to do just that. Our forty days are in some sense the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, where he fasted and prayed. One of the reasons we traditionally “give something up” for Lent is that it helps break through that part of our consciousness that says we’re entitled to whatever we desire, and it enables us to ask the deeper question about where that desire really comes from, and what it is that will really and finally satisfy that desire. By the time Jesus faced his temptation, he knew the one primal truth about what was needed – and that was God alone. Nothing else, finally, could satisfy his one consuming desire – not recognition, not power, not even food itself. This knowledge was what would sustain him through his coming ministry and all that he would face both in life and in death.
This time of fasting – whether you’re giving up something physical like food or drink, or some other thing that you desire – is meant to prepare us to say “no” to what is false in life, and “yes” to what is true. And in doing so we begin to have our deepest desires met.
 Walter Brueggemann, in “Trusting God’s Inexplicable Goodness”, Sojourners (March 2011, p. 48).