Saturday, February 24, 2007

The First Sunday of Lent: Temptation

In 1977, while he was still professor of philosophy at Princeton Theological Seminary, Diogenes Allen wrote a wonderful meditation on Christian spirituality. He titled it Between Two Worlds. Later he simplified it to Temptation. I bought the book in a reprint edition during the fall of 2004. Like any work of genius that focuses upon a difficult subject, Temptation was not a comfortable read. It took me two and a half years to get through its hundred and fifty pages. I would open the book in the morning after a good night’s sleep and, in the purity and freshness of a new day, I could face that the world was trying to diminish my spirit by tempting me to seek material goods, security, and prestige in place of God. “How wise,” I would say, underlining yet another passage, “how on the mark.” Then I would come home in the evening, exhausted, pushed out of my comfort zone by the day and I would pour myself a nice, relaxing bourbon and soda and sit down in my chair. But when I opened the same book that I had enjoyed that morning, I suddenly saw myself in a whole new light. It seemed far easier to just close the book than wrestle with my own temptation. It’s not very often that I feel unworthy to read a book, but I sure felt that way about this one. And yet, I was also intrigued. How could such a little book be such a mirror? So I would creep back sometimes. Bit by bit I would sneak looks into its pages, never quite letting it out of my sight. I was always impressed. Here was a man who did not make excuses. Like saying how poor and humble Jesus and Mary were and then adding, but of course they are the heavenly king and queen and so could afford to be humble in a way that you, with your need for prestige, just don’t get. Allen knew humility. Humility does not blame and neither did Allen blame. Little by little I began to learn how to forgive myself for those things that God had already forgiven me. Little by little, in my own flawed way, I learned just how much God actually likes me. I also learned that temptation is not about confrontation or resistance; it’s just an ongoing thing in religion. It’s easy to confuse the desire for God with the desire for a new car. Both seem to promise they will get me where I need to go, and yet, as my heart grows wise, I begin to see that my route to God may take me where no car can ever go. Temptation is just the other side of desire. It is not some black and white tapestry of good and evil, morality and judgment, but a nuanced conversation between myself and the world, an ongoing reflection of strengths and weaknesses and how they are so often the same.

Again and again, scripture tells the story of people succumbing to temptation: Ham sneaks in and sees his father naked, Abraham lies and tells Pharaoh his wife is really just his sister, Jacob robs Esau of his inheritance, Moses kills an irritating Egyptian, David has his most faithful captain Uriah killed so that he can have Bathsheba. People in the Bible are capable of dreadful things. That’s not the point. The point is what they do after that dreadful thing. Do they learn from it or not? Scripture promises that if we can but hang on, God will give us another chance. Even if we as a species completely succumb to our wasteful ways and lose the entire earth, as scientists are now hinting we might, God isn’t going to give up on us. That’s the deal.

I needed to tell you this before I move into the very serious story of Jesus’ temptation, the story with which we begin Lent every year. It’s too easy for a preacher to look good when she plays the part of Jesus in the desert, but I want you to know that I can barely go without food for a day, much less forty. Jesus’ temptation is an ideal I check in with every year and against which I chart my own spiritual progress. I can tell the story, and I might even be able to tell you some things about which it means, but I’m still far from being able to live it.

Diogenes Allen talked about temptation in a very individual way. He looked at how I trust my possessions more than my soul, how I see a happy ending in a stock portfolio, how prestige in the world assures me of my right to live. But because scripture may be read in many ways, in the spirit of the One Earth Lent, I would like to explore temptation a little more globally. Jesus didn't come just to save me. He come to save the world.

I invite us to stop and imagine. What it might have been like to be Jesus, having given myself to a wild and wonderful wilderness adventure with my cousin John, to have seen the light and the beauty of God, also God’s wild, inhuman terrors, and then to go in, to take the baptismal plunge and to come out of the waters only to discover that it is all true. I have been Chosen by God. I am the One. I want you to imagine that before we go one step further. Try it on in your own skin. Hear the voice whisper, “You’re the One. You’re the one.”

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