Empty Promises

Feb 14 2016


The issue of temptation is a heavy one in the Gospel reading for this morning. But closely tied in with the issue of temptation is the issue of faith. Why is it important for us to have faith? Is it important to have faith in just our family members or friends? Is it important for us to have faith in our fellow employees and bosses? Is it important for us to have faith in God? Probably faith is important in all three categories. But how do we find faith and build our faith in these categories?

Faith is basically no more than a heightened form of trust. And in our earthly relationships, we build trust by interacting with people, watching how they perform in different areas, and by taking risks with them. If we are not disappointed in their behavior, the trust and faith develop. If we are disappointed or betrayed, the trust and resultant faith disappear. We say that we can no longer trust that person. We no longer “have faith” in them. But what happens when that faith is misplaced, or we find out too late that the faith was misplaced and we find ourselves in the middle of a big mess?

What leads us as human beings to seek a faith in something that is greater than we are? Is it that we need that grounding that gives us direction in our lives? Does it give us solace and consolation to think that there is something greater than we are that will ultimately bail us out, when the reality is that we will need our faith to help us make good decisions and our family and friends to ultimately bail us our when we really mess up.

Because of our faith, many of us want to do the right thing, the good thing, the thing that we think God would want us to do! But what is the difference between an atheist who behaves well and a Christian who behaves well? What is the difference between fundamentalist Christians that behave as they think they ought to behave and us? What is the difference between the exclusionary practices of the fundamentalist and the inclusionary practices of more progressive Christianity?

The basic difference lIes in how we read the bible, and how much what we read colors our decision-making. The basic difference is that we have a willingness to consider the problems of life in the 21st century in light of scientific advances, in view of what we think God would want us to do with those advances, and to think in light of biblical research and how it changes the interpretations of scripture over the ages. The fundamentalist views the 21st century through the tunnel of literalism and refuses to consider either scientific research or biblical research.

The issue this morning is not whether there is a challenge and temptation to our faith by trying to apply passages in a modern context. The issue is how we deal with temptation, period. And to find that answer, we must turn to the most famous temptations in the bible – the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness.

Early writers who would have written these gospels, wrote them within a heavily Jewish context and within the scientific understanding of the day. If good happened, God loved us; if bad happened, God must be punishing us. If we are tempted, it must be the opposite of God being with us, so the entity doing the tempting, must be the opposite, the devil or Satan.

It is in that context that we have our gospel lesson detailing the three temptations of Christ in the wilderness. The first temptation speaks to the weaknesses in us when we cannot eat and are tempted to do whatever is necessary to get food, but it also speaks to that yearning in most of us to have more. Satan tells Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answers, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”

This little interchange tells us much about the thinking of the day. God does miracles that set aside the natural order of things. Jesus was called Son of God, therefore, he must be able to set aside the natural order of things. If not the Son of God, then he had a relationship with God so special that the relationship endowed him with special powers. He resisted the temptation to address his bodily needs.

But the other side of temptation is “will the person deliver?” The very nature of temptation is one that promises, but does not deliver. Approximately three years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a seminar on sex-trafficking. Most of the presentation was done by a detective in the sensitive crimes unit of the Milwaukee Police Department. During her presentation she explained how the pimps go into places like MacDonald’s or Starbucks or watch and listen to the young women in malls. They then talk to the young girls telling them how pretty they are, how they should have more independence. They woo them over by targeting the very thing that he has overheard them complaining about not having.

The first step is when they get them to skip a day of school to go to Seven Flags or some other attractive place. That might lead to a weekend, all the time with the girls lying to their parents. Eventually they promise them a job dancing or modeling. When the girls buy all of this and go with them, it’s too late. Empty promises that can lead to ruined lives.

The second temptation is, “If you worship me, all the kingdoms of the world will be yours.” This temptation addresses a basic drive in many people to be important and to have power. Jesus answers, “It is written, “Worship the Lord, your God, and serve only him.” But in the case of these girls, the object of worship becomes the pimp. The girls are too afraid not to comply. It is not unusual for them to be bused to Chicago or Minneapolis to ply their trade where they cannot run away and no one knows them.

The third temptation, “Throw yourself down from here, (the pinnacle of the temple) for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you and they will save you.’ This is the most subtle form of temptation – it goes to the very core of a person’s belief system. It essentially says, “Hey, God said he would protect you. What are you afraid of?’  Jesus answers, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” It is no accident that the place at which Jesus and Satan are pictured is the pinnacle of the temple, the very place where worshippers gather to seek God’s presence.

The real temptation comes not from some entity we call the devil or Satan. The real temptations are located in the recesses of our minds and are buried deep in our hearts because they expose our real and deep human desires. The real temptations call us away from who God wants us to be and creates us in the image of who we want to be because we think God’s image isn’t good enough or that God doesn’t understand 21st century life. And when an outside entity promises a fast track to success in order to get us to do something, that is temptation and the promises are usually empty promises.

The answers in the bible are not going to jump out at us, literally, from the pages. The bible is not a list of do’s and don’ts. The bible is a collection of writings, written more from a Jewish standpoint than any other, and those writings explain the relationships of God and people over the ages and call us, as people of the 21st century, into our special relationship with God. We, as Christians, try to understand that relationship by taking our cues from how Jesus lived his life and the two commandments which guided his life: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind and your body, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Satan’s approach does not show neighborly love. When we look at our circumstances, or when others try to show us a more expedient way of dealing with our circumstances or a fast track to success by appealing to our weak points with empty flattery and empty promises, and we believe deep within us that what we are being told is wrong, we still have a choice. God has not sent anyone to test us. God has given us the ability to make any choices that we want to make. The issue is not that God tests; the issue is that we have choices regarding how we will respond to the many temptations we will encounter simply because we are human beings. The life of Jesus shows us, time and again, what choices Jesus would make in the context of a loving relationship with God and with our neighbors.

Those choices must be made in the context of our faith and our trust in our fellow human beings and in God. We all know when we are being tempted to do something that we know is wrong. At those times it is up to us to choose whether we will act as Jesus might have acted and to decide if our own desires are more important to us than our relationships with God and others. Amen.