The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire

Sermon - February 14, 2016
Scripture Reading: Luke 4:1-13


The Rev. Robert Vodra


     Wow, Valentine’s day.  Love, roses, chocolate, and Jesus being tempted by the devil.  Sometimes I wonder if those who put the church year together really considered the secular holidays.  Well Valentine’s day is not totally secular, at least at the beginning, but it certainly has become that way.
     And at the beginning of Lent also.  Don’t those who put the lectionary together know that for many, part of Lent is giving up things like chocolate.  Since many of us keep those things we give up private, even that person who gives the chocolate might not know that you have been trying to give it up, at least for these 40 days.  Not to go off topic here, but if you have given up chocolate and are worried about giving into temptation by that box you were just given, there is a small mailbox downstairs in the church office labeled “Minister.”  I have not given up chocolate, and, in order to help any of the congregation who feel that temptation is too great, if left in my box, I will take that temptation away from you.

     I think it would be helpful for me to define sin for you, at least my definition.  Sin is anything that separates you from the love of God.  It would be so much easier if we had a list, like the 10 commandments we could just follow and know that if we break those we are full of sin and if we stay away from those, we are sin free.  But at least in my view, there is no list.  As a visual, it is like us standing on the edge of a great cliff, and on another cliff there is God.  All that stuff in the middle, whatever it is that prevents us from getting closer to God, is sin.

     And to be sure, some of that stuff in the middle is tempting.  There was a PBS Frontline documentary a few years ago titled “The Persuaders.”  It looked at advertising.  Many years ago advertisers used the quality of their product in order to sell it.  More recently they went through a period where they looked for celebrity endorsements.  But more recently they have started to try to sell products based on the lifestyle you will have if you buy this product. 

     Although they think this is a more recent development, I think it has been going on for quite a long time.  Many of you probably are old enough to remember when cigarettes could be advertised on TV.  I guess some are still advertised in magazines.  You can be beautiful, and have men or women hanging all over you if you smoke these cigarettes.  Alcohol is always advertised with a party.  Of course I want 40 people in my strangely large and beautifully decorated house watching a football game.  But even when I buy a case of good beer, my house does not grow, and if too many people show up it just gets too crowded.

     But we are constantly tempted.  It starts when we are young.  I have a very early memory of a toy motorcycle, you would wind it up with a handle on the side, the stop turning the handle and it would take off.  I had to have one.  All the commercials showed several boys with this toy.  And it would go over dirt jumps, through rocks, it looked awesome.  But beyond the toy, the boys were smiling and laughing and having so much fun.  I was sure that if I got that toy, I would be one of those boys.  My friends would all come over to play, we would build little dirt jumps and courses to go through.  But when I finally got it, it didn’t go as long as they showed on TV.  It was kind of fun, but I didn’t have several boys coming over to my house to play with it.  Certainly the experience they were selling did not happen.

     And if you don’t think it still happens, look at phone commercials.  Most phones do the same things, you can use it as a phone, it has a camera, GPS, you can download programs to get your email or look at facebook.  They may mention that it is faster, but most phone ads today show that person with the new phone surrounded by happy people.  If I get the latest phone, will I be surrounded by happy people?

     It is everywhere you look.  A pill that will put you and your special someone in two outdoor bathtubs on a porch with an amazing view watching a sunset.  If you buy this car, you will be able to drive really fast, doing amazing tricks without a police officer anywhere near. 

     And I think a lot of it has to do with our needs.  We all have a need to have friends, to have companionship, to have excitement.  And advertisers know those needs, and try to put their products out there as a place to fill those needs.  Unfortunately, they don’t.  A new phone will not give me many more friends, nor will a case of beer. 

     Jesus’ temptation is very real.  The devil again attempts to sow mistrust: you may go hungry; you do not have enough; how do you know God is trustworthy.  Of course Jesus is able to quote scripture.  There are many today who are able to do the same.  I am not one.

     St. Augustine, the fourth-century African bishop, writes in the first lines of his Confessions that God created a restlessness in our hearts that can only be satisfied when we rest in God.

     One way to read today’s reading is to imagine that Jesus shows us the key to resisting temptation by finding our identity in our relationship with God.  We remember that in Baptism God confers upon us our essential identity as beloved children, we may be less likely to succumb to the various pressures that seek to tempt us or to define ourselves in terms of what we have.

     At the same time, it's important to recognize that temptation is not once and done. Jesus rejects the tempter here, but he has other moments of doubt. Our life as Christians does not eliminate doubt, need, or a sense of incompleteness. Rather, we are oriented to our relationships with God as those places where our needs are met, though not taken away. We will fall short in claiming our God-given identity. Yet Jesus has resisted not only at this moment but also and more importantly at the cross, committing himself and his destiny to God. Therefore, when we fall short we can confess our failings and trust that in and through the crucified and risen Jesus we have the promise of forgiveness and new life.

     Of course that opposite of temptation is trust.  To the degree that we trust God for our daily needs, for a sense of purpose, for our identity as a child of God, the temptations of the world have, frankly, little appeal. But to the degree that we allow our natural insecurity to lead us to mistrust God, we are open to the possibility, appeal, and temptation of the proposition that it is all up to us, that God is not able to provide and so we’d better take matters into our own hands.

     I would like take a few minutes and ask you to do something.  Yes, I know this is the sermon time, you are supposed to be able to just listen but don’t worry, not going to ask you to stand up and give some kind of testimony, or even speak with those around you.  This is a private, personal exercise, you can even scoot a little further away from those around you or turn slightly.  I would like you to take your bulletin, or a scrap piece of paper, or even something in the pew in front of you, and a pencil or pen.

     On one side of whatever you have I would like you to write something that is important to you for which you feel confident of God’s support: maybe it’s the love of your family, or a job, or your relationship with God. These things shouldn’t be “givens” – stuff you never worry about, but rather things that matter, that you do worry about, and yet you trust God with them. Label this side of the card, “trust.”

     I think it’s important to start with something that is working because under the pressure of mistrust or temptation it’s easy to forget what trust feels like and, indeed, that we are capable of trusting. But we are, all of us, so let’s start there.

     Then, on the other side of the bulletin or paper, write down one thing that is difficult to trust God with right now. Maybe it’s a particular relationship, or a job or school decision, or something challenging at work or home, or an uncertain future. Label this side of the card, “mistrust.”

     Take a moment to compare these two things: why is it easier to trust God with one of them and not the other? What makes the challenging one different? Are they different, or might we be able to trust more than we thought?

     Now you have a few options available to you.  After the service today, you can recycle your bulletin or whatever you just wrote on.  But I would like to suggest that this week you wait until later in the week to recycle this.  Take it home, and leave it on your dresser or someplace you will see it every day.  Just take a moment to read those two words.  Maybe even pray about the one on the mistrust side, asking God how to be more trusting.

     And I will open up an invitation also.  If this is not working for you, and you want more prayer, send me your word.  You can send me a one word email, actually put something in the subject line like “please pray for.”

     Maybe through prayer and through trusting we will find a way to satisfy the restlessness in our hearts.  Maybe we will be able to see how advertisers use those feelings we all have to sell us things that we don’t need or don’t want, and we will be able to know that that new phone, new toy, new car will not satisfy our needs because our needs can be filled by God.  And trusting in God to provide.