Canon John L.C. Mitman
14 February 2016
Grace Episcopal Church
I used to serve on the board of our Diocesan Camp and Conference Center, Camp Washington in the Litchfield Hills. Each time I would drive over to a meeting, I was confronted with the choices of which route I would take to get there. You all know the old saying, “In New England, you can’t get there from here.” Well, there is certainly no direct route to Camp Washington! The basic choices are to take I 84 over to Waterbury and head north or to weave your way cross country most of the way on 6, 4 or 44. Canon Douglas Cooke, who once directed the Camp and drove back and forth innumerable times, Doug maintained that there are at least 12 different routes from West Hartford to the Camp. It basically depends on whether you want to enjoy the countryside or get there faster OR endure the traffic. I usually opted for the former. That’s a mundane example of the fact that life is a series of choices.
Luke’s Gospel says that after Jesus was Baptized, he was driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit and there he was tempted, which means he had to make choices, most cetrainly choices a lot tougher than choosing a route to Camp Washington!
The temptations which Jesus faced were deceptively simple and you no doubt know them well.
The first temptation, the first Choice: change a rock into bread. That is, Jesus would use his power to satisfy his own needs, he was hungry, after all! He could assent or, he could say, “no.” In fact, Jesus pointed out that we humans do not live by bread alone as there is so much more that feeds us, namely and specifically, God!
The Second Temptation, the second choice: Jesus is offered temporal power over all the kingdoms of the world. He could become the Emperor of all Emperors if he would but bow down and serve the forces of Evil ,--- or he could say “no”. In fact, Jesus said that he could not serve evil, but only God.
The Third Temptation, the third choice: the devil tempts Jesus to exercise his saving power in a dazzling and ostentatious display, showing off, if you will --- an ego play; or he could say “no”. And Jesus responded, “you shall not put your God to test.”
Jesus had choices and he saw them for what they were, temptations. Certainly, there are times when we are all offered choices which are substantially equal in quality, equal in goodness, equal in their moral ramifications. Most of the time we face situations in which the choice is not between good and evil as much as between what is easy and cheap and what is costly and hard. And it is so, so tempting to take the easy and cheap route and then rationalize our decision with 1,001 excuses.
We humans were created, that is, we designed to make choices and this is, make no mistake about it, a magnificent, solemn and awesome gift from God our Creator. Our capacity to make informed choices is after all what distinguishes us from the birds of the air, the fish of the sea and the puppy dogs. We can come up to this unique moment in time and make a decision whether to go forward, to stay where we are or, insofar as possible, to go backward. No other creature in all God’s own cosmos has that capacity. It’s a gift from God and it is a responsibility: To sneak a chocolate sundae. To hedge on our Income Tax. To give into the titillation of a relationship which we know is inappropriate, one which can and may well ruin other relationships in our lives; to gossip about another’s life, their problems or shortcomings; to tell those “white lies”; to take to drink or drugs when you know it is a slippery slope with grave consequences; to keep silent when someone makes a racist or sexist or religiously insensitive joke; to turn away when loved ones need you; --- the list of choices is the length of life, the depth of responsibility is beyond measure.
Choices. Temptations. The truth is that we find that the possibility of doing good is only possible in the context of its deeper and more theologically complex reality --- that is, our capacity to fall short of the Glory of God, the capacity to miss the mark, the capacity to do things damage, imperil or destroy our love and care for others; our capacity to damage, imperil or destroy or love and care for ourselves [the oft forgotten gift from God] and or our capacity to damage, imperil or destroy or love and care for God.
I don’t know about you, but temptations are liberally strewn in my path! Sometimes I do OK and there are other times when the evil force wins. As Saint Paul wrote, “The good that I would, I do not do.”
I remember a professor of mine telling us that the most important reading that we will ever do is biography; biography, because it is in understanding the lives of others that we ourselves learn to live the best kinds of lives. I believe that there is something in that, that is if we pick out the good stuff and avoid the bad in anyone’s life story! And it’s good to remember that we are always in the midst of witnessing biography in progress. Take for instance this election season. I trust that you read the papers and watch the candidates and say, on the one hand, “Boy oh boy I wish I had the wisdom and guts to say what he or she just said in that speech.” Or, on the other hand to observe, “That was an appalling thing to say. How can that candidate be who they say they are and say such a dreadful, hateful, destructive, opportunistic thing!” ---- Learning from others about good and evil. And here in this morning’s Gospel reading we have a story about how Jesus handled temptation, how he made choices in the midst of temptation. Someone once said that to say that Jesus was perfect is not to say that Jesus was not able to sin, but that he was able not to sin. Let me repeat that: to say that Jesus was perfect is not to say that Jesus was not able to sin, but that he was able not to sin. And that, you see, is what is asked of us. But How?
And Jesus offers us a way to deal with evil using the same mechanism all of use on a daily basis, that is, learning from others. The difference for Jesus was that the other person from whom Jesus learned was God. What did he do but lift up each choice, each temptation, each encounter with Evil, and compare it with what God offers us each and every day of our lives. And God’s offer is always there for us to choose, God’s offer is always the right choice.
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