I’m starting a week’s leave tomorrow (well, it is my birthday and I had to work on it last year). So I’ve written up my sermon for tomorrow week, the Third Sunday in Lent.
Hopefully in the next few days I’ll get to blog about why I have been silent on the blog so much in the last few weeks apart from sermons. Basically it’s been to do with my health and some church troubles. But in the meantime here’s the sermon. I hope it encourages you. And if any of it is helpful to those readers who are preachers in preparing for a week’s time, then I’m all the more glad.
Lead me into temptation
just one more time.
Lead me up close
beyond my control.
Lead me then leave me.
Deliver me from escape,
increase my ignorance,
limit my will.
Make me the victim of
a victim-less crime.
Leave me ‘til sin
is the only way out,
give me a taste of
what to avoid.
Leave me ‘til it’s
yet guilt floods me
like a chill.
Then lead me back
just one more time.
(Steve Turner, ‘Just One More Time’, from Nice And Nasty, Marshall Morgan and Scott, 1980, p36.)
Temptation. A common theme for Lent, and one we touched on two Sundays ago when thinking about the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. We saw then that although Jesus’ temptations seem vastly different from ours there are similarities, and what Jesus did in storing up Scripture in his mind and heart prepared him to deal with difficulties.
Paul too is concerned with how his readers face temptation. He takes the example of Israel in the wilderness as a warning. Again, it seems at first that their experience is far removed from that of the Corinthians, let alone us. But Paul makes the connections: Israel committed idolatry (verse 7) – something we easily do by elevating things above God; there was sexual immorality (verse 8) – there was plenty of that in the Corinthian church and more than we care to admit in today’s church (we just sweep it under the carpet); they put Christ to the test (verse 9), and they complained (verse 10) – something that, believe me, is an epidemic in some churches.
And Paul is practical in helping his readers to resist temptation. He knows it’s not enough just to say ‘Don’t’ to people: he has to advise them ‘how’ and ‘why’, and that’s what I’d like us to explore today. The ‘how’ is quite explicit, ‘the ‘why’ is less obvious. But come with me and let us see how Paul helps us to resist temptation.
The ‘how’ comes right at the end of the passage in verses 12 and 13:
So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.
In these two verses I find three strategies for resisting temptation.
(a) Paul calls us to humility: ‘So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall’ (verse 12). Why does he call us to humility? I think it’s for this reason: we are used to the idea that temptation can assail our weaknesses. As one who has recently discovered that his cholesterol is higher than it should be I can talk about my own weakness for sweet things. Let no-one say that chocolate is just for women! It is straightforward to say that I must guard against my weaknesses. Much as I like chocolate, I am learning that at least for the foreseeable future I have to say ‘no’ to it. (Well, except for special occasions.)
Similarly, I know a friend who cannot drink alcohol moderately. He knows that one drink will lead to another and another. His strategy in facing temptation in the area of his weakness is total abstinence.
So it is easy to identify temptation in the areas of our weaknesses. But Paul’s concern is that we can be tempted in the area of our strengths. ‘So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.’ We can fall from areas in which we expect to stand. The obvious way is that pride can infect our strengths. Our pride in our abilities can lead us to attributing our talents and successes entirely to ourselves and forgetting they are a gift from God.
But our strengths can also be misused, misdirected and perverted. If I am good with words I can use them to put down someone who is less eloquent. If I am a scientist I can use my gifts for destruction rather than the benefit of humankind.
So Paul calls us to guard ourselves as much in our strengths as in our weaknesses. The best way to do that is to maintain a posture of humility before God. It is to remember who the true Giver is. It is to acknowledge regularly (daily would be good) our dependence upon our Creator and Redeemer. It is to remember that we are sinners needing the mercy of God. This is not the grovelling humility of a Uriah Heep, but a grateful humility that rejoices in the abundant grace of God in Christ.
(b) Paul reminds us that we are normal: ‘No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone’ (verse 13a). A particular strategy of the tempter is to make us feel isolated. Paul says, remember that you are not alone. What is happening to you is nothing new. It has been faced by countless others in the past, and is faced by your brothers and sisters today as well. You may not want to talk about it for fear of shame, particularly if it something often associated with shame – let’s say it’s something sexual – but no, you’re normal, you’re a regular human being. And if that is the case then there will be others who have conquered it.
I once had an elderly man speak to me of his shame that he watched TV programmes in which there would be sex scenes. He had struggled to admit his battle to anyone. There was a sense of relief when I told him that most Christian men faced that one! But the culture of the church had been such that it was difficult for him to voice his struggle and find support.
So you can take heart. Do not believe the lie that says what you are facing is unique. It isn’t. You will have brothers and sisters in Christ who have had to cope with what is before you. You are not alone. You are part of the fellowship.
And that leads to something else. If only we can cultivate a deep honesty in our Christian fellowship then the voices of those who have overcome what is tempting you will be able to speak up and say, ‘Here is how I got over this problem.’ Our problem, sadly, is that we don’t feel comfortable with building relationships of such depth, openness and vulnerability that it is possible to do this. It is why our small groups are often so important. There, rather than in Sunday services, we can have a beautiful mutual accountability where we can strengthen each other.
(c) Paul tells us to keep our eyes open: ‘God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it’ (verse 13b).
So there is good news to be found in the midst of temptation and it is this: God is active. He plans an escape route for us. When temptation confronts us like an unwelcome intruder God does not leave us to confront the invader alone: he comes to our aid and has a way to overcome the burglar of our souls. All it requires of us is to be alert for what he is doing. Sometimes we forget he is present and make the mistake of asking him to be present as if he has previously been absent. But the Franciscan writer Richard Rohr puts it this way:
We cannot attain the presence of God. We’re already totally in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.
So we pray in temptation, ‘Lord make us aware of your presence. Make us aware of the escape route you have for us.’ And he will.
I believe there is only one exception, and that is when we lead ourselves into temptation. The rock band Crowded House put it this way in a song of theirs entitled ‘Into Temptation’:
We can go sailing in
Lose yourself when you linger long
Right where you belong
(Neil Finn; EMI Music Publishing Ltd., 1988)
But for foiling temptation in the first place we have these three strategies: humility, so that our strengths are no more exploited than our weaknesses; fellowship, so that we can be encouraged by our brothers and sisters in Christ who face the same problems; and awareness of God’s presence, so we can see the way out he provides.
Secondly and more briefly, why does Paul offer a strategy to resist temptation? Twice in the passage he says these past events were recorded as ‘warnings’ for us (verses 6 and 11). But why do we need to be warned? It sounds like an obvious question but sometimes we give a superficial and misleading answer.
We sometimes answer that God warns us against sin because he is holy and we are sinners. Yes, but that’s inadequate. If we focus only on sins then in the words of Dallas Willard we only have ‘the gospel of sin management’. The Christian psychologist David Benner puts his finger on the problem when he says this:
Some Christians base their identity on being a sinner. I think they have it wrong – or only half right. You are not simply a sinner; you are a deeply loved sinner. And there is all the difference in the world between the two.
God warns us to avoid temptation not because we are sinners but because we are deeply loved sinners. It is not simply that he is angry with us; it is that he is passionate about us and longs that we do not cherish the actions, omissions and attitudes that separate us from him. He is present with us and is utterly committed to us being present with him.
The ‘why’ of resisting temptation, the ‘warnings’ of Scripture against sinning, then, are those of a Father who loves his children so deeply that he cannot countenance the thought of them undergoing spiritual injury let alone eternal harm. This is the God who sent patriarchs and prophets and ultimately sent his own Son. This is the God who now gives us his word and Spirit and the fellowship of Christ’s Body on earth. The call to resist temptation is the call of divine love.
So when you next feel God is asking you to say ‘no’ when you would rather say ‘yes’, remember who this God is who urges us away from sin and provides the means to do so. He is not a stern head teacher. He is not a power-mad sergeant-major. Nor is he an angry policeman. He is the God of love, the Father who cherishes his adopted children. Just as Debbie and I have to warn our two-and-a-half-year-old son away from the cooker, so our heavenly Father warns us to steer clear of those things which will harm us. And just as we also have to warn our nearly-four-year-old daughter against doing the opposite of our counsel and instruction, so our heavenly Father warns us so we may do nothing that impairs or distances our relationship with him.
Yes, even in the heat of temptation, God is present to help us through. And his warning voice is the tender sound of love.
 Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift Of Contemplative Prayer, New York, Crossroad, 1999, p28, cited in David Benner, The Gift Of Being Yourself, Trowbridge, Eagle, 2004, p41 n9.
 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God, Glasgow, Fount, 1998, pp35-60, cited in Benner, op cit., p65 n3.
 Benner, op cit., p64.
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