Tempted Not to Believe

February 14, 2016   Romans 10: 8b-13   Luke 4: 1-13

Rev. Catherine Purves


     Have you ever had that experience of feeling like you are standing outside yourself and observing everything that you say and do?  It is a strange kind of dual perception.  You are living your life in real time, but you are simultaneously viewing it from some elevated vantage point which allows you to critique yourself, or ask yourself awkward questions, or contemplate a very different life for yourself.  I’m having a hard time describing this, but I hope you know what I mean. 

     Maybe an example will help.  Let’s say it’s your wedding day.  You are busy being the bubbly bride or the nervous bridegroom.  There is a long to-do list and you are dutifully working your way down it, giving people jobs, posing for pictures, worrying if the minister will arrive on time.  You’re really plugged into the moment, relating to friends and family, trying to remember everything that’s happening, every feeling, just relishing this day of all days.  But part of you is hovering above it all asking, “Is this really happening to me?”  “Will I be a married person in just a few hours?”  “What will the rest of my life look like?”  “Am I really sure this is what I want?”  “Can I know that we will love each other until death do us part?”  You are watching yourself fussing with flowers, laying out hors d’oeuvres, and rehearsing your vows, but, at the same time, you are standing outside yourself and thinking these thoughts.  You are being tempted not to believe in yourself and what you are about to do.

     That’s just one example, but there could be other circumstances in which you might experience this same eerie feeling of being yourself, yet challenging yourself, of being sure and not wholly sure at the same time.  Sometimes it feels as if the truth is slippery and it doesn’t always gain traction.  You know what is true, but what if it isn’t?  It is strangely possible to believe something and to question that belief at the same time.  Another word that describes this peculiar predicament that is altogether too common and very human is temptation.

     Now you may be used to thinking of temptation in other terms.  There’s no doubt that for many of us chocolate layer cake could be a temptation.  In this case, atemptation is like a lure, something that attracts you, something that you want, and so you feel tempted to act on your desire.  There may be an internal dialogue – Should I, shouldn’t I?  Will I, won’t I?  These little personal battles are significant, but they are small when compared to the far bigger struggle that people of faith must engage in.  Perhaps we should call that Temptation with a capital ‘T’.  This is when you begin to question whether you believe at all, whether you really trust the Scriptures, and whether you genuinely can proclaim, through the living of your life, that Jesus Christ is Lord.

     Have you had that unnerving experience?  You’re going along fine in your faith and then you just ‘blink’ and suddenly it all looks different, perhaps only for a moment.  It’s as if you are standing apart from your faithful self and looking down on your life, and all sorts of questions and uncertainties occur to you without warning.  You believe in God, you certainly do (!), but all of a sudden you find yourself wondering, “What if there is no God?”  Where did that come from?  What are you to do with such an upsetting idea?  These are things that we don’t tend to fully admit to ourselves, let alone address in a Sunday sermon.  But on this first Sunday of Lent, our Gospel text always points us to this forbidden topic as we read about the temptation of Jesus.

     This forty day period of temptation for Jesus was not just about loaves of bread, or worldly power, or the promise of divine protection.  Behind those specific questions and those particular lures, there lurks the bigger Temptation (with a capital ‘T’), the Temptation to doubt God, the Temptation not to believe.  This most basic human temptation is something that Jesus shared with us, because he was fully human.  He had that ability both to be himself, the Son of the Living God, and to doubt himself, to question himself, and, if only for a moment, to contemplate the possibility that God might not be there for him or for us.  That is a harrowing thought, and it made me wonder why the Gospel writers would have included the temptation story in their accounts of the life and saving acts of Jesus.

     I think they did for two reasons.  First, it shows that Jesus stands in full solidarity with us.  He was as human as we are.  He felt hunger, he knew fear, he experienced doubt.  Jesus did not float two feet above the ground when he walked on this earth.  He was not play-acting at being a human being.  The letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, since in every respect he was tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Heb. 4: 15)  In every respect.  Jesus experienced that peculiar human capacity to believe and yet be tempted not to believe at the same time.  So, he understands and even sympathizes with us when we struggle with out-of-the-blue doubts and fears and uncertainties.

     The second reason why, I think, the Gospel writers included the story of Jesus’ temptation is that it shows us how to live with temptation.  I don’t want to say, overcome temptation, because we can never fully overcome it, and neither did Jesus.  This wasn’t just a one-off encounter with the devil.  Jesus began his ministry by wrestling with temptation, and he ended his ministry in the same way in the Garden of Gethsemane.  I hope you noted the final verse in Luke’s account where he says,  “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.”   In other words, this was not the end of it.  Round one went to Jesus, but there would be other temptations that Jesus, in the fullness of his humanity, would have to face, just as there will be future times when we are tempted not to believe.

     So, how does this account of the temptation of Jesus enable us to live with temptation?  It is obvious that Jesus countered each temptation with a word from Scripture, even the final one that was itself couched in a biblical quote.  To the first temptation, to turn a stone into a loaf of bread, Jesus responded, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”  For some reason, he only quoted part of that verse from Deuteronomy (8:3):  “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”  It is the word of God that feeds us, strengthens us, and guides us through times when we are tempted not to believe.

     The second Scripture passage that Jesus uses to anchor himself in the midst of temptation is also taken from Deuteronomy (6: 13 and repeated at 10:20).  “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”  The important truth here is that our belief must be grounded in worship and our commitment to God must be singular.  We are to worship and serve only him.  When we are tempted not to believe, the best thing to do is worship.  We can’t just praise Jesus, reach out to the Father in prayer, and experience the Spirit through the Sacraments when we feel like it.  Worship is our place of renewal.  It is the time when our distracted and temptation-prone life can regain a singular focus on God.  When we are tempted not to believe, that is the very time when we should be most faithful in worship, allowing the belief of those around us to bear us up as we struggle again to find our feet in faith.

     In the third temptation, Jesus offers another biblical quote, but this time he is reminding himself (and us) of what not to do.  “It is written,” Jesus says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”  Once again, Jesus is falling back on the wisdom of the book of Deuteronomy (6: 16).  “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”  This is perhaps a natural thing to try to do when you are tempted not to believe.  Line up the arguments pro and con.  Evaluate the proofs for God’s existence.  Look for evidence.  Set up a test for the Almighty.  Though the idiocy of this should be obvious, it remains a powerful temptation.  But, think about it, who can measure God’s glory?  Who could pin God down with a proof?  Who are we to try to subject God to our critical inquiry and our judgment?  When we are tempted not to believe, we must not fall into this prideful tendency and try to shore up our wavering belief with intellectual arguments and proofs.  If we do that, then our belief becomes merely a rational affirmation and not a living relationship.

     I’ve not yet mentioned our second reading for this first Sunday in Lent.  It complements our reflections on the temptation of Jesus not to believe in a reassuring way.  Chapter 10 in Paul’s letter to the Romans is all about the free gift of salvation which God gives to us in Christ.  In the midst of our temptation not to believe that gift is given.  Even as those unwanted, unsettling questions that prompt us not to believe are whispering in our ears, Paul offers us more Scriptural assurance in yet another quote from the book of Deuteronomy (30: 14).  “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.”  This is not the self-generated word of unbelief, but the word of God that the Spirit whispers.  That is the word that Jesus was listening for in his time of temptation.  It is the word of faith that echoes throughout Scripture.  It is the still small voice that you hear when you worship and that helps you to “confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead.” 

     That word enables us to be rooted and grounded in faith and to live through the inevitable times when we are tempted not to believe, and that word is near to us.  We discover it when we enthusiastically read and study the Scriptures.  We hear it clearly in the context of our worship together each Sunday.  We are sustained by it when we rely upon that true, God-given word rather than on any test or proof or self-made justification for our faith.  This is how Jesus, as our fully-human Lord, lived through his temptation not to believe.  Let us follow his example and rely upon his strength and his will to save us.