Exodus 32: 1-6 and Matthew 16: 13 – 23
Today in our sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer, we take up the imperative “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” And as I said last week I find the three imperatives at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer very moving because they speak to how much Jesus knows us and knows the help that we need as we navigate the twists and turns of our days. Today, as we pray “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” we face our proclivity towards temptation and our vulnerability to evil.
But the phrasing of this particular imperative in our prayer puzzles me. The other two imperatives at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer, “give us this day our daily bread” and “forgive us as we forgive” are pretty straight forward. They are positive imperatives asking that God do something for us. But this one is a bit circuitous, in that it is a negative imperative that asks God not do something. We pray “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”
So for me, that still leaves wide open the question “We are to be led not into temptation, but into where ought we to be led?” “We are to be delivered from evil, but into what ought we to be delivered?”
But before we go any further Let us pray:
Holy God, you teach us not by telling but through the hard work of living. Your truths are not given but discovered in pearls that are buried in the twists and turns of our day. Be with us now that we may discover something of your wisdom. And may the words of my mouth and the mediations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer, Amen.
One summer, when I was in college, I walked into a convenience store and saw a $100 dollar bill, lying on the floor in one of the aisles. I was making minimum wage working as a dish washer at the time and so $100 dollars was staggering large amount of money to me. I don’t think I had ever even seen a $100 dollar bill before.
I was so surprised by it that I just stood there staring at it wondering what I should do? Should I pick it up and put it in my pocket and casually move on? Should I pick it up and then go around asking others in the store if they had dropped it? Should I turn it over to the cashier, saying that I be back if no one had come in to claim it? What should I do?
A few years ago, one of our confirmands asked me a question. She asked “How do you know what decision is the right one to make?” In response I think I quoted something from the Book of Deuteronomy the passage about God having set down before us the path of life and the path of death and that we were supposed to choose life. (Deut 30:19).
I had meant well. But from the look on her face, I think my answer made her more anxious than ever. She was asking for help in making right decisions in the often confusing and nuanced path of everyday life where the path leading to life was not clear. When instead we find ourselves in muddled and confusing situations, when one is unsure of the right thing to do. Being led not into temptation is all about being able to make the right decision at the right time. Turning from one thing towards another. But what is it that can help us make those right decision? What is it that can help us turn towards the path of life?
In thinking about temptation this week and this young person’s question, it struck me that the two times that Jesus deftly deals with temptation come immediately after a clarifying passage about Jesus’ identity. And it struck me that being led not into temptation may have everything to do with being led into an unshakeable clarity of ones’ identity.
The first time Jesus is led not into temptation is after his baptism. As Jesus is lifted up and the waters of the Jordan River stream from his face, as the heavens open and as a dove descends, there is a voice that says “This is my son the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
And what happens next is that Jesus is led into the wilderness where Satan appears speaking words of temptation. But so sure is Jesus in who he is and who he was created to be that the devils words blow harmlessly away in the desert sands.
The second time is in the passage for today. Jesus has just asked his disciples the clarifying questions of, “who do the people say I am?” and then more pointedly “who do you say that I am?” I think that he asks the questions not so much for his own clarity but for the clarity of his disciples as they begin to understand themselves as his followers.
In this scripture passage for today, the heavens do not open and a dove does not descend, but I do imagine a kind of pregnant pause as Peter takes a moment and then leaving behind what other people may think, affirms Jesus’ true identity as the Messiah.
But once again, temptation is right on Jesus heels, after Jesus tells them about what being Messiah will mean. That he will undergo great suffering and be killed. Peter protests saying “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But Jesus is clear on who he is and will not be tempted to turn from it and so he retorts (hearkening back to his encounter with satan in the wilderness), “Get behind me Satan, for you are a stumbling block to me.”
So in light of these teachings I wonder if the question we should be asking when we feel tempted, when difficult decision and the right path may not be clear, is not “What should I do?” but instead “Who am I?”
I think that is what happened with the people in the book of exodus today. They had forgotten who they were as beloved children of God. They are the newly freed people of God and Moses has left them at camp at the base of Mt. Sinai as he goes up to receive the 10 commandment from God. But the people don’t know who they are without Moses. They are anxious and afraid and they start to make all sorts of bad decisions. Instead of remember who they are as beloved people of God and resting in that, they take matters into their own hands and turn to idols.
We have tendency to think about temptation as doing something that is may not be good for us. “I am really tempted by a bag of potato chips.” We may say. And I don’t want to diminish that, I have had one too many bags of potato chips in my day.
But the most dangerous temptations are those that are not only not good for us but that take us away from our true selves and identity.
So yes, I may be tempted by potato chips but a greater and more dangerous temptation for me is that I will be tempted to look away from the Ebola crisis because I feel too powerless and too overwhelmed by it. I so I turn away from care of neighbor. Or one fall into the temptation of thinking he or she has to do and do and do. So much so that the busyness can fall into what Thomas Merton calls “the violence of activism” where becomes the instrument of one’s own ego instead of the instrument of God’s peace, love and care.
I have come to understand that clarity as to who we truly are (and I am not talking here of the many hats or labels we may wear. But I am talking about our deepest most truest selves as beloved children of God) is that which we are called to remember and to turn towards when we are faced with temptation or when the way is not clear.
Only you know who you are in your truest self. But I believe that our essence we are people created in love, for love. I believe at our essence we are the beloved. And that somewhere in us still we can even feel lifted up, and the waters stream from our faces, and the warmth of the sun upon us and hear those words you are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.
The sky did not open. There was no dove, but I did have a sense when I handed that $100 dollar bill over to the cashier that I was being true to who God made me to be. And the next day, after moving through anger and embarrassment when that same cashier looked at me point blank and said” I have no idea what you are talking about. You never gave me a $100 bill that you found.” As I walked out of that convenience store, I felt light and alive, not for having been led not into temptation but for having discovered a bit more of who God created me to be. Thanks be to God. Amen