Taking Bets on the Rocky Road

What is it about Lent that makes me want to eat ice cream by the barrel? I am like Pavlov’s dog when I hear the word Lent. Years of thinking about overcoming temptation with sheer will power alone still runs my emotional brain. This is the long-term effect of the misuse of the law on me—the purpose of the law being to send you to Christ instead of myself.  Many years of training that I should be giving up sweets or swearing or taking up running for 40 days and nights creates a craving in me that is practically insatiable. In fact, as I wrote this sermon, I was snacking on a bowl of caramel toffee creme just thinking about it. The world preys upon my insecurities and some nights ice cream is the best defense I have against the dark arts. Resisting temptation is not my forté.

Gerhard Forde describes our human take on resisting temptation this way. “Religiously we like to look on ourselves as spiritual athletes desperately trying to make God’s team, having perhaps a problem or two with the training rules. We have a thirst for glory. The desire, the thirst for glory, or wisdom or power or money is never satisfied by the acquisition of what is desired. The more we get, the more we want.”

This is why I believe my professor Rolf Jacobsen who said, “In a battle between me and the world, I am betting on the world.”

There is much to be afraid of in the world it seems and that makes us insecure. Fear is the very definition of not feeling secure. The news of the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and the fear it has caused in the world stock markets, is a reminder to all of us of what fear can do. In our family, rumors of a pandemic go right to the DNA level of fear. My grandfather died at 21 years old in the influenza pandemic of 1918. My grandmother was nine months pregnant with my father at the time and she had to get off the funeral train in Wisconsin to have him. This death event had generational impact on my family as my grandmother was widowed at 19 years old with two small children. That was over 100 years ago, but the story has taken on mythical proportions in terms of fear.

In our human way, we start with basic information, but our fear makes it grow until we can lose our sense the reality of faith. Our brains are built to grab fear and run with it—literally. Bill Wilson, one of the founders of AA, wrote that, “Fear is an evil, corroding thread; the fabric of our existence is shot through with it. Fear is surely a bar to reason, and to love and of course, it invariably powers anger, vainglory and aggression. It underlies maudlin guilt and paralyzing depression.” Bill should know. He turned to alcohol to overcome his fears.

What are you afraid of? Whenever my behavior is going off the rails, this is the question I ask myself. Fear of financial failure? Fear of abandonment? Fear of aging? Fear of being alone? Fear of pain or illness? Fear of death? Fear of being irrelevant? Sometimes it is free-floating—one that will not settle on just one fear but stirs up the dust in all the trash bags of my life. Lent is a good time to admit we are fearful and confess our inability to do anything about it on our own.

Fear has been with us from the very start. Think Adam and Eve, who are the subject of our Old Testament scripture today. They had everything two humans could want. Lots of food, no need for closets or storage units, a spouse hand-picked by God, plenty of pets but no litterboxes or leashes. They got their steps in by strolling with the Almighty every evening. They lived in paradise, for goodness sake! But still there was still dissatisfaction. The crafty little snake devil introduced them to distrust of God and the seed of fear was planted in the garden.

Distrust of God, which is the basis of all fear, is a spiritual disease that produces suffering. There is a word in German that captures this suffering—Anfechtungen. Martin Luther described this as the terrifying feeling that you were being abandoned by God and lost forever. It is also translated as temptation. Distrust of God is at the core of temptation and it is what makes temptation terrifying.

Distrust is also common to our experiences with our fellow humans. We trust people with our love, our future, our well-being, our confidences, our children, our parents, our money, our frailties, our vulnerable places and they betray us. Once betrayed, we are tempted never to trust again. We are tempted to believe that God is like the humans we know.

But is God trustworthy? Will our trust be betrayed and terrify us? In our gospel today, Jesus is in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. Usually this text is used to tell us that we should be like Christ and not give into temptation. “When the Sea Salt Carmel starts calling to you, just say No!” is the idea. But the big news is that we are not Jesus. We cannot face down temptation with our paltry human will and survive. We are too inclined to think only about self—fear has disordered us this way. We are run by the fear in our lives so that we seek comfort in any form. We may believe there is a God, but we have been told that He will not help us unless we deserve it… and we know that we don’t deserve grace. Our will is bound up with our insecurities about ourselves. We believe we have to work hard for love. This gets at the core of what it means to be human. Our temptation is to define ourselves by what we have or don’t have rather than through our relationship with God. Dr. David Lose calls this, “The Original Insecurity.”

In this text in Matthew, Jesus is straight out of his baptism where God says, “This is my son, whom I love, in whom I am well pleased.” The Spirit immediately drives Jesus into the desert to hear the devil say, “IF you are the Son of God..” questioning his identity in God.

This makes me wonder if the devil is voicing our questions about Christ. IF you are the Son of God…cure me of this illness. IF you are the Son of God…find me a job. IF you are the Son of God…save my marriage. IF you are the Son of God…cure my addiction. And what is Christ’s answer to these questions? He responds with scripture about God’s power and authority. “One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” “Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.” Jesus knows whose beloved Son he is and will not be tempted to distrust the Father, even as it leads to the cross to die for us.

The complete quote from my professor Rolf Jacobson is, “In a battle between me and the world, I am betting on the world. In a battle between the world and Christ, I’m betting on Christ because [on the cross] he battles the powers of sin, death and the devil on our behalf and overcomes them so we can be saved.” When it is a battle between me and Rocky Road, or Coronavirus 19 or my aging future, I am betting on Jesus because He is trustworthy, and I am not. Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding, but in all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths.” We don’t know what the future holds, but we know Who holds the future.   Amen