Sermon: Temptation

February 26, 2023

Psalm 32
Matthew 4:1-11

by Eric Anderson

We live in a culture of temptation. We have an entire academic discipline to study and teach temptation – we call it “Marketing” – and we have a sizable industry to enact temptation – we call it “Advertising.” How big? Well, “advertising contributed $3.4 trillion to the U.S. GDP in 2014, comprising 19 percent of the nation’s total economic output,” according to a study commissioned by the Association of National Advertisers and The Advertising Coalition. Nearly a fifth of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product was related to… temptation.

As with Jesus and the bread from stones, some of that temptation is related to real needs. Advertisers encourage us to meet those needs with this product rather than that product. As with Jesus and the public spectacle to jump down from the temple roof, some of that temptation is related to things that aren’t strictly necessary. Jesus didn’t need to come floating down in the arms of angels to prove that he was the Messiah – in fact, he proved he was the Messiah to early Christians by doing pretty much the opposite. Modern advertising encourages us to buy things we don’t need, or that are more than we need, or that don’t provide the value that we expect.

And sometimes advertising encourages us to purchase things that we not only don’t need but that will be actively harmful to us. If Jesus had worshiped the Tempter he would have lost himself entirely. We are constantly urged to eat poorly, to poison our lungs with smoke, to drive oversized vehicles that both deplete resources and damage the climate.

We live in a culture of temptation.

My favorite part of that Association of National Advertisers press release is this quote from Bob Liodice, President and Chief Executive Officer of ANA. “The very fact that this industry contributes nearly 20 percent to the nation’s GDP sends a powerful reminder to policymakers that advertising is an essential stimulus to the U.S economy that should be promoted and not subjected to a tax.”

Does anyone else find it mind-numbingly bizarre that someone suggested, with a straight face, that an industry comprising nearly a fifth of the national economy be exempt from contributing to its government?

The Tempter would be impressed at that level of boldness.

Jesus used the experience of temptation, as an opportunity to define himself. In this back and forth with the Tempter, he was offered chances to be someone or something else: the one who did miracles for his own good, the one worshiped for his miraculous preservation, the one who ruled with the same oppressive and dictatorial power as any King Herod or Emperor Tiberius. As Melinda Quivik writes at Working Preacher, “The Tempter confronts Jesus with the opportunity to differentiate himself from what is not life-giving. By denying the goodies he could have, he articulates the parameters around who God is. In other words, what is truly life-giving resides inside certain boundaries. It doesn’t feed itself at the expense of its proper allegiance. What gives true life does not take a short-cut to wisdom (latching onto a simple way of interpreting Scripture, as if a literal understanding was appropriate to its profundity) or grasp for power.”

And as Debie Thomas writes at, “If Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness is a time of self-creation, a time for Jesus to decide who he is and how he will live out his calling, then consider carefully what the Son of God chooses: deprivation over ease. Vulnerability over rescue. Obscurity over honor. At every instance in which he can reach for the certain, the extraordinary, and the miraculous, he reaches instead for the precarious, the quiet, and the mundane.”

Like the ‘apapane in my admittedly whimsical story, Jesus refused to be tempted away from himself. That remains the “secret” to resisting temptation for each of us – to know who we are, and to choose only those things that are compatible with who we are. That’s not easy. Self-knowledge is challenging knowledge. Who we are is not always who we want to be. Note that in Psalm 32, which we read earlier, the author found the sensation of guilt to be oppressive and overwhelming. It was confession – and God’s forgiveness – that brought relief. We live in a culture, however, that encourages people to hide and to deny their guilt, to avoid confession, and to offer at best excuses rather than apologies or reformation.

The difficulty can’t be avoided if we are to be who we truly are. The challenge can’t be sidestepped if we are to resist temptation. There is no shortcut to self-knowledge, just as Jesus refused the shortcut of turning stones into bread.

We do not just face temptations as individuals. We also face temptations as communities, as fellowships, as nations. We specifically here face temptations as a congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ.

We have spent just shy of three years coping with the impact of a global pandemic. We also face the impact of shifting culture in the United States and in Hawai’i. The US Religion Census for 2020 published its data toward the end of last year – and yes, it took a long time to do that during a pandemic. Unlike most surveys of American religious opinion, this survey relies upon the counts of faith communities themselves, the membership or participation numbers that they, that we, use. In 2020, our island had 276 congregations of several religious traditions, serving just short of 84,000 adherents – that’s the term the researchers use. In 2010 there were 274 congregations, and just over 91,500 adherents. There’s been a decline of nearly 6500 people in ten years, and of this island’s population, 58.2% will not be found on the membership rolls of any church, temple, synagogue, or spiritual resource center.

In Hawai’i as a whole, by the way, 58.5% of the population isn’t connected enough to a community of faith to be counted on their rolls. Across the United States, it’s 51.3%.

That is a profound shift in culture. Whatever the reasons for the shift – and a lot of brains have sizzled and a lot of screens have glowed and a lot of ink has been spilled to explain it – we do not live in a society with majority participation in religion. This continues to be a culture with substantial reference to religion. People talk about faith a lot compared to other places in the world. What they’re not doing is participating in faith communities to inform, to deepen, or to embody their faith.

For us in this household of faith, the temptation is to ignore this reality and to pretend that it doesn’t make a difference. It does. For a long time, the culture encouraged participation in religious community. Now it simply does not. We cannot rely upon that outside force to bring people in. It won’t work.

Before the pandemic, we had a system in place for welcoming new people into participation in this church. It had been working reasonably well – but it was designed to respond to people attending worship in person. We did not find a way to adapt it to the worship setting on the Internet, and we still haven’t. The temptation is to continue to ignore that need and rely upon in-person worshipers – but friends, between a quarter and a third of our worshiping congregation each week attends via live stream or by viewing the recording. I do not know how many of those are members, or how many are first-timers, or how many might be interested in participating in this church in ways that go beyond worship. These are things we ought to know.

There is a temptation to believe that if we cast ourselves from the high points that the angels will catch us as we fall, or that we’ll somehow learn to make bread from stones. But friends, that’s not how the Church works. Theologically, we are the Body of Christ on Earth – and the physical body of Christ did not turn stones into bread or go leaping from pinnacles. Like Christ, we have to do the work, the work that demonstrates to people that we are the ministers of a loving, compassionate God, the work that honors the stones and the seeds and the stalks and the harvesters and the grindstones and the mixing and the baking and the sharing.

Most of all, we must resist the temptation to think, “It will all be as it was before,” because that has never been true, it is not true now, and it will never be true. In 1953 British writer L. P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” It is doubly true of the future. It is not just they who do things differently there, it is we who must do things differently if we are to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ in these advancing days.

Let us consider who we are as a congregation of Jesus’ followers. Let us resist the temptations to be something God does not wish us to be. Let us set our course in faith, and service, and joy.


Watch the Recorded Sermon

Pastor Eric preaches from a manuscript, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t improvise while preaching. He does.

The illustration of The Temptation of Christ is by unknown artist (ca. 16th century); it is part of a triptych at the Church of Saint John the Baptist in Tomar, Portugal – [1], Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on February 26, 2023

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