Temptations of the Spiritual Journey

A sermon preached on the First Sunday in Lent at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME. Lections: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7Psalm 32Romans 5:12-19, and Matthew 4:1-11.

The name of the icon is “Ladder to Heaven,” and it dates from the 12th or 13th century. The original icon can be found at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai desert. The icon was inspired by the spiritual writings of a monk, St. John of Sinai, who lived 5-6 centuries earlier and who authored a book called the Ladder of Paradise, a discourse which treats the virtues and vices that characterize the monastic life.

The icon shows a ladder stretching from the lower left of the picture to the upper right. At the top of the ladder we see Christ in heaven.

  • Climbing the ladder, moving from earth to heaven where Christ waits to welcome them, are a number of monks or pilgrims.
  • Angels in heaven and saints on earth are watching and cheering them on as they climb towards glory.
  • But we also see a number of demons, dark little figures that look like the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz to me. They’re using bows and arrows and ropes to try to cause the monks to fall off,
  • and some of them arefalling or about to fall, presumably tumbling into hell.
  • One figure has fallen into the mouth of Satan, and is being devoured.

The image is metaphorical, of course – a depiction of spiritual life as a journey in which we move upwards, attaining virtue and growing in Christlikeness, until we are united with Christ in glory.

But, as this depiction clearly shows, the spiritual journey is also fraught with risks:

  • Evil forces assail us,
    • seeking to lure us away from our heavenly calling
    • and causing us to fall.
  • We all know what it is to be drawn to God and to goodness,
  • and we all know what it is to be tempted to turn away from God and embrace evil.
  • This icon reveals spiritual truth in picture form.

We have two other pictures in our scripture lessons today. Genesis gives us a sense of the crafty, wily power of temptation. And our Gospel recounts Jesus himself tempted and doing battle with the tricky dealings the devil uses to try & trap us.

Now, I suppose if the temptation to turn from God actually looked like Wizard of Oz monkeys, we might be able to be on our guard. But the thing is, temptation to sin most often is disguised.

It’s helpful, I think, to recall that one of the names of the devil is Lucifer, a word that comes from the Latin, meaning “light.” It is the great trick of the devil that, when we are most afraid of the dark, we look for light—for brightness, for the good, the happy, the comfortable, all that enriches and assures and enlivens. That’s what we like, so that’s what temptation is going to look like, too.

Another characteristic of temptation is that it is within reach. I might want to fly to the moon on gossamer wings, but I am less tempted by that notion because it is so unlikely. So, the things that most tempt me to sin are not only things that I might want, but also, they’re usually things that, with the right shift of resources and energy, I can attain. They are things that I conceivably might have.

What made the temptations alluring for Jesus was precisely that they fell within the range of what he could have done and could have had.

First, the evil one entices him to turn stones into loaves of bread,

  • perhaps to satisfy his own hunger,
  • or perhaps to satisfy the hunger of others and thereby win their favor and admiration.
  • Henri Nouwen, the great spiritual writer of the 20th century, describes this as the temptation to be relevant.

The second temptation takes the form of a challenge.

  • The evil one takes Jesus to the holy city and places him on the pinnacle of the temple.
  • He challenges him to throw himself down so that the angels of God will rescue him
  • and prove to everyone the uniqueness of his relationship with God.
  • This, Nouwen says, is the temptation to be spectacular.

Finally, the evil one takes him to a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.

  • “All these I will give you,” he says, “if you will fall down and worship me.”
  • This third temptation Nouwen refers to as the temptation to be

Well, being relevant, being spectacular, and powerful. These are lovely ego-feeding things. They appeal to the desire to be important, distinctive, special. And Jesus rejects them.

He rejects the temptation that he feed his own ego by reaffirming his dependence on God alone.

  • He will not be enticed by the lure of instant popularity or worldly influence;
  • he refuses to give in to the temptations of wealth and power.
  • Instead, he chooses the way of humility
  • and voluntarily subjects himself to the will of God.

Notice, too, that each of the temptations the devil offers to Jesus has to do with immediate things.

  • You’re hungry? Then, let’s eat.
  • You’re competent and smart—you shouldn’t let that talent go to waste, you should get what you deserve.

Against the devil’s temptations of the immediate, the present and readily available, Jesus remains calm and speaks out of his own faith and experience in God.

This is the path to which he points us, the path which he himself takes. It is a path of humility and self-emptying love.

Can you do that, too? The spiritual life is a journey in which we gradually become that which God has declared us to be – beloved children, loved and cherished by the Holy One. The journey leads upward, but there are evil forces at work against us, temptations that pull us down or lead us astray and may well cause ruin. How can we resist them?

  • by fleeing to God
  • by trusting wholly in God’s strength rather than in our own
  • by clinging to our true identity in God
  • Quite apart from everything else, it is calming to be around people who practice remembering who is really in charge. Such people
    • have a sense of groundedness and calm that makes holy space in the midst of upset
    • people of such faith heal and foster holy understanding
    • their calm performs, enacts what it is to live in the confidence that God’s Kingdom is at hand
    • and re-establishes space for relationship with the divine

Come on, my friends, climb onto the ladder. The world needs you. Amen.


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