Sermon preached February 14, 2016
Texts: Luke 4:1-13
Lent is often a time for honest confession, for coming clean. So let me begin by acknowledging that I know not all of you are thrilled when I play music as part of my sermons. Now some of you really like it, but I know some don’t, or some are not too thrilled by my choices. I really try to be sensitive, but I will also push the envelope sometimes. When I have gone too far for you, I hope you will forgive me.
Those who rather enjoy the music sometimes guess which song I might play with a sermon. So what are you thinking today? “Tempted” by The Squeeze? “Temptation Eyes” by the Grass Roots? Anything by The Temptations? Here is something that comes from a different era, something that will be more to the liking of some of you than others.
Perry Como, “Temptation” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXPHiCGzY1o
Temptation. Just as with the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, this story of the temptation of Jesus rolls around every year on the first Sunday in the season of Lent. This year we have Luke’s version of the story. And we are going to read this temptation story in the context of the idea of digging deep and of our theme for Lent which is “challenging emotions.” I think this story of Jesus temptation has something to say about being tempted to deal with emotions badly.
The underlying premise here is that working with our emotions is a good thing, that to feel is a good thing. I am kind of fascinated by this idea, that our feelings are an important part of who we are, and that working with them is an important part of our spiritual journey, our relationship with God in Jesus Christ. I am interested in this because there has been a part of our Christian tradition that thinks spiritual progress has to do with denying our emotional self, our feeling self. St. Maximus the Confessor: Pleasure and distress, desire and fear, and what follows from them, were not originally created as elements of human nature…. These things were introduced as a result of our fall from perfection (Philokalia, II: 178). Not the most positive view of feelings.
In wanting to explore this more for myself, I have done some reading, including a book entitled Lust. I read it behind closed doors with the shades pulled! The author, Michael Eigen, a therapist, writes, “Lust enlarges, enriches, makes life taste good” (1) – “Lust as celebration, gift, grace, part of life’s great bounty” (25). This is a celebration of feeling as human beings, and it is not foreign to the Bible. Have you ever read the Song of Songs?
Theologian Wendy Farley reflects on the importance of feeling. Living in the world is difficult, and we hide from ourselves from one another, and from the gracious Beloved who longs for us so earnestly. Desire is the emissary of the Beloved, and it lends us the courage and strength and hope we need for this work of healing (xviii). Farley also links this connecting with feeling to the work of justice in the world. Attention to interiority can resuscitate our capacities for relationship and ignite in us the desire for compassion and delight in life. In this sense it is integral to the desire for justice (xviii).
So feelings, emotions, rightly integrated, rightly ordered, dealt with in a healthy way are important to our developing spirituality, our relationship with God and the world. The problem is that things can go awry. I only read part of the Michael Eigen quote earlier. Here is a longer version. Lust enlarges, enriches, makes life taste good. Lust damages and grows from damage. The temptation story of Jesus gives us insight into how we are tempted to deal badly with our emotions.
Our feelings are an important part of us and need to be woven together into our lives, but we can be too driven by them, tossed about as on a rolling sea. Jesus first temptation is to be defined by the feeling of being hungry. After forty days of eating nothing, “he was famished.” The temptation comes to turn stones into bread. Apparently there were no drive-throughs in the area in Jesus time. Eating when you are hungry makes some sense, but Jesus has sought hunger for a reason. He is fasting for a purpose, and while he knows his hunger, while he feels his empty stomach, it is not the only thing going on in him, and he wants to keep that feeling in its place.
Our feelings are an important part of who we are. They are part of the goodness of God’s creation, but they are also multiple and we need to have some sense that we can order them. The temptation to be driven by a feeling as if we can really do nothing more than feel that feeling and react to it, that temptation is real and strong.
This is Valentine’s Day weekend, a celebration of love. Love is pretty complicated, but it has a strong feeling dimension to it. And we often play that dimension of love up. We “fall” in love. We are swept away by love. We have no choice about who we love, and we can “fall out” of love.
I relish the feeling dimension of love. I also recognize that we can feel attracted to beauty in many people. Is that a love we should act on? I know what it is like to work on a project with someone and feel a certain closeness to that person. Is that a love one should give in too? I have seen enough of married couples and know that feelings can ebb and flow. Do we assume at a low ebb that we have fallen out of love?
I think we can enjoy the kinds of feelings when we see beauty, or when we get to know someone well, and we can stay committed to the long-term relationship we have committed ourselves to. Long-term love is feeling, but more than feeling, or rather more than the feeling of attraction and good chemistry, as enjoyable as they are. It is also developing feelings of loyalty and trust and affection. Certainly there are times when love seems to exit a relationship, when there is nothing left. Typically that has a lot more to do with lack of attention over time, and the eroding of trust over time, than with the fickleness of love as a feeling.
Part of my interest in the whole topic of the place of feeling and desire in the Christian life is sparked by the intriguing idea that one of the fruits of the Spirit, listed in Galatians 5, is “self-control” (v. 23). We have some ability to challenge our emotions and need not be driven by them or reactive to them, though the temptation to be reactive is real and present.
A second temptation to deal with feelings badly is seen in the third temptation of Jesus, and that is the temptation to take short-cuts in dealing with our feelings, to try and go around them instead of working with them and going through them. Jesus is tempted to get things going more quickly in his faith and ministry by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple, creating a spectacular opportunity for a miraculous rescue by God. Jesus refuses. He will be about God’s work through the long road of teaching, and calling, and healing, and, eventually being put to death.
We are particularly interested in taking a short-cut around challenging emotions like grief, jealousy, fear, and disappointment. This week I was part of a conversation with a young musician and someone asked him, “Did you ever want to quit music?” The young man thought briefly and said, “I think if you asked any young musician, they would say there was a time when they wanted to quit.” The young man was glad he didn’t, but he knew what it felt like to want to stop. He understands that to get to the place he is in his music just takes time and practice. There are no short-cuts.
The same holds true for our emotions, working with them in a healthy way, integrating them well into our life and learning, weaving them into our souls so we can be the people God would have us be. There are no short-cuts. We have to be willing to stay with some of these emotions for a time if we are to learn from them, and revisit them from time to time to grow through them. Therapist Francis Weller, from whom I am learning in recent months through an interview he did says, In traditional cultures people were often given at least a year to digest a major loss. In ancient Scandinavia it was common to spend a prolonged period “living in the ashes.” Not much was expected of you while you did the essential work of transforming sorrow into something of value to the community…. In this culture we display a compulsive avoidance of difficult matters and an obsession with distraction. (The Sun, October 2015, 5) There is no simple pattern or answer for how long we may need to stay with certain emotions, but there are no short-cuts either.
Finally, we are tempted to warp some of our emotions. Jesus is tempted to become great by worshipping Satan, who is tempting him. The feeling of the need to be important, significant, to make a difference is a vital part of the human experience. Super hero fantasies are so popular because they speak to that feeling that we have that we want to be great in some way.
That feeling can be warped. It can become a feeling which leads us to try and become significant not by developing our own powers and skills, but by diminishing or demeaning others. History is filled with examples of people who find significance mostly by understanding themselves to be better than some other group. I think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermon “The Drum Major Instinct” in which he preached about this. Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct? A need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel that they were first, and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first…. And think of what has happened in history as a result to this perverted use of the drum major instinct. It has led to the most tragic prejudice, the most tragic expressions of man’s inhumanity to man. (Testament of Hope, 262). Instead King suggests that a right use of the feeling of the need to be significant should lead one to seek to be first in love, first in moral excellence, first in generosity (265).
The early Christian saint and theologian Irenaeus once wrote, The glory of God is a human being fully alive. (quoted in Gerald May The Dark Night of the Soul, 181). Because we follow God’s Spirit, because we seek to be fully alive and thus give glory to God, we will dig deep and deal with challenging emotions. The temptation to deal with them badly never goes away. “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time” (13). The temptations may never go away entirely, but neither does God’s Spirit. In the very next verse, Jesus is in the power of the Spirit. God goes with us always, empowering us to acknowledge our emotions without being driven by them, empowering us to hang with our emotions so we can learn, empowering us to focus our emotions rightly and not let them get warped. God’s Spirit is always with us and we always have each other. We take this Lenten journey, we walk the way of Jesus, together. Amen.