Biggest Loser, Blairsville Style Losing Our Big Eye(dols): Avoiding Temptation
Scripture: James 1: 12-18
Our journey to becoming Biggest Losers continues today. Over these past few weeks, we’ve been attempting to lose the spiritual baggage that keeps us from God, baggage like pride and excuses, discouragement and unhealthy independence. We’ve talked about our big mouths that get us into trouble and our big heads that suggest we are more than we care to admit, and big shoulders that think we can take on the world. In losing these behaviors and characteristics, we find a deeper, fuller life in Jesus. And that’s our goal. So with that goal in mind, we’re going to lose our big “eye-dols” and jump into another topic today: the topic of temptation.
One of the most difficult tasks I have as a pastor and we have as followers of Jesus, is keeping my head up in times of trouble. And let’s call it like it is: We live in a world that is filled with challenges and struggles, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. I know what Jesus said about you and I being the light of the world, but sometimes it’s hard to be light, isn’t it? I wake up some days and find it hard to remain hopeful. I mean there are days I honestly question if things will ever change. The other day I was talking to a professional in our community, a man who walks with people during some vulnerable moments, and he said he couldn’t remember a year that started off with so much loss like this one. The rate of tragedy is certainly alarming, but the troubles of this world are nothing new.
Much to our dismay, the Bible doesn’t tell us that everything’s good. Instead, the Bible tells us what we don’t want to hear: life has ups and life has downs. Sometimes the ups are beautiful and long lasting; and sometimes the downs are filled with tangible pain and evil that never seem to go away. And the Bible’s answer to this? Perseverance. Faithfulness. Trust. That’s our lot as people who yearn to follow Jesus. We are called to stand firm, to be bold and courageous and strong…But that’s a difficult calling, isn’t it? Since becoming a father, I’ve learned that I’m not as strong as I thought I was. Every time I see my girls break into a sprint, then hear a thump when they turn the corner, my heart skips a beat. I start sweating until I hear them giggle or cry. So much for being a tough guy! But that’s the point. Persevering through tough times is not based on our own strength, but on the strength we receive in relationship with Christ. That’s why you were given a bracelet at the beginning of this sermon series with the words from Philippians 4: 13- I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. Did you catch that? I can do all things…through the strength of Jesus. We find strength when we lean on Christ. He’s the answer, not the problem. But you see, these trials we experience move swiftly into the realm of temptation when we forget our source of strength and become determined to find another way. And I’m convinced that most of what we call “temptation” is the decision to forgo God’s ways when we’re faced with challenging circumstances. But what we discover is that all those other ways only lead to death.
I mentioned the story of Adam and Eve a few weeks ago, a story that reads like an attempt to make sense of something gone horribly wrong. You remember the story. Adam and Eve are enjoying a sweet fellowship with their Creator, their source of life. But then desire for more creeps in. And that desire grows more and more powerful (you might call it an idol). Idols are formed when we allow something to grow more influential in our lives than God. And before Adam and Eve know what’s happening, their desire for more has become god-like to them. This desire is consuming, like an uncontrollable urge, and morphs into action. One bite of forbidden fruit, one act they thought would bring a better life actually leads to their demise and their deaths.
Once temptation turns into action, which we also call “sin,” there’s no going back to the way things were. Something always dies and permanently changes with sin. Something always dies when we try to find a way on our own without leaning into the arms of Jesus who is our strength. Relationships are never again the same when you cheat on your spouse. Your integrity is never again unequivocally accepted when you’ve spread a rumor that wasn’t true. Self-control becomes an elusive goal when you reach for another “whatever,” even though you know it’s not good for you. Paradise is lost when you give in to unrestrained desire and abandon God’s good and life-giving way.
You see, temptation is more than simply giving in to consequential behaviors; it’s really more about abandoning God’s good ways. During our staff meeting on Tuesday, we were sharing a bit about God’s patient character. Time and again, we read in Scripture that God’s character is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, faithful and true. We read that God is patient and kind, an “ever present help in times of trouble.” But our instinct is to find another way. One of the stories I like to share sometimes at funerals comes from Ecclesiastes. When we read Ecclesiastes, it’s as if we’re reading a teacher’s final journal to his students, a journal filled with wisdom gleaned from his life’s experiences. Listen to these words from Chapter 2. Did you catch that? Everything was meaningless. By embracing his way, and not God’s, by searching for his own solution, this writer experienced a death of sorts. Not a physical death, but a death of purpose. And this man literally had everything the world could offer, and it was meaningless. Something always dies when unrestrained temptation moves to action. Maybe this, then, is why Jesus prayed in his great prayer, “Lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil…”
So, we know that temptation is a very real problem. As that desire grows within, it lead us down a path that could lead to regretful action and it also leads down a path that veers away from God and God’s goodness. And that’s a recipe for disaster. So how do we lose our idols and avoid temptation?
I don’t think there’s any easy answer to this question, because this answer is about committing to the journey of becoming who God wants us to be. Becoming a disciple, or someone who is fully devoted to following Jesus and his ways, doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a lifelong covenant, or as one pastor says, “It’s a long obedience in the same direction. (Eugene Peterson “A Long Obedience In the Same Direction). And this is long, hard work, mostly because we’re going to face trials and tribulations. That’s just part of life. And the truth of the matter is that when those moments happen, it’s far easier to throw in the towel than to keep going. It’s easier to take a bite of forbidden fruit than to wait on God to fulfill his promises. It’s easier to give in to our whims than to settle for a relationship or a situation that might not offer us immediate satisfaction. I take some comfort in knowing that Jesus often found himself in situations like we do. There’s one story in the Gospels about Jesus facing all sorts of temptations. He was hungry and could’ve easily turned stone into bread. He was powerful and certainly could’ve snapped his fingers and made the entire universe bow down to him. But instead he locked his eyes on God, and focused on God’s will for his life and he found courage.
Jesus overcame temptation because he never failed to connect with God the Father. That was not the first time Jesus had felt alone in the world. He’d often go way to be alone with God, to let God speak, to let God form and shape him. That’s the first habit we need to establish as a non-negotiable in our lives if we wish to avoid temptation. We need to find habits that compel us to intentionally seek God’s presence. This is why weekly worship is so important to our spiritual lives. We need weekly and daily reminders of God’s goodness, because every time something doesn’t go as planned, we’re tempted to think that God has either forgotten about us, is angry at us and doesn’t care about us. And when we have a wrong understanding of God, such as thinking that God is withholding something from us or is against us, we start to erroneously take matters into our own hands. And that never has a happy ending. I love the wisdom of Psalm 46. As the world is seemingly falling apart, politically, economically, spiritually, the writer quietly reminds us that God is our refuge and our friend. “Be still,” says the author, “and know that I am God.” What you are doing daily and weekly to know God? That’s where you’ll find courage.
Secondly, and I don’t say this lightly or thoughtlessly, we need to invite people into our lives who will graciously and lovingly hold us accountable on this journey. We each need people who will love us enough to tell us when we’re headed down a dangerous road and will put up a proverbial stop sign when all we can see is a green light. Do you have those people in your lives? John Wesley, the founder of Methodism (our theological DNA) would often encourage his churchgoers to be a part of small groups. Those groups would meet on a weekly basis and they would ask a series of tough, but necessary questions for the purpose of mutual accountability. Don’t you just wish Adam would’ve looked at his wife and said, “Honey, do you think God would be ok with this?” Or Eve telling the serpent, “You know, that sounds really good, but I probably need to spend time with God before making a decision?” That’s what spiritual friendships do. They invite us to focus our eyes away from idols and to look more closely to God. They spur us on when we’re ready to give in and they constantly remind us that we have no greater purpose than to love God with everything we have. Do you have those people in your life, people who will tell you the truth, even if it hurts, because they love so much? Or people who will graciously walk with you through the ups and downs of life? Find one or two or three, and my guess is that you’ll find strength and courage that you didn’t know was possible. This, I think, is how you find the courage to say, “I don’t understand God’s ways, but they’re sure better than mine.” This is you lose your big eye-dols and successfully navigate a world full of trials and temptations. Amen.