Mark 1: 12-15
Many years ago a king had one beautiful daughter. She had many offers of marriage, but she couldn't make up her mind. A romantic girl, she wanted a man who would love her more than he loved anything else.
Finally, she devised a way to test the love of her suitors. An announcement was made and sent throughout the kingdom that on a certain day, there would be a race. The winner of the race would marry the princess. The race was open to every man in the kingdom, regardless of his position. All that was required was that the man had to profess to love the princess more than he loved anything else.
On the chosen day, men rich and poor gathered for the race. Each professed wholehearted love for the princess. They gathered at the starting line, prepared to run the course of many miles that had been marked for the race. Each man was told that the princess waited at the finish line. Whoever reached her first could take her as his bride.
Just before the race was to begin, an announcement was made. The king, they were reminded, was a wealthy man with treasures gathered from all over the world. Not wanting any man to run in vain, it was announced, the king had liberally scattered some of his finest treasures along the course. Each runner was welcome to take as many as he liked.
The race was begun. Almost immediately, the runners began to come across great gems and bags of gold. There were necklaces and pendants and jewel encrusted cups and swords and knives. One by one, the runners, princes and paupers alike, turned aside to fill their pockets and carry off what treasures they could. Blinded by the immediate promise of wealth, they forgot the princess and all their professions of love.
All except one! He pressed on, ignoring what to him were trinkets when compared to the incomparable beauty of the princess and the prospect of gaining her hand in marriage, finally crossing the finish line.
Folks, I want to talk to you today about making choices. I think you will agree with me that – for the most part – life is all about making choices. And hoping that we will make the right choices. Hoping that our children will make the right choices. Learning how to choose and to make the right choices.
The challenge, of course – a challenge that always complicates matters – is always this thing called temptation. We can’t get away from it. We can’t ignore it. What we need to do is to learn what to say or do when it pokes its ugly head into our business.
Our Gospel reading today from Mark’s gospel is short and to the point. Jesus is driven into the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil. But I want more. I want to know just exactly what those temptations looked like – and how Jesus was able to make the right choices. Since Mark does not tell us the details – we have to turn to either Matthew or Luke.
All together we are told that Satan tempts Jesus three times – to turn stones into bread – to jump down from the pinnacle of the temple – and to bow down and worship Satan whereupon Satan would give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. But what we find is that Jesus does not give in – indeed the worldly allure of fame, fortune and power cannot get him to do what is wrong. And in the end, Jesus says to Satan, “Away with you, Satan! Get out of here. Scram. Put an egg in your shoe and beat it! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
You see, Jesus recognizes the wrongness of these temptations – and fights back. Jesus resists by reminding Satan that God alone is to be worshipped. God alone is the one who shows us the way to true joy, happiness, and peace.
Now the challenge for us is to recognize the slick and cunning and alluring dynamics that the three biggies throw at us. And you know what those three biggies are, right? The three biggies that really are the source of what tempts us? The devil, the world and our own sinful desires. What’s so alluring about the temptations that these three throw at us is that they try to get us to think that by giving in we will be happier.
“Go here – do this – get that – and you’ll be…happy.” However, the choices we make always have consequences – wouldn’t you agree! When it comes to making choices – there are always consequences.
Two weeks ago I shared with our 8th and 9th grade confirmands – we are currently going through the seven petitions of the Lord’s prayer – and two weeks ago we talked about the part of that prayer that says, “And lead us not into temptation.” I talked with them about the consequences of making choices. And I told them, “If you always make bad choices, the consequences will always be bad. If you always make good choices – if you always make the right choices – you might get good consequences.”
Now that doesn’t sound too comforting, does it! Doesn’t sound too encouraging at all! But the only chance we have of getting good consequences from our choices – good consequences for our lives – is to make the good – the right choice in the first place. I know – not always an easy thing to do. But it also means learning to recognize a temptation. It means learning to say no to the temptations that would lead us away from God – away from Christ – away from the church. Recognition is half the battle.
In 1988 a Guideposts magazine carried the story of an old Indian legend. Listen! “Many years ago, Indian youths would go away in solitude to prepare for manhood. One such youth hiked into a beautiful valley, green with trees, bright with flowers. There he fasted. But on the third day, as he looked up at the surrounding mountains, he noticed one tall rugged peak, capped with dazzling snow. I will test myself against that mountain, he thought. He put on his buffalo-hide shirt, threw his blanket over his shoulders and set off to climb the peak. When he reached the top he stood on the rim of the world.
“He could see forever, and his heart swelled with pride. Then he heard a rustle at his feet, and looking down, he saw a snake. Before he could move, the snake spoke.
“‘I am about to die,’ said the snake. ‘It is too cold for me up here and I am freezing. There is no food and I am starving. Put me under your shirt and take me down to the valley.’
“‘No,’ said the youth. ‘I am forewarned. I know your kind. You are a rattlesnake. If I pick you up, you will bite, and your bite will kill me.’
“‘Not so,’ said the snake. ‘I will treat you differently. If you do this for me, you will be special. I will not harm you.’
“The youth resisted awhile, but this was a very persuasive snake with beautiful markings. At last the youth tucked it under his shirt and carried it down to the valley. There he laid it gently on the grass, when suddenly the snake coiled, rattled, and leapt, biting him on the leg.
“‘But you promised...’ cried the youth.
“‘You knew what I was when you picked me up,’ said the snake as it slithered away.”
We need to recognize dangerous temptations when we see them. When it comes to making a choice we need to know what we’re dealing with before we are tempted to pick it up. So we can be taught – lectured – by someone else. We can be given examples – both good and bad – but ultimately we are the ones who need to learn how to make good choices. And may I suggest to you that experience – as much as anything else – it is experience that serves as the best teacher when it comes to learning how to make the right choices.
Listen. “A seeker after truth came to a saint for guidance. ‘Tell me, wise one, how did you become holy?’
“‘And what are they, please?’
“The seeker was fascinated. ‘How does one learn to choose rightly?’
“‘One word! May I have it, please?’ the seeker asked.
“The seeker was thrilled. ‘How does one grow?’
“‘What are they, pray tell?’
There is a certain irony here, isn’t there! Too often we grow the most – we learn the most – after we have made the wrong choices. We get the experience we need after we needed it the most. We become wise – we gain experience – at least that is my hope – when we are tempted to make those wrong choices. So even though we will not always make the good – the right choices – may I encourage you to learn from the choices that you do make. Otherwise, if you’re like me – you’re going to end up making the same mistakes over again – and learning the same lessons over again.
And what I hope we learn is this.
1. Where are you when bad choices are made? Avoid those places.
2. What people are you with when bad choices are made? Avoid those people. And consider that maybe what you need is a new group of friends.
3. In the time of testing – when temptations would want us to make wrong choices – what I hope we learn is that God does give us the faith and the strength we need to trust him to get us through – and more to the point – to rise above whatever temptations – whatever challenges come our way.
With God’s help and by God’s grace – God’s undeserved love and favor – we can learn to say no to temptation. Not always easy, I know. I’m not saying this is easy.
But when it comes to making choices, we can learn to say no to those things that would lead us away from God – learn to say no to those things that would set themselves up in the place of God – that would set themselves up as a false god in our lives. Those are places where temptations to sin want to take us.
But please know this – and this is so important – that when we make the wrong choices – when we give into temptations to sin – that there is mercy, peace, pardon and forgiveness from God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
So remember that you are loved. You are forgiven. May our choices lead us to trust God – that in the time of temptation – God will be there to get us through – and to help us to rise above.