Mark 1: 12-15
This past Wednesday, the nation was witness to yet another school shooting. This time in Parkside, Florida.
I’m sure some are saying – or at the very least thinking – why didn’t God stop this? Why did God allow this to happen? The answer to those questions is, “I don’t know.” I also suspect that behind those kinds of questions is more than just asking “Why.” I think behind the questions – at least for some – is to somehow place blame on God for not stopping it.
I also think that some will look at this and say, “See? How can there be a God when these bad things happen?”
Tough questions, I know. But I’m here to tell you today that God did not cause this tragedy – or any other tragedy for that matter – to occur.
You see, here’s the thing. People make choices. And what we had this past Wednesday was a man who made a choice. And I know I am not going to say anything new about this that we haven’t heard before. And I really don’t want to get political here, but some things just need to be said.
This is a complex situation. And it seems to me that there are multiple factors behind this man’s choice – that helped him to make the choice that he made. You see, this is not just about guns – and a too easy access to assault style weapons. This is not just about the state of mental health care in our society. It’s not just about bullying – and I understand that the shooter was bullied in school. It involves all of these things – assault weapons, mental health, bullying – BUT did anybody notice anything strange in the days and weeks leading up to this and not say anything? Now we’re asking what did the FBI know, and when did they know it, and why didn’t they do anything to stop it? I don’t know. So – it’s not just one thing. It’s all of these things.
Here’s the thing. God gives each one of us the ability and the freedom to make choices. Nikolas Cruz made a choice. And we know the results.
So the reasons are many, and they are complex. But let me add this one thing. This is at heart a spiritual issue. I don’t know what kind of faith background, if any, Nick Cruz had. But behind events like these there is always a spiritual issue.
Folks, I want to talk to you today about making choices – and when it comes to making choices – what is it that leads us to make the choices we make. So this is not a sermon about what happened in Florida this week, but I’m using it as an illustration about what happens when bad decisions – bad choices – are made. 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. Life is all about learning how to choose and to make the right choices.
And we all make choices. Every day. We all make choices. The challenge, of course – a challenge that always complicates matters – is always this thing called temptation. This is a spiritual issue. We can’t get avoid 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 to know 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 – the worldly allure of fame, fortune and power cannot get him to make wrong choices. 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 – these choices – 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. Jesus makes the right choices.
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. 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.” Well – not if those things are contrary to the will of God! Not if those things take us away from God! However, the choices we make always have consequences – wouldn’t you agree! When it comes to making choices – there are always consequences.
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees. You’ve heard me say this before. If you always make bad choices, you will always get bad consequences. If you always make good choices – if you always make the right choices – you might get good consequences. There are no guarantees.
Now that’s not very comforting, is it! Not 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.
Let me remind you 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 – we can be 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! We grow the most – we learn the most – after we have made the wrong choices. We get the experience we need after we need it.
The reality is that we will not always make the good – the right choices. But making wrong choices can also be a good teacher. If and when we let ourselves learn from those mistakes. Otherwise, if you’re like me – you’re going to end up making the same mistakes over again – and having to learn the same lessons over again. Experience is a good teacher. That’s why I like today’s Psalm. It has one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture. “Remember not the sins of my youth.” Anyone else catch that?
So what can we learn from all this? What can we say in hindsight that we wish Nikolas Cruz had learned? Well – 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.
I hope you’re seeing that the choices we make always have a spiritual component to them. With God’s help and by God’s grace we can learn to say no to temptation. Not always easy, I know. But when it comes to making choices, we can learn to say no to those things that would lead us away from God – we can learn to say no to those things that would hurt other people – things that would do harm to our own selves Because 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 always, always, always, mercy, peace, pardon and forgiveness from God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
So life is all about making choices – and when it comes to making choices – trusting God to give us the wisdom, the strength, the skill, the experience, and the desire to make the right choices. Amen