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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, February 07, 2008


2008-05-10 Matthew 4:1-11 “Temptation”

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

It’s Lent, and when you think of Lent, what tradition comes to mind?

Giving something up, right? The common understanding - even among people who don’t attend church - is that during the time of Lent, you give something up.

Why do we give something up during Lent?

We give up something during Lent to remind us of the sacrifice Our Savior Jesus Christ made on our behalf. We begin Lent, quite often, reading the passage about Jesus going out in the wilderness to fast for 40 days, during which, the Devil, sensing he was at a weak point, came to tempt him. So, during his 40 days of self-imposed weakness, Jesus not only gave up food, he took on the temptations that only the Devil himself could bring.

How many of you have chosen to give something up during Lent this year? What is it? How’s it going?

One year, I gave up caffeine. I slept great. All through the day. In years past, I’ve suggested to you that it might be a good idea to give up television during Lent. Sounds good, like something you’d expect a minister who doesn’t live in the real world to suggest. And giving up TV during Lent used to be easier, back in the days before the UT Men’s Basketball team made it into March Madness of the NCAA Tournament. Back in the days before “American Idol,” giving up TV was more realistic. Some people give up chocolate for Lent. Some people give up smoking - and if they are, it IS best that they go out into the wilderness by themselves, because they might kill someone otherwise.

If you’re giving up something for Lent, I applaud you. It’s a good thing. Good luck, keep it up. Maybe the discipline of Lent will work, and you’ll start sleeping better, breathing clearly, losing weight, and reading books. All these are good things. Lent began last Wednesday, but by special arrangement, you can still take advantage of this fabulous offer. Today only, if you decide in the next 24 hours to give up something for Lent (that’s now through Easter), if you start today, you still get full credit. That’s three days free, if you decide now.

Giving up things for Lent can really be the beginning of some good habits. But here’s the thing that bugs me about this practice. Giving up something for Lent is totally optional. The Lent Police won’t come take you away if you sneak a Three Musketeers, or if you watch TV at a neighbor’s house, which technically could be an exemption. If you fudge a little (on the fudge), well, you’ve only got yourself to answer to. If you fall of the wagon on your Lent giveaways or give-ups, no one has to know. And that’s the thing: there’s no accountability. There’s no external authority. You get to decide what to give up, and you get to decide how much slack you’re going to cut yourself. Psychologically, physically, mentally, the usual practice of giving up something for Lent may well be, and probably is very beneficial. But spiritually, something’s missing. If you decide what you’re giving up, and if you keep track of your progress, and if you decide whether your Lenten discipline was a success or a failure, who’s in charge?

You. You’re in charge. If you make the assignment and you decide the grade, you’re in charge. Which is perfectly fine, except that the point of Lent isn’t an exercise in self-improvement. The point of Lent is remembering the sacrifice, the suffering, the self-emptying surrender of Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior. If feeling better about yourself reminds you of the sacrifice, the suffering, the self-emptying surrender of Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior, great. But, based partly on my own experience, and based partly on a knowledge of human behavior, I’m guessing feeling better about yourself is - in reality - going to remind you of... you.

Aye, there’s the rub. So. What are you going to do? How can we take the exercise of giving up something for Lent, and take what’s good about it and make it even better? How do we make the practice really remind us of what Christ has done for us, instead of what we’re doing to improve ourselves?

(And don’t get me wrong. We all could use some improvement. If Lent improves you, great. But don’t stop there. Take what’s good and make it godly.)

Here’s my Lenten challenge to this congregation.

If you haven’t already decided what to give up for Lent, and if you think this might be something good for you to try this year, and if you still want to take advantage of this offer, try this. Instead of deciding for yourself what you’re going to give up, let someone else decide what you need to give up. If you’re married, let your spouse pick what you should give up this Lent. (Hmm. Lent suddenly got a lot more interesting, didn’t it?) If you’re a parent, let your kid pick something for you to give up. If you’re a kid, let your brother or sister pick something for you to give up. If you’re single or if you don’t have someone at home, call up one of your friends and let him or her know what your crazy preacher wants you to do, and ask them if they’ll can think of something you should give up. (And, if you call a friend and explain the plan, you get extra points for evangelism.)

If you’ve already decided on something to give up, great. Take it one step farther, and ask your friend, or your spouse, or your kids to hold you accountable. Tell them it’s OK to say, “Mommy, did you have chocolate today?” Maybe they can make a chart for the refrigerator to keep track of your progress.

See how this simple twist changes the equation? Suddenly, you’re not in charge. Suddenly, you’re accountable to someone else for your Lenten discipline. And when that friend, or that spouse, or that kid reminds you of your subservience to their will, you’ve given up something far more important than TV or chocolate. You’ve given up your power. You’ve given up your power over yourself, given up the power to choose how obedient or lenient you’re going to be to your own choices. You’ve subjected yourself to the will and guidance of another.

THAT’S the point of Lent. When your sacrifice reminds you that your Lord and Master is NOT you, when their bugging you reminds you that Jesus sacrificed his own will to the Will of a higher being - God - THEN, you’re getting the point of Lent.

Jesus went out into the wilderness. He got hungry, he got tired, he got worn out. He was tempted by the #1 tempter himself. Jesus didn’t prevail because he was on a self-improvement binge. Jesus didn’t triumph over temptation because he was so strong. Jesus emerged from those 40 days of giving up because he gave up. Jesus gave up his will and his choice to the word of God, to the promises of Scripture, and to the God to whom he made himself infinitely accountable.

If you can come up with a plan for Lent that reminds you of what Jesus did, of what he did not only in the wilderness, but in his living and on the cross... if you can tweak your Lenten life to remind you of what He did, then you will succeed in these 40 days. Then, this Lent could really be a life-changing time. Then, you might learn not only good habits, but goodness, deep-down, live-transforming goodness. And you’ll learn it not because you chose what you were going to do. If you do Lent right, you’ll learn goodness because you chose what God is calling you to choose.

Maybe, then - after 40 days, maybe then - like Jesus, you’ll see angels. They might look a lot like the people who’ve held you accountable. Maybe, too, you’ll understand a little more about Jesus. Maybe you’ll feel a little more connected to the sacrifice, the suffering, the self-emptying surrender of Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior.

Will you do these things? Will you try? Will you find a “Lent Buddy” and ask him or her to walk these 40 days with you?

Oh, and here’s one more thing. If you say, “Yes,” and if you do try this, don’t make it a reciprocal agreement. Don’t say, “If you’ll make sure I don’t eat chocolate, I’ll make sure you don’t watch TV, smoke menthol cigarettes and leave your smelly socks under the coffee table.” You know why you shouldn’t make it a reciprocal agreement? Because our relationship with God isn’t reciprocal. We don’t tell God, “OK, God. Here’s the deal. I’ll give up my sinful ways if you’ll give up....” ...whatever we think God should stop doing. It doesn’t work that way. We don’t make the covenants, God does. We don’t have anything to hold over God’s head, as in, “You go easy on me, I’ll go easy on you.” If you make the choice, give that person power over you, with no reciprocal power over them.

That does two things. First, it means you surrender yourself, which is more like what Jesus did in the wilderness. Second, it means that if the other person is going to do what you’re doing, they have to find a third person to hold them accountable. Presto! Evangelism, extra points. So, if you have a “Lent Buddy,” agree this year that next year, you’ll switch places. This year they hold you accountable, next year you’ll hold them. And then you’ll learn the Third thing, that Lent isn’t limited to 40 days. The life of sacrifice to God and to God’s ways is a year-long, life-long, eternity-long process.

So, will you try it?