The Comfortable Rut of Ordinary Temptation
Home | Christmas Eve A, "Are we really ready?", Luke 2: 1-20, 24 December 2004 | "Finally! Well, almost...." Advent 4A , 19 December 2004, Matthew 1:18-25 | Faith and Doubts, Advent 3A, 12 December 2004, Matthew 11:2-11 | John the Baptist, Advent 2A, 5 December 2004, Matthew 3:1-12 | Left Behind? Advent 1A, 28 Nov 2004, Matthew 24:37-44 | Some King of kings! Proper 29C, 21 November 2004, Luke 23:35-43 | "Not one thrown down", Proper 28C, 14 November 2004, Luke 21:5-19 | All Saints and for all the saints, 2004C, 31 October 2004, Luke 6:20-36 | The Lambeth Commission Windsor Report, the Pharisee, and the tax collector, Proper 25C, 24 Oct 2004 | "Lord, teach us to pray." Proper 20C, 17 October 2004, Genesis 32:3-8, 22-30; Luke 18:1-8a | "It's all in the choosing", Proper 23C, 10 October 2004, Ruth 1:1-19a; Luke 17:11-19 | "Increase our faith", Proper 22C, Luke 17:5-10, 3 October 2004 | Proper 21C 2004, 26 September 2004, "R&R: Response and Relationships", Luke 16:19-31 | Proper 19C 2004, 12 September 2004, "Lost and Found", Luke 15:1-10 | Proper 18C 2004, 5 September 2004, "Preaching or Meddling", Luke 14:25-33 | Proper 16C 2004, 22 August 2004, "The Narrow Gate ", Luke 13:22-30 | Proper 15C, 15 August 2004 | Proper 14C, 8 August 2004 | Proper 13C, 1 August 2004 | Shrinemont: "Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses", Proper 15c, 15 August 2004 | "Lord, teach us how to pray," Proper 12C, 25 July 2004, Genesis 18:20-33; Luke 11:1-13 | The Summary of the Law and the Good Samaritan: "Go and do likewise" Luke 10:25-37, 11 July 2004 | Independence Day 2004. "The Creative Tension of the Church: Who is to be included?" | "Now! Now! Now!", Proper 8C, 27 June 2004, Luke 9:51-62 | "Star Throwers", Proper 7C, 20 June 2004, Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 9:18-24 | The more things change the more they remain the same, Pentecost 2C, 13 June 2004 | "O Holy Triune God, most Holy Trinity; here are we. Send us." Trinity C, 6 June 2004 | "Come, Holy Spirit", Pentecost C , 30 May 2004 | "That they all may be one", Easter 7C, 23 May 2004 | The Holy Spirit: Paraclete, Pneuma, Ruach, Easter 6C 2004 | Agapate Allelous: Love beyond each other, Easter 5C 2004, 9 May 2004 | The Good Shepherd and the five people you meet in heaven, Easter 4C 2004 | "The God of the Second Chance -- and of many chances", Easter 3C, 25 April 2004 | Baptizatus Sum: I am baptized, Easter 2C 2004 | It is NOT an Idle Tale: Easter Sunday, 18 April 2004 | Palm Sunday-Passion Sunday Roller Coaster: What We Want or What We Need? | Who are the Wicked Tenants, Lent 5C 2004 | The Prodigal Son -- and so much more | God, the Gardener, and the Fig Tree | "The Hen and the Fox", Lent 2C | The Comfortable Rut of Ordinary Temptation | "Getting from Uh-oh to Aha", Luke 9:28-36, Epiphany Last C, 22 February 2004 | Jesus, Jeremiah, and the Beatitudes: What to Make of it All | The Sword of the Lord and of Gideon: God working in the world | Jesus, the Archbishop, and Annual Council The Dark Abyss of Schism | The Nature of Revelation: Jesus' Sermon at Nazareth | The Miracle at the Wedding in Cana | The King of kings and the Lion King | "The Magnificat, Watching, and Waiting" | "Gaudete in Domino semper: Rejoice in the Lord always" | A Voice crying in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord." | "Standing in the Day of Battle: Isabel and the Gospel" | Dogma, Doctrine, and the Theological Enterprise | The Little Apocalypse | Jesus and theWidow's Mite | One Priest's Response to the Election of Gene Robinson | The Great Commandment: Jesus Meant What He said | Who is blind? | Eyes on Jesus and minds on mission! | Tradition or Traditionalism? | Credo: Be doers of the Word and not hearers only." | Who do YOU say that I am? | "It's about Power and Winning" | Contact Wicomico Parish Church
Lent 1C 2004, 29 February, Luke 4:1-13
Those of us who prowl the internet or have friends who send us interesting if apocryphal stories in our email may already
be familiar with this story.
We've all seen railroad tracks. Now in case you've never measured before, the distance between the rails is exactly 4
feet, 8 1/2 inches. But why would that distance be such a strange number like that? Well, train tracks in the United States
are 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches apart because that's how far apart they are in England. And the first railroad lines that were built
in this country were built by people from England. But why are the English train tracks that odd size? Well, it's because
that's the size that they used in England for the tramways, which was sort of the forerunner of the train.
And the tramways used that size of 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches because that was how far apart the wheels were on wagons. And
when they built the tramways, they were mainly using the same equipment that they used to build wagons. But then, why were
wagon wheels made 4 feet, 8 ½ inches apart?
The answer there is that they wanted the wagon wheels to match up with the ruts that had been made in the roads. Well,
who made those ruts in the roads in England? Well, the answer is that the ruts were from the ox and horse
carts that had been in use in England for many centuries And the wheels of those ox and horse carts were 4 feet, 8 1/2
inches apart. And why were the wheels of the ox and horse carts that far apart?
The answer is the Romans, about 2000 years ago. And those same roads have been used ever since. But why were the ruts
4 feet, 8 1/2 inches apart? It's because that was the width of a chariot back then. So it seems that when those
chariots made ruts in the road about 2000 years ago, they really did get us into a rut that we've never gotten out of.
And I suppose we've been a rut about temptation ever since the gospel writers put down this story of Jesus' time in the
desert almost two thousand years ago. It seems an odd thing to say, but think about it.
First of all we are basically law-abiding citizens. We might press the envelope a little on income taxes from time to
time. And we might feel a little guilt about some of the venial sins we've committed over time. But hey, they were only the
minor venial sins, and not the big mortal ones. And we aren't given too much to committing the great seven mortal sins, anyway,
the most part.
We're not tempted so much by the devil showing up breathing fire and brimstone with his big scaly tail and ugly demons
face tempting us to rob the Bank of Lancaster with the promise of never being caught out. Or hijacking a plane to take us
to the Caribbean in cold weather.
We're not usually tempted by questions like: "Should I blow up a building today or should I help an old lady across
the street?" Or: "Should I rob the ABC liquor store today or should I take flowers to the Lancashire nursing home?"
Most of us could handle those kind of situations. Or should I burn down the house of
the person who cheated me or gave the Hawaiian good luck sign finger wave -- or should visit a friend in the hospital.
We know how to handle questions like that -- and mostly they are silly questions for people like us anyway. We certainly aren't
likely to hijack airplanes, or turn terrorist, or steal cars, not at all. (1)
So we're in a rut. A comfortable, harmless rut, to be sure but in a rut, all the same.
One commentator notes that a psychiatrist living in his community, and actively involved in his local synagogue, is quoted
as saying that he has come to the conclusion that the mature religious person is one who can embrace ambiguity. Most human
beings do not, by that standard of measure, show themselves to be particularly mature. The majority of people prefer things
in black and white but shades of gray are less comfortable. We like matters clear -cut. It is easier if people can be judged
altogether good or obviously evil.
Moral choices are easier if we have firmly decided and are absolutely certain that we know what is right and what is wrong.
Mitigating and extenuating circumstances are problematical for us, at best a nuisance.
Temptations that matter are characterized by ambiguity. What could have been more ambiguous than the temptations placed
before Jesus in the wilderness? Led by the Spirit and tempted by the devil simultaneously, the choices before Jesus were difficult
in the extreme.
Bread would have satisfied his own hunger, and he might have addressed the problem of hunger in the world. But he chose
neither one. In the second instance, Jesus might have compromised just a little with the devil and thereby achieved liberation
for his people, delivering them from their oppressors. But he refused either choice. Finally, the leap from the pinnacle of
the temple would have established Jesus' power and immediately given him authority for his mission, absolute authority in
the eyes of the world. It would have been spectacular, removing all doubts of everyone who saw it. But he chose to refuse.
In the case of each temptation Jesus resisted by attending closely to the Word. Even when our ancient foe quoted scripture,
Jesus was able to discern the Word within the Word. Christians can find strength in this same Jesus who is called the Word
made flesh. He looked not only for the good in everyone but the best among the good.
The choices with which we ourselves struggle not so clear-cut, either. Happiness and financial security for our families
is not an unworthy goal but, if in order to achieve that happiness we are unwilling to share significantly of what we have
or extend ourselves for others, the goal becomes less worthy and we diminish ourselves.
Another commentator points out that "The simple gospel is not as simple as a lot of simple people would like to think
it is." And that has the ring of truth to it. Any serious study of scripture finds layers and depths of meaning the more
often one engages it - plus the fact that the same Scripture can speak a different message to our minds and hearts each time
we encounter it and if weplunge deeply into those depths.
There's a story about a road junction where five highways all come together. And so a store at that intersection posted
a sign that said: "Five roads meet here. Four of them will take you the wrong way. Stop in and ask for directions."
So - in today's Gospel, the temptation, the ambiguities presented to Jesus, mean that no Christian can expect to be saved
from the ambiguity of life in the 21st Century in which we are led simultaneously by the Spirit and by the forces of evil.
It's like the old Warner Brothers movie cartoons of our youth - the good blue angel sitting on the right shoulder whispering
into the ear of the cat and the red bad devil whispering into the other ear.
So what is all this stuff about comfortable ruts and ambiguity? Well, how about the closing down of the Rappahannock General
Hospital maternity ward and obstetrics unit? Its the latest of more than 20 such units closing recently in the Commonwealth
of Virginia alone. Some commonwealth when insurance companies and trial lawyers and hospital administrator greed can force
this to happen! I don't think any of us like it -- but are we doing anything about it or are we just in our comfortable rut
of avoiding ordinary temptation? We surely have a responsibility to children yet unborn to give them a fighting chance of
surviving their arrival into this world
And what of the other safety nets that have been lowered or removed because we could not as a so called commonwealth resist
the temptation to have a certain tax lowered and then phased out? There will be a severe price to pay for at least a generation
for that foolishness. And why are we not up in arms about that?
I could go on and on about these greater temptations, ones to which we succumb without even knowing it. But remember --
the comfortable rut may not be so comfortable after all.
Not: Most of the basic background material for this sermon was taken from the sources listed below and incorporated directly
into the text. I am very grateful for the help such homiletical resources such as SermonMall and sermons provide in weeks
like this one where a sudden death in the parish placed severe time limits on sermon preparation.
1. Modified from the version found in G. Porter Taylor, "Sometimes I Wonder If Luke Knows How To Tell A Story",
at SermonMall.com for 29 Feb 2004
2. Craig B. Adams, "Preaching Luke 4:1-13". At SermonMall.com for 29 February 2004, somewhat adapted