Sermon: Resisting Temptation
My family’s big sport was baseball. We spent so many hours playing, watching, or thinking about playing baseball. Dad was the coach for our coach’s pitch team. We would spend hours throwing, catching, and fielding the balls the Dad would hit to us. But what we really wanted – what I think all kids who play baseball really want – was batting practice. Batting is where all the glamor in baseball is at. Sure, it’s great to be the outfielder who dives and catches the ball that could have been a stand-up double but is instead now an out, or the infielder who turns a double play, but the moment every baseball-playing boy (and girl?) dreams of, is when the ball goes sailing over the fence in center-left field.
But we didn’t spend a lot of time on batting practice. Rather, batting practice was a reward for when we caught, threw, and fielded well. Defense, Dad told us over and over again, is what wins games.
Defense is what we’re all about in these first few weeks of Lent. Lent has a kind of double movement – first the Devil is on the attack and we are on the defensive. Later we’ll get the chance for batting practice, for going on the attack, but for now we need to drill the basics.
Today is all about temptation. That world can either scare us or thrill us. Temptation. For the person who is striving for holiness – which hopefully is all of us here! – it’s a scary thought, the possibility of falling into sin, of backsliding into things that I know are bad for me. We are also, we know, fallen creatures – there are sins that excite us, sins that bring the possibility of pleasure (physical and emotional), relief, and fun.
In the Gospel today we see that our Lord was tempted in the desert by Satan – so we should not be surprised that we are tempted too! Christ deigned to suffer temptation so that He might redeem our temptations. This is the first thing you should remember when you experience temptations to sin. One of Satan’s tricks is to make you already feel like a failure just because you are being tempted. But Satan is the father of lies! Look at the lies he tells in the Scripture readings today: First, he tells Eve, “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” God didn’t say that! He said there was one tree from which they couldn’t eat. That’s another strategy of the Devil – to make God’s commands look impossible to keep. God doesn’t command us to do things that are impossible – He makes it truly possible for us to obey His will through grace.
Satan, that audacious villain, even tries lying to our Lord Himself. He promises to give Him all the kingdoms of the world if He will bow down and worship the Devil. But the kingdoms of the world don’t belong to Satan – they belong to Christ! They are already His to start with! Our Lord has a simple response to this: “Get away, Satan!” We should say the same thing, over and over again when we are tempted. “Get away, Satan!” Or better yet: “Jesus, come and drive Satan away!”
At the heart of every temptation is a lie – a lie from the Satan that confuses us about God and tempts us to love created things more than Him. An important step, then, in fighting temptation, is to find the lie. When you’re tempted to sin, you should ask yourself: “What is the lie behind this temptation?” For example, if you are tempted to break your Lenten resolution. If you have resolved not to eat between meals during Lent, you might be tempted to eat the chocolate chip cookies that have been left on the counter in your kitchen. Satan’s lie is to say that the satisfaction that comes from eating those cookies will be greater than the increase of God’s grace in your heart that comes from worthy fasting. The lie, of course, is built on a truth – chocolate chip cookies are delicious! – but that doesn’t mean that they are worth more than the graces we can obtain from fidelity to our Lenten resolutions.
Maybe there is a temptation you habitually have to fight. Satan will likely tell you that if you give in this once, then you won’t have to think about it anymore for a while, and so the sin will be a relief, like we just need to get it out of our system. But that isn’t true! The more you give in to temptation, the more strongly temptation will come back in the future! The Devil might lie low for a while, but he is never going to relent. During this time of Lent, when we resolve to grow closer to Christ, Satan’s attacks will be even stronger. The more firmly we resolve to grow closer to Christ, the more persistent Satan’s temptations will be as well.
This shouldn’t surprise us at all because this is exactly what happened to our Lord. It was after He fasted for forty days in the desert that Satan came to tempt Him. We can see this in the lives of the saints as well. St. John Vianney was one of the holiest men yet of the modern era. He was a simple parish priest who fasted nearly every day, eating nothing but a potato in the early years of his priesthood. The Devil was relentless in attacking him. He would keep him up all night, shaking his whole house, and once even lit his bed on fire. You can still see the charred bed if you go to visit his house in France. Vianney noticed that Satan’s attacks were strongest right when he was about to have a great success, when someone in his parish was about to have an important conversion, and he knew he had to be strong.
Both our Lord and St. John Vianney prepared for temptation by fasting. This is why Holy Mother Church so highly encourages the discipline of fasting during Lent, along of course with prayer and almsgiving. By fasting we feel a profound lack in our bodies, our need for nourishment, and we are reminded that our true nourishment should come from God Himself, especially in the Eucharist. Whatever it is that you have given up for Lent, make sure that it is leading you to God. We do not give things up in order to lose weight or save more money for the next vacation (that’s why fasting is tied to almsgiving – generosity to the poor!). We give them up for God, and to grow closer to Him. You should ask yourself – what am I doing with the time or money that I’ve gained by my Lenten sacrifices? If you have given up watching Netflix – what are you doing with that free time? Are you using it for prayer or spiritual reading or quality time together as a family? If you gave up going out to eat, what are you doing with the money you are saving?
Another important aspect of resisting temptation is avoiding the circumstances in which you are likely to sin. You might remember these being called “the near occasions of sin.” Every time that we go to confession, when we recite the act of contrition, which ends with promising to avoid these “occasions of sin,” – times, circumstances, and opportunities that lead us into sin. (By the way, if you only have a fuzzy memory of what I am talking about here, it probably means that you need to go to confession more often! We have a more than ample amount of times each week for you to do so.) A few weeks ago we heard in the Gospel: If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off! It is better to enter Heaven without one hand that to suffer forever in Hell with both. So, if your cell phone causes you to sin, cut it off! If your computer or tablet causes you to sin, or causes your family members to sin, cut it off! If you have friendships or relationships that cause you to sin, cut them off! Or at the very least, re-evaluate how you can use those things in a way that does not lead you into sin, and re-evaluate how your friendships and relationships can be re-focused on Christ and not on sin.
At baseball practice, when we were practicing fielding the ball, Dad would drill us with the question, “What are you doing if the ball comes to you?” First, we had to know what was happening on the field – how many outs, runners on which bases? Once we knew that, we could tell what we should do if there was a ground ball, line drive, pop up fly. The same thing is true in our spiritual lives. We have to know the situation. You need to know to which temptations you are particularly susceptible so that you can work to avoid them. And you need to have a battle plan for when temptation occurs. How will you flee from those occasions of sin? What will you do when the ball comes to you? Inexperienced players might freak out when the ball comes to them, but an expert will calmly field the ball. Similarly, don't panic if temptation comes your way. Calmly and resolutely put into action your plan. What will you do when the ball comes to you?
The heart of Christian prayer is the Our Father, which concludes with the lines, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” This should be our constant prayer! God wants us continually to cry out to Him, to cry out to Him for deliverance from evil. On our own, we do not have the strength to fight off Satan. We can and should say to him with our Lord’s words, “Get away, Satan!” but we know that it is Christ who really has the power to drive away our enemy. That is why we must have recourse to Him at all times, in our prayer, and especially in the Sacraments, in this case, Confession to forgive our sins and give us the graces we seek to resist those sins in the future, and Holy Communion, to strengthen us in the battle against sin.
It is easy for us to become discouraged in this battle against temptation – we know how much and how often we fail. But we must be focused on Christ and His victory over sin and death. St. Paul tells us today, “Through one righteous act, acquittal and life came to all.” Through Christ’s death on the Cross and His Resurrection, victory can be ours.
God has allowed our fallen human nature to persist after Adam and Eve’s original sin so that we can have the chance to participate in Christ’s victory over that sin. They failed in the fight against temptation, but He does not!
St. Paul again tells us that if by Adam’s sin all have died, “how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for the many. And the gift is not like the result of the one who sinned.” The grace of Christ’s redemption is even better than Adam and Eve before the fall in the Garden of Eden. God only allows evil because He can bring an even greater good from it. At the Easter Vigil we will sing, “O happy fault, o necessary sin of Adam that won for us so great a redeemer!”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, do not grow weary of the battle against temptation! Christ has fought the battle and He has won. Allow Him to bring His victory about in you by strengthening yourself through faithful adherence to the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, by fleeing from all occasions of sin, and by being strengthened by the graces of Confession and Holy Communion. The victory will be oh-so-sweet, because it will be eternal life with Him in Heaven. It’s time to play some good defense.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
I Sunday of Lent
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen