Mark 1:9-15
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
February 26, 2012


A friend who has two daughters was caught in a tangled web of arguments last Wednesday, the first day of Lent.  Following their Roman Catholic tradition, her daughters chose to give up something for Lent.  Her older daughter decided to give up chocolate; the younger decided to forego ice cream.  My friend was going to the mall that evening and asked her daughters if they wanted to come along.  The one who is attempting to abstain from ice cream until Easter immediately fixated on one specific store in the mall.  That one store was all she could envision.  Finally, she said, "Mom, can I get frozen yogurt?"

"No," Mom replied, "You cannot have frozen yogurt."

"But it's not ice cream," she protested, "Its yogurt!"

Mom said, "No frozen yogurt."

The daughter grumbled and stomped out of the kitchen.  A few minutes later, the daughter got a call from a friend who said some of their gang was going to Grotto's pizza for a fundraiser.  As soon as she got off the phone, she said, "Mom, can I have gelato?"

"No, you can't have gelato."

"But, Mom, it's not ice cream, its gelato!"

What begins in childhood with splitting hairs over what does and what does not constitute ice cream, morphs into matters with higher stakes in adulthood.  If there is something we crave, we are tempted to rationalize that it's no big deal to modify our principles and bend the rules a little.  After all, we're not planning to blatantly break the rule; we're just going to bend it a tad.

Each year on the first Sunday of Lent, the gospel lectionary reading is the temptation of Jesus.  Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us that after Jesus was baptized, he went into the wilderness for 40 days where he was tempted by the devil.  Since this is Year B in the lectionary, we get Mark's account of the duel in the desert.

True to his style of racing from one event to the next, Mark tells us that Jesus is baptized, declared God's Son, driven into the wilderness, tempted by Satan and proclaimed the good news in Galilee, all in the space of seven verses.  For more details on the temptation story, we must flip to the Gospels of Matthew or Luke to read their expanded versions.

In our enlightened world, some get tripped up on this whole business of the devil.  Is there really an evil one who plots our destruction?  Is there a literal demonic being or is it a metaphor for the human propensity to sin?  Thoughtful Christians come down on both sides of the question and I'm not sure it matters which side you choose, as long as you take evil very seriously.  People are capable of committing unthinkable atrocities.  What prompts abhorrent actions?

Whether you believe in a literal devil or some other power, we are wise to recognize that each of us is tempted by a compelling force to reject what is right and to ratify what is wrong.

The Bible names this force the devil, but many are surprised to discover that the devil rarely makes an appearance on the pages of Scripture.  He is mentioned only a handful of times.  When he appears, he is usually given one of two names.  The meaning of each name is instructive.  Sometimes he is called Satan, which means "the adversary."  Of course, he is the adversary of God and all that is good.

Other times, he is called the devil, which comes from a Greek word meaning "the one who tosses everything into chaos."  I have a grandson that occasionally fits that description, but he can also be an angel!

The story of Jesus being tempted by the adversary that creates chaos informs us that at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was put to a test.  Would he faithfully serve God, or would he become self-serving?  That is the core of the temptation story.  Will Jesus put himself first, or will he serve God?  It is a temptation that each of us faces continuously.  We are tempted to come up with a rationale for doing what we want to do when it conflicts with what we ought to do.  And the stakes are usually much higher than ice cream.

The adversary is a cunning deceiver.  He rarely sets before us the righteous good and the obvious evil.  If that were the case, rejecting the wrong would be a breeze.  The wily tempter is so often successful because he seduces us with arguments that seem reasonable.  Such as the man who was desperately in need of cash and reasoned to himself: "I'll borrow some money from one of my client's accounts, but I'll pay it back in no time."  Or the student who thought: "It's not that big of a deal if I cheat on this algebra test.  It's not like I'm going to become a math major." Or the woman trying to persuade herself: "It won't hurt if I break my marriage vows just once."

Some are constantly rationalizing their behavior.  They have an ongoing dialogue in their head presenting reasons why it is acceptable to do something they know is unacceptable.  They say to themselves, "No one is going to be hurt if I do this.  No harm, no foul."

How many of us have been snared by the trap that reasons:  "Everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn't I?"

There is another temptation the charming imposter employs to undermine the foundation of people of faith.  We are seduced into thinking that what we can see and touch is all that is real.  We're tempted to believe that this physical world of people and things is all there is.  It is a devious temptation because it entices us to believe that we had better grab all we can for ourselves while we're still upright and breathing because one day we will die and our light will go out.

But Jesus knew there was more, much more.  He knew that there is another kingdom - one where death is no more.  So while we walk this earth we should strive for the highest and best.  We should aim for what is right and good and true and beautiful.

Sometimes we are tempted to practice our faith for only a couple of hours on Sunday morning and then live in the "real" world the remainder of the time.  A colleague says that "Sometimes he wonders if while we weren't looking, the church turned into Vegas.  Like the commercial says, too often what happens in church stays in church.  What we may need most in Lent is the challenge to live our faith once we leave worship."1 Even when a little voice whispers, "One person can't make a difference."

Tom Long was doing a clergy conference in Atlanta.  One afternoon there was a break in the schedule, but it was too far to drive back to his office so he decided he would use the time to get a haircut.  He started driving around looking for a "Great Clips" or any place he thought he could get a decent haircut.  It wasn't too long before he spotted a place.  He walked in; a woman had an opening in her schedule, so he plopped down in the chair.

She looked at him and said, "You don't look familiar.  Have you ever been in our shop before?"

"Well, no, I haven't," Tom said.  "I'm a Presbyterian minister and I'm leading a clergy conference down the road at the retreat center

She responded, "I'm a Christian, too."

Long said, "Really?"

She said, "Yes.  I go to Creflo Dollar's church."

Tom groaned inside.  Creflo Dollar is Atlanta's latest incarnation of the 'Get Rich Quick' gospel.  He drives a fleet of limousines, owns a private jet and several mansions, all paid for by people's financial gifts to his ministry.

Tom was already getting a bad haircut and now he was going to get bad theology.  But she was holding the razor, so he played along with it.  He asked, "Have you gotten your blessing yet?"

She said, "Oh, yes.  I've gotten my blessing."

Tom braced himself.  He was expecting her to tell about her diamond bracelet in the scissors drawer or the jaguar in the parking lot, but instead she said, "Two nights a week I get to volunteer at a shelter for battered women.  I used to be one myself.  They trust me there; I have a great ministry."

Tom was floored and thought to himself, "My gosh!  Jesus is loose even in Creflo Dollar's church!"2

We are tempted to think that Jesus performed miracles when he walked the earth, but now that he is no longer physically present, he has no real power in our lives.  Then, we witness a $9.00 an hour beautician engaged in a ministry of healing that is transforming people's lives.

Keep your eyes peeled for the temptations, large and small, that invite you to deny the image of God that is in you.  Then remember: when you live as Christ lived, you laugh in the face of the prince of darkness and send him on his way.




  1. Tom Are, Jr., "Preaching the Lenten Lectionary," Journal for Preachers, Lent 2012, p. 3.
  2. Thomas G. Long, "Running Out of Time," February 12, 2012 at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.