Watching against temptation

When people go through difficult times, temptations will come that have the potential to undermine faith.  That’s Paul’s warning to the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 10: 1-13.  Paul uses the example of the Exodus story as an illustration of the types of temptations that typically arise during a time of crisis, and that must be avoided if the church is to remain vital and focused on its mission.

God’s mission to save the Hebrew people was crystal clear.  Moses reminded them of it over and over.  God will deliver the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and lead them to the Promised Land.  The Hebrews received ample signs that proved Moses’ message was the truth.  A cloud protected them from the desert sun during the day.  The sea was parted before them.  They never ran out of food or water.  

These miracles should have been enough to keep them trusting in God.  They should have convinced them that God would guide them through the wilderness.  They should have had faith to stand strong.  “If you think you are standing strong watch out,” Paul warns the Corinthians.  The Hebrew people thought they were steadfast, but the closer they got to the Promised Land, the more their commitment to God’s mission wavered.

The UM mission statement was set by the Bishops in 2008 and approved by General Conference that same year.  The denomination’s mission is “To Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World”.  It’s based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:10-- “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”  Now what could distract us from this clear, scriptural mandate from Jesus?

The temptations that tripped up the Hebrews, the same ones that Paul warns the Corinthians, churches still face them today.  They are impulses to change the church into something other than Jesus’ vision for it.  Let’s consider three of the temptations mentioned in Paul’s letter.

Ever see the movie the Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston?  Remember the scene with the Golden Calf?  That’s the incident that Paul is referring to when he writes that the people sat down to eat and drink and got up to play.  Moses went up the mountain and the Hebrew people waited, and waited, and waited.  Finally, they gave up hope, decided that Moses must have died.  Who would lead them through the wilderness now?  Fear motivated them to make an idol that they hoped would fill the supposed leadership void.  And once their idol was finished, they worshiped their man-made god with a party.

When times get tough there’s a temptation to cheer ourselves up by focusing religion on good times and fellowship.  

Religions that are all about meeting people’s physical wants is the next cautionary example Paul takes away from the Exodus story.  This temptation is a real challenge to balance during an economic downturn.  There’s so much need and we feel compassion.  But the demand for physical goods can cause a church to lose sight of its mission.

The third temptation that Paul warns the Corinthian church about is the temptation to complain.  The Hebrews complained that they were running out of food.  Then they complained about the kind of food God provided.  When they arrived at the Promised Land, they complained about that, too.  Their God-given mission was almost fulfilled, and instead of feeling grateful or just relieved that they had made it to the edge of the wilderness, they grumbled.

John Wesley, our founder, warned the early Methodists to watch out for the temptation of evil-speaking.  You’ve heard of speaking ill of the dead?  Well, this is speaking ill of the absent.  Talking about someone when they are not around to defend themselves, or offer their side of the story, that was what Wesley meant by evil-speaking.  We would call it gossiping.  Wesley was so concerned about the effect this temptation could have on the church that he wrote a doctrinal sermon that teaches Methodist how to resist the urge to talk about other Christians’ behind their backs.  Can you imagine?  An anti-gossiping teaching written into the doctrine of a church?

Gossiping, finger-pointing, blaming, these kinds of responses are more likely to happen when a community is under stress.  We have so many frustrations, and we want to vent to a sympathetic listener, someone who will take our side.  

For Wesley the way to resist the urge to gossip is to follow Jesus’ directions in Matthew 18:15-- if a member of the church sins against us, Jesus tells us to go and talk to the person about it, or take another person along for moral support.

The fear is often that face-to-face confrontation will make matters worse, but I think Jesus is right.  Jesus is the best judge of what healthy interactions between church members look like.  If speaking directly to the problem is the way of discipleship that Jesus sets out, then I think we would be wise to follow his command.

Watching out for the temptation that we are the most susceptible to can be a way to grow in faith.  According to Wesley, staying vigilant will be a means of grace.  Perhaps he was so confident that we would experience God’s love and power when we engage in this discipline because of a second piece of advice the early Methodist took to heart.

When temptations arose that threatened the vitaliity of their mission, the Methodists were supposed to “Fly to Jesus”.  That phrase, “fly to Jesus” appears over and over in eighteenth-century Methodist letters, diaries, and testimonials whenever they describe feeling particularly vunerable and tempted to succomb.  Wesley didn’t promise that no one would never feel tempted again if they became a Methodist.  He did promise them that Jesus would show them the way to escape the temptation.  

Paul makes a similar promise to the Corinthians.  God is faithful.  He won’t let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.  He will provide the way out, Paul reassures the church.  Jesus is the means of escape that God provides to all of us.

Notice, Paul doesn’t say that God is putting us under temptation.  Ever heard the phrase, “God never gives you more than you can handle?”  That’s not what this passage of Scripture teaches.  Paul is writing to a church that’s teetering on the edge of idolatry, they are in danger of losing their sense of purpose as disciples of Christ.  Paul is not writing to people going through tough times and telling them to buck up, quit their complaining.

Paul is encouraging a church to keep their focus on Jesus and let him carry the church away from the temptation to abandon its mission.

In the midst of crisis, a church must watch out for the temptation to become The Church of the Party Planner,  or the Social Worker, or The Gossipers, instead of The Church of Jesus Christ.

“Do we steadily watch against the world, the devil, ourselves? The besetting sin?”  This was one Means of making disciples of Jesus Christ that John Wesley recommended.