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Sunday, September 5, 2021

When Tempted...

 A sermon based upon James 1: 12-18

By Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv., DMin;

September 5th, 2021, Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Series: The Book of James, 2/12



James 1:12–18 (NRSV): Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. 13 No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14 But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15 then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved.

17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.


Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, a hugely successful comedian named Flip Wilson had an Emmy Award-winning network TV show in 1970’s.  During one of his most famous routines, Wilson would do something outrageous in plain sight, then grin into the camera and say, “The Devil made me do it.”   The audience would howl because everyone was in on the joke.   

The joke was this idea that someone could acknowledge that they had just done something terrible, but then dodge responsibility by making it the devil’s fault.   But is it really ‘the devil who MADE us do it?   If it is ‘the devil’s fault’, then it should follow that we are off the hook—either with our parents, our boss, our teachers, with our spouse, and even with God too?    Blaming the ‘DEVIL’ is like claiming a “Get out of Jail Free” card.  Now, we can be excused for our worst behavior, right? 

Interestingly, in James’ day it wasn’t the devil who most often got blamed, it was God.   Early Christians, who were also Jews, believed that God is ultimately in control of everything, so some people, even some Christians too, were saying that God sends the devil to tempt us.  Still today we can hear people excusing their own irresponsible behavior by saying:  “I can’t help it.  God made me this way.”  Even if God doesn’t make us do bad things, life can feel like ‘set up’ for the devil to trip us up.  Remember Job.



James, however, has a completely different view of trials and temptation.  When it comes to the issue of temptation, James does not start with the negative, but with a positive—a very big positive.  James sees a value in temptation because he believes we can resist and must overcome.  Just like trials can be a joy because they develop our character, James is suggesting that temptation can end up being a blessing of empowerment to us too. 

      Temptation becomes a blessing, James suggests, when we pass the test, which is how we positively face temptation—as a test.  When confronted as a test, overcoming temptation proves who we are and who we can become.  This development in our Christian identity becomes the value of a test.  When we pass or stand the test, James says we will receive the crown of life which God has promised those who love him.   

         The crown of life James refers is not a literal crown, but a rich, figurative symbol of personal and spiritual achievement.  James is referring to our God-given ability to overcome the negatives that may pull against us in life. Obtaining a crown may symbolize what the love of God should mean for us in life, here and now.  God wants us to conquer our lesser desires and inclinations so that we can become our best and be at our best by living in the wisdom and strength of God.    In the temptations that are accepted as tests which come, the empowering and redeeming love of God points us forward toward the purposes and promises God reveals to us.           

Now, this is quite a different perspective on temptation is it not?  The blessing of enduring and passing the test of temptation has a very big pay off.  This is a counter-intuitive perspective, is it not?  While Jesus taught us to pray not to be lead into temptation, James says enduring temptation can be beneficial.  Now, certainly James is not actually contradicting Jesus nor going as far as to say that we should want to be tempted, but James is still looking at things quite differently.  Why would James take such a positive, even seemingly outlandish view?

         Perhaps it will help us to reflect a moment on the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  Scripture says, in the gospel of Matthew, that Jesus was led by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil.  You remember the story how after fasting for over a month, Jesus was tempted in three different ways.  He was tempted to break his fast by turning stones into bread.  Jesus was then tempted to make a spectacular of himself by jumping off the top of the temple, forcing angels to save him.  Finally, the devil took Jesus on a high mountain offering Jesus rule over the world if he would bow down to the devil.  One thing you immediately notice is that these are not ordinary temptations to an ordinary person.  These are temptations to the vocation of the Son of God; tempting Jesus to abandon what the Father had sent him to do.  These are tests which prove whether of not Jesus is ready to answer his calling and fulfill his saving mission. 

     In a similar way, a recent modern writer reminded us in his very controversial novel, entitled The Last Temptation of Christ, that Jesus was probably not tempted only once but was constantly tested throughout his life and ministry.  Also, as his story suggested, Jesus was not just tempted in spiritual ways, but he also tested and tempted in very normal, everyday ways too.  What was so controversial about that novel was how the story  suggested Jesus was tempted to fall in love, get married, settle down and have a family.  What is a normal rite of passage for us, was a put up as a temptation to fail for Jesus. 

     The point both the gospel and the novel were both making is actually the same. At its core, temptation is about purpose.  God the Father sent  Jesus the Son to earth to fulfill a purpose.   For Jesus, and now, as James also suggests for us,  temptation assumes that God has purposes for us too.   That is what is can be positive about temptation.  Any kind of test that may or may not become a temptation for us to overcome, points to the purposes God has for us.



     Perhaps we can now see how James is headed in opposite direction that comedian Flip Wilson was headed.  James does not blame the devil, nor does he blame God for failing the test.  In fact, James concisely declares that God tempts no one to fail.  He informs us that Temptation is actually a test to prove whether or not we are on the right track in fulfilling the purpose of God in our lives.  In other words, tests only become temptations when we allow our own desires to overrule the purpose of God for our lives.  It only because of our own wayward human desires that the tests that could prove to empower us to achieve personal victory, become temptations that might entice us to sin, and even lead us to premature death.  He makes this point to call us to resist and overcome.     

         It is this final warning about deception that is so crucial.   James wants his readers to realize just how easily our own desires can lure us in, deceive us and transform a test that would empower us into a temptation that could lead us to sin, destruction, or even death.  The deadly deception is not in the test itself, but in the deceptiveness  of human desires.

         There is a powerful scene in the Netflix series The Crown, which loosely follows the recent history of the British Royal family.  In this particular episode the conflictive relationship between Lady Di and Charles is being dramatized.  Lady Dina is wanting out of the loveless relationship but the Queens husband, the Prince of Edinburgh reminds her that by agreeing to marry royalty, her life is no longer about her own personal happiness, but it is now about pleasing and protecting the reputation of the queen.  In fact, what the Prince was saying is that by following her desire to marry the heir to the throne she now loses her right to her own life. 

         Can you see how Lady Di’s predicament is explained as a result the lure of marrying a prince?   What must have at first seemed to be fairytale ended up as a nightmare.  This is the primrose path of human desire.  What began as enticement ended up conceiving a life of death for Diana.   For James, this is how our own desires can work against us.   It is not God who tempts us, but our own desires that lead us astray.                 



After this warning concerning desires, we come to the most important point James makes.  This is what James has been preparing his readers for all along.  He wants them to understand clearly the part God plays in the tests of life.   God is not the tempter, but God is the gift-giver—-the source light and goodness.  Can you see?  Here we come to the purpose behind everything.  This purpose is the hope that truth will be born in us and that we can become who we have the potential to be.

When we realize the revelation of God as the giver of good gifts—this God is at work for our good, intending good purposes for--- we come to a faith no longer taken for granted in our very secular age.  How can we still trust in the good purposes of God in a world that is not always good, when even faith can seem disappointing and deficient in a world now dominated by science and reason?

After several school shootings, popular Christian writer Philip Yancey wrote a book telling of his visits to many of those schools and talking to students who kept asking him one question over and over.   These traumatized students were not largely doubting the existence of God, but they kept asking him over and over this haunting question: ‘What good is God?’That question haunted Yancey so much that it eventually became the title a book where he tells the story of asserting Gods goodness youth who could no longer could understand how God mattered.  In other words, if God does not stop bad things from happen, what good is this God?

      As we know, this same attitude of questioning the validity of having faith in God is growing today, even in some Christian circles.   I recently read about a church in Charlotte made up of people who come together to live good, moral, lives, but they no longer see any reality to God.  Jesus, along with Paul, Moses, Abraham, Mohammed, Ghandi and Buddha too, are understood by them as having been good, passionate, moral and religious leaders.  While they did good in their culture and understanding,  they did not have the vantage point we have and were mistaken about the existence of God or the need for religious faith.  Just like the Greeks projected their experiences upon mythical gods, religions, including Christianity too, project hopes and wishes onto an idea of deity which is impossible to maintain in our time.  All that really matters is the moral good we envision and practice.

While there are philosophical and theological responses to such questions, I think the place to start with this understanding of this God is revealed as the Father of Lights.  Yes, God is a Father, James affirms, but God is the spiritual source and giver of the light of spiritual and moral truth which continues to flow into our lives.   While there are so many amazing gadgets and gifts of human advancement we have in our high tech world, the issue we still face, perhaps more than ever, is will we use them to enhance our lives, or will we destroy ourselves with some of them?   

This is what James is reminding us with this entire discussion of temptation.   When left alone only with our own desires, James says, we can become our own worst enemies.  Without the goodness of God and the source of light and truth,  when human desires conceive and give birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, sin gives birth to death.   That is the unfolding chain reaction of a life that loses its moral foundation and source of spiritual light.

During the COVID pandemic, as you know, there were all kinds of confusion about the transmission and severity of the virus.  Especially in America, where we highly value individual belief and freedom, sometimes we end up preferring our own versions of the truth.  While there, of course, is great value in freedom, even freedom must be guided by truth.  But who finally decides what the truth is and what the truth means?  Here, I am reminded of some political wisdom, Teresa’s high school civics teacher once gave her class:  Your freedom ends where my freedom begins. His point was that true freedom includes other responsibilities.  In other words, true freedom must consider and respond to truth outside of our own personal perspectives. 

What James affirms here is that this God of Israel is calling us through our own God given freedoms to choose the good.   This good is revealed to us through the light, the truth and the purposes that God has revealed to us through his law, his love, his mercy and his grace.  How do we know this light is true?  How do we know this God still matters?  Well, you cannot know God unless God reveals himself.   We do not determine the truth of God through any kind of human reason or logic.   Since this God is from above--- or from beyond all human ideas or concepts, the true God can only be fully known by deciding, in our freedom, to live in the light of his love and truth.   His truth is proven in us when we endure temptation and stand the test our hearts open up to the promise of his love.   Amen.    

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