preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 18
February 2018 by the Rev. Ewing W. [Bud] Carroll, Jr. The
scripture readings that day were Genesis 9:8-17; I Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15.
You may have heard the story about a young man who came to Hong Kong to
work, leaving his girlfriend behind in the Philippines. Soon after his arrival, she began texting him
asking if he still loved her. She had
heard about all the beautiful and available young women in Hong Kong: Filipino, Thai, Indonesian and Southern Asian
domestic workers; women from Africa, many local women and hundreds from
Mainland China. The woman began to doubt
her boyfriend’s loyalty to her; but he regularly told her, “Don’t worry; it’s very, very tempting, but I
am only faithful to you.”
A few weeks later, he received a small package from her: a harmonica and a note. The note said, “I'm sending this harmonica so you can take your mind off all those
pretty girls.” He replied, “Thanks so much. I’m learning to play the harmonica. Don’t worry.
I practice every night and think only about you.”
That Christmas he returned to the Philippines for the holidays. When he saw his girlfriend waiting for him at
the airport, he hurried to her, anxious to hug and kiss her. “Wait a
minute,” she said. “First I want to hear you play that harmonica.”
The Gospel story about Jesus’ temptation is found in Matthew, Mark and
Luke. Today’s passage from Mark is
briefer than the other two, which include the part about turning stones into
bread. Mark tells us Satan tempted Jesus for forty days in the wilderness.
During that time Jesus fasted and ate nothing.
If like us, there were probably times when he thought, ”I’m so hungry I could eat a bear.” There
were probably times when he thought the idea of turning stones into bread
probably sounded pretty good. Well, he
didn’t have a harmonica to practice. But
despite all the temptations he faced, Jesus remained loyal and faithful to God.
Some people believe God intentionally puts temptations in our way; like
broken glass in front of our feet; that God tries every mean or cruel way
possible to test our loyalty and faithfulness.
I don’t buy such views for a minute!
I simply cannot think of God acting in such an unloving and unkind way.
But let’s be clear: Life is full of temptations. However, temptation alone is neither sinful
nor bad. In fact, many times temptation
can help strengthen our character; feed our souls; and nourish our spirits. The question is not ”Why are there temptations in life?”
Rather, ”How do we deal with
them?” Do our temptations become tragedy or triumph?
On this first Sunday of Lent, Christ invites us to find ways to
strengthen our loyalty and faithfulness to God.
Throughout our Lenten journey; no matter what kinds of temptations come
our way; whatever wildernesses we find ourselves in, we hope and pray they will
lead to Triumph, not Tragedy. How might
we best do this? Let me share two possibilities, two words.
First – the word identity. One cold winter afternoon I was walking down
a small back lane in Xian, China. The
sun was about to set. Two little boys
passed by; arm in arm, on their way home from school. They were laughing and talking with one
another. Suddenly, they stopped and
turned around and one boy shouted to the other, “Look, there’s a foreigner.”
I jokingly replied, “No, little
friends. I’m not a foreigner. I’m an
American. You guys are foreigners to me.”
Then the one who shouted to his friend, straightened his back, looked up
at me and proudly said, ”I am not a
foreigner. I’m Chinese. Stupid.”
He was correct on both counts: I was stupid and he clearly knew who he
How many of you have a Hong Kong I.D. card? Are you like me, and on one
or two occasions lost it? You may have
lost your card, but you never lose your identity.
Jesus knew who he was. He already knew the pain and agony of the
Cross were ahead of him. He knew that in
God’s power, he could turn stones into
bread. But he also knew the difference
between evil temptation and Godly encouragement. Like Jesus, we need to be clear about our own
identity: both who we are and whose we are. In the face of temptation – of whatever kind,
we need to remember – we belong to God. Human hunger, of whatever kind can best
be satisfied by feasting on the Bread of God’s abiding love; not by stones of
selfishness, personal power, spiritual indifference or feelings of pride and
Secondly, the word trust. Today’s passage from Genesis is a
beautiful example of trust. Thanks to modern technology [just joking!], I’ve
been able to translate some of Noah’s conversation with God: “God,
you want me to do what? Select some
animals and put them on a boat that I’m supposed to build? “That’s
right.” “Lord, I can’t even swim, much less build a boat.” “Hmmm. Have
you ever tried?” “And keep the
windows closed for 40 days? I know you
created everything, but do you remember what it would smell like after 40
days?” “Noah, I’m not talking about your nose, I’m focusing on your ears. Listen to what I’m commanding you to do. Trust me.
Just forget about the boat, floods, stinky animals and Noah’s alleged
age. Focus on the Rainbow! The writers of Genesis were trying to remind
Israel – and us – about the importance, joy and beauty of trusting God.
An old African folk story tells how ostriches came to have long
necks. One day, a crocodile saw an
ostrich walking along a riverbank. Then
ostriches had short necks. The crocodile
was hungry and thought the ostrich would make a delicious lunch. The crocodile told the ostrich, ”I have a toothache and need your help. Maybe you could look inside my mouth to see
what’s the problem.”
Many other animals had warned the ostrich, “Don’t ever trust a crocodile.”
But not trusting their wisdom, experience and judgment, the ostrich
stuck its head into the crocodile’s mouth.
The crocodile quickly closed its jaws and the two struggled and
struggled. The crocodile’s teeth were
strong and powerful. The ostrich pulled
and pulled, trying to get it’s head and neck out. Eventually, the crocodile was so tired; it
gave up and let the ostrich go. But by
that time, the ostrich’s neck had stretched longer than a bamboo pole.
Jesus not only knew that he belonged to God, but he trusted God. He understood
that regardless of whatever difficulties or struggles he faced, he was in God’s hands.
In my native land of America, February is celebrated as Black History
Month: a time to recall both the sweet
and sour ways white Americans treated persons of black African heritage; to
commemorate the richness of their cultures and their own contributions to the
Marian Anderson was a renowned opera singer in the latter half of the 20th
Century. Sadly, because she was black,
she was not welcome to perform in America’s opera houses. She gained her fame
in Europe’s opulent opera halls. Towards
the end of her career, her manager tried to book a performance in Washington,
D.C.’s Constitution Hall. [I believe still owned and operated by the Daughters
of The Confederacy.] The Hall’s white manager replied, ”No black person will ever perform in this Hall as long as I’m the
manager.” Interestingly, Anderson probably remains most remembered for her
renditions of “He’s Got the Whole World
in His hands”! Anderson was clear about her identity as a Black woman and
popular opera singer. She also knew she
belonged to God and despite all the unkind injustices thrown her way, she
trusted fully in God’s love.
If you think there are no temptations in life, you’re like a short or
long necked ostrich! Life is not, as an
old song says, ”Just a bowl of cherries;
so live and laugh at it all.” We face
numerous temptations every day. And
while God doesn’t promise safety or protection from these difficulties, Lent is
a time to more intentionally, more willingly and more joyfully place our lives
in God’s hands. In both prayer and
action to say/do, ”Lead us not into
temptation” and “Your will be done.” By trusting God, we
too can turn our temptations from possible tragedy into joyful triumph.
By the way-how long is YOUR neck?