The Foundation of Desire

tickle me elmo

THE FOUNDATION OF DESIRE

 

2 SAMUEL 11:1-5

 

MATTHEW 5:27-30

 

December 15, 1996. It was a dark day in American history. A madness had swept over our nation. It was the clearest sign of America’s moral corruption and decline since the sexual revolution. The nation saw people in mass exchanging traditional family values for an orgy of red fluff and a squeaky laughter.

Of course, I am talking about the rise of the red menace, the rise of the children’s doll Tickle Me Elmo. To quote a 2010 Time news article that remembered this dark period in America’s history, “Released by Tyco Toys in 1996, Tickle Me Elmo delighted children with its ability to giggle and vibrate with laughter. What wasn’t quite as funny was how seriously parents took their quest to snag one. The toy was so hard to find around the holidays that year that even after a million units had been shipped, stores sold out in minutes; early buyers began reselling the doll at prices up to $2,000. Said one seller: ‘If people are idiotic enough to pay that kind of money for a doll that cost $29 at Target, then I’m enough of an idiot to sell it to them.’ Scuffles ensued when shipments arrived in stores; one employee at a New Jersey Walmart was tackled by about 300 customers on Dec. 15, 1996, while holding up the store’s lone remaining Elmo. (He suffered a broken rib and a concussion.) While spin-offs inevitably hit the market — including Tickle Me Cookie Monster, Big Bird and Ernie — none of the imitations could capture Elmo’s appeal.”

By now, I hope you realize that I am toying with you. I am not actually going to preach a sermon on how Tickle Me Elmo threatened to destroy America. I was just trying to lighten the mood a bit since last week we talked about anger and this week we are talking about lust. Surely, today’s passage deals with lust, our inner thoughts, and adultery. But I think the Tickle Me Elmo story illustrates that lust can be a corrupting force, even when it is over something like a silly little children’s toy like Tickle Me Elmo.

The Greek word for lust in this passage is epithymia. The word, like many Greek words, consists of two parts. Epi, meaning “focused on,” and thymos, which means “desire.” Literally, the word means passion built on strong desire. The foundation of desire, in the case of lust, is a possessive and controlling emotion.

In today’s passage, Jesus directly quotes Exodus 20:14’s and Deuteronomy 5:17’s prohibitions against adultery. But the Old Testament passages were admittedly focused on the idea that adultery was wrong because the woman was the man’s property. As the Pillar New Testament Commentary on Matthew points out, the cultural expectation at the time would be that men would be allowed to sleep around, as long as they did not do it with another man’s wife, while women were expected to be pure and chaste. Frankly, the same double standard sort of sticks around in today’s culture. But in this passage, Jesus reveals the true meaning of the commandment not to covet. The commandment is not about women as property, but about the desires of our hearts. It applies to both men and women, but since men were the ones that benefited from the double standard, Jesus focuses on them. Jesus tells us that our response to lust must be drastic. He uses graphic metaphorical language: the cutting off of the right hand, the plucking out of the right eye. Mark uses this same language to talk about sin in general, though Matthew uses it to talk about sexual sin in particular. The Pillar New Testament Commentary tells us that in Middle Eastern culture back then, and even today, the right hand was seen to be clean, the favored hand, and the left was seen to be dirty, the hand you used to do, well, unpleasant but necessary things. The right eye was seen to be the dominant eye when you used a bow and arrow to hunt or wage war. Thus, what Jesus is saying is, it is better to cut off the best parts of your personality, what you consider to be the best part of your life, then to let your whole being be cast into hell. As the Pillar New Testament Commentary puts it, “This vivid imagery emphasizes the crucial importance of taking whatever measures are necessary to control natural passions that tend to flare out of control.”

Money, sex, and power. We see the convergence of the three in our Old Testament reading, the story of David and Bathsheba. David had all three. The scripture’s teachings on monogamy and fidelity were not really emphasized at that time, especially for the rich and powerful. David had several wives, he ruled at the height of Israel’s power, he was probably the richest man in the kingdom. He didn’t need to sleep with Bathsheba. He did so because he could. He did so, not because he loved her, but because he desired to have her at the expense of another. So powerful was his lust that the story will later tell us that he sent Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, to the front lines of battle, to certain death. David was not only an adulterer, he was a murderer. And yet, David was a man, whom the Scriptures say, after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). From the line of David would also come Jesus, our Messiah, our Lord, God incarnate, the Word made flesh. This shows us that God can indeed create beauty from ashes, that he can indeed work all things together for good for those who love him and are ordained to his purposes. But I think we would all agree that we would prefer our lives not be reduced to ashes. We would prefer to have a passion in our hearts, like the fire of the burning bush, a fire that burns bright but does not consume us. But often, the opposite happens. As James 1:14-15 declares, “but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with strong desire, even of a sexual nature. No one goes through life wanting to give up their dreams, wanting to settle for a marriage or relationship that is just functional, wanting their church to simply continue on till it fades away. The church hasn’t done a good job of dealing with passion and desire. We shun it, rather than honestly talking about it. And it is in the darkness that lust takes root and produces a false light to lead us to ragged cliffs of temptation that tear us apart. As Richard Foster, author of, Money, Sex, And Power, points out, “There is, of course, a proper place in Christian life and experience for money, sex, and power. When properly placed and effectively functioning, they have the ability as nothing else does to enhance and bless life” (Foster, pg 12). However, as Foster argues, the demon of money is greed. To quote Foster, “Nothing can destroy human beings like the passion to possess. In The Idiot, Dostoevsky has one of his characters observe, ‘Everyone is possessed with such a greed nowadays, they are all so overwhelmed by the idea of money that they seem to have gone mad’” (Foster, pg 13).

The demon of sex is lust. To quote Foster, “True sexuality leads to humanness, but lust leads to depersonalization. Lust captivates rather than emancipates, devours rather than nourishes” (Foster, pg 13).

The demon of power is pride. To quote Foster, “True power has as its aim to set people free, whereas pride is determined to dominate. True power enhances relationships; pride destroys them” (Foster, 13).

You know, back in seminary, we used to have a yearly formal dance called the “Calvin Ball,” after John Calvin, one the founders of the Reformed branch of Christianity, of which the Presbyterian Church is a part. Now you might be thinking, “Well, pastor, that sounds pretty dorky,” and you would be right. But to be fair, in seminary, everything is dorky, there are just degrees of dorkiness. Anyway, my last year in seminary, I got elected as Mr. Total Depravity, sort of our version of King of the Prom. Our queen was called Ms. Irresistible Grace. I know we have moved from the realm of temptation and sex to dorkiness and awkward seminary students, but bear with me. You see, the King and Queen of our prom were named after Reformed theological doctrines. Total Depravity is the idea that we as human beings are sinful and cannot save ourselves, we cannot even bring ourselves to believe without the help of the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of Irresistible Grace basically says that once God calls you, nothing can stop God from getting to you.

I was elected Mr. Total Depravity, not so much because I did horrible stuff; those of you who know me know I am not exactly the rebel without a cause type. Instead, I really believed that despite all my efforts to achieve and be good, that nothing, absolutely nothing could sustain me but God’s Grace. That even the good son sins because he is not willing to celebrate the return of the prodigal and because he doesn’t know the character of His Father, a Father, a God, who is more than willing to give every good gift, everything we need, though certainly not everything we may want. And I confess, that even I, in my own way, have walked down the road of lust and found it wanting. Even I have pursued that passion that went out of control and left my life burnt to ashes.

Of course, our response, when our life falls to pieces, when we bear the wages of our sin, and after we honestly repent, is to go the other way, to deny ourselves, to punish ourselves, to never forgive ourselves, to never dare to trust again, to never dare believe that we could truly love someone for their own sake. But as C.S Lewis put in his profound essay, The Weight of Glory, “The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promise of reward and staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half hearted creatures fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased” (Lewis, 1-2).

My friends let us not settle today. Let us not settle for a life ruled by passion or devoid of passion. Let us not settle for a family that is functional but not fervent with love for one another. Let us not settle for a church that worships God with our minds, but is so afraid of change and passion that we leave our bodies and our Spirits at the door. My friends, a foundation built on strong desire will never be strong enough to sustain our hearts, to keep our hearts from corruption. For when the flood comes, and our foundations are lain bare, we will admit that despite our success, despite the courage of our convictions, it is not too far to fall. We know that Christ is the true cornerstone. And upon him, and him alone, we can build a firm foundation for our desire.

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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