A sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, March 5, 2017. The lectionary readings are Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19, and Matthew 4:1-11.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
Evelyn Underhill has suggested that “No Christian escapes a taste of the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land.” (Fruits of the Spirit). No Christian escapes a “taste of the wilderness,” not even, it seems, Christ himself.
We all get a taste of the wilderness, I think, because, we make our way to the Promised Land, not as saints, not as perfect beings like angels or superheroes. But we all get a taste of the wilderness because we make our way to the Promised Land as ourselves—our broken but trying-our-best selves. And along the way, in the wilderness, we face temptations that are personal. We are tempted by things that are within our reach. The things that most tempt me most are not only things that I might want, but also, they’re usually things that, with the right shift of resources and energy, I can have. For example, I’m not tempted to stop what I’m doing and pursue my golf as a full-time career— I’m not very good at golf, and it’s not in any way within reach. But if you caught me after a long week, feeling sorry for myself, and you suggested I might make a bundle in advertising, or public relations—that might be tempting. It would be tempting because, given the right circumstances, those other things might conceivably be within reach.
What made the temptations alluring for Jesus was precisely that they fell within the range of what he could have done and could have had.
Scripture tells us that Jesus, being full of the Holy Spirit, is led into the wilderness for forty days. He fasts, and because he is human as well as full of God, he gets hungry. The devil appears to him and says “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” The devil has good insight: surely if Jesus is of the God who parted the seas, who made manna fall in the desert and who enabled Jesus to be born to begin with, then a little magic trick with rocks into bread should be no problem.
Next the devil takes Jesus to the highest pinnacle of the temple and taunts him with the psalm that promises the safety of angels’ wings. Again, it must have been tempting, but again, Jesus quotes scripture to the devil.
Finally, the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain and promises him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor—but there’s one little detail: Jesus just needs to bow down and worship the devil. I can imagine the devil saying, “It’s just pro forma, really, just to fulfill the contract, a show of allegiance, a symbolic act—it doesn’t really mean anything. Don’t overthink this.” And again, for Jesus, it must have been tempting. Perhaps it even could have sounded like it might fit within God’s will. Especially with the disciples constantly suggesting to Jesus that his could be a worldly kingdom, Jesus must have wondered. But again, Jesus quotes scripture back at the devil, and the devil goes away. For now, at least.
The orthodox Christian understanding of Jesus is that has two natures: one divine and one human, and somehow through the miracle of God, both natures are full and complete. Jesus is fully human, and I love that, because that’s the part I can relate to so easily. I think Jesus must have been tempted a lot. At least, as I read the scriptures and imagine my human response to some of the situations he encountered, I certainly would have been tempted. When he was confronted by the Pharisees in their tedious arguments over the jot and tittle of the law—don’t you think Jesus might have been tempted to really let them have it—to level them with an argument so astounding that it would make them cry, or simply to have the building fall on them and be done with them? When the people were always wanting quick miracles, easy answers and immediate healings, don’t you think Jesus, at some point, was tempted to respond with impatience or exhaustion or in some other all-too-human way?
And yet, in the face of each temptation, Jesus makes a choice. And he chooses towards God.
Temptation is like that for us, as well—it always asks us to choose.
D.T. Niles was a twentieth century Sri Lankan theologian who suggests that temptation really comes down to our making a choice between God (with a big “G”) and every other god (with a little “g”). He writes, “The choice between God and every other god is a real choice. Both make promises, both demand loyalty. It is possible to live by both. If there were no real alternative to God, then all humanity would choose God.”
God asks that we live by faith—to be connected to him, to be in a relationship with him, to be alive in him. Faith in God, then—even floundering faith or doubting faith or here-today-gone-tomorrow faith gives us the presence of God today, and we will have what we need. Faith tomorrow will take care of tomorrow, and so on for the next day, and the next day, and the next. Other gods promise things they can’t deliver, like immediate results or a kind of spiritual scam for the future, with the empty promise that if we accumulate and hoard today, we’ll be happy another day.
Each of the temptations the devil puts to Jesus has to do with immediate things. You’re hungry? Then, let’s eat. You’re competent and smart—you shouldn’t let that talent go to waste, go into something where you can control people and get your way. Rise to the top. You should get what you deserve. The devil finally gets a little sloppy and desperate as he taunts, “why don’t you jump of this pinnacle and put God to the test, just test God and see if he’ll deliver you?”
Against the devil’s temptations of the immediate, the present and readily available, Jesus remains calm and speaks out of his own faith and experience in God. Jesus knows that God will provide bread in its time. He knows that God’s promise of the angels’ care is not meant as an instant solution to a random moment of whim. And Jesus knows that God is using his abilities and talents in a way that is appropriate to God’s will.
We should not think for a minute that the devil isn’t still around today. But instead of looking for a little red guy with a tail, often we should pay attention to what appears as light—but light that misleads or distracts. A key to dealing with temptation is to remember that one of the most powerful names of the devil is Lucifer, a word that comes from the Latin for “light.” It is the great trick of the devil to play on our humanity, so that when we are most vulnerable or most afraid of the dark, light presents itself. It’s natural for us to be drawn to the light—for brightness, for the good, the happy, the comfortable, all that enriches and assures and enlivens. But look around the edges of the light. What is its source? What is its intention? There is the possibility that what first appears to be light is only a flash that will lead us into deeper darkness. Temptation presents us always and everywhere with the choice between God and gods, sometimes experienced as the choice between true light and the false light made of bright, shiny things that are really just reflections or distortions of light.
The season of lent invites us to think about the choices we make. It invites us to work on our skills in discerning the difference between God and gods, between light and shiny things. (As the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book this year reminds us, “What we see we value.” So we should practice seeing like Jesus.)
Spiritual disciplines help us to do this. The church reminds us of classic spiritual disciplines such as spiritual reading or meditating on scripture, praying in a new way, saving money for a particular project or cause and giving it, fasting (whether that means giving up a particular food or drink, or fasting in a more creative way—avoiding waste, or limiting the use of water or plastic or gasoline.)
Other things might easily become spiritual disciplines to clarify and steady: a daily walk, a time of reading or sitting still or writing in a journal. All of these, almost anything, really, if given over to God, if done with intention and mindfulness and a willingness to be used by God, can become spiritual disciplines to sharpen us and help us know when we’re being tempted. They help us focus. They bring clarity.
As we move through these forty days together, let Lenten disciplines inform us, shape us, clean us and put us at peace.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen