First Sunday in Lent, Year A, RCL
Most Christian art depicts today’s passage of Christ’s temptation in a scene where Christ stands with the Devil. The Devil is pictured as a human-like figure with horns and often having wings. Due to the way the story is written, I’d imagine that many of us picture this story in a similar, literal way. Yet other artist chose to depict the Devil in this story more like a shadowy figure. It’s hard to tell if they are really there in physical form or a bit more ethereal. I wonder if this less tangible form maybe more realistic. After all, when we think of our own temptations, I’d imagine that we don’t see a flaming red Devil with a pitchfork and a pointy tail as the one who is tempting us.
The Devil is more in our mind than physically present. The Devil, in this case, is the voice of temptation, not a grotesque figure standing in front of you. But let us imagine, for a moment, that the voice of temptation is a Devil like figure. Wouldn’t you be more likely to reject the words from a great horned beast standing in front of you then the same words coming from within ourselves; coming from our own voice? Personally, I think I would take one look at the beast and know that I should not do what he says and I expect that each of you would feel the same way. My guess is that this was true for Jesus as well. The Devil was not physically in front of him even if he was present in some other way.
Temptations come in a variety of forms. Temptations are not all the same. I could be tempted to eat a bag of chips while watching TV. Giving in to these temptations may disrupt my diet and if I give in to this temptation every night it may affect my long term health. But if this is just a onetime event and I give into the temptation to eat a bag of chips, then the result is relatively benign; no one is hurt in any way.
Then there are the things we are tempted to do that are obviously wrong; for someone along the way is likely to get hurt. Having an illicit relationship; ensuring a business deal by not telling the whole truth; fudge on our taxes, or to avoid the truth by lying. We know these temptations are obviously wrong and we know we would deserve the consequence when caught. Yet big or small, people give into such obvious temptations all the time.
Then we have the most sinister temptations. These are the temptations where we believe we are doing something benign or even for the good for others; yet we fail to recognize that there is an evil undercurrent. One of the most common in any organization is embezzlement. Most of the time when people embezzle money, they are not doing it with the intent of stealing. Often they have come into a situation in which they need a little extra money. Their intent is to give themselves a small loan and they have every intention to pay it back. Yet their situation doesn’t get better and they take a little more money and sooner or later they get caught. This person didn’t mean any harm and their motives were good, even if they were misguided and wrong.
In a similar vein, it’s possible, that the Devil wasn’t questioning Jesus' authority by saying “IF you are the son of God” do this or that. But instead, he bringing the temptation into a positive light by saying something to the effect “since you are the son of God, you obviously have the authority to turn these stones into bread. And since you are obviously famished, feed yourself; as it is only proper for someone of your position. This sounds a bit softer, and after all, what is wrong with feeding yourself? Like eating the chips in front of the TV, what harm can come from this? But Jesus knows that his fasting is important, it is something that the Spirit has led him to. Jesus knows that eating this bread is not what God wants. His hunger is less important than his desire to follow his father. So Jesus replies “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Then Jesus has another thought as the voice of the Devil whispers in his ear. Since you are the son of God – use your authority; jump and you will see that you are protected from harm. What is the harm in doing this? It almost seems like an act of faith. But we know, that Jesus knows, what is coming in his future; death by torture. Jesus doesn’t want this pain and suffering that is coming his way. After all, we see him in the Garden of Gethsemane asking for this cup to pass. Please don’t ask me to drink this cup of suffering and death. But we know what happens, he accepts God’s will. He accepts suffering and death.
Jesus knows that doing God’s will does not protect us from suffering and death. Actually, the opposite is true; God often asks us to do difficult things, things that may bring us ridicule, suffering, and even at times death. This is the truth for all of us. Doing God’s will often means self-sacrifice, giving of ourselves and of what we have. Sacrificial giving is difficult. We don’t want to suffer; we want God to protect us from the hardships of life. And because we know that God will not shield us from suffering, we, unlike Christ, reject the cup, and we try to protect ourselves by using others to make our lives easier. We stockpile resources to ensure our comfort. We take situations into our own hands to protect our lives. We ask doctors to do whatever is in their power to keep us alive. And yet Jesus says, “Not my will but yours” or today he says “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” We are to trust in the Lord even if the future looks dim.
Then Jesus hears a whisper in his head that says, you could reign over the entire world if you just compromise a tiny bit. Think of all the good you could do. If you just take control, you could end war. The temple in Jerusalem would never fall. People throughout the world would hear you, listen to you, and follow you. You could correct the injustice in the world. There would be peace; people would work to help each other. All you have to do is compromise your values just a little bit. Make a little deal with the Devil and the world would be a much, much better place.
We all want the world to be a better place yet this temptation seems so obvious. No one would knowingly make a deal with the Devil whether they he is physically present or not. But the truth is… we all make little deals with the devil. Every day we compromise our values. We compromise loving our neighbors as ourselves. We compromise as to who our neighbors are and what it means to love them. We compromise the meaning of love your enemies. And each time we give ourselves little advantages over others, or we are a little bit selfish, we compromise. Each time we compromise one of the values or laws that God set before us, we are making a little deal with the Devil. We are rejecting God’s authority for our own authority. We are saving ourselves instead of God saving us. And Jesus answers this temptation, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Temptations are a slippery slope. The more we give in to temptation the easier it gets to give in the next time. The more we feed our appetites and desires, the more we reject our Lord. In C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity, he says
“No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good… Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist.”
Lent offers us an opportunity to make an intentional effort to resist temptation. With a short amount of thought and prayer, we can begin to recognize the temptations we face each day. Even though we will always be tempted and we will often give in to temptation, we can build strength to resist it in the future. Christ knows what temptation is like. He was tempted in every way that we are and He is here for us, to forgive us of our failings, to pick us up and have us try again. For the Lord is our Salvation.
Mere Christianity, Book III, Chapter 11; C.S. Lewis