Last Sunday’s’ Gospel passage from Luke is about Jesus in the wilderness facing various temptations.
My grandfather was quite fond of telling folk that he could “resist everything except temptation…”
The very strange and factual reality is that in the last hundred or so years we have developed an industry and an economic system based on temptation. If you don’t believe me look at the ads on TV or magazines, the ads on Facebook and the internet. Allure and temptation abound. Here in Jeffersonville Warren & Jill Schimpff have an exhaust fan that blows some of the delectable odors from their candy making outside the shop as an enticement (a fancy word for temptation) for people to come into the store to try some of their tempting confections.
Temptation is at the root of much of the spam you receive regularly in your email. And particularly the email that tells you that of all the people in the United States YOU have been selected to help this poor soul thousands of miles away who has to get hundreds of thousands of dollars out of their country because of unscrupulous people – And that they will happily share it with you. Why? Because your reputation is obviously an international one for goodness and honesty. But to get all this tempting lucre you must provide them with a little information so they can transfer it to your bank account… Temptation…is a very familiar experience for us.
Luke tells us that Jesus, after his baptism by John the baptizer, is led by the Spirit to the wilderness. He leaves that powerful experience where he has accepted this ministry of teaching, word and witness – by crossing the Jordan river and reentering the promised land – an action which is blessed by his hearing the words “this is my son – the beloved…”
From there the Spirit led Jesus directly into the wilderness…a place of testing. When I hear that there is a part of me that wants to yell “Jesus, Don’t go there! What are you thinking?”
Why? Because generally we do not like temptation. It plays on and reveals our weaknesses. We see temptation as evil or at least a bit shady. Yet this Gospel passage seems to be telling us that temptation is neutral. What is judged is the intent of the tempter, and the response of the one being tempted.
For 40 days he was tempted… 40 days is biblical language for “ a very long time”. Not everything can be solved in 55 minutes with time out for commercials and station identification… sometimes life presents us with situations that call for us to be in it for the long haul.
Note also that the temptations are at the core simple things…basic things. They begin “IF you are the son of God” calling into question identity… perhaps even bringing up the implication “and who do you think you are…?” Temptation may trigger a form of doubt… “Am I the person I think and hope that I am? Can I really be and do that for which I feel called?” We have all heard these sorts of nagging voices whispering in our minds and eroding our resolve.
At the end of the lengthy time examining his call and the path he was to take Jesus was famished.. and the tempter says “IF you are the son of God command this stone to become a loaf of bread…” In other words Take care of your self – use the power you have been given for yourself and your needs… besides it will be a good show, and you easily attract followers through bribery by providing what they want.” It’s all about wants…
Reaching deeply into the scripture that formed him Jesus refuses quoting Deuteronomy.
Then Jesus is shown all the kingdoms of the world and is offered all the power and authority of them – and all it takes is the bending of the knee to the adversary… “Raw power can get people to do as you say. You’ll get followers all right – if they know what is good for them” Again Deuteronomy provides the words for Jesus refusal to worship power…
The next temptation is one of spectacle… throwing himself off the pinnacle of the temple to be rescued and brought safely to earth by the angels… what we would understand a huge media event – impressing people enough to have them clamor to be seen with him and known as a friend. Again Deuteronomy provides the words for his refusal.
In one sense we really do not have to worry about these temptation because we know we are not the Messiah, We can’t make stone into bread; we won’t be offered all the kingdoms of the world, and If we jump there is no promise of angels protecting us from harm. The problem is that if we see it that way we are looking down the wrong end of the telescope.
All of these temptations are one that have to do with ego… with that oh so American sense of individualism. Everyone of these is a temptation to use what has been given for a selfish or distorted purpose… primarily to satisfy MY needs and desires, to impress others about who I AM and what I CAN DO. Each of Jesus’ refusals has Jesus pointing beyond himself to the purpose and will of God… and Jesus defers to that purpose and will rather than succumb to that which would temporarily bolster his ego and take him off the path that would lead to Easter.
What does Jesus do when he leaves the wilderness? He goes to the shore of the Galilee and begins to call his disciples. He chooses the way of community, of sharing and of relationship – rather than the way of the solitary ego. He called disciples, who made disciples, who made disciples…. Until after generations we were called to be disciples in a Christian community. And part of our call is to share the story of our faith – the story of our temptations, our failures, the grace we have found that has become our rock and the source of our ability to look beyond just ourselves to work for the common good and the recreation of the world of as God would have it. And that grace is not always found within ourselves.
Soon after Nancy had been hired as the organist of the parish where we met a situation arose with the choir – they did not like Ed who joined the choir. He was different – a different background, a somewhat different understanding of faith and community – they wanted him to leave their choir. It became messy and I as the pastor was brought in. I know that the choir in any congregation is a committed and strong group of people – some were also leaders and members of the board. I am not proud that I was tempted to give in to the choir. But in conversation with Nancy I realized that she was sure I would do the right thing and oppose their desire to arbitrarily ask him to leave. The grace of God was communicated to me through our newly appointed musician and that assisted me to navigate the tricky politics of this situation. The call for justice, compassion and welcome combined with Nancy’s assumption that I would not cave in supported me in what I knew I ought to do and thus I was able to do it. (As a footnote – 10 years later Ed was himself in the leadership of the parish – an elected position – voted into leadership by some who 10 years before had wanted him gone…)
We must be careful though. Luke ends this passage with a line that is haunting. “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time…” Note the demon does not depart permanently – it is a skirmish that was won – not the war. We only resist temptation we don’t beat it on one occasion for all time. There will be other encounters, other struggles in various different ways and disguises… but always there is grace for us to resist… the stories of faith give us the ability. We learn that we are not alone for the community of faith is there to strengthen and support us. And in our resisting temptation, resisting the possibilities that are less good or even evil we turn to God – leaning on everlasting arms to help us and guide us to be the people God sees in us.
My grandfather may not have been able to resist another piece of candy, his beloved fried Spam sandwiches, or the last piece of pie… but those are not the temptations that really matter – in his life, or mine or yours. Jesus called a community of disciples to into being so that we can learn from, strengthen and support one another as we slowly become the people God has created us to be – and to do what God call us to be – his eyes, and hands, and feet and caring bringing hope and healing to people who need Good News.