He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, *
abides under the shadow of the Almighty.
2 He shall say to the Lord,
“You are my refuge and my stronghold, *
my God in whom I put my trust.”
A young boy had gone off to his Sunday Morning class where he heard the story about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness that we read this morning from Luke’s Gospel. When he rejoined his family and had a moment to catch his mother’ ear, he asked her, “Hey Mom, what do you know about the devil?” The mother’s mind immediately raced to find the right response to this “teachable moment.” Should she respond with St. Augustine’s idea that evil comes when we willingly choose evil over the goodness that God intends for us? Should she answer with her own beliefs about evil and the devil? And then she gathered herself, realizing that her son was five years old.
So she asked him,” What do you know about the devil?”
“Well” he began, “the devil talks to Jesus and the devil was mean.”
And then leaning in close to his mother and speaking in a loud whisper he said, “If we were in a store and you and Dad were in one aisle and I was in another aisle, and… his whisper got even lower, “there was candy…” He paused for effect. “The devil would say, “You should take some!”
The mother, surprised by how much her young son had learned from this story, then asked him, “Honey, if we were at the store and Dad and I were in one aisle and you were in another aisle and there was candy and the devil said, “You should take some!” What would you say back to the devil?”
Temptation is a part of who we are. From the first moment we draw breath we have this niggling curiosity about what lies just beyond our grasp and maybe, just maybe it will be the ultimate source of joy, or knowledge, or satisfaction. I think this is why the story set in the Garden of Eden is so endlessly fascinating for us. Here Adam and Eve we are told have everything they could possibly desire. The temperature is always 76 degrees so clothing is optional. They have delicious food immediately at their grasp and they are surrounded with all created beauty. But temptation lands at their feet in the form of a talking snake. And all of a sudden, their curiosity leads them to take from the one tree that God has told them to avoid—the Tree of Knowledge or the Tree of Knowing Good and Evil. When they see it as forbidden, it has a draw like nothing else in the garden. And in their naiveté, they take a sample. Like the little boy in our story, they see the beautiful and forbidden fruit, and they say, “Thank you!”
Temptation is everywhere in our life. From the moment the alarm goes off in the morning and we are “tempted” to hit the snooze button again and again. To the late night temptations, a bowl of delicious ice cream and just one more hour of Midsomer Murders, or Grace and Frankie or Tidying Up knowing that we will regret all of this in the morning when we hit the snooze button again.
Of course there are different gradations of temptation. Some temptations are temporary and really only affect ourselves and those who must be around us when we are not at our best.
And there are temptations that cause us and even others great harm—
greed—taking much more than we need of money or material things, or power, or air or water, with no regard for how our actions hurt others;
infidelity—betraying the very ones who have given us the gift of walking this life alongside;
dishonesty—distorting the truth to meet our needs alone and using the vortex of lies to deceive and manipulate;
fear–vigilantly looking for ways that the world is working against our interests and seeing signs of treachery everywhere, particularly in the ones we decide to “scapegoat.” Temptations can grab hold and consume us, causing us to lose our souls as well as doing serious injury to our world.
There is one temptation that seems to be virulent right now—and that is the temptation to believe that you should be the next President of the United States. If any of you are considering throwing your hat into the presidential ring, I might have told you your chances were slim. But this week, I was visiting with Dan Tawczynski at Taft Farms and learned that the last President of the Republic of Texas, Anson Jones, was born right here in Great Barrington. So you might actually have as good a chance of being the next President as many who are currently in the race for 2020. But this is a decision with wide reaching consequences for countless others, so consider this temptation carefully.
In our reading today from Luke’s Gospel, we hear that Jesus fresh from his baptism and receiving his identity as God’s Beloved, is “filled with the Holy Spirit” and so enters into a time of learning what it will mean to fulfill the ministry he has been given.
We are told that he is met by evil, personified as the “devil,” in the wilderness. After 40 days of fasting, Jesus is desperately hungry and so it would be easy for him to give in to the temptations the devil offers. “Turn this stone into bread so you can eat and be satisfied.” But Jesus understands that life is more than food. And so through the word of God, found in the scriptures that he has heard and ingested since his childhood, Jesus responds, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 “one does not live by bread alone.” Bread is good, but miracles will not define Jesus’ mission.
The devil then shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and offers them to him if he would only worship or honor the devil, the representationof evil. Remembering that at the time, most of the world was under the tyrannical economic, administrative, and militaristic hand of Rome, so taking charge and removing the corruption and oppression might seem to be good. But Jesus recognizes the lie and refuses, responding from the She’ma Israel (Deuteronomy 6:13), “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” Authority belongs only to God.
Finally, the devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple in Jerusalem and then using even more tools at his disposal, employs scripture to tempt Jesus to throw himself to the ground to prove that God will protect the righteous. Quoting a passage from our Psalm for today. “For he shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways. They shall bear you in their hands, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” (Psalm 91:11-12). It is a strong reminder that the Bible can be put to use to build a case for good and for evil. Again, Jesus responds with faithfulness to God. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Deut. 6:16)
Jesus filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, confident in God’s love, responds to each temptation with resolve and trust in God. This testing in the wilderness, helps Jesus know who he is and sets the stage for his ministry. Henri Nouwen writes, “Jesus’ temptations in the desert, are temptations to move him away from his core identity. He was tempted to believe he was someone else: You are the miracle worker who can turn stone into bread. You are the one who can jump from the temple without harm. You are the one who can make others bow to your power. Jesus said, ‘No, no, no. I am the beloved of God.’ I think his whole life is a continual claiming of that identity in the midst of everything.”
From here he will go to Nazareth where he tells those gathered in the synagogue that his ministry will be to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s mercy (favor).” Though the devil is far from finished with him, Jesus will find his identity and his strength in God.
What does this story offer us in our time of both small and large temptations? If we see Jesus’ time in the wilderness as a time when he was tempted to forget his identity as the Beloved of God, what does this mean for us as we enter into this holy time of Lent? Can we use this time to practice those things that remind us that we are God’s Beloved children? Can we make time to care for ourselves, nourish ourselves, spend time in the quiet space of God’s love? Can we see Lent as a time when we begin to remove the clutter, the distractions, those things that we had hoped but failed to fill the God-shaped space in our lives?
It is important to know that we don’t do this alone. God loves us and will keep loving us no matter what we do or fail to do. And in this truth we can rest in the reality that we are and have enough. God has promised to give us what we need for abundant life. And God is good, all the time! All the time, God is good! This is something we all need to be reminded of in the face of so many contrary messages.
We walk with others who need to remember who we truly are and to whom we truly belong. We come to church to be reminded of, and given again, our identity as beloved children of God. In the face of so many temptations and false promises, we come together in worship and fellowship to have that identity renewed and restored so we might live in the confidence of God’s abundant life and share with those around us this Good News of God’s unending love.
We cannot avoid the many temptations that are regularly thrown in our path. We are curious creatures. We want to know what is just beyond that might be the answer to our needs, desires, and dreams. And we know that these needs, desires, and dreams are researched, quantified, targeted, inflated, managed and manufactured by many in our culture.
But even in the face of this seductive machine–even in the face of choices that do not give us life– we are invited to remember that we are God’s beloved. And holding close to this truth, we can be guided in what we choose to fill the empty spaces in our lives. Following Jesus, we can remember that only God’s love can truly quench our hunger and our thirst.
In this first week of Lent, think on what truly gives you life. God hears our voices and sees our needs. God holds us and responds with great compassion. Remember that Jesus “filled with the Holy Spirit” was not an isolated incident nor a temporary truth, but a once and for all time reality. It is for us as well. We are created in God’s image and seen as “very good”, a promise that has been for God’s people since the beginning and always will be.
How much this love satisfies is so much beyond temporary treats or destructive choices. It calls us to new life, to a life that is abundant. In this time of Lent, may we make space to see this truth, to remember our Belovedness, and to take time to say, “Thank you!”