1st Sunday of Lent
The Temptations of Christ
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Jesus had been baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan River. A dove had descended from heaven and, our gospel today tells us, the Spirit filled Jesus. Then, like many who have been touched by the Spirit, he felt the need to go on retreat, to spend time in prayer. He went into the desert, alone.
After 5 1/2 weeks of fasting, he was weak, vulnerable. Various thoughts and voices assailed him about what it meant to be filled by the Spirit, to be touched by God. If he was - shudder to say it - the Messiah, then he might change the world. And he could do it with personal charisma, political strength, spiritual magic.
The story of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness has always, like all stories in the Bible, pointed to something universal, transcending the characters and places of their telling. The 3 temptations of Christ represent common temptations of humanity. Each of them says something basic about how we go astray.
The first of them is the temptation to “live by bread alone,” to live a purely materialist life. This may be the primary temptation of modern American life. We are inundated with messages to consume, to get the next, better version of everything we already own. We are duped into thinking that we can get all our external circumstances to go well for us, and that this will satisfy us.
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I visit there now, I enjoy many things about it: the beauty of the land, bay, ocean, city, and hills; the amazing food and beautiful gardens; the cornucopia of cafes, bookstores, and eccentric shops; the arts, music, and intellectual life.
But there is another part of me that is slightly sickened by all this. It is as if we’re all being lured into a delusion - that if we perfect our external life, if we make it really cool and trouble-free, we will achieve satisfaction and happiness. This is a lie.
Because after too long, we return to reality, to our feelings, our distracted mind, our relationships, our problems. And so an emptiness sets in, as if we’ve just been tricked into wasting our time. So we re-dedicate ourselves to the effort to find fulfillment out there somewhere, in the improvement of our external circumstances. It becomes an addictive circle.
God offers an alternative. It is not the negation of beauty or agreeable circumstances. It is the appreciation of them without attachment. It is the ability to move through them, knowing they are only temporary, being able to give it all away if needed. It is the willingness to live with our external difficulties and limitations, instead of seeing them as something unnatural and deficient. It is the knowledge that while material pleasure is something to savor and appreciate, it will not deliver deep and lasting satisfaction.
The second temptation of Christ is about power and control. The devil shows Jesus the kingdoms of the world and offers him all their glory, and authority over them. Now on one level, there is nothing inherently wrong with power and control.
I want to have some measure of power and control. When I’m sick, I want to understand what’s happening, to have the care I need, to gain mastery over what is trying to harm my body. When I’m threatened by an intrusive person, I want to stand up and make them back off. Power and control are neutral forces. They can be used for good or for evil, depending on our motivation.
But there is also a time to release them. There is a time for powerlessness and surrender. For if we think that power and control are the key to getting what we need, and when a parent, a boss, or a spouse uses them to force others to their will, power and control are twisted towards service of the ego and personal gain. When we, as a nation, insist on domination of the world’s economy and politics, it turns sour on us, and everyone is harmed.
We cannot control everything. And so sometimes we must let go and trust in something beyond our control. We must surrender to God. But to know when this time comes, to know when to use our power and when to wait in faith - this is the task of spiritual discernment. It is what is at the heart of the famous Serenity Prayer, written by Reinhold Niebuhr, and adopted by 12-step recovery programs:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Finally, the third temptation of Christ is magical thinking. The devil says, If you are the Son of God, if God is with you, as you say, then throw yourself off the pinnacle of the Temple - God will protect you from harm, right?
We all know the temptation to bargain with God. I’ll never touch another drop of alcohol if you get me out of this scrape, okay? If you heal my child, I’ll go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life. To this, Jesus said You shall not put God to the test.
But magical thinking goes beyond bargaining. It is the belief that I can influence the course of circumstances by using supernatural forces. In the life of faith, it happens whenever, instead of just praying for what we need - as Jesus taught us to do - we believe that if we use the right hocus-pocus, if we are spiritual enough or good enough, we can make God appear and do what we want.
In faith we are asked to do something that is much harder than that: to make our needs known to God, and then to let go of the results, trusting that somehow, perhaps in ways we cannot understand, God’s goodness will prevail.
In different ways, these three temptations of Christ, these temptations that are common to humanity, are, each of them, a form of idolatry. Perhaps that is the only sin - putting something other than God in the place of ultimate concern, trust, and hope. The ancient Jews knew this root problem, and so they prohibited idolatry in the first 2 of the 10 Commandments: You shall have no other gods but me; and You shall not make for yourself any idols.
Idolatry is not just the offering of rum and cigarettes and coins to creepy little statues. Idolatry is the conviction that if we give our full dedication to the improvement of our material surroundings and external circumstances, then we will find true and lasting fulfillment. Idolatry is the belief that acceptance and surrender is never an option, that we will only get what we need by exercising our will. Idolatry is the reliance on magical thinking, that we can make God appear and do what we want.
Our faith, as discovered by those ancient, radical Jews, as taught by Jesus and all the saints who have followed him, is to live without idols. What does this mean? It means that we are walking on a high wire without a net. It means that we place our ultimate trust in something we cannot possess, maneuver, or even prove to ourselves.
This was the genius of an ancient people who placed their trust in a God who could not be named; a God who lay beyond all comprehension and yet whose loving presence could be experienced more closely than one’s own breath; a God whose self-revelation was simply I am that I am. How do we put this God first in our lives? How do we worship this God?
We learn to look for fulfillment in slippery things like love, our state of mind, and the electricity of the present moment. We learn to be patient and wait, to hope without any content to our hope. We learn to place our trust in a Spirit who, like the wind, comes and goes where it wills.
Jesus was tempted in every way as we are. In the wilderness, after he discovered that God had inhabited him and called him to a holy life, he had to relinquish every idol until he became an empty vessel that God could use.
We enter the same wilderness in the 40 days of Lent. Discover for yourself where your idols lie, where you place your mistaken trust. And then step out on that high wire of faith.