he was tempted by the devil.” (Luke 4)
Certain seasons lend themselves to dwelling for a bit longer than usual on some train of thought. Lent is one such season: for forty days, we have the opportunity to fix our attention on some problem or issue that we want to get our minds around, in order to gain a perspective that will help us to move forward with our lives. And so, I propose that for the five Sundays of Lent, we follow as a train of thought this question, How can our Christian faith give us some guidance and inspiration for living in these troubled times?
I take as inspiration for this theme an old country western song by Crystal Gayle, “Livin’ in these troubled times,” which dates from her 1982 album, “Hollywood Tennessee.” There is, you know, a great deal of wisdom in country music: think of some of those great song titles like “makin’ love don’t make it love,” or “not all the glitters is gold.” So when Crystal Gayle sings that “It takes all the faith that’s in you, take your heart and it takes mine; it takes love to be forgiven, livin’ in these troubled times,” perhaps she’s really on to something important: troubled times do indeed require faith, and there’s no better time than Lent to inquire into what the shape of that faith might be.
So, let’s begin by asking in what sense might these times in which we live be troubled? Well, you have only to pay attention to the rhetoric of the current political campaigns to have a pretty clear idea. People, we are told, are angry because of inequality and corruption. They are fearful because of perceived threats from terrorism and immigration. They are impatient because of governmental gridlock and partisan division. They are resentful of the impact that solutions to the health care crisis, climate change, and violence may have on their lives. They are defensive because of an emerging world order that raises up new centers of power and influence. All that we know only too well already.
But underneath the anger, the fear, the impatience—is there something more going on? If we could answer that question, it might help us to understand better what it means to be “livin’ in these troubled times.”
Today’s gospel asks us to spend some time thinking about the role of temptation in our lives. Jesus, you remember, is led into the wilderness to be tempted, and at the end of the forty days he is faced with three specific temptations. First, the temptation to satisfy his hunger by turning stones into bread; second, to acquire power over all the kingdoms of the earth by worshipping the devil; and finally, to demonstrate his own importance by casting himself down from the top of the temple, counting on the angels to bear him up.
The significance of these temptations is that in each case, Jesus is being asked to sell himself short in order to acquire temporary gain. The purpose of the Spirit in leading him into the wilderness in the first place was that it was where he would begin to discover his life’s mission: to preach the kingdom of God, and to bring it into being through his own obedience to God’s will. Now, as he emerges from that intense period of self-examination and discernment, the devil decides to test his resolve.
Yes, he has discovered the direction for his life’s purpose: but is he willing to wager that against his need for something to eat? And yes, he has become aware of the call to submit his life to the power of God for the sake of the world, but would he consider substituting the power of all the kingdoms of the world held in his own hands? And yes, he perceives that the orientation of his life will be as one who serves, but wouldn’t he rather demonstrate his own importance by forcing God’s hand to save him?
These are all what we might call temptations of the spirit: temptations to let one’s immediate desire for physical well-being, power and importance overtake one’s larger commitment to a life’s purpose. It was Will Rogers who said that the road to success is lined with tempting parking spaces: and isn’t that just what the devil is tempting Jesus with? Rather than taking the long road of building the kingdom of God, why not just turn into a comfortable cul-de-sac of self-indulgence.
Perhaps the lesson for us is that like Jesus’s forty days, such temptations of the spirit are also a constant presence in our own lives. At some level, we all have a vision of what we would like to accomplish in life, of the kind of person we would like to become. But then along the way, we gradually give in to the temptation to settle for something less—and I don’t just mean the tempering of youthful idealism that comes with age and experience, but the more burdensome loss of a sense of purpose and value. And perhaps that is the larger issue behind the anger and fear of the current day: we as a nation are in the midst of a collective diminishment of the visions of equality and inclusion which originally united us, having turned off that road into a cul-de-sac of defensive anger.
There’s an old story about a life-saving station that illustrates the point: perhaps you know it. The story goes like this:
On a dangerous sea coast where shipwrecks often occur, there was once a crude little life-saving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea and with no thought for themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost. In time, the little lifesaving station grew as new members joined. But some members of the lifesaving station grew unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. They replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now, however, the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely, because they used it as sort of a club. And so, fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions. But a
bout this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the remaining crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people, many of whom were dirty and sick. The beautiful new club was in chaos.
At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities, since they were unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station further down the coast.
In these troubled times, when we as a people seem to be prone to losing sight of the founding purposes for which we stand—perhaps the response we as people of faith have to make is raise the bar by pointing once again to that longer trajectory of aspiration toward justice and equality that underlies our common life. Like the Old Testament prophets, perhaps ours has to be a voice recalling our community to its originary vision. As Pope Francis is doing this week in Mexico, perhaps we have to bear the responsibility of speaking the language of mercy, compassion, integrity, inclusion, and fraternity, when there is no one else to do so. The temptation—as we learn from today’s gospel—is to turn away, to become focused on ourselves, and to seek the reassurance of material security, power, and importance.
But as Jesus reminds us in his refusal of the devil’s temptations, God’s call is always to turn in the other direction: to turn outward to God and our neighbor, to remain true to that larger sense of our life’s purpose where the kingdom is not only imagined, but made manifest in the life we live together. Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2016