A sermon preached on February 17th, 2013 – the first Sunday in Lent – based upon Luke 4:1-13.
There are, of course, two great temptation stories in the Bible. This one — and then the one that occurs at the beginning of the Bible. Let’s consider the one that came first.
Adam and Eve are in the beautiful Garden of Eden. They have all they need. Life is good. One day, however the serpent, described as the craftiest of creatures, and long recognized as the precursor of the devil, engages the couple in a conversation. (Eve does the talking, but Adam is right there as well.) In a very clever manner, the serpent dews seeds of mistrust in the first human beings regarding the intentions of God.
Why did God say you should not eat of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden?
Well God said we would die.
You won’t die. God told you that because God knows that if you eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you will become like Him. He doesn’t like that. He is withholding something from you. God doesn’t really have your best interest at heart.
With the seeds of mistrust planted, anxiety enters the couple. To relieve their anxiety, they try to take things into their own hands by reaching out for the forbidden fruit. It only makes things worse.
Luke had this story in mind when he penned the story we heard this morning of the temptation of Jesus. We get a none-too-subtle hint regarding this be the genealogy Luke inserts right before our story. It starts out with Jesus and traces back this ancestors all the way to “Adam, the son of God.” Another “son of God” is about to be tempted.
Sometimes we imagine the test that Jesus underwent in the wilderness as being a no-brainer for Jesus – like a smart kid getting 800s on the SATs. He’s got the Holy Spirit right there with him, right? Three quick temptations – three quick and handy scripture quotations with which to rebuke the devil. No sweat.
We completely misunderstand what Jesus went through when he picture it this way. He has the clear leading of God to go out into the desert for forty days, but once he’s out there, he feels very much alone. No longer does he feel the tender embrace of God he felt back at the River Jordan.
I suspect that every day there was the very real temptation for Jesus to simply give up – to say “the heck with this, I’m going to where there is shade and food and a cool bath.”
And all along the way the devil tries to sew the seeds of mistrust, inviting him to take things into his own hands.
What are you doing, Jesus? God brought you out here to fast but if you don’t eat you may starve to death – you may become too weak to even get out of the heat once 40 days have passed. You better take things into you’re your own hands and turn one of these stones into bread.
Jesus, God is sending you into the world empty handed. God is setting you up to fail. Let me help you out here. I’ve got the word’s power and authority. All of it, in fact. Turn to me and I’ll help you rectify this oh so impotent ministry that God has in mind for you.
Jesus, just how do you know that God is trustworthy? Here, jump off the temple and see if he sends his angels to catch you; that is, if you really believe he’ll come through for you?
Jesus sticks it out. Sometimes that’s what not succumbing to temptation involves. He trusts God even though God seems absent.
So you see, there is a connection between trusting God and temptation.
It isn’t so different for us. When we succumb to temptation, it’s often because we aren’t able to trust God with our lives. We look towards the future and get anxious, not trusting God to see us through, so we try to take things into our own hands in a manner that leads us to compromise the values we profess to live by.
At our Bible study on Wednesday we were discussing this story and it all seemed kin of abstract and hard to relate to, that is until somebody made the connection to the experience of grief and depression. A number of the women present had lost their husbands. They described the overwhelming darkness they befell them, the doubt that life could ever feel like a gift again. It was devastating, and God seemed remote, to say the least.
What was the temptation in this sort of wilderness? To give up. To refuse to trust God with the promise that life would get better, and either literally or metaphorically join their husband in the grave.
The only help at such times, the women said was found in two things. One was rituals and routines that could resist the feeling that everything was falling into chaos and confusion. The other was other women who had walked that same walk through the wilderness before them and could say to them, “What you’re feeling is how it is. There is nothing wrong with you. It is horrible. But I can tell you, that if you simply keep putting one step in front of another, it will get better.”
There is a kind of trust necessary at such times that can be excruciatingly difficult. In times like these, trust is needed to simply put one foot in front of the other.
In this life, there are two kinds of pain. The first is pain that can and should be avoided. If you have strep throat you shouldn’t suffer through it – you should get yourself to the doctor as quick as possible and start taking the anti-biotic that will quickly turn back the infection.
There are other kinds of pain that are simply a part of life – a part of being human. Suffering grief when a loved one dies is one form of this kind of pain. Suffering the pain of rejection – or simply the threat of possible rejection—in order to reach out and make a connection with other human beings – this too is necessary.
The attempt to avoid this kind of pain is connected to an underlying mistrust in God. Like Adam and Eve, our avoidance just makes things worse. The dark valley needs to be traversed.
My older son Andrew is 26, engaged and living in Denver. Six years ago he went to Thailand for a semester of work and study. Two weeks into his time there, he got very sick. He felt weak, dizzy and disoriented. At times he had a hard time catching his breath. Already prone to anxiety, in response to these to these symptoms his anxiety would rise up in waves that threatened to drown him. He would call me in the middle of the night, literally from halfway across the world, and I would do my best to convey a soothing voice of love on the phone in order to try and calm him down, while feeling extremely anxious myself.
We never got a diagnosis for what had come over Andrew. It took a long time for the symptoms to subside – a year later he felt as though he still had moments when the symptoms would return.
But something very significant shifted inside of Andrew. Because of the wilderness he had traversed, a sense of calm came over him that hadn’t been there before. When he returned to school he had a new capacity for putting things into perspective. Where before an impending deadline for a paper would bring on a sense of panic, now he clearly saw such things as unworthy of freaking out over. He learned how to monitor himself, stepping back to slow himself down when he felt himself losing the present moment. In a word, he trusted life far more.
For me something similar happened on a smaller scale in terms of learning to trust as a parent. When our kids go through wilderness travails, they are in the arms of God, and on the far side of the wilderness the promised land awaits.
Lent is a time in which we hope to deepen our trust in God, even when God seems distant. In a much smaller scale, we too attempt to enter the wilderness we would otherwise choose to avoid. We intentionally seek to confront the forms of legitimate suffering that we have tried to avoid, which we can’t do unless we are willing to trust God to see us through.
Traditionally, there are three spiritual disciplines practiced in Lent.
The first is almsgiving. If you give away either you money or your time to someone who needs your help, you may hear a voice in your head that says, “You can’t afford to do this. You’re going to end up without enough money for yourself, or with your own problems overwhelming you, because you squandered your money and time on this person. It’s the same voice Jesus heard in the wilderness sowing the seeds of mistrust.
The second is prayer. We need to ask God to help us to learn to trust. And we need to spend time in silence. There too you may find that same voice showing up. “You can’t sit here in silence. You’ve got problems you’ve got to go solve. The world will fall apart if you don’t take over God’s job to keep it from falling apart.” There is a kind of pain that needs to be endured that requires you stay seated in that silence, waiting until the voice subsides, and the stillness descends.
And the third is fasting. Fasting is shorthand for giving up something you have identified as a place you escape to when you don’t want to face the legitimate suffering of life. Overeating. Shopping. Alcohol. Drugs. Internet. TV. If you choose to give up one of these things and you find it painful, that is a sign you’ve truly identified a place that requires fasting. If you can persevere, you will come to a greater freedom, and a greater trust.
Keep putting one foot in front of another, and eventually it gets easier. In fact, it gets blessed.