Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.
I remember once while I was in seminary I had had a particularly difficult day which seemed to involve the singularly most annoying people on the planet all conspiring to make me lose it. My sister called me while I was on my drive home and innocuously enough asked how I was doing. “Well…I think that if I believed in the Devil I’d be pretty sure he was trying to get me to be a bitch today”
In our Gospel text for today we read of the Devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness. And in our post-enlightenment over-educated love affair with human reason we have almost summarily dismissed the idea of the Devil as being simply too superstitious. I too struggle with the idea that there may be a non-human source of evil. There may not be a pitch fork and red horns involved, but there are forces that seek to defy God in our world. And we are exposed to enough news and history to know there is evil – the holocaust, child exploitation, abu graib. We know it’s there and it’s quite easily labeled “of the Devil”
We are led to believe that temptation is a choice between good and evil, but the thing about the temptation of Christ is that the devil didn’t say If you are the son of God then slaughter all your enemies in concentration camps. The devil didn’t say if you are the son of God then torture people at will. Most of us wouldn’t have much trouble turning down such obvious evil….but the devil said if you are the son of God then use your privilege to indulge yourself. And when it’s put that way I think maybe I’m uncomfortably familiar with this, that is….if I’m willing to be honest.
Maybe the central test here is not if we can avoid temptations, but is seeing how we’ve already succumbed to them to the extent that we don’t even see what they are any more. If the Christian Life were but avoiding really big sin then most of us would have arrived already. Most of us can manage without too much difficulty to avoid murder, theft and the like. And honestly we could probably pull that off without too much help from God. Maybe the test for us is not in resisting the temptation to do some big ugly evil but maybe the test is in seeing where even the seemingly good has a dark side. And a good way to find where this might be happening is to see where are we justifying and defending that which we desperately want to hold on to. In other words, at what point do our indulgences become entitlements? And at what point do entitlements become needs. And then how do these false needs become ways to protect ourselves from the pain of being human? And then how do these protections become such an integral part of us that we no longer see them for what they are? These are decidedly desert questions.
I think this is the discipline of Lent: to peel even just the thinnest layer of this insulation away. To remove even a single numbing agent we use to insulate us from pain or isolation or despair, to insulate us from the desert.
Years ago Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a brilliant description of why the practice of Lent started. She proposes that when the luster of the early church wore off and their faith had become ho-hum that “Little by little, Christians became devoted to their comforts instead: the soft couch, the flannel sheets, the leg of lamb roasted with rosemary. These things” Brown writes “made them feel safe and cared for -- if not by God, then by themselves. They decided there was no contradiction between being comfortable and being Christian, and before long it was very hard to pick them out from the population at large. They no longer distinguished themselves by their bold love for one another. They did not get arrested for championing the poor. They blended in. They avoided extremes. They decided to be nice instead of holy, and” She adds, “God moaned out loud.”
I think she’s right. So the church for hundreds of years has chosen to enter the desert of Lent and remove a layer of comfort. We give things up. We look for what we cling to and we lay it down. It’s a curious practice among us Christians and this practice is far from perfect. This thing of denying ourselves for 40 days of the year. We give up chocolate or gossiping or television or any of the other forms of anesthesia we layer around ourselves. And it’s easy to think we are doing God a favor by all this self-denial. Like we are gathering up a big basketful of candy bars and hours on Facebook to give to God like some bad habit charity drive for the Almighty. And if there is one less snickers bar in the basket for God because I succumbed to temptation and ate it for myself then it’s a Lent Fail.
The point isn’t that God needs our sacrifices. The point is that we need God.
This week in struggling with this scripture I kept wondering what the good news was for us. It’s comforting to think that Jesus understands suffering and temptation. It’s comforting to think that God had an almost disturbingly human experience. I’m just not so sure how it’s helpful. Is it helpful to me that Jesus withstood temptation. Like Jesus did it so I can too? That just feels grandiose and misguided.
But the point is not to think we can be Jesus and it’s not to impress God by giving God our candy bars. The point is that we see these insulations for what they are – namely that which we use to feel safe and cared for, as Brown says, if not by God then by ourselves. Because that which we are constantly trying to insulate ourselves from…the harsh desert reality we are trying to avoid through our anesthesia of choice is actually the very place where God insists on being present. Because the good news is that scripture doesn’t say “The Spirit led Jesus to the Wilderness…and then waited for him in the lobby till he came back out”.
The Spirit of God is present in the desert. In Christ God has come to be present in the things we are trying to avoid. So as the numbness of self-indulgence wears off lean into this God of the desert. This God in whom we live and move and have our being. As even a single layer of insulation is peeled away know that you can walk away from it because God actually loves and cares for you. It’s God’s job description. The Psalmist writes of this very desert God
I will deliver those who | cling to me;
I will uphold them, because they | know my name.
15They will call me, and I will | answer them;
I will be with them in trouble; I will rescue and | honor them.
16With long life will I | satisfy them,
and show them | my salvation.
May we all see the salvation of God for which we long which is always present even, or maybe especially in the wilderness. Amen