Temptation in the Wilderness

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

Romans 10:8b-13

Luke 4:1-13

If we had no temptations, we would not need Lent. Lent is a time to acknowledge our temptations, to do penance for having given in to them, and to steel ourselves with greater discipline to resist them. We do have temptations, we do give in to them, and we are too often too weak to resist them. So we do need Lent. The story of Jesus in the wilderness is a lesson in temptations.

The first thing to note is that Jesus was weakened by fasting for forty days. This might be an exaggeration of the actual time, because “forty” was a kind of biblical code for a long time—remember Noah’s forty days of rain, Moses’ forty days and nights on the mountain with God, and the forty years the Israelites wandered in the desert before coming to the Promised Land. Whatever the time Jesus actually spent in the wilderness, it was a long time and he was hungry and weak when Satan caught up with him.

The first temptation Satan put to Jesus, in Luke’s account, was to offer bread in return for a little cheating, namely using divine power to turn a stone to food. Many have interpreted Luke’s account to mean that Jesus had supernatural powers and could have used them, but chose not to. Of course we need bread and other necessities and are tempted to take moral shortcuts to get them. We might say that in times of truly dire necessity, a little thievery is legitimate—remember Les Miserable; we are a merciful people. Sometimes, however, we are a bit liberal with mercy toward ourselves and justify a little cheating in studies, innocent shoplifting of ideas from the internet, or vicious competitiveness so that we will get our own necessities. The habit of cheating grows from necessities to enhancements—better clothes, finer food, shortcuts at work to find leisure time. With the aid of a consumerist culture we can blur the line between necessities and luxuries so that any unsatisfied desire becomes a need whose satisfaction is necessary. Step by step we are tempted to move from cheating for self-preservation to just plain greed. We live in an Enron culture where massive cheating is taken for granted as a way of corporate life, and we are surprised when stockholders and workers are paupered by the consequences of greed. Often we don’t recognize how much we participate in such a culture until some scandal suddenly turns the lights on. Note that Jesus had nothing negative to say about bread, or even riches, per se; he said only that we do not live by them alone and, when we do, they hold us in bondage, as they did the winsome but rich young ruler who asked Jesus about eternal life. Thank God we have Lent to think these things through, repent, and do better.

Satan’s second temptation was power, which Jesus could have gained by worshipping the devil, that is, the spirit of destruction and control that was contrary to the God of creativity. If we have power, of course, we are able to get the necessities and even luxuries of life. As Faust knew, with power we can do great social good. Yet power brings more than the satisfaction of greed. Power evokes respect—glory, Satan said—and it gives control. Although there are some things we should control, the desire for control is an infinite passion. It has no natural satisfaction. Jesus declined Satan’s power and said you should worship only God. The clue, in the story, to detecting power as a temptation is that worldly power was Satan’s to give in the first place. Jesus’ response indicates that its pursuit is idolatrous. Are our fantasies about power really ways of worshipping ourselves as if we were God? Our nation has so much power now that patriotism borders on idolatry. The motivation alleged for our greed is the virtue of global capitalism in a form that benefits us before it does the developing countries. The motivation alleged for our pre-emptive wars of self-defense is panic over possible weapons of mass destruction. Yet these motivations, even coupled together and accepted as valid, seem insufficient to explain our recent national exercises of power. Is display of power for its own sake the motive? Thank God we have Lent to think these things over, to repent, and amend our ways.

The third temptation was for Jesus to jump from the Temple’s Tower to prove that he was under divine protection. He declined, saying that God should not be put to the test. We rarely have such dramatic temptations. Nevertheless many of us, perhaps all of us sometimes, conceive God to have an obligation to take care of us in worldly matters, and we become angry, or depressed, or lose our faith, when luck and nature take their mindless course. If you jump from a high place, you fall: that’s the way God made gravity. If you contract a germ you get sick: that’s the way God made life. If your loved one leaves you, your heart breaks: that’s the way God made freedom and the human heart. To expect God to work miracles setting aside the way creation works is to “test” God, to use Jesus language. Have we tested God and been disappointed so as to corrode our faith? “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” said Jesus. Thank God we have Lent to think these things over, repent, and amend our ways.

Temptation is a creeping phenomenon. Remember the old prayer of confession? “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep:” with our eyes down on the grass in front of us, intending no evil, we follow the green rather than the proper path and get lost. “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts:” well, of course, being lost from the community with its good shepherd we are left to our own devices. “We have offended against thy holy laws:” that’s what comes from too much dependence on the devices and desires of our own hearts, and suddenly we are seriously culpable for moral misdeeds. “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done:” so much for duty. “And we have done those things which we ought not to have done:” serious transgressions are our responsibility. “And there is no health in us:” we have succumbed so far into temptation, a sickness unto death, that we have no power to stop the fall. Even though we start with small, forgivable temptations, we plummet until we are bound to endless greed, power, and self-glorification, powerless to stop.

Now we can see the special temptation in the Grand Inquisitor’s conversation with Christ. In Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov the Grand Inquisitor chastises Jesus for wanting to make people free. People are weak and in bondage to sin, the Inquisitor said. They do not want freedom and responsibility: they want bread as a magic handout, they want some power to take care of them with proper pomp and glory, and they want a divine guarantee that everything will be all right. Because people are like sheep, they should be treated like sheep. Because they have in fact succumbed to the temptations, the devil is in charge, and a proper religion should go along with the Grand Inquisitor’s authoritarian ways that provide for everything: not to do so would be cruel. Jesus was not convinced. How many of us believe, or hope, that God will take care of everything? God is not the one who “takes care of everything.” That’s Satan. God makes us free.

Think back on the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Jesus had just been baptized and the text says he was “full of the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit, not chance, led him in the wilderness. It was an act of God that he be tempted. One of the ironies about Satan here and in other biblical passages is that, although he is a trouble-maker and a genuinely evil spirit, he is also the witting or unwitting
agent of God. To be tempted is part of the created life that we have. If we were not tempted, we would not be alive in a human way. Temptations are tests to prepare us for serious work, as Jesus was about to undertake.

Please do not mishear me on this point. I do not mean to say, nor does the Bible, that we should seek out temptations as a kind of spiritual discipline. That is a sure road to disaster. Only someone already besotted by the sin of pride would deliberately seek out temptations so as to exercise the ability to put them aside. Jesus, in his famous prayer, says “Lead us not into temptations and deliver us from evil.” Let us escape as many temptations as we can: more than enough will confront us anyway, for they are part of life.

Life for us all tempts us to panic about possessing things. Even when possessions are necessities of life, they should not define life for us. Jesus was very hungry, but he did not need bread: he was deliberately fasting. Precisely because hunger and desire are natural, they will tempt us to give them misplaced importance. Our very freedom to live before God as responsible in ultimate perspective requires that we face, and face down, such temptations.

Life as such leads us to seek power, for how else can we carry out responsibilities? Yet the acquisition of power is so seductive that we can pursue it beyond measure—never enough power! We honor and glorify our little power supplies, and soon we are worshipping not God but ourselves. Actually, it is not ourselves that we worship: people who succumb to the need for power, paradoxically, are internally weak and need the power to give themselves substance and identity. Rather, we worship the sources of power: as Satan said, Jesus could have all power and authority to do good if only he would worship Satan who had the power and authority to give. Like most people seduced by Satan, we think we do it for ourselves when in fact we are serving a hidden master. Because the hidden master is the promise of power without regard for direction and measure, it is a chaos of blind forces, an unleashing of mindless spirits. If seduction by possessions leads to a panic of desire, seduction by power leads a pandemonium of powers beyond our control.

Life as such presents endless occasions to test God’s goodness, and to demand it. A deep paradox lies in the fact that because every bit of life comes from God, our gratitude for life itself should be infinite. At the same time with life come also the dangers, shortcomings, sufferings, and death that are as much a part as the beauty, love, opportunities, health, and new beginnings. If our idea of God is small, we expect God to run the world as our ideal parents would, with constant provision for every need and defense against every threat. Should our parents give us a stone instead of bread, we would say they don’t love us. To think that way is to test God. If our idea of God is as immense as Jesus’, however, we know that the grace of creation is enough, even with its dangers, pains, and death. The immense God’s love is proved in the Christ who teaches us to embrace the suffering and death in life as the way properly to embrace the divine immensity. Although we cannot help being tempted to test God with a demand for proof of love, we can nevertheless follow Jesus in setting that temptation aside. Maturity means that we take responsibility for engaging life as it comes, not as we wish God would make it.

I have two final points. First, when Jesus met Satan in the wilderness, he knew something was up. For us, temptations come more subtly, like greener grass to grazing sheep; and then before we know it we are enslaved to greed and power, and angry with the God who we think has not done enough for us lately. Be careful.

Second, although Jesus’ fasting might have made him hungry and weak in a physical sense, it made him strong in a spiritual sense, strong enough to withstand the temptation to become the kind of false messiah his people, his friends, and the Grand Inquisitor wanted. Although our Lenten fasting is a pale imitation of Jesus’ wilderness discipline, it is a strong help as we engage the life of temptation in order to love the God who gives it. May Lent be a proper wilderness for us all.

I pray then for a wilderness of life to expose our civilized cover-ups. Let us be as sheep without a shepherd who have to be alert to their own strayings: then we can give ourselves to a Shepherd who demands that we be free. I pray for a wilderness in which the devices and desires of our own hearts become fully known to us: then we can be free to bring them to perfection. I pray for a wilderness where God’s right is starkly before us: then, like Jesus, we can will the right or the fall with our own free souls. I pray for a wilderness where no sophistications becloud our doing what we ought and not doing what we ought not: then we can present ourselves to the One who calls us as disciples ready for instruction. I pray for a wilderness in which our sickness unto death is revealed and healed in fasting and penance: then we can give our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength to the One who leads us through death to resurrection. Church, we have entered into the Lenten Season as into a wilderness. May our temptations be seen as clearly as Jesus saw Satan and our responses be as faithful as Jesus’ own resolution. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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