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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The colorful story of Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness is a reminder that God’s children, at all ages, are tempted by the devil. When children are small, we teach them that the devil tempts them with cheating, stealing and lying. When our children become teenagers, we teach them that the temptations of the devil are coming home late, waking up late, and turning in home work late. And of course, when children become adults, there are a whole new set of temptations.
Even pastors are tempted. In my vows of ordination, I was reminded of the temptations of the devil, and that I was called instead to model a godly life. So, as a good pastor, I am not supposed to curse or swear. Instead of cursing, however, I do know one preacher, when he’s alone, calls out the names of several members of his congregation- with feeling.
God’s children are tempted whatever the age, and so, every year on the First Sunday in Lent, we read and meditate on Jesus’ own story of temptation. Now some might assume that the story of Jesus being led out into the wilderness by the Spirit for forty days is to remind us why we fast during Lent, or perhaps why we would give up certain pleasures during this season. In a small way you and I are trying to mirror Jesus’ own sacrifice in these forty days. Others might assume that we meditate on Jesus being tempted by the devil to remind us of what we cannot humanly accomplish. Only Christ could stand up against the evil one.
But what would that really teach us? Personally, I believe that the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is to encourage us to do what we have been called to do. God has invited us to walk with him, and to do the work of his kingdom. Unfortunately, the devil wants to hinder and destroy the good work God has set before you. He wants to tempt you to walk away from God.
This morning, Jesus is prepared to lead us on our journey to choose life. But in order for you to choose wisely and well, you need to know and understand yourself first, and what the tempter is offering you in its place.
Let us begin with the question: Who is the Tempter? We all know that the devil is not that red fleshed, long-tailed creature we see in cartoons. The devil does not sit upon one shoulder with a pitchfork offering mean advice, while an angel clad in white whispers words of good counsel on the other side. Since Satan’s physical appearance was never described in the Bible, early images were often based on pagan horned gods, such as Pan and Dionysus, figures common to the religions Christianity sought to discredit or replace. Oddly, centuries later, in the middle ages, the devil often appeared as a toad or a flying bat. The tempter, you see, doesn’t fit any of our regular stereotypes. But, on the other hand, we certainly wouldn’t envision him as a friendly conversation partner passing the day with Jesus over a chess board. And yet, maybe we should.
Reading scripture, we might imagine that the devil’s testing of Jesus occurred in one afternoon as a final showdown between adversaries in the desert, but I rather suspect that over the course of forty days Jesus and the devil developed quite a relationship. The conversation between Jesus and the Tempter, after all, is a conversation between two wise and witty veterans. They are religious scholars, swapping Bible verses, and making points with each other. With each move, the other counters with another verse of scripture. The two certainly knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and they probably knew what each other was going to say. In another setting, when they were not disagreeing, they might have appeared to be best of friends. That’s how the Tempter works as he draws us away from God’s purpose for our lives.
Let us turn to the second question: What is temptation? There is an old saying, “Opportunity knocks only once, but temptation leans on the bell.” The meaning is clear. A true opportunity in life is rare, but the temptation to avoid choices which may give life and are life giving are ever present. Temptation is persistent. And in order to combat it, you need to understand yourself first. The psycho therapist Carl Jung likened temptation to the shadow side of human character. It is this dark side, he suggested, that we should examine. Jung writes, “The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself.” It is easy for us to avoid studying our weaknesses, and easier still to make excuses and blame others for the events in our lives. It takes a far stronger person to wander out in into the wilderness and to reflect and examine their weaknesses and to be open to testing.
No one understands this world of persistent testing and temptation more than the survivor who has wrestled with addiction. They know the Tempter’s art of pressure, perceived opportunity and rationalization. They have painfully grown to understand the helplessness and dis-ease of battling what they cannot conquer. They understand the consequence of temptation and loss. They understand the Tempter may have fled, but that he will appear again at another, opportune time. Yes, for the survivor, “Opportunity knocks only once, but temptation leans on the bell.”
My friends, that is what Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness says to me. If you want to become more secure in your life and aware of your vulnerabilities, you too need to examine your shadow side. And like Jesus, you may need to go out into the wilderness and face the devil.
If we are truly honest, we must all admit that there are temptations in our lives- though they may not be the same temptations. We are not all tested in the same way- nor are we all predisposed to the same sort of addictions. I am certain that the devil is not tempting you to turn rocks into bread, or to leap from the pinnacle of some great church spire, nor is he tempting you to worship him by offering you half the kingdoms of the world, but let me assure you, he is tempting you just the same. The Tempter knows your possibilities.
What is your greatest temptation? Over the past 25 years of parish ministry, I have noted three characteristics of the temptation which most often challenge us. They are influence, affluence and opulence. Or in more colorful language, we are tempted with power, riches and greed.
Let us begin with the temptation of power. It is said, “If you want something to get done, ask a busy person.” It is good advice. Active people know how to use their time and energy well. And yet, we also say, “But avoid committees. They take minutes and last hours.” The American humorist Will Rogers went one step further, “Outside of traffic, there is nothing that has held this country back as much as committees.” Now why is the perception of committees so deadly? I dare say it is because men and women so often give in to the temptation to show power in the intimate setting of a committee, a marriage and a family.
Unless we have learned to know our shadow side, we innocently play the “Devil’s Advocate.” We should be working for life, but instead we give in to the temptation of power, to undermine, to belittle and to destroy. In marriage, when you know all the weakness of your spouse, it is so tempting to push the buttons that will give you the upper hand. Yes, you have to be right, and you have to the final word. With one phrase, you can betray your Christian calling; with one gesture you can destroy the work that Holy Spirit has set before you. It happens so often in families, in marriage and in committees, when we let the temptation of power to take charge.
Second, beware of the temptation of riches. Wealth plays an important role in our lives. Western society could not have survived without the altruistic belief in philanthropy and the responsible stewardship of one’s financial resources. Great families historically exhibited power, but they also prided themselves on the virtue of sharing their wealth for the good of society. Riches and affluence, you see, are not evil, but their proper use may be. As Dolly Levi said in Thornton Wilder’s play, The Matchmaker, “Money is a lot like manure. If it’s all in one place it stinks to high heaven, but if it’s spread around, it helps many things to grow.” The American industrialist, John D. Rockefeller stated, “The only question with wealth is what you shall do with it.”
Third, beware of the temptation of greed. Opulence and greed is one the greatest temptations facing people today. This temptation breeds in societies where there is a great disparity between the rich and poor. In such places, it is easy to hear the Tempter whispering into your ear. It’s yours, you deserve it. They haven’t worked for it; they’re lazy. They’ve got enough. At such moments, tempted men and women are willing to abandon all values and traditions to “catch-up” with their wealthier neighbor, and to leave the poorer neighbor in the dust. And we are ready to serve and cater to their obsessive, opulent desires. There is simply never enough.
So what is the temptation that the devil is setting before you today? Power, riches, or greed? Is the devil’s voice making the immoral sound moral, the unethical seem ethical, and the hurtful- just? Ultimately, however, it is not the temptations that you encounter that matter. As the story of Jesus’ Temptation in wilderness teaches us, it is the choices that you make that count. But how do we make good choices when temptations are all around us?
As I was walking past Kenwood School this week, I heard the crossing guards, shouting out to each other words I hadn’t heard in a while, “Stop, Look, Listen.” It suddenly occurred to me that in the face of temptation, before I make a choice, and get into trouble, or open my mouth and say the wrong words, I should Stop. Then I can Look at what is really going on and what my role is, and what my shadow side is doing. Then I can Listen for the spiritual guidance God offers that will remind me of my choices and healthy words and actions. Stop, Look, Listen. Simplistic perhaps, but a good beginning.
My friends, what is your greatest temptation, and perhaps more importantly, what is your daily temptation? Answer that question and chances are that you’ll find something else- your shadow side at work. Confront your temptation openly and God assures us that you’ll also discover his infinite grace and strength. If you Stop, Look and Listen. Yes, confront your temptation and live with it openly, and then immediately, suddenly, and miraculously, the grace and the strength of God’s angels shall appear. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.