On Lent: Its Temptations and Possibilities – March 1, 2020

The Rev. Paul R. Kolbet, All Saints Chelmsford

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1, Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Jesus “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness” to be “tempted [or tested] by the devil” for “forty days.” This first Sunday of Lent we meditate on Jesus’s temptation in the desert as we begin our own period of personal reflection and discipline that occupies us for the forty days leading up to Easter. Today we find Jesus alone in the wilderness. After he has gone without eating for 40 days, he was terribly hungry and began hearing a voice. Not a good one! We are told it was the Devil’s voice so we know before it says anything at all that it will be a lying voice of destruction and death. You know this voice; it is the voice that steals your joy! But, on the surface, the Devil’s voice always sounds reasonable. That Dread Spirit invites Jesus to turn stones to bread, suggests that Jesus hurl himself down from a tall building in Jerusalem so that God could miraculously intervene and save him, and finally offers him rule over of the earth if only he would worship the Devil. This is how Jesus is tempted.

What tempts us seems too different from what tempted Jesus to lead us to any meaningful insight. As a general rule, though, we don’t understand the Bible until we see its story as our story, until we see in the story how it leads us to the truth. Despite appearances, this gospel reading provides a path for our feet if only we look hard enough and persist. 

So let’s look at it again and especially to see if we can figure out precisely what was the nature of Jesus’s temptation and what it means for us. Notice that Jesus is only tempted by the Devil after he had fasted for 40 days in the desert and it was time for him return to the city and begin his ministry. Surely day forty was not the first time he was hungry, uncertain, with empty hands. Turning stones to bread would have been just as appealing on day 3, 7, or 21 as upon day 40. It happened on day 40 because the temptation wasn’t about him. It was about us, or, more precisely, it was about who he would be for us, as he began his ministry.

What could be so wrong with turning stones to bread? Frankly, feeding the hungry in this way would be an auspicious beginning for the Messiah’s ministry. What would be the harm of yielding? Would not a better story be that he fed the people from stones, accepted rule of his messianic kingdom, and God then displayed with undeniable certainty that he was with him? What would be so wrong about beginning with a big miracle? At least so said the Devil’s voice, the voice of death. Perhaps, the best way to answer this question would be to imagine if Jesus had yielded to the Devil’s voice and turned stones to bread.

I think we know from history that for hungry people bread is the most convincing proof for the mind. If Jesus had accepted the Devil’s advice, people would have followed Jesus like cattle. There would have been no doubts about him or his identity. There would have been no crucifixion, only miraculously full stomachs, and certainty about Jesus. Kings have been worshipped as gods for less. Later in his ministry, when Jesus indeed did feed the 5,000, in the Gospel of John he questions them afterward if they were following him only for the food (6:26). Did he worry that that miracle too was really a temptation for all?

We tend to think of temptation as arising from the inability to control ourselves, to restrain our passion, and do the right thing. It surely is this, but more fundamentally, no matter who you are, all temptation is a trial of our self-understanding. It tests who we are! In the face of temptation, Jesus must decide who he is. For Jesus in the desert the miracle is the temptation. He decides not to make the people’s decision for them by giving them bread. There would be no miracle that would be so decisive as to relieve the crowds of the responsibility of their own freedom. He will instead love them awaiting their freely-given answering love. He desires the kind of love that arises out of a free decision, the kind of love that is willed and chosen. The kind of love experienced by the hungry who choose without bread in their hands. 

With no miraculous voice from heaven to assist him this time, Jesus quotes Moses to the Devil invoking the whole context of the earlier desert experience in Exodus. Moses’ full quote from Deuteronomy is this: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger … in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:2-3).

For this reason, Jesus here renounced the miracle and went on to speak in parables that not everyone would understand. His messiahship (much like God’s existence itself) would remain indeterminate. He would provide no indisputable solution to human problems. Like God, there would be enough evidence to draw attention to his identity, but not so much as to establish anything decisive. Because of this obscurity, his early followers followed him freely and only came to see the truth for themselves in time like their predecessors had in the desert.  The Devil’s second temptation is like the first. God must no longer be hidden and unseen. God will be forced to manifest himself in the middle of Jerusalem because of Jesus’s drastic act throwing himself down. The veil that stands between us and the heavens will be ripped open and the truth will be plain for all to see. God’s existence and power will no longer be a matter of debate. It will no longer require a risky choice on our part made in faith.

The Devil’s price for this revelation is our own freedom to choose who we are. Once again, Jesus counters the Devil’s death dealing words with words of life from the Bible. He says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” However appealing the manifest certainty may be that can only come from the open appearance of God himself in our midst, bringing this certainty about is the Devil’s temptation.

The Devil’s third temptation is like the first two, yet more transparent. He exhorts Jesus to rule in power now, but to do this Jesus would have made a deal with the Devil. Jesus would be the undisputed ruler of all, but no one would ever freely choose to love him. Once again, Jesus rejects the offer, quotes Moses, saying God alone is to be worshipped. God alone is to rule and we, therefore, would remain free.

The choice of who we decide to be remains ours because it is uncertain. It is not made for us by the facts themselves. Our Gospel reading today is a mysterious account of God in Jesus Christ resisting the temptation of the manifest miracle. God will not trade food for freedom and will not reduce us to cattle. Instead he will appeal to our minds and hearts and allow us to be responsible human beings who have an obligation to seek out the truth and choose who we want to be. The love God receives from us will thus always be freely given rather than required by the demonstration of clear evidence.

Frankly, in reading the story, part of me wishes for a savior that turned stones to bread. In trying times, I often wish for a miracle because for me it is the only answer left. I am tempted to lament God’s hiddenness and wonder if the Devil was not right after all. I am tempted to believe the Devil’s lies. I am tempted by the allure of certainty and burdened by my God-given responsibility for myself. I, too, am tempted by the miracle. 

According to Jesus, and the scripture’s Jesus quoted against the demonic lie, God’s hiddenness is not absence. It is instead a kind of presence that brings out our mature identities. The obscurity, insecurity, and hunger of our lives is not an affliction Jesus sought to cure. In fact, he resisted the temptation to do so. By doing so, he dignified our condition. Like Jesus, especially with the Godlike powers we appear to possess in the modern world, we have the constant temptation to reverse Christ’s work on earth: to chafe under the burden of conscience, to insist on manifest certainty in things that matter, and to give away our freedom in the process. 

Instead, we should resist the temptation, be patient, renounce the miracle, the quick fix that doesn’t require the daily spiritual practice of making the decision about who we are moment by moment. Don’t fear the hunger. Don’t lament the insecurity. Don’t flee the burden of conscience. Jesus went to every effort to preserve these things for us. We experience this as a trial, a temptation. It throws us upon ourselves because our experience of freedom isn’t resolved by anyone other than us. In the desert, in the empty clearing of Lent, it is less important what you give up than who you choose to be. 

As you give yourself over to the spiritual practices of Lent, don’t look at them only as matters of self-discipline and self-control, the point of these practices is most fundamentally a small experience of freedom and newness, where even something small that has held us in its grasp loosens its grip a bit, and it is that experience of the new, that experience of you being yourself in a new way, that is the utterly essential preparation for the newness of the Easter resurrection of Jesus. Or, in other words, don’t let the Devil’s voice decide for you who you are or let it steal your joy. 

Let us pray, Eternal God, who desires nothing from us other than our freely given love, grant that we like Jesus may find wisdom in your words and reject the temptation to establish our own certainty, and instead to value the freedom you have given us so that in our daily spiritual practices we choose to grow in faith, love, and understanding.  Amen