Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
(Luke 4: 1-13)
Have you ever been in the desert? Are you in the desert right now? The desert is a place where we find ourselves sometimes. We find who we really are. The desert is a place where our true selves are sometimes pulled apart. The desert may be a place where our true selves are finally put back together again. It is an external place, an internal place, but a very real place- because it involves the spiritual side of our lives, our deepest emotional and spiritual being. If you are in the desert do not be discouraged. Evelyn Underhill stated that no one can escape having to go through the desert before getting to the promised land. Your promised land is just up ahead. Keep walking! Lent is a time in the church year when we remember Jesus being led into the desert -an area to the northwest of the Dead Sea. Jesus was led by the spirit of God and tempted for 40 days. Forty days is significant. Forty has special meaning in the Bible. We remember that it is found in the story of Noah and the story of Moses and in the story of the people of Israel wandering. Forty is found in the story of the prophet Elijah. It symbolizes something happening that included God’s special participation.
Lent is a serious time. Some people take this fact a little too far and use Lent as an excuse to wear long faces until Easter. This has caused Lent to be unpopular by some. One church in California decided that Lent should mean let’s eliminate negative thinking. Lent is serious but it is not negative. It is taking the negative out in a very intentional way. Being in the desert of Lent should not be a depressing time. It should be an opportunity to improve our ability to resist temptation. With attention to the fragility of life and our own mortality, Lent can become a time of introspection, penitence, and strategizing on how to avoid temptation in our future. Lent should be a time of reflection and soul-searching.
When we are in the desert we might be faced with crucial questions of our identity. Facing those questions may be depressing but it should not be. At the core of who we really are is the fact that we are loved as a child of God. Jesus, coming straight from his baptism, where he heard God say from heaven behold my son in whom I am well pleased, remembered who he was and was able to face the temptation of becoming someone he was not.
The lure of temptation is accepting the wrong answers of who we are. The easy way out is not always the right choice. Reacting to our animal instincts sometimes leads into darkness. When we fall to temptation, it may make us feel in control of ourselves. We take the lure of doing something for ourselves that is not what God intends, then once we are hooked, we realize that we are caught in a destructive sin that leads us away from where we were meant to be. The first temptation that Jesus faced specifically had to do with food — turning stones to bread- but it related to spiritual disciplines. Jesus was hungry because he was fasting. Fasting is one of the spiritual disciplines of lent, and Jesus was being tempted to break this discipline.
Temptation was once defined as being a wedge that comes between you and God. Temptation is that wedge that attempts to slowly separate you from God. Anything that serves as that wedge is temptation. What a simple way to understand a very complex thing!
Jesus was able to withstand temptation. Ironically, Jesus was so spiritually full that he was not physically hungry. It would be a fair assessment to say that we are the opposite — so physically full that there is no hunger for the spiritual. Jesus demonstrated that we can keep from filling a legitimate physical need by illegitimate means. We all have physical needs but can destroy ourselves in the desert if we address those needs in an unhealthy way. Sometimes we need to deny ourselves, wait and analyze, pray, and assess exactly what we think we need and why we feel we need it. We may discover a wedge somewhere trying to push us away from God.
There is an old experiment that has gained attention recently. Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiment in 1970 had four-year-olds who were given a marshmallow. Then he would leave the room with the promise to the child that if the one marshmallow was not eaten, there would be more coming in just a moment if the child could wait. Many children ate the marshmallow right away, but others struggled as they waited. The results of the experiment came many years later. The children who waited had higher ACT scores, better academic careers, were less troubled children, and were less likely to have drug problems at age 30. Mischel concluded that children may be taught “that it pays to work toward the future instead of living for instant gratification.”
When Robert E Lee was asked what great gift we could give our children, he answered, teach him to deny himself. I doubt self denial would be found on any list of a North Shore child’s birthday gifts! But we can certainly begin to teach our children, and ourselves, the power of prayerfully waiting.
Jesus kept turning to God for help in the desert. Once he quoted Scripture that referred to manna falling from heaven. Maybe we can look to God for the answer to our great physical needs. Does God hold the answer to properly addressing the physical needs that threaten to redefine us in the desert? Yes…the answer comes from God as it came to Jesus. We do not live by bread alone but by God’s provision.
Jesus was offered the kingdoms of the world if he would bow down and worship Satan. Seemingly small ethical compromises may make our moves toward world domination more likely. If only we did this…or that…we could climb the ladder quicker. Sometimes the fall into idolatry is less intentional. When we are in the desert we realize that we have become dependent upon something else to make us feel whole when only God can accomplish that.
If we develop the practice of turning to God in prayer in the desert, we are less likely to make a God of Something Else. Our social standing, our ambition, our money, our jobs, our hobbies, our thoughts, our anger, our guilt can be our God… our busyness can become our idol.
Remember when Mary and Martha were spending time with Jesus, and Martha was so busy while Mary listened quietly to Jesus? Jesus said Mary has chosen the better part. We can become so busy that something else has become our prime object of worship, and we may not even realize it.
We are created in the image of God and given stewardship over creation. We are given a responsibility to create and maintain a healthy environment in our bodies, our minds, our communities. When we do not accept that responsibility, we are not utilizing that part of who we are. Is there a temptation to be less than what God calls us to be? Yes, God calls us to a life of balance, stability, peace with others and with ourselves, but it is too easy for us to find ways to serve ourselves and avoid serving God.
The lure of temptation is that we feel more in control and more powerful when we serve ourselves. Ironically, we are losing control when we succumb to temptation. We are building up our false selves and not our true selves when we begin to fall. How many times are we so misguided that we put ourselves at great risk…it is as if we are throwing ourselves off the temple. Let us back away from that precipice and see how we are living. It is a long way down.
Jesus was led into the desert to clarify his strength against temptation. When we deny temptation we strengthen ourselves. “Why am I being tempted so much?” a man asked his friend. “Have you ever been duck hunting and shot two ducks at once?” came the reply. Which one do you go after first- the one that is alive, right? Well, you are alive, so the devil is going after you!”
Martin Luther referred to birds when he was asked about avoiding temptation. Likening birds to temptation, he said that everyone is tempted and no one can avoid birds flying overhead. However, we can prevent a bird from building a nest in our hair.
At another occasion Martin Luther was asked how he battles temptation. When temptation used to come to my door, I would answer it, but now, I say, he is not here, only Christ dwells here, and temptation scurries away. Maybe Luther was thinking of the Bible verse, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you” (James 4:7-8), or maybe he was considering Paul’s words, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24) There was even a legend that developed after Luther stated that he battled the devil with ink. Whether he was referring to his writing or to a literal spot on the wall that may have been produced by throwing the inkwell at the devil, temptation was battling him. Sometimes temptation comes subtly. In the Bible it first appeared as a delicious, forbidden fruit. Other times it is not so subtle. King David fell to temptation upon seeing a woman bathing from his palace roof. Both kinds of temptation are equally destructive.
After watching the news, we wonder whether it is even possible for someone of great influence to live a life of integrity. Be encouraged by two heroes of the Bible. We have the story of Daniel who served as prime minister of Persia and Babylon, and Joseph who was second in command to Pharoah, two very influential individuals who never let temptation entice them away from God. They never said, “Just this once, one time won’t matter.”
Of course, the greatest hero of the Bible is Jesus. No one teaches us more about living a life of integrity, complete obedience, and total faithfulness to God than Jesus, who lived a life free from sin. In Jesus there can be victory over temptation, but Jesus may lead us away from our current life toward a new life. Theologian Charles Spurgeon once stated, “What settings are you in when you fall (into sin)? Avoid them. What props do you have that support your sin? Eliminate them. What people are you usually with when you fall into sin? Get away from them.”
Does that seem too sharp a point to put on temptation? Sometimes the church needs to say explicitly exactly how we can behave like Jesus in the desert:
If you feel tempted to follow lust and be led away from your spouse, don’t do it, turn instead to God in prayer. Recommit yourself to faithfulness in your marriage. Renew your vows.
If you feel tempted to react in anger to someone and seek revenge, don’t do it, redirect that energy in prayer to God. If you feel tempted to cheat on your taxes, in your business, do not do it, turn to God in prayer. If you are tempted to take credit for something you didn’t do, or make someone else look bad, turn to God in prayer instead and find harmony in your relationships. If you are tempted to fall into despair, and tempted to become depressed and despondent, instead turn to God, and with the help of the church, the body of Christ, keep your head held high as a beloved child of God.
God will provide help in the desert. There can be victory over temptation. Lent comes from the sme word as spring. Lent is a time of walking through the desert toward the Spring of Easter. So if you find yourself in the desert, keep walking toward your true self, keep resisting the lure of temptation to become less of what God would have you become, and as Jesus did, ask God to empower you with new strength to become the person God intended you to be. Amen.