Can I Resist Temptation?
Lent began this week: 40 days of walking with Jesus toward the cross. Over the next few weeks we’ll be reading the gospel passages with the theme: A Questioning Faith.
We’re pretty good around here at applying a critical eye to texts and traditions; familiar religious approaches to most anything are held under microscopic scrutiny from time to time here at The Riverside Church. And that’s a good thing, to question our faith.
But this Lent our questions will turn inward. During this season of self-examination we’ll be gathering the courage to ask ourselves some questions posed by the lectionary texts and touching on some of the deepest and most difficult human experiences.
This season we’re using as our guide the gospel passages provided for us by the lectionary. For those unfamiliar, the lectionary is a three year cycle of assigned passages followed by many churches in the Christian world; it’s a place to start with our holy text each week. I say that to prove that I did not intentionally choose Valentine’s Day to assign today’s question: Can I resist temptation?
When I was a kid my grandmother lived with us for half of every year. It was always fun for us to have my Dad’s mom right there with us; I am not so sure my mother felt the same way…. See, Grandma had her sacrosanct routines: Grapenuts cereal with bananas for breakfast every day, mass very early on Sunday mornings, and, as she called them, her shows. Every weekday beginning at about 11 am, no one was allowed to interrupt Grandma, who would be glued to the television for several hours watching her favorite soap operas.
Maybe you had a Grandma like this, too. If you did, then you and I might share a common soundtrack of childhood. You remember, the dramatic voiceover at the beginning of every episode of The Days of Our Lives, the picture of an hourglass with the haunting recitation: “Like sands through the hourglass…so are the days of our lives…”.
That soundtrack kept running through my mind this week as we dimly lit the nave and mixed the ashes for Ash Wednesday and did all that we do around here to get ready for Lent, because if there’s any liturgical season in which to be mindful of the fleeting nature of our lives, in which to summon the courage to ask the hard questions, Lent is it.
Today we’re asking: can I resist temptation?, and our gospel lesson tells the story of Jesus spending forty days in the desert, where the text tells us he fasted and prayed and was constantly tempted by the devil. It’s a story we read every year on the first Sunday of Lent, and Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include some version of the story, so they all must have thought it was important.
Jesus in the desert for forty days should make the biblical scholars in us immediately know that there are some deep allusions to a larger story going on here. The people of Israel, remember, spent forty years in the wilderness, the desert, wandering around trying to find their way to the Promised Land. The prophet Elijah spent forty days in the wilderness, too, waiting for the voice of God. Moses also hung out for forty days in the wilderness until God gave him the law.
This reference to forty days in the desert carries with it deep meaning, to symbolize a time of waiting in a desolate place, a wild place, a place of total dependence, a place to grapple with questions, a place to look for answers to emerge.
Forty days, just like our own season of Lent.
Today’s story appears in Luke’s gospel right after Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, ready to get going on with saving the world, when, Luke tells us, the Spirit led Jesus into the desert. For forty days he was all alone in a barren, desolate place, without food to eat, alone with his own thoughts and fears and hopes and doubts. Alone…except, the text says, for the devil, Satan, the embodiment of all the doubts Jesus had about who he was and what he was meant to do with his life. Like all of us, Jesus was seeking meaning for his human experience, and he had questions, doubt, deep wondering about what his life would mean.
The devil must have known this too, because he tried to get Jesus right at his most vulnerable.
First, knowing Jesus was hungry after his starvation diet of forty days, the devil taunted him with the offer of bread. Stale bread in a hot, dry desert doesn’t sound that appealing to me, even if Jesus had had some hot sauce in his bag. Still, you know his stomach had to be rumbling. If you are really the Son of God like you say you are, then why not turn these stones into bread?
The devil’s second temptation was to show Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and tell him they were his for the taking. Just worship me, the devil said, and they’re yours. And think what you can do with all the kingdoms of the world! There won’t be any inconvenient tussles with the authorities for you then, no difficult Supreme Court justice nominations, no threat of death or anything like that—you’ll have all the stuff you need to make yourself feel secure!
And the third temptation the devil presented to Jesus was identity…throw yourself off the temple and show the world that angels will catch you. Everyone will see how powerful and prestigious you are. They won’t have any doubts that you’re the Son of God then! It will be a much quicker way to impress folks than walking around the countryside telling them to love their enemies and crazy stuff like that!
Almost all the scholars who write commentary on this text take the approach of breaking down these three temptations and finding each of their deeper meanings. There are books written about what each one of these temptations represents, why the devil chose those three particular temptations, and what each one symbolizes for us.
I prefer today, however, to keep it simple, because it seems to me that there is something that all three of these temptations have in common, and maybe it’s something, as we start this forty day journey through the desert of Lent ourselves, to which we should pay attention.
That commonality is: distraction. Distraction from the real and painful internal work of finding out who we are in this world and who we’re meant to be.
None of what the devil tempts Jesus with is necessarily bad. We need food to survive; we work hard to provide for ourselves and our families; we struggle to be good people with good reputations.
But sometimes the internal work of vulnerability and honesty sends us running for the hills, and our well-intended efforts veer off into destructive temptation: the temptation to make the good the enemy of the great, to use the rhythm of our lives to drown out the questions that are so painful to ask.
Can you see it?
This Lent: you may be giving some thought to who you really are and how to make your life meaningful. But here’s the distraction: a voice that says, “Don’t be silly! That’s too much work…it’s painful and hard to live with intention. Instead, here…exercise some more, so you don’t have to think about it; use other people for your own pleasure—with no concern for their own wellbeing—it will distract you; or as Brene Brown says with such eloquence: “have another beer and a banana nut muffin…”.
This Lent: perhaps you hope to ask some hard questions, to carve out some time to think about how to intentionally build a life that reflects God’s hopes for the world. But then the distraction will appear: “Why don’t you get your mind off things by making sure you have enough stuff? Staunch that fear of living intentionally by buying stuff and bringing it home to your already over-crowded apartment, by spending your time worried about keeping the money you have and amassing more, by buying that new whatever because it feels good, then desperately clutching all this stuff to yourself in an attempt to feel secure in an ever-changing world.”
This Lent: maybe you’re ready to look in the mirror and be honest, to be honest with yourself about who you really see staring back at you. But then the voice of distraction sounds again: “That might be too painful. It might change what other people think about you. It might force you to honestly confront who you really are. Instead, go to school a lot. Get a whole bunch of diplomas to hang on your wall. Build professional acclaim that will define who you are to the world and save you the trouble of looking inside! Fill your life with work…work, work, work or whatever prestigious volunteer position you hold. It will keep your mind off the feeling that you might not be good enough! And work hard at climbing the social ladder; if you do that, then everybody will think you’re somebody and maybe, just maybe, you won’t even have to look too closely in that mirror yourself.”
It might be the most alluring temptation of all.
Right there at the beginning of his ministry, his true meaning and purpose spread out before him like the challenge they were, Jesus was tempted…by distraction. All the voices around him urged him NOT to do the work it takes to live intentionally. There was plenty to take his attention, and there’s plenty around us to do the same.
This season of Lent, forty days of reflection, of walking alongside Jesus in the desert and feeling the constant temptation of distraction, don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of the Lenten wilderness.
Temptation will surely meet us here, but what happened to Moses and Elijah and Jesus and the Israelite people in their desert sojourns will also certainly happen to us: God will be with us, too, right here in the fear-filled wandering of Lent. And God will persist in the painful and joyful process of formation: of shaping and changing us into people whose lives reflect God’s radical love…if only we will resist the ever-present temptation of distraction pulling us away from the hard, hard questions.
As we begin these forty days of Lent, it’s more than the chocolate we promised to give up that’s calling to us, tempting us to give in. It’s all of the distractions of this world that lure us into lives of complacency and numbness, of living day in and day out with no intention whatsoever.
And as we watch Jesus resist the attraction of all these things he could have used to distract him from the very purpose for which he was created, we must acknowledge that we can, and we do, often face the very same temptation. We so very easily distract ourselves from the real work of living intentional and faithful lives.
The question for us today is: can we resist temptation? I’m not talking about chocolate or indiscriminate sex or alcohol or red meat. I’m talking about something deeper: the temptation to give in to distraction, to set the hard internal work of Lent aside and glide through until Easter.
But if we want to be people who live faithfully and intentionally in this world, then we can’t afford to waste any time in the task of becoming who we’re called to be.
In these next forty days, can you resist the temptation to distraction?
It’s an important question as we start out, because life is fleeting, and: “like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives…”.
 TED Talk by Brene Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o