Temptation in the wilderness
Jesus answered [the devil], “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Luke 4:12
I read a beautiful essay this week in which the writer, James Marcus, describes the last months of his father’s life.[i] I don’t know if it’s my profession that draws me to memoirs about death and dying or if it’s just that I’m weird. But it was powerful reading during this week when we take our first tentative steps down the Lenten road toward Jesus’ death.
James’ father Aaron was a hematologist, someone who specializes in the study of blood. Here’s how James describes his father’s focus on his work:
[My father] was a physician and a scientist, who had spent decades pursuing the secrets of blood: how it flows, pools, clots, conducts intracellular conversations with itself. Too frail for what had been a daily commute into Manhattan, he was still running his laboratory in absentia…He wanted to find a new treatment for stroke…[he] wanted to win the Nobel Prize and wear his tuxedo to accept the check from the King of Sweden.
Given his life’s work, it’s a cruel irony that Dr. Marcus was eventually brought down by a subdural hematoma – bleeding in the brain. It didn’t kill him right away, but for months he experienced hallucinations. He said a man in a brown suit had shown up demanding proof of his identity. He insisted that his beloved Uncle Eddie had visited. Uncle Eddie had died 50 years ago.
Dr. Marcus learned before his death that he was to be awarded an incredible honor – the Wallace H. Coulter Award for Lifetime Achievement in Hematology. He had worked for many years with no recognition at all, slogging through a variety of research projects that did not lead where he had hoped. So it was a proud, though bittersweet, accomplishment to receive such a prestigious award. One of the last coherent things he said lying in his hospital bed were the whispered fragments of the acceptance speech he had hoped to deliver. For about an hour he spoke in fits and starts, occasionally falling asleep and then waking up to continue the lecture. It didn’t make much sense, but it was as if he really believed he was speaking to an audience. He died in his sleep two months before the awards ceremony.
This essay touched my heart in many ways, but I was especially reminded of how much each of us wants to know that our life matters, that the world is somehow changed for the better because we have been here. And how often the way we feel that we matter is connected to a particular identity that we hold. Dr. Aaron Marcus was a scientist, and that identity shaped how he viewed his own significance. It made a difference in how he lived, and it made a difference in how he died.
For some of you that sense of purpose comes from your profession too – in what you do and how you do it. Most of us also see our identity and purpose as rooted in relationships. For the people who are dearest to us, family members and friends, we hope that we can leave a mark on their lives in the way that they have marked ours.
And when we inevitably face those life and death struggles, it is our deepest identities that anchor us.
I see this happening in Luke’s account of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. Here we see quite viscerally what it means to be the Son of God, both human and divine. I am usually drawn to the evidence of Jesus’ divine nature in this story. I love that even though he hasn’t eaten in forty days, he can still go toe-to-toe with the devil. He withstands each and every one of the temptations that the devil offers up, and he usually does it by quoting some scripture: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”…”It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ “…”It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” Jesus the Divine One can handle himself in a fight with evil.
But this time I realized just how much this story points to Jesus’ human nature. The devil has designed the temptations to appeal to those longings that most humans hold deeply. If Jesus is only divine, then it’s not even a fair fight. But because Jesus is also human, these temptations are real for him. He must struggle against giving into them.
The first temptation appeals to hunger. The devil urges Jesus to turn stones into bread, and I can’t imagine how good that would sound after forty days of eating nothing. We all have our hungers, not just for food, but for anything that will fill us when we are feeling empty. You know what that is for you.
The second temptation speaks to the human desire for power and recognition. The devil says to Jesus: “You worship me, and I’ll give you authority over all the kingdoms of the world.” I’m not sure what made the devil believe that he had that kind of authority over the world, but the devil sure is looking to leverage it. We may not want to rule the world, but we all want to have a certain kind of power and influence in our own lives. We do not want to be controlled by someone else. Most of the “isms” that divide humanity arise from a corruption of power that seeks to coerce and control others.
The third temptation is the promise of safety. The devil promises that if Jesus jumps off the top of the temple, he will be OK. The devil even quotes the psalm we read together a few minutes ago, reminding Jesus that God promises the protection of angels. This one might be the most human temptation of all. We do not want to be vulnerable. When we are in a risky situation, when we’re not sure whether or not to take a leap of faith, we want to know that we will be safe. And we can’t always know that.
A full stomach. Unlimited power. Guaranteed safety. It’s a pretty enticing set of promises for the very human Jesus. But he knows they are false promises.
The devil keeps saying “If you are the Son of God” as if both he and Jesus aren’t completely aware that Jesus is the Son of God. That’s the identity that allows Jesus to remain steadfast in the face of these temptations. The devil can keep whispering in his ear, but the voice of God got there first – in Jesus’ baptism, when God said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
There will always be voices that try to undermine our sense of who we are. Sometimes those voices will be inside us, when we are filled with self-doubt or when we compare our lives with the lives of others and feel we come up short. At other times those voices will come from the outside, when we encounter people who seek to diminish us and make us feel insignificant.
Those are the moments when we are the most vulnerable to temptation – when we feel that we do not matter. When we believe that we are not enough. That’s when we’re most likely to choose what will hurt ourselves or others.
In those moments of temptation we can hold fast to one unshakeable identity: We are children of God. I am a child of God. You are a child of God. And that means that you are enough and you do matter and you don’t need anything more to prove your worth.
God has made us to be both human and holy, and God is indeed our shelter and shadow, our refuge and stronghold. Of that we can be sure.
There is something in every one of you that waits [and] listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself…You are the only you that has ever lived…and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.
You are the only you that has ever lived. You are a child of God. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
Thank you to Professor Karoline Lewis for pointing me to this address in her “Dear Working Preacher” column this week: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5294
February 18, 2018
“[Jesus] was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Mark 1:13
Today we have made our way here in wintry conditions so that we can enter the desert. I know. It’s weird to be talking about a desert wilderness when several inches of snow fell last night. But here we are, on the first Sunday of Lent, at the beginning of our own forty-day time, and everything is so…spare.
Lent has begun, and so we have a new setting for our worship service, one that’s a little less elaborate. We won’t be singing or speaking any “alleluias” during Lent. We don’t sing as much during worship. The communion liturgy will be more brief, though its essence is still there.
We’ll have new wording for our various prayers – after the offering, after communion. And as you may have noticed, we have new language for our confession. I think it’s helpful to change our words a bit from season to season because it helps us pay closer attention to what we are actually saying.
I don’t know if it was a trick of my mind, but earlier this week, when I was reviewing today’s bulletin for the first time, I came to this sentence in the confession: “We fail in love, neglect justice, and ignore your truth.” But instead of “we fail in love,” I read it as “we fall in love.” It took me a minute to realize my mistake. Not “we fall in love,” but we “fail in love.”
Falling in love. Failing in love. Both part of the human condition. That was one of the best parts of having Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day converge this year. We’re good at falling in love, but we don’t escape failing at it either. Lent offers us a chance to tell the truth about who we are – the whole truth.
As we follow Jesus into the wilderness this morning, we notice that, typical of Mark’s gospel, there aren’t a whole lot of details to go on. We don’t hear how Satan actually tempts Jesus like we do in Matthew and Luke. There’s no recording of their conversation. We get two sentences about it: “And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
What do we learn about the wilderness in this brief account?
We learn that the wilderness is a place that Jesus does not choose to go. He is driven there by the Holy Spirit, still wet from his baptismal plunge into the river. His baptism has not prevented him from encountering evil. It has sent him barreling towards it. And maybe this time in the wilderness is good practice for contending with evil. Remember that when Jesus returns from the wilderness, his first act of public ministry will be an exorcism.
The wilderness is also a dangerous place. Those wild beasts are not cute companions or therapy dogs. They are threatening. As the days pass and Jesus grows more weak, I can imagine the wild beasts pacing around him, licking their chops.
And of course the wilderness is a place of temptation. We don’t get the specifics of what Satan offers up, but I bet it was some juicy stuff. The forces of evil are pretty good at figuring out where we are most vulnerable, where we are most easily led astray.
Those forty days are meant, of course, to remind us of the forty days that the Israelites spent wandering the wilderness after their escape from slavery in Egypt. You would think that the people of God would have been so grateful that they would have been praising God day and night and worked to build a communal life in which everyone was safe and loved. And sometimes they did exactly that. But remember that the wilderness was also where the people hoarded manna even when God told them explicitly not to. And the wilderness is the place where they melted down any precious metal they could get their hands on to make idols to worship. The wilderness does not necessarily bring out our best selves.
What do our own wildernesses look like? Sometimes we’re thrown into the wilderness by a crisis – a sudden illness, a divorce, a death, the loss of a job. We find ourselves unsure of what the future holds, and we give in to despair. Or we find ourselves in a wilderness surrounded by temptations that pull us away from what matters. We neglect the relationships that are most important to us.
Sometimes the wilderness looks like seventeen dead teenagers and adults after yet another school shooting.
Our wildernesses may look different, but they share some features with the one to which Jesus was sent for those forty days. We, too, are often forced to go there against our will. We wonder when this season of wandering will be over. We worry that the wild beasts – sometimes in the form of fear, anxiety, depression – will catch up with us and devour us on the spot.
But you know what else is in the wilderness? Angels. In Mark’s story, the angels wait on Jesus. The Greek word is diekonoun. The angels minister to him. They serve him. What a relief that must have been in the midst of suffering and temptation – to have that kind of tender care from those who know best how to offer it.
I don’t know how you imagine angels, but I think they take all kinds of forms in today’s world. For me the angels have included the friends who fed me and took me in when I was too exhausted from the latest round of exams and papers to think straight. Angels are the people who pray for me. Angels are teachers and mentors. Angels are the strangers who say something kind at just the right moment.
Angels aren’t wimpy. They have to be made of strong stuff to keep ministering to people in the wilderness. They strengthen us to stand up to evil. For me this week the angels have included the kids of Parkland, Florida, who have called us to account and said, “Look, you’re the adults. Figure something out. Do something to protect us.”
That’s what we’re called to do as baptized people. To figure something out. To address the evil in the world in the ways that God has equipped us to do. It’s part of what we promise in the baptismal service: to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.
So here we are in the wilderness, surrounded by both the wild beasts and the angels. It is not a safe place, but we are not alone as we wander through it.
I love today’s psalm [Psalm 25]. Like so many of the psalms, it’s an honest plea to God for what the speaker most needs. I especially love verse 7: “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love, remember me.”
We fall in love. We fail at love. Both are true. That’s what the wilderness teaches us. But God does not look at us and see all of the wrongs we’ve ever done. God does not see us as a summation of our sin. God looks at us and sees…us. God remembers us – beloved children created for a life that includes both brokenness and beauty. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ