I’m veering from the Lectionary texts today and taking us backward to the first Sunday of Lent when traditionally we read the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness.
In this passage, Jesus was still wet from his baptism when he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There he embarked on his 40-day fast and ultimately his tests by the adversary. Forty is a much-used number throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Remember?
Forty days Noah and his family floated on the ark, waiting for a glimpse of dry land to indicate that God’s watery judgment was over (Gen 7). The people of Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years (Num. 14). Forty days Moses communed with God on the mountain (Ex 34). Elijah was tested for 40 days in the wilderness. (1 kings 19). King David reigned over Israel for 40 years. Jesus remained on earth 40 days after resurrection (Acts 1:3).
Pregnant women, I might point out, gestate for 40 weeks. A time of beauty and testing perhaps?
The desert at first seems like a strange place for the Spirit to decide was best the best place for Jesus to discover who he really was, and whose business he was going to choose to be about. But wilderness experiences have a way of stripping us from all we depend upon. Jesus was left with nothing but his identity and trust in the word of God.
After the 40 days without food Jesus was ravenous. This character, Satan (also called the tempter or enemy), came upon him and commenced in a battle of dueling scriptures.
It is written, Satan said ….
And it is also written, Jesus countered…
In this interaction we learn one of the most important lessons about the Scriptures. Used out of context, a biblical text can be wielded like a sword. Because scripture is open for interpretation, each passage can be used or abused, and be misleading. We need to be cautious when we quote scripture, and shrewd when we hear scripture quoted. A battle using scripture to justify one’s beliefs is a tricky enterprise. So learn how to study scripture so you can be wise about what you hear.
From this story, this morning, I want to draw out three Temptations the enemy tempted Jesus with, and I suggest that we face today.
The first: Be relevant.
The tempter came and said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
But Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Jesus, You clearly are famished! If you are who you believe you are, God’s beloved Son, you’ll be able to feed yourself. Take these inanimate objects— so many of them here in the desert–and turn them into something useful.
Be relevant. Be useful. Produce something. Prove yourself. If you want to get anywhere in this world you must show results— be effective. The problem is that this is the language of an economic system of production as value. When we focus on producing results, and their effectiveness, the temptation is to value a human’s worth based on what they can do for the rest of us.
What does that mean for those who no longer work, the sick, the poor, the immigrant, those without homes, children. It’s not a surprise that God’s mandates were always to take care of exactly those vulnerable populations., the ones under threat of being irrelevant.
We know this is true, and that’s why so many of us work like crazy to prove we are busy and thus valuable. You know that bumper sticker: “Jesus is coming back. Look busy.” Usefulness becomes equated with holiness.
This is true for the church and for clergy for sure. Surely we are expected to prove ourselves. Are our sermons relevant to your lives? Many say that Christianity and the church are irrelevant to “real life.” The church indeed is called to acts of justice and compassion; not to prove ourselves, but because we are motivated to reflect that the love of God we’ve experienced is true for us and for the world.
The late spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, wrote about his experience of moving literally and internally from his identity as an accomplished professor at Harvard and Yale, and prolific author, to becoming a housemate and worker in the L’Arche community in Canada.
If you aren’t familiar, the L’Arche communities are homes where disabled adults live together with abled adults. Nouwen said that moving into a community where it mattered not one iota who he was before he got there, was a process of a painful stripping of his created self.
Nouwen said that there in that home he had to face his “unadorned self.” He went from doing things that proved that he was relevant to society to a measurement based only on the authenticity of his love.
Second lie: Not only should we be relevant, we must be amazing!
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Stand out in the crowd. Be excellent. Be outstanding. Be gifted. Be Above average, at the very least, because heaven knows, no one should just be average. These are the mandates for contemporary life.
When I say SAT or ACT to those of you who are between 17 and 37 years old (or if you have you been a parent of a teenager in the past 20 years) you probably still get a knot in your stomach. This week, in fact, thousands of high school seniors are anxiously awaiting a thick envelope or a thin envelope revealing their acceptance or rejection to the colleges of their choice.
In the past twenty years we have moved from wanting young people to go to college to making college applications an industry. Most suburban kids have been “trying out” for college years before even applying. Highly selective colleges—the ones we consider at the summit of success—have a very, very small acceptance rate.
In the New York Times on Friday there was an essay by Frank Bruni from his book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. Bruni articulated well the madness we’ve created for kids who work themselves crazy to show that they are worthy of (certain) college acceptances and the despair they feel when they do not get into their choices.
We adults have passed along the pressure WE feel to be remarkable or extra-ordinary, that we should be at the top. But we all know that being at the “top” is a precarious place because there is always someone right at our heels. No one stays at the top.
Third, we are also tempted to believe that we can have it all.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
The truth is we can’t have it all. We can’t have our proverbial cake and eat it too—not at least without cost to our mental, physical, or spiritual health, or the health of our planet. We are mortal. We are terminal. The earth’s natural resources are limited. Our work and careers will come to an end. Our children will grow up and need us less. We will do all we can, work hard, and some day our number will be up, just like everyone else’s. As the poet in Ecclesiastes says, All is vanity. All will wither and fade away like the grass and flowers. (Cheery?)
We tell kids that they can be anything they want to be. Yet, many young adults tell us that what was intended to be encouragement to them has backfired. They see that there really is no guarantee that after graduating from even highly selective colleges that they will get the jobs they assumed they would. As they face thousands of dollars in debt, and no job, needless to say, disillusionment and self-doubt set in.
Our youth director, Shannon Headen, shared with me that one of her professors at Notre Dame College started the first day of her class bravely with these first words: “It is a lie that you can be anything you want to be. You can’t. “
Her professor is right! We must live within the reality of what gifts we’ve been given, and what we are skilled for, and what brings us most joy.
It took me until around middle school I’m embarrassed to admit to realize that I would never be a basketball player. Or a math or science whiz or a singer. But I liked reading and drama; I liked leadership roles and I was a good communicator. Thankfully I had committed teachers who helped me not to feel badly about what I couldn’t do well, and helped me focus on what I could do well.
Friends, we can question our identity from one day to the next, letting our worth be dependent upon how many affirmations or accolades we receive; we can allow ourselves to be tossed to and fro by our perception of how others feel about us; we can constantly measure our self-worth against arbitrary standards that shift regularly; or…or…we can feast on the truth that our core identity cannot be stolen by any hackers. Just like Jesus, we each have a promise given to us at Baptism: we belong to God. God has redeemed us and proclaims that we are children in whom God is well pleased.
God’s truth will satisfy our deep and true hunger.
So, please. Feast on that word.
Thanks be to God.