March 6, 2022
On this first Sunday in Lent… as we always do… we read the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness for forty days immediately after his baptism. Listen as God continues to speak to you.
I read something somewhere this week that really got me thinking differently about this story. Like so many others, I’ve often approached this story in individual terms. This is Jesus and the devil… one on one. These are temptations perfectly pitched to Jesus as the individual in this moment of trial… this moment of physical weakness. Jesus is famished, so the first temptation is to turn stones to bread. What better way to tempt someone who has not eaten for days upon days? And how easy is it to put myself into that situation? I can imagine that. I can relate to that. I can probably find a sermon illustration story about that… about how people or someone did what they knew was wrong… knowingly made the wrong choice because someone else was there ready to feed their hunger. Doesn’t have to be stomach hunger. Could be addiction hunger. Could be greed hunger. Whatever that pressure point may be. That’s how these individual temptation stories work… you apply pressure to a point of weakness. We’ve all been in some analogous situation at one time or another. We look at temptation and we see choice… personal choice… personal choice coupled with the knowledge that what we are about to do is wrong… but we choose it anyway because it feeds that something within us… whatever that something happens to be. Or maybe… just maybe we find that resolve to not give in to temptation. To instead hold fast to something greater than that pressure point. A principle in our life. A belief that is worth upholding at all times no matter the surrounding conditions. And we find the strength to turn away.
But this year… this year… I want to think a little different about this story.
Let’s begin by thinking thematically. Forty days in the wilderness. The number and place are not an accident or a coincidence. Our minds are supposed to go back to Moses and the Hebrews coming out of Egypt. The exodus from Egypt led to forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Forty years… where the Law was given… in the wilderness the people were supposed to be shaped and formed to become the people of God in the world. Unlike Jesus, they did not do as well with the temptations put before them during those forty years… often failing miserably… to their own detriment.
But still… but still… the important point is that this time in the wilderness was supposed to help them determine who they were… and what they were going to be as a people of this God who had just freed them from bondage. The whole story of Exodus is God revealing to this people who God is. They had forgotten over time. They believed they had been forgotten after all those years. In Egypt… even though they had been in bondage… they had begun to believe in other powers… the powers wielded by the Egyptians. They had likely dreamt of freedom as having… as somehow gaining such power for themselves. Isn’t that often the first dream of people who are oppressed… the dream of power changing hands? The first dream… not necessarily the best dream. The ten plagues God unleashes on Egypt through Moses is God revealing the limits of such power… even as God is overwhelming the Egyptians and bringing them to their knees… humbling Pharoah and his claim on divinity through displays of greater power. And while some will continue to define God through such definitions of power, God will… over time… reveal what true power is… will work to shape these people by a different definition.
But we are slow learners. And it is so hard to let go. Our forty days of Lent is that yearly introspective discipline where we really take a hard look at ourselves… at the state of our church community… at how we are defining not just faith… but so many other aspects of our lives together and individually. What temptations have ensnared us? What are we having a hard time letting go off… even knowing… even while believing what that small voice inside us is telling us… keeping us from progressing in our faith… embracing what God through Christ has and is revealing.
The Hebrews go out into the wilderness but their transformation as a people is stunted because each challenge takes their hearts and their minds back to Egypt. They complain to Moses that he has brought them out into the wilderness to starve… they are hungry… their appetites and their wants are not being fed as they once were. Back in Egypt… yes, they were slaves… yes, they were oppressed by Egyptian power… but that power at least kept food in the fleshpots. It was a trade-off they were willing to make. To be subjugated to Egyptian power at least kept their bellies full.
So, this first temptation Jesus faces… maybe it is more than personal… maybe it goes beyond a single hungry holy man in the wilderness. Maybe… maybe the temptation is more about what kind of messiah this Jesus is going to be. What is truly going to be revealed of God? How many messiahs before and since Jesus have offered the tradeoff of bread for subjugation? I will fix your problems. I will keep you fed. I will make your life sweet and easy. And know that, I’m the only one who can. Take my bread. Eat your fill. Give me power. How many dictatorships begin by first solving the bread issue? And when they do they are hailed as a messiah, aren’t they? It’s an effective temptation… no matter the form it takes.
But… one does not live by bread alone… freedom is not the move from one form of oppression to another form of oppression because the bread is better on the other side. The people are freed from bondage and leave Egypt… set free to become the people of God. They do not simply trade one master for another. Faith is not a form of slavery. Jesus offers his disciples bread… but it is not the bread that feeds the belly… it is not the bread that is paid for with suppression… it is the bread that is the broken body given to us to free us from sin’s bondage. Our symbol is a cross and the responsibilities of grace… not the fleshpot and the promises it holds.
The devil’s first temptation is sly and subtle… the second one is a sledgehammer. All the kingdoms of the world are offered. An absolute theocracy. How could that be bad? It is very possible that that politician you voted for likes that idea too and is now trying to implement it. All “Christian” inspired laws are just, right? Afterall, the word “Christian” is there. We are on brand. How could a theocracy be a wrong move… as long as we have the right religion… the right god behind that theocracy. Surely… surely nothing could go wrong there… combining state and God… the two one… indivisible… without distinction. I know everyone likes to make a big deal about the condition of the devil’s that Jesus must worship him as the trade-off in this temptation. I suppose hubris would be a perfect form of worship for the great tempter. Truly, just the slightest amount of hubris destroys all theocracies… whether they are of a certain Christian brand or not. And Saints, trust me when I tell you there is not a single theocracy spouting politician who is free from hubris. Crack open a legitimate history book and find for me a fully functioning theocracy that was not undone by human hubris… you won’t find it because we cannot be fully god and fully human… indivisible… without distinction.
The heresy of Christian nationalism is always tempting because it feels so right and so natural to the super patriot who is also the super Christian to combine these two forces. All these new patriot churches springing up are full of energetic, well-meaning people who wrap their cross with the flag because they can’t tell the difference between the two… who plaster their guns with crosses without any sense of irony or understanding. Jesus was not killed by a weapon of the state to provide cover so that we could kill with our own weapons blessed by the state. That’s not the manner of messiahship that Jesus chooses while in the wilderness. “God and…” never works. It’s literally the first lesson of the Law given to those Hebrews in the wilderness. You shall have no other gods before me. Never “God and…” Always God only.
The last temptation in the wilderness… what I would call this morning the temptation of self-preservation… the temptation of assumed privilege. This temptation is aimed squarely at the ego. The people brought out of Egypt would always fight against and fail this temptation… believing that being chosen and set apart by God made them benefactors of God’s protection. Being set apart meant that somehow… in some way… they were better than their neighbors. Over and over again they would fall back into the habits of testy, spoiled children. But speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God said… “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” That was the purpose for being set apart. This is the clear revelation of God’s intentions for God’s people. If Jesus chooses self-preservation, he will never be able to turn his face toward Jerusalem and the cross awaiting him there. If Jesus chooses self-preservation, he will never be able to leave the garden of Gethsemane when it matters. If Jesus chooses self-preservation, he can never… with any semblance of authority or integrity… turn to his own disciples and tell them that if they are going to follow him… if they are going to be a light to the nations… they too will have to take up their cross daily. God’s messiah is sacrificial. The devil puts forward a great public display of power and divine protection… throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple for all to see how the angels will serve and protect you. How far that picture is from the Jesus who will wrap a towel around his waist and wash the feet of his disciples.
The world needs the church that can face temptations and leave the wilderness behind to do God’s work in the world. Look at us today. Sure… the pandemic seems to be winding down around us… but it is not done yet. It is still hard at work in different parts of the world and… as we’ve seen… it only takes one new variant… it only takes the virus doing what viruses do to turn everything back around. The weather is getting more intense and more deadly. Climate change doesn’t care if you believe in it or not. War never goes away. These are just the top three headlines today. The promises of stones to bread do not solve the problem. The promises of divinely mandated rule do not solve the problem. The promises that if you believe hard enough and right and enough, then God will keep you safe… do not solve the problem.
The church that leaves the wilderness… leaves and turns it’s face to Jerusalem… to the cross… to the resurrection. Amen.