1 Lent 2013
The Rev. Elizabeth A. B. Tesi
This past week, I read a great little story. A mom dropped her little boy off at Sunday school, where a storyteller told the children the story of the three temptations Afterwards, the mom asked the boy what he'd learned in Sunday school. He starts out telling her how mean the Devil was to Jesus, and went on to explain the temptation to turn stones into bread. "It's like if we went to the grocery story and you went into one aisle and I went into the candy aisle and the Devil told me to take the candy, but you'd tell me no candy." Mom nods and prompts her pious little boy: "And what do you say to the Devil when he gives you candy?" The little boy replies, "I say 'Thank you, Mr. Devil'".
Today's Gospel has no witnesses, except us. There are no apostles, no scribes, no crowd. Today, we become witnesses to the character of Jesus.
Immediately after his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus went out into the wilderness. He'd just experienced the voice from heaven and the Spirit descending. We have no way to know how much Jesus knew of his angel-sung beginnings; we can't know what Mary has told him of the prophecies. At his baptism, the Triune God is united in one, in voice, spirit, and human sign. Jesus heads out into the wilderness to sort out what being God's beloved son means for him. There's a lot of life out there... dare he choose this one? He's not alone in this urge to seek solitude for spiritual awakening: the Spirit Quest is a well-known practice throughout many cultures of the world.
It is common for us to hear this story as a stern, intelligent Jesus solidly stopping the Devil's every advance. But I wonder if we can explore this story in a different way today.
Jesus, having been in the desert for 40 days, was tired and hungry. He'd grown up in a strong community, always surrounded by family and friends. Now for the first time, he was utterly alone, without resources. Sometimes I wonder if he was relieved to see the Devil come along- it was companionship, even considering the somewhat rocky relationship the Devil had had with God and GOd's people. The devil is no new character either to our story of God and humankind, or to Jesus himself. Jesus is God's son- the devil represents the faction which rebelled against God and was cast out of heaven in the first place. In some ways, the devil is not just a character, but practically kin. He is known to God. He embodies that spirit which seeks to draw us away from the Presence which knows us as beloved.
The devil offers bread to a starving man. I don't think the Devil is offering bread out of compassion: after all, he doesn't offer Jesus bread himself. He tells Jesus to use his almighty power to transform the rocks into something he can eat. Use the resources of the atoms of those rocks to provide a temporary nourishment. You don't need community- you can be entirely self-sufficient. Jesus refuses. He says, essentially, it takes more than just bread to really live. Jesus could easily become the feeder of the hungry: he could use his powers to miracle up bread for everyone. But simply feeding the hungry doesn't solve the problem of the world's spiritual slavery. Simply making miracle food does not create a caring community that seeks to love and serve others as honored guests. Jesus is called to lead people into a place of spiritual freedom where they freely feed others in mutual community. That takes more than bread. Jesus expresses his true beliefs about the nature of community.
The devil offers power. He takes Jesus up to the place with the highest view. The Devil points out that he is the ruler of all those kingdoms. Absolutely, I can believe that our world of wealth and power is owned by a demonic force. I can imagine the urge of a compassionate soul to wield power to force others to behave with kindness and fairness. But God's fairness and justice isn't found in law books and constitutions. God's view of justice sometimes makes no sense- it wishes freedom for the prisoners, pardon for those who have no business being pardoned, forgiveness for the indebted sinner. God's justice and political power are often at odds. Jesus turns down political power. Serve God single-heartedly, he replies. He refuses political power so that he can live into God's justice.
And finally, the devil offers trust. You are God's only Son. Whole passages of scripture are written about how God will not allow his beloved to be injured. Throw yourself down. And typically we hear that Jesus refuses this too and goes on his way. That's what I've always heard. This is where it got interesting for me this week. I've always heard that with a stern, humorless Jesus. But what if Jesus wasn't just stern and humorless? What if Jesus, tired, lonely, hungry, by this point was actually starting to see the humor of the situation? What if this last comment was a flippant come back back? One bible translation renders this as "Don't you dare tempt the Lord your God..." To me, that would be the most honest and soul-baring of all the possible answers. Jesus is probably feeling pretty uncomfortable and weak at this point. I would bet he is absolutely considering every possible temptation. What if, in this moment, he finally gives the Devil his most honest answer yet? "Don't you dare tempt The Lord your God... because I too want to know that I am beloved for certain. But I am going to choose trust." If we look at the reading with that light, we get a little flash of who Jesus is and of the sort of character he develops. He will not sacrifice a short-term goal for the long-term vision; he will not sell out for political power when his people need justice; he chooses to trust God's love without continual proof.
This question a tender spot and a delicate area for all of us who claim Christ as savior and God as our protector. We are thousands of years removed from the person of Jesus and his miracles. Does he even still exist, up there in the great beyond? Does God even still bother to care about this world, veiled in darkness and enslaved to the Devils of our time? Do I actually matter to him? For all of us, this sort of a question is a primary point in our vocational journeys. Forget for a moment the scoldings of people who tell us to put our hand to the plow and never look back: I think in this story we are given a unique moment of insight into a God who discovered clearly who he was at his Baptism and now must discern how to live out his calling and his ministry. We too are continually called and must continually discern how to be all we are called to be.
Jesus chooses to trust God's love and that he is following the right path. At this critical juncture in our story, Jesus chooses to turn his face towards the path that will lead him into ministry, community, the cross, and the tomb. And he chooses to do this out of trust, with no further proof.
Aren't we also called into the unknown, asked to turn our faces towards a future and set our hands to plow in a furrow we can't quite see? Don't we also often have to make choices without really knowing all the possible end consequences? Isn't it a blessing to follow the Messiah who faced his own temptations down, and instead chose to proclaim to us through ages of ages that we are indeed a beloved people of God?
(Story credit: Paraphrase of Lori Brandt Hale's story, told in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2. Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor.)