Back when I was first ordained, although I didn’t have a parish appointment, it seemed that I wound up preaching somewhere on the first Sunday of Lent every year. After several years of that, when the rector of my home parish asked me to preach there on that Sunday, I asked if I could pick another day, and I quipped, “I’m really tired of being tempted by the devil.”
Quips aside, and whether or not “the devil” is part of your vocabulary when you’re not joking, who isn’t tired of being tempted? We go through every day faced with a whole array of choices, and we know that often the most immediately gratifying choices are the ones that are the least healthy for us or our neighbors. It’s hard work to make healthy choices, and we wish we could just take a vacation from it some times. Don’t you wish you didn’t have to stop and think about making that cutting remark? Don’t you wish you could push the shopping cart past all that junk food without remembering how good some of that stuff tastes? Who isn’t tired of that? Don’t you wish it would just go away?
But you know what? We were made for this. We’re designed to be pulled in several directions at once. It’s why we’re not rocks or robots. Temptation is the exasperating, even frightening, side of God’s gift of uncoerced love. We were called into being to live in love with God, with ourselves, and with one another. We can’t manufacture love; it calls us into being. But we’re never forced to love. If we were, it wouldn’t be love. So we have choices—healthy ones, and unhealthy ones. We can choose to live into love. That’s healthy. Or we can choose not to—not with ourselves, not with one another, not with God. Do I even need to tell you that that’s not healthy? But believe it or not, all of this is a gift from God. If we were not tempted, tempted all the time, we wouldn’t know what love is, and we wouldn’t know who God is.
Today’s Gospel tells us about an important time when Jesus was tempted. It’s right after his Baptism, right after this high point in his life where it’s been made clear to him that God loves him like an only son, that there’s something only he can do that will bring more joy to God and more joy to the rest of us than anybody could imagine. He’s had a glimpse of just how special he is.
But I’ve begun to notice something about high points like these. They’re wonderful. We need them. But they’re full of danger. They’re times when you can get so carried away that you lose all track of who you are, and then you can make a mess of everything. You might think things are so good you just don’t have to face all the complicated, messy details of your life that still haven’t been worked out so well. High points are hazardous.
Jesus gets a glimpse of how special he is, and then he finds himself tempted to lose track of who he is. He’s tempted to forget just what it is about him that makes him so special. If he’s so special, maybe he’s entitled to take advantage of it. Maybe he gets to act like some first century Superman. Maybe he gets to be the one who makes everybody else hop to it and wait on him. I mean, when you get that kind of recognition, surely you’re entitled to a few perks. That was his temptation.
Now some of us twenty-first century folk are inclined to make light of the presence of the devil in this story. And I’d be the first to point out that the Bible gets pretty garbled when it comes to telling us just who or what this character is. The Greek word for “devil” and the Hebrew “Satan” both mean “the accuser.” It’s sort of a job description. We’ve developed a lot of folklore about this figure, but most of it doesn’t come from the Bible. So you can take the Bible quite seriously and still see all this talk about the devil as figurative.
But let’s do be clear about this: evil isn’t figurative. Violence isn’t figurative. And sometimes we find ourselves swept up in forces spiraling beyond anybody’s control. These days we see an autocrat seemingly in the grip of his own obsessions with control and domination. We find ourselves in the grip of indecision about how to respond to this, when we can’t afford not to respond, and yet we can’t think of any effective response that doesn’t put the whole world at risk. And we and our leaders are not totally innocent. There’s a conflicted history that brought us to this point. It doesn’t excuse anybody. But it makes scapegoating pointless. We’re swept up in forces spiraling beyond anybody’s control. Evil is not figurative.
Back in the 1960s, when our Church was revising the Prayerbook, I’m told, the committee debated about the wording of that question in our Baptismal rite: “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” (BCP, 302). Some people wanted to remove the reference to Satan. But one of the members of that committee was the pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead. “Keep it in,” she insisted. She’d seen too many different cultures to buy into the assumption that our current, local culture knew more about the forces of evil than a bunch of first-century Mediterranean peasants might have known.
So we still renounce Satan every time somebody gets Baptized. Think what you want to about the name. I certainly will! But don’t underestimate “the spiritual forces of wickedness” that still have the power to overwhelm us, and most especially when we think we’ve finally arrived.
Whatever temptations’ ultimate origin might be, when we hear this story about Jesus’ time in the wilderness, we know we’re not alone. Just like you and me, Jesus knew keenly what it was like to be distracted from what made him so special in God’s sight. He knew what it was like to be pulled away from loving God, pulled away from loving the people around him, even pulled away from loving himself. He knew what it was like to feel a constant, insistent tug away from the common life that God was living in and around him. He felt that tug all the time. God felt it with him and in him.
The only difference, we’ve come to believe, is that he never quite let go of the love that wouldn’t let go of him, no matter how much he got tugged in other directions. People called him sinless, but that can be misleading, especially since his own Sermon on the Mount blurred the distinction between sin and temptation: if you even think about doing it, you’ve already done it “in your heart.”
And it’s not that he never broke any rules—he was always breaking rules, even Biblical rules. It’s not that he was a nice little boy who always obeyed his parents—every time they even hinted at telling him what to do, he told them to back off. It’s not that he never had to be taught anything about the reach of God’s love—just ask the Canaanite woman who practically tricked him into healing her daughter. It’s not that he never had any second thoughts—just watch him praying that last night in the garden.
It’s just that through all of that apparent misbehavior, short-sightedness, and indecision he never quite let go of the love that wouldn’t let go of him. That’s the only difference. And it doesn’t separate him from the rest of us. It only brings him closer, because the love that wouldn’t let go of him is the love that won’t let go of us.
And now we can look at our own temptations in a new way. They don’t have to take us away from God. They can bring us closer. They’re something that we and God have in common, because in Jesus God has lived a fully human life. “God from God” knows intimately what it’s like to be pulled away from the love that God is. So when we’re pulled away, God is just as close to us as ever.
Yes, we’re constantly pulled away from living in love. We’re human. But so is God. So when you notice that constant tug, no matter how tired you are, remember who is here with you, even then, to “strengthen you in all goodness.” Take heart.