I need to start this morning with a little bit of a confession. I am not all that comfortable with the story of Jesus' temptations. Next year, when the first Sunday in Lent comes around, if any of you would like to preach for me, I would be very grateful.
You might say to me that we all have aspects of our life and work that we would rather avoid. Man up. Don't complain about it. But see it's not really that I'm complaining. I just want to be honest with you.
The reason I'm not comfortable is because we all have categories in our minds for thinking about these kinds of things. When I say "sin" you might hear something very specific. You probably don't think "seeking...our own will instead of the will of God," which is the Catechism's definition (BCP 848). You might think "chocolate cake," "ice cream," which are not really sinful. Eating them is not really sinful, either. What you think about is the item that, for you, represents an inability, or perhaps I should say, a weakness for saying "no."
I'm going to say a few words and I want you to just mentally note the first things that come into your mind. Temptation. Testing. Sin. Vice. Weakness.
These words are like large suitcases that we have packed with very specific meanings over the course of our lives. If we were to open up our suitcases in front of each other, we might discover some of the same things. But we would likely discover that we all have items that are unique to us that come from our own experience.
And see, that's why I'm uncomfortable talking with you this morning. Because we all have our own weaknesses. And I do not wish to speak too broadly about such things.
When the devil comes to Jesus to test him, he zeros in on Jesus' particular weaknesses. Now, I should back away from that to say that part of my lack of comfort with this text is the notion that Jesus had weaknesses. You could say that Jesus proves that he didn't have any weaknesses, but to say that is really to say that Jesus was never really tempted.
The devil comes to him after he has been fasting for a long time and says to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Now there are two temptations in play here. The first is the question of Jesus' identity. If you are the Son of God…do this. And the second is the use of Jesus' son-ship to do something that will satisfy his hunger, and end his fast.
It's a very tricky temptation, because there is nothing wrong with Jesus' ending his fast. Luke makes very clear that the temptations come to Jesus after the forty days of fasting, so we can imagine that he's going to get something to eat soon. But there's a sticker in this temptation. The implication is that if Jesus can feed himself miraculously, then why doesn't he feed all the hungry people in the world miraculously. If you are the Son of God…why not?
In fact, this is a really good temptation because it asks Jesus to change life for all humanity for the better. Why doesn't God do this? Why does God create our bodies so that we need food, and then make it so scarce that many people die of starvation? Would a loving God let that happen?
And then that opens up the whole question of theodicy—why does a loving God allow bad things to happen. We're right back to that one. Earthquake in Haiti. Tsunami in Asia. Hurricane in New Orleans. How could God let it happen?
"If you are the Son of God…fix it, Jesus." But what happens if he fixes it? Then the kingdom of God will be reduced to just fixing the physical problems, and nothing more. Bellies will be full of food, but souls will still be lonely and empty of spiritual nourishment. Jesus says, "It is written, one does not live by bread alone." Food is only one aspect of nourishment.
The devil led Jesus up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and said, "If you will worship me, it's all yours." Now, to really get into this one, we've got to remember the Roman empire. When Luke writes "all the kingdoms of the world," he is saying that devil showed him the Roman empire with its crippling taxation, and its oppressive military and said, "Look Jesus, worship me and all these people will be free."
It is a shortcut to political dominance; it would instantly bring about a better life for Jewish people, and all people, really. And Jesus says no. Why? Well, he quotes the Sh'ma, which is the creedal statement of his people: "Worship the Lord your God and serve only him." But the reason for his refusal is much more than that. The temptation is to give a half answer to a bigger problem. The temptation is for temporary political power, but the kingdom of God that Jesus has been sent to inaugurate is an eternal power that is political only in the sense that many people will believe. The kingdom of God has no borders and police—it is an everlasting kingdom in heaven and earth.
Next the devil takes Jesus up to the Temple in Jerusalem. This is the big one. The last two temptations have not weakened Jesus, but now it's Jerusalem, and the Temple. The Temple, remember, is literally the house of God. It is where God's presence was. And it's Jerusalem, which is where Jesus will live out his Passion and Resurrection. They are standing on the pinnacle of the Temple. And again the conditional statement: "If you are the Son of God…throw yourself down from here."
The devil has noticed that Jesus sidestepped the last two temptations with the words "It is written," so to heighten the temptation a little bit, he uses that phrase. "It is written, `He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you.' And [in another place] `On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"
The temptation is "to make an entrance," to get notoriety for being a miracle worker. As a friend of mine likes to say, "It's all well and good to be a Temple jumper, but the Temple has to get higher and higher." People are only impressed for so long. I remember some time ago hearing someone say, "You can always bluff for ten minutes, but after that, you better know something."
And Jesus responds, "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test." No Temple jumping. He is not a one trick horse.
And there you have it. Three temptations. And I'm sure that there were a lot more than three, but these are symbolic. Three temptations that symbolize what were probably many little temptations along similar lines throughout Jesus' life. Because we all know that no one gets just three, and no one gets even one day away from a temptation of some kind or another.
And they all come down, really, to just one temptation. The temptation to choose less. Don't take the path of discipline—take the easy way. Don't do the work—copy off of someone else. Don't discipline yourself—do what ever you want, let others do what you don't want to do. Don't watch your language, don't mind your manners, don't be nice to other people—make yourself happy, others will have to adjust. It's the easy road, right? Just do what you want to do, and so what?
Have you ever heard of the sin of sloth? Sloth is no so much a sin as it is a state of sin. Sloth means, "I don't care."
Children starving. I don't care. Earthquake in Haiti. I don't care. Would you ever say that? No. But try this on: You've been waiting in a line of cars to get out of the parking lot, and a slight break the traffic would allow you to shoot out and cut someone off. It's a little dangerous, but you've been waiting a long time. You see the opportunity—it might be a little risky, the other driver might have to jump to put on his brakes, but, I've been waiting a long time and I don't care.
It's the night of the party. She's been planning this for weeks and weeks, but you know who is going to be there and it doesn't sound like much fun. What could you say? "I know I promised I would be there, but you know, life is life, and I've had a little bit of a headache…" But the real voice in your head is saying: I don't care.
Do you hear how ugly those words sound? I don't care. They don't sound like profanity, but they are profane. And each of the temptations of Jesus are temptations to stop caring, to take the easy way.
And each time he resists he shows us that resisting is not simply saying "I do care." In fact, it's more than that. What he says is, "I care so much that I will not be limited to just caring about this one thing."
Jesus teaches us something about resisting temptation. To resist as Jesus resists is to say: I will care, and I will care about much more than just what is before me. I will not be limited to this. It will not define my relationship to the world. I care too much to care just a little bit. I will care with my whole being. I will care with everything I have been given.
So I will love with the love of God. I will serve with heart of God. I will care beyond the obvious needs, I will care for the brokenness in the person who has lost their spouse or their child. I will care for the orphan and the sick, and the elderly. I will care with the resources and the time that I have been given by God to use.
Maybe that is the real reason why I am so uncomfortable with this text. At first I really thought it was because I don't like the temptations. But now I see, that what is even more uncomfortable is Jesus' response to them. It is a response that goes so far beyond the simplistic answers of food, power, and privilege. The response of Jesus goes right down to the aching need of every human being, which is the need for compassion and love.
We know how to give it in little doses here and there. But we do not yet know how to give it as Jesus gave it.
So, I'm going to give you some homework. I don't ask you to do much. I've even trimmed a few minutes off the sermon, just to sweeten the deal. Go home today and think over your life right now. I'm going to do this, too. Don't be too hard on yourself, but ask yourself these questions: "Is there someone I have not cared for very much? And, "Can I care for them more than I have?"
And when you've identified that person, pray for them. Take them out for lunch, or whatever. Learn how better to care for them.
And if the person you identify is yourself, be open to that. Do not rush to dismiss it. Think about what caring more for yourself would look like, and do not be too critical of those thoughts. Sometimes it is our inability to care for ourselves that leads us to care less for others.
But don't worry. There is time to change. Take a day to think about it. Or maybe a week. Or maybe…forty days.
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842