On Wednesday night this past week, at our Ash Wednesday service, I introduced our Lenten theme for this year – Voices. We talked about how many voices are clamoring for our attention in this world. Throughout the season of Lent, we’ll try to listen in on those voices, and in particular, listen for the voice of God in the midst of all the other noise. That’s really what Lent is about – that’s why Lent is a season of reflection, repentance, renewal, why people focus on sacrifice, austerity, a lifestyle that is perhaps a little less indulgent than usual. It’s a time to tune everything else out so we can tune in to God. So throughout Lent, we’ll listen in to the gospel stories where we see examples of just that – characters trying to decide which voices to listen to. We begin with one who sets the example for us – Jesus.
In our gospel lesson, Jesus has just been baptized by John, his cousin. And he’s heard God’s voice saying, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” He’s grounded already in the truth of that voice. But Jesus has not yet taught and preached or called his disciples. It’s a retreat time, a preparation time for him. He takes this journey into the wilderness as a last time apart before a three year period of ministry that will bring him relentlessly closer to the cross, to his death. Jesus follows the Spirit of God to the wilderness, “to be tempted by the devil” we’re told. He fasts for 40 days and nights, and is weak and famished.
With Jesus in this vulnerable state, another voice calls to Jesus. We read that the tempter comes to him and says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Jesus responds with scripture: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” So the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple, and tells him to throw himself down, quoting scriptures right back at Jesus: “if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, their hands will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus responds that the scripture says we’re not to put God to the test. Finally, the devil takes Jesus to a mountain peak, and offers Jesus all the kingdoms he can see if only Jesus will worship the devil.” But Jesus sends him away, saying, “it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only [God.]’” Finally, the devil departs, unsuccessful in his quest to lead Jesus off God’s path.
The voice of the devil tempts Jesus with power. Jesus has power, of course. But what kind of power does Jesus have, and how does Jesus use it? How does the voice of the devil want Jesus to use his power? That’s what’s at stake in this passage. I’ve always struggled with the story of Jesus’ temptation because what the devil offers Jesus doesn’t seem very tempting for Jesus. Jesus already has the power to do what the devil offers. We see Jesus multiply loaves and make water into wine. We see at the end of this passage that angels attend to him. We know that Jesus could be an earthly king if he chose – he talks about this frequently in the gospels. What’s so tempting for him in this passage, since the devil doesn’t ask Jesus to do anything that it is outside of his power to do already?
I think they are tempting to Jesus because they are easy for him, and they would directly benefit Jesus, no one else, and they wouldn’t cost Jesus in the way that the path Jesus is on will cost him. What the devil offers is what Jesus already has and already can do, but in a short-cut way that corrupts and twists. It’s the easy way, what the devil offers, and the easy way is always alluring, isn’t it? What the devil asks Jesus to do is to forget who he is, what he is called to do, whose child he is, what his purpose is. Jesus knows what he’s come for – but the devil is trying to convince him that he can get essentially the same things in a supposedly easier way. And that, I think, is the true temptation, the temptation that shows Jesus to be one of us, the temptation that Jesus withstands and calls us to withstand too.
I think that the biggest temptations we face are not temptations that would lead us to break one of the ten commandments for instance, though of course these things can all be tough temptations. I think the biggest temptation is the temptation to forget – to forget who we are, and what “who we are” means. It is easy to listen to the voices that ell us to think more of what benefits us than what will help others. It is easier to be comfortable than to be challenged. It is easier to just glide along in life without really making an attempt to follow Jesus and live as he lived. To be “basically nice people” instead of being disciples – I think this is the biggest temptation we face. We’re tempted to forget that we’re beloved children of God, created uniquely, and created with a purpose, to love and to serve God and one another.
In the end, what God has in store for Jesus and what the devil seems to offer to Jesus aren’t that different from one another. The devil offers Jesus power and rule of kingdoms, but this is already what Jesus has as God’s child, even if it is not in the way that the devil imagines. If both God and Satan are making the same promises to us – how can we tell whose voice is whose? Think of two stones: diamonds, and cubic zirconium. They can look pretty similar, if you’re not looking carefully enough. But one stone is highly valuable, while another is thought of as a cheap imitation. That’s what we have to do with our temptations: remember that one path is worthwhile, and the other will only offer a cheap imitation of the life that we can have with God. Telling them apart – that’s probably easier than we think, even if we don’t like the answer. I’ve generally found in my own life, that God’s voice, God’s promises, God’s path – these things usually involve doing something that I don’t want to do, don’t feel prepared to do, don’t like doing, am afraid to do, am reluctant to do, something that is harder, requires me to give, to risk, to go against the flow, to work with people I don’t like – but ultimately fills my life in a way nothing else can. Following the alternative path – the imitation path - is usually easier – requires less thought. Has more immediate rewards. Lets you shut others out. And ultimately, leaves that empty feeling in the pit of your stomach. That feeling that your life is missing something essential. That feeling that despite having money, or possessions, or security, or whatever else you bargained for – you’re still coming up short – still unsatisfied.
We might wish for a way to solve the world's problems, to actually turn stones into bread, to cure problems like hunger and disease. Instead, God calls us to work to feed our neighbor, clothe the naked, visit the sick: not by magic powers, but with our own two hands, our own time, our own resources. We might wish that we could control the nations of this world, so that everything could be done our way, even a good way. Instead, God call us to work for peace, to build relationships, to go through long and difficult dialogues across racial, ethnic, and global boundaries, to see our neighbors near and far. We might wish that God would give us a sign, proof of existence, proof of care for us, a map of our future blessings. Instead, God reminds us evidence of God's existence is all around us - it is our discipleship that needs to be tested more often than not!
Today, voices offer us tempting promises and a huge amount of power. Both the voice of God and the voice of evil promise to give us more than we can imagine. Both will give us and expect us to use power. Both promise us a full, abundant life. But only one deal can live up to our expectations. Only one path can satisfy the deepest longings of our heart. Which voice will you listen to? Which path will you choose?
Jesus calls us to resist the temptation to underestimate ourselves, to think that we can't make change without taking the easy path offered by the devil. The forty days of Lent we take as a journey with Jesus in the wilderness. God has blessed us so greatly that when we journey with Jesus we can do amazing things. We can change the world. We can change lives. We can bring joy. We can end pain. We can share God. We can challenge the status quo. We can tear down walls of oppression. We can change ourselves. That's a lot of ability that God has given into such faulty creatures. So much potential to do what is wrong, what is evil, what is easy, what is tempting. Yet so much potential to do what is challenging, what is difficult, what is right, what is good, what is demanded and required of us by our Creator. God is speaking. Are you listening?