Year C, 1 Lent, Revised Common Lectionary
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“Lead us not into temptation.”
We pray that line from the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday. But what is temptation, really? It’s worth wondering about, not only because today we hear the story of the temptation of Jesus in the desert, but also because I think our culture isn’t quite sure what to do with the notion of temptation.
Think about what typically gets described as “temptation” in our everyday media. Maybe an ice cream sundae, something delicious but unhealthy. Restaurants have desserts with names like “sinful lava cake,” maybe illuminating a puritanical streak in our culture that assumes that if something tastes good then it must be morally wrong to enjoy it. Fellow cat owners will know that there’s even a brand of cat treats called Temptations. And then besides the notion of food as a temptation there’s the notion of sex appeal. Think of the singing group the Temptations, or more recently, the reality show Temptation Island, where couples are surrounded by attractive singles to see whether they’ll stray.
So we hear a lot about food and drink and sex in our culture’s understanding of temptation. We don’t hear that word used as much in conversations about political or economic spheres, or about work or family life. Our media don’t talk as much about some of the kinds of temptations many of us face every day—the temptation to react in anger, the temptation to gossip behind someone’s back, the temptation to avoid taking responsibility for a mistake, the temptation to ignore another person’s need. There’s a lot more to temptation than society tends to focus on.
Now that’s not to say that temptation can’t be about physical desires. Lord knows how many lives have been deeply harmed by addictions to pleasurable things like alcohol, or other substances, or by similar compulsions around sex, or food, or even the rush from things like gambling or video games. The proportion of people whose lives have been touched by addiction is so vast; without a doubt, many of us here in this room face these kinds of struggles every day. If that describes what you’re experiencing in your life, know that God knows you and cares for you and is here for you. There are ways to get help, none of them perfect or necessarily easy, but ways that can work. Talk with me or someone else you trust. And to a lesser extent, all of us can identify with the temptation to overindulge in something that meets a physical desire in the moment but leaves us less healthy in the long run. Jesus’s first temptation is around physical desire, the desire to use his status as the Son of God to meet his own physical needs. “If you’re the Son of God,” says the devil, “command this stone to become bread.” So Jesus knows about physical temptation. But that’s just the first kind. There are two others. In a sermon a while back, I suggested we can think of these three temptations as to do with pleasure—that’s the first one—power, and prestige.
So after pleasure, power is next. The devil tells Jesus he can be king over the whole world if he just falls down and worships him. And power can be tempting indeed. Now power in and of itself is morally neutral. Power isn’t bad. Power means simply the ability to get things done. It’s a lot like money: it can be used for great evil, or for great good. The civil rights movement was the product of thousands and thousands of people organizing to multiply their individual power. Today people organizing for background checks for gun buyers or working to build urgency about global warming are doing the same thing. We kid ourselves if we think that Christians should shy away from power; after all, God is the one we call the source of all “power and might.” But like money, power is something it’s easy to develop a taste for in itself, to enjoy the power rather than the things that can be done with it. We’ve heard a lot in recent weeks and months about both business leaders and political leaders—from both major parties—who seem to take enjoyment in humiliating the people who work under their authority, in reminding others who’s in charge. In a society like ours, power is constantly intertwined with money, education, and other factors like race, gender, age, sexual orientation, physical ability, and so on. And at the same time, all of us have some degree of power. And so the question is, will we use power for others, or will we succumb to the temptation to seek power over others?
Jesus says no to that temptation. His path is a path of power indeed, but it’s the power of love and self-offering, not the power of domination. It’s the power of the cross.
The third temptation I’m calling prestige. And Luke puts this one last, in the climactic position—which is different from the version of this story in Matthew’s gospel, where power comes last. You could argue which order fits better. But there’s something subtle about Luke’s ordering that I think is profound. It suggests that an even more powerful temptation than being able to make other people do what we want might be having other people admire us. The devil invites Jesus essentially to perform a miraculous stunt that will amaze the people and demonstrate his status as the Son of God. And this is the only time in the story where the devil actually takes up Jesus’ own technique and quotes scripture—he quotes directly from the psalm we said/sang earlier today. A good illustration of how taking scripture from one context and applying it literally to another one isn’t always the right way to go—even the devil can do that!
And once again Jesus resists the temptation. He will draw all people to himself, yes. But not through spectacle, and not by trying to be liked. Jesus will indeed win many admirers, but not by pleasing people, but by his sheer integrity as he follows the path of God’s righteousness.
Today Jesus is the model of faithful living as he resists not only the temptations our society knows a lot about, temptations to physical pleasure, but also those higher-level temptations to power over others and the prestige of being admired. In our Lenten journey this year, each of us has the opportunity to reflect on where we face those temptations in our own lives. We won’t be perfect in resisting them. We don’t have to, thank God: Jesus has already done that for us. But through his grace, even here in this imperfect life, it’s possible for God’s Spirit to work in us and make us just that bit more like Jesus, a day at a time.
I can’t think of any better way to end than by repeating the collect we prayed at the start of worship this morning. It’s good enough for a repeat appearance:
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.