March 5, 2017

Lent 1 Year A

The temptations Jesus faces in the wilderness come in three forms - survival, trust, and authority. The tempter flies below the radar to present a series of temptations that can cripple all of our relationships at their core: relationships with God, ourselves and others. These temptations are not concerned with simply making bread from stones or jumping off a tall structure or even a chance for world domination. They are concerned with our core identity, our survival, trust, and authority. In these three temptations, all of us have the opportunity to damage our relationships or allow our lives to become what they are meant to be, vehicles of grace.

Consider the first temptation, bread from stones, the one that has to do with survival. Jesus has been fasting a very long time, and his hunger is severe. The devil appears and challenges him to prove his identity and satisfy his hunger at the same time. He points to the stones visible everywhere in that desert. “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” Jesus counters this proposal with words from Scripture. “It is written,” he says, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”

This confrontation is about more than whether Jesus gets lunch that day. Jesus is asserting that his identity as the Son of God and our identity as children of God—does not depend on what we do, or what we have, but who we are, and with whom who we are in relationship. Jesus is God’s Son and we are followers of God’s Son and are God’s children as well. Do I value myself or others simply in terms of what we can do or do I recognize myself and others for who we are: children of God?

Consider the second temptation, jumping off a tall structure, the one that has to do with trust. The devil takes Jesus into Jerusalem, to the very top of the temple. He invites Jesus to prove who he is, and to do so in a spectacular way. “If you are the Son of God, then jump down, Jesus,” says the devil. “For remember what it says in the Bible: ‘He will put his angels in charge of you.’ and, ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you don’t dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus counters this temptation, laced as it is with scripture quotes, with his own answer from the Bible: “Again, it is written, ‘You shall not test the Lord, your God.'”

The devil knows the words of scripture, but is ignorant of its spirit. To trust God does not mean that God will protect me if I perform some life-threatening stunt as an affront to the law of gravity. Trusting God does not mean that God will enable our ignorant behavior. What it does mean is that we accept the life God offers us with its challenges, its risks, its dis-appointments. It means living our lives and trusting God to make sense of them. For Jesus this means that he comes to accept the cup of suffering God offers him in the Garden of Gethsemane, a cup he would readily refuse except that he trusts the One who offers it.

As children of God, it is not sufficient for us simply to trust God. We must trust God with wise understanding. We cannot expect God to endorse the products of our egotism as though the Holy One were a cosmic enabler.

Not all risks are good ones. Some are ill-advised and destructive. Others are offered to lead us into the future God intends for us, a future marked by blessing.

We come now to the third temptation Jesus experiences out in the wilderness, a chance for world domination, the one that has to do with authority. This time the devil takes Jesus to a very high mountain and offers a panoramic view of all the countries of the world. No longer does the devil raise questions about the identity of Jesus, nor does he have scripture to misquote. He simply proposes a deal. Is there a note here of impatience? “I will give you all of these things, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Jesus senses that he has gained the upper hand. “Get behind me, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and you shall serve him only.'”

For whatever reason, Jesus does not contest the devil’s claim of control over the countries of the world. What he attacks instead is the propriety of treating someone other than God as ultimate. God alone is worthy of worship.

Just as he does not condemn survival or trust when addressing earlier temptations, so here Jesus does not condemn authority. What he insists on is that authority, like survival or trust, must be subordinated to the purposes of God. Authority sought and obtained for its own sake amounts to idolatry. Authority must be used instead in obedience to God, in service to the benevolent purposes of God.

Each one of us exercises some authority in life. By exercising any form of authority, we end up serving someone. The choice of whom we serve is a matter of the greatest consequence. Where are the places in my life where I exercise authority? And who am I serving in my exercise of that authority?

Survival, trust, and authority. These themes appear in the story of Jesus, not only during his wilderness temptation, but at other times as well.

• Jesus refuses to turn stones into bread at the devil’s suggestion. On other occasions, however, he multiplies bread when many are hungry.

• Jesus refuses to jump off the top of the temple, but he does accept that cup of suffering God offers him, and does so because he trusts God.

• Jesus turns down the devil’s bargain of gaining all the world in exchange for worship of someone less than God. What Jesus does is announce the kingdom of heaven come to earth, and then die and rise so we may enter that kingdom.

Jesus makes it possible for us to decide about survival, trust, and authority in a way that serves God’s purpose for everyone. We are free to find our identity through our participation in him as children of God and heirs of the kingdom by grace. We are invited to his table to share in the bread of life and enjoy a taste of the kingdom.