March 9, 2014
Jen: Jesus has just been baptized by John in the Jordan River. Matthew tells us “just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Matt.3:16a-17
That must have been a bit intimidating. “You’re special Jesus, you’re really special.” And before he had time to ask, “Now what am I supposed to do?” he’s led into the wilderness for a little testing to see if he’s up to the task before him.
N: Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by
the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was
famished. The tempter came and said to him,
S: If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of
N: But he answered,
J: It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that
comes from the mouth of God.’
N: Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle
of the temple, saying to him,
S: If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He
will command his angels concerning you, and on their hands they will
bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’
N: Jesus said to him,
J: Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’
N: Again, the devil took him up a very high mountain and showed him all
the kingdoms of the world and their splendors; and he said to him,
S: All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.
N: Jesus said to him,
J: Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.”
N: Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
THE MESSAGE “Whose voice is running around in your head?”
Susan: To be tempted or tested comes from the Greek word peirazo. “To tempt” is to entice a person to do what is wrong - to hope for failure. “To test” is to give a person the opportunity to choose what is right - to hope for success. Both meanings are operating here. Like us, Jesus had the free will to choose good or evil.
With that in mind, how many of you have been tempted or tested? Show of hands. This doesn’t mean you’ve succumbed to the temptation. I’m not asking for confessions here. I should see every hand going up. The 13th century Franciscan monk, St. Anthony, once said, “Expect temptation with your last breath.” Temptations are a part of the human condition.
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil...” he was using shorthand for “When we are tempted, help us not to fail the test.” He knew first hand all about temptation. It followed him throughout his ministry.
It’s lonely and quiet out in the Negev desert. I’ve walked and sat in it. You feel about the size of a pea, with no sound but the occasional wind. Jesus was all alone - no cell phone, no books or journals to write in, only the sound of those voices running around in his head.
Whose voice is running around in your head when you’re alone? Sometimes I feel like I have multiple voices in there - engaged in shouting matches - vying for control of various parts of my being. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Admit it, we all do. What voices are you listening to?
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us Jesus was hearing the voice of the devil, or Satan, tempting him. Now there’s a being we don’t like talking about here in the UCC! -Satan’s not part of our vocabulary!
What is that voice? Where does it come from? It seems we’ve been in a battle with it since the beginning of recorded human history.
In the Hebrew Bible Satan was working for God, as a supernatural accuser of us earthlings, and God was doing the tempting. It was only later that Satan became a proper name, an independent evil power, the fallen angel of my childhood Catholic catechism.
And by the time the New Testament was being written, the devil was presented as a supernatural adversary of God, and a tempter of humankind, who brought sin into the world. The devil in Matthew claims to be the ruler of the world. It is in this capacity that he tries to tempt Jesus.
But this is a stylized and symbolic account. All of us know that. Satan didn’t actually appear to Jesus in the desert. Satan doesn’t actually exist... right? - and yet, these voices keep showing up in our heads - and they seem very real. How do we account for them? Were they in Jesus’ head too?
We’re told the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness where he fasted for forty days. Fasting was a mark of religious devotion. It can produce heightened states of consciousness, visions and dreams. Fasting was used as a technique to become more receptive to divine revelation. So here we have Jesus, preparing himself for ministry, fasting alone in the wilderness, opening himself up to God, and in walks the devil.
Jesus knew what he was about to embark on. The people were looking for a messiah, someone to cure their bodies and the ills of their society - release them from the domination of Rome, and the corruption of the Temple system - the same way many of us would like to be released from the greed and corruption of the power elites in our world. The devil offers seductions all too real for a future messiah in a troubled place and time.
“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Not an unreasonable request, after all, Jesus was famished. If he had the power, why not? The devil is asking Jesus to use his power over nature to serve his basic needs, and Jesus refuses. Why?
Filling his own hungers is not exactly what he had come to do. He was preparing to fill the hungers of the world, and it’s not magic. There is no quick fix. Jesus knows this. It will take more than bread alone. Listen to the words of God in your head, he tells the devil.
If you think of the stones as our hungers - all those hungers we possess - and I’m not just talking about food - when should we not turn stones into bread? When are we supposed to keep the stones? What hungers should not be satisfied?
To give you one example, I thought this week about our hunger for natural resources to feed our modern life styles. As the battle over the Keystone Pipeline rages on, our dependence on oil comes to mind.
The devil leads Jesus to a high place and offers him all the glory of the kingdoms of the world - on one condition, that he worship the devil. Ohhh how seductive power can be, and how easily it can be corrupted. We don’t have to look far to see the abuse of power in our world today, just think of Assad in Syria, and Yanukovych in Ukraine. The Ukrainians are getting an eyeful of what power can do to you as they visit his former estate, and build a makeshift memorial where many of them were gunned down in Kiev.
Jesus tells the devil that the authority of God is superior to the authority of the devil. He refuses to use his power over humans for the sake of his own glory. Power in and of itself is not a bad thing. It’s how we use it and to whose glory.
What are you willing to do for professional, relational, or personal power? Have you ever sought power in an unholy way?
And then there’s the question I keep grappling with: How much power does God have? In the second temptation the devil invites Jesus to throw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple. He is asking Jesus in essence “to let go and let God.” How often have you heard or uttered those words? Jesus responds: do not put God to the test. It’s a fine line between letting go and letting God, and putting God to the test.
When do our prayers of intersession become a testing ground for God?
Have you ever tested God by doing something self-destructive and daring God to love you?
Jesus ushered in the kin-dom of God, but we are still living in a broken world, with many of the same problems, the same temptations. There are no quick answers. We are not miracle workers.
I struggle with the concept of evil, trying to make sense of it. Carl Jung suggests that a part of every persons’ humanity is something called our ‘shadow’, that unrecognized part of ourselves, buried deep in our unconscious. It can be something good that we’ve repressed somehow and needs to surface - or an aspect of our being which is feared, denied. We have a tendency in our society to avoid facing our evil side. We’re uncomfortable even talking about it. But it can’t be ignored. Evil is a part of our being just as goodness is.
Jung says our shadow is never healed until it is brought into our self-consciousness. When that doesn’t happen it can consume us. Look at the people suffering from addictions and other destructive behaviors. Look at those consumed with power.
Healing for Jung comes with the embrace of our shadow, the acceptance of our evil. It can then be transformed. It’s part of our quest for wholeness. My friends in AA tell me they had to first acknowledge that they had a problem before they could become whole.
Was Jesus confronting his shadow side in the desert? That’s a question that would elicit a wide variety of responses in our Christian communities.
Bishop Spong suggests that the shadow also represents our human desire to survive. It’s a result of our biological evolution. He calls us a work in progress, neither perfect nor fallen, simply incomplete. I like that. But this survival of the fittest has created in us a radical self-centeredness. We are cut off from God, This creates anxiety, which can grow into fears.
And all the while we have this big hole in us that needs to be filled. So we try to ease those fears, and fill this incompleteness with what society has taught us will make us happy: power, wealth, sexual desires.
But as Jesus tells us in this passage: “That ain’t gonna’ do it.” He draws from Deuteronomy: “It is written, One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. It is written, worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him. It is said, Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
That’s easy for you to say Jesus, from your vantage point of wholeness. Not so easy for us mere mortals inching along in the evolutionary process. How do we live by those words? I believe it begins with prayer. We must clear our minds, let go of our fears, to make room for the voice of God in our heads. In this way we move toward wholeness - inch by inch.
But we don’t stop there. We must carry that Spirit of God out into the world, for it is in serving humanity and all of creation that we serve God.
Temptation feeds off fears. Temptation feeds off deprivation. Jesus was famished after fasting, but he was filled with the Spirit, which enabled him to distinguish between those competing voices in his head. When we are only partially filled, temptation can sound very rational, very alluring.
Jesus was unambiguous in his message here. Put God first. God be in my head and in my understanding. But it doesn’t stop there. God be in my eyes, and in my mouth and in my heart. But God can’t get into any of those places if we don’t stop and let God in.
Lent is a time of listening to the competing voices in our heads, for bringing our shadow side into our consciousness. It’s a time for assessing where we are on that evolutionary process towards wholeness. What is impeding our progress? What are our burdens? Are there things we need to let go of? How do we connect with the Divine to fill our Spirits?
It has been said in order to make something habitual you need to repeat it forty times. Lent gives us forty days and nights to do a little spiritual spring house cleaning. Let’s each one of us make good use of that time.