Distraction, temptation, repentance

Clare L. Hickman

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale

March 10, 2019—Lent 1C

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13


As the great Oscar Wilde once said, “I can resist anything. Except temptation!” So, this one’s for you, Oscar: the story in which Jesus is led by the spirit in the wilderness, where he is tempted by the devil. Just, not in the way we tend to understand temptation.

So often we think of temptation as being offered something we want, but shouldn’t have. So it’s not just about food when we are actually starving; it’s about the lure of non-nutritious, calorie-filled, sinfully delicious food. It’s about ill-gotten gains. It’s about sex. It’s about empty fame, unrestrained power, and just about anything that is gained at the expense of other people.

It’s a grab bag, really, our understanding of temptation. Some of these things are considered temptations because they are appealing, but very bad for us. Some of them, honestly, we’ve decided must be bad for us, for the sole reason that they are appealing!

It’s just possible we’ve become confused about desire and temptation.

But what Jesus is tested with is much more clear. He isn’t tempted with junk food. He isn’t even offered food. What the devil offers is a reminder to Jesus that he is the Son of God. He’s an immortal, a divine being! He has no need to suffer hunger like a regular human. If he chooses, he can just wave a hand and make stones into bread!

          And here is the point of the whole passage: we could not do such a thing, and so Jesus chooses not to do that. He chooses not to separate himself from us. His belly continues to rumble, just as so many of ours rumble. He remains human.

Having failed at this, the devil takes a different tack. “Okay, you won’t rest on your divinity. I get it; your Dad IS kind of a spoil sport. How about you follow me instead? You throw in your lot with me, I will give you all the worldly power and influence you could want! Way more fun!!” But once again, Jesus chooses the mission he was sent with: to spread the good news of God’s kingdom and liberation, not the devil’s domination. To choose God. To remain powerless, at least as far as the devil can see.

Now the devil is thrown. Honestly, he doesn’t really have anything beyond those two tricks. So he goes back to the first one, but tries to bend it a little: Oh yeah? Well, if you say God is so great, do you REALLY trust him to save you if you throw yourself off the top of the Temple? Jesus, once again refuses to play. He knows the path he is on and knows the devil cannot possibly begin to imagine or understand it. Jesus will continue to walk in God’s path and trust in God, even if it means he will die.

Because he is human. Because he is here to save humanity by identifying with humanity. From the pains of birth, through hunger and powerlessness and the search for purpose, all the way through to death. Only then, only then, can things be transformed.

But that part of the story doesn’t come until later. Now, at this part of the story, we are learning about WHO Jesus is, and beginning to understand what it means to be a savior without superpowers. What it means for the Son of God to become truly human.

We, for our part, have no choice about being truly human. The devil can’t test us in the same way he/she tests Jesus.

          We can, however, be distracted. As the devil tried to distract Jesus from following his mission, we too can be distracted from the work of God’s kingdom. Our desires, our fears, our preoccupations can divert us from the path of following Jesus. And many of our Lenten disciplines recognize this.

Not all of them, I admit. Many of our disciplines focus on the other great Lenten theme: that of repentance. So you give up something that is bad for you, or take up something that is good for you or the world around you. And this is a valuable undertaking. Repenting of a habit that harms you or others is always a good thing, and these forty days will be an excellent start to a pattern that might well continue for the rest of your life! So by all means, stop swearing, or smoking, or looking at Facebook while you’re talking to people on the phone. Fast from plastic, or meat, or unnecessary uses of energy. Don’t gossip or tell jokes at other’s expense. Give away things you don’t use or need. Walk more, smile more, write more thank you notes.

Repent, in other words, and return to the good news.

But if we want to consider the example of Jesus in the wilderness, then there are  questions to be asked. How is the devil distracting us from our work in God’s kingdom? What hungers does the devil exploit in us? What worldly benefits (power, security, reputation) does the devil tempt us with? How does the devil invite us to doubt God’s love for us?

The devil is tricky. Look at it: all the things he suggests to Jesus sound really reasonable. None of them sound like they’re sending him off in the wrong direction!

Which is what I thought of recently, when I heard someone describe what they call “near enemies”: personality traits that appear very similar but are actually antithetical. And the book explored a number of these, but the one that struck me hardest was the idea that compassion has a near enemy, and it is pity.

Compassion, with its root of “suffer with,” pulls us into the situation of the other person, bringing a sense of kinship, of mutual involvement, a recognition that another’s suffering is our own. It then invites us to respond. Pity, however, does none of these things. It leaves us separate, feeling sorry for someone from a distance. Their troubles are not our troubles, and whatever response we make will definitely (perhaps deliberately) leave it that way.

But the thing is, pity can look a lot like compassion. Can even fool me into thinking that I am feeling compassion. That’s what makes it the enemy of true compassion. And that’s what reminds me of the devil’s attempts to trick Jesus. Because they all sound reasonable. Seem good. But none of them actually leads to the transformative, liberating, healing action of the Kingdom of God. In fact, they do just the opposite. Because God’s kingdom always calls us deeper into the hunger, further into the pain, more courageously into the powerlessness and vulnerability of this world.

That’s why the people of God so often discover this truth in the wilderness. That’s why we are invited back into the wilderness with Jesus every year: to rediscover this truth. To remember the wisdom that can be found in choosing to hunger. To sit in an empty space and realize what distracts us. To take time to reflect, and learn to see the ways in which the devil helps us to mislead ourselves.

We go into the wilderness. We go there with Jesus as our companion and guide, because that is what he came here to do: to BE with us. Especially when we are going deep; when the path is lonely and dangerous and wild. He will be with us. He will go with us, and stay with us, and somehow bring us out the other side. And that’s the kingdom of God, folks. May it be so, Amen.

Clare Hickman