Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
By the time you receive this, the Church will have already begun the annual tithing of our days. A little more than 10 percent of the days in each year are invested in the Season of Lent. It is a time for spiritual growth and renewal, a time for reevaluation and repentance. Every year, the Gospel lesson for the First Sunday in Lent is one of the accounts of Jesus’ temptation. This year’s account is from Luke.
It has been suggested that “LENT” can be an acronym: “Let’s Eliminate Negative Thoughts.” But many of our most negative thoughts seem to come from other people or from that same diabolical other who tried to get Jesus to choose the lower road to His Messianic identity. We may not have the opportunity to eliminate such thoughts, but we do have the opportunity to do as Jesus did, to resist and reject them.
Jesus refused to be lured into the world’s definitions of how a messiah should act. That was Satan’s ploy–to seduce Jesus into using His power and authority for purposes other than those for which He was sent. The devilish scheme was to entice Jesus into the easy, more popular and political way rather than the hard, self-sacrificing way of God. The temptation was to prove Himself–after all, “If you are the Son of God….” The Good News for us is that God will go ahead and be God. Our Messiah is not pliable. He will be the God we neither ask for nor deserve.
William Willimon observed: “The Bible finds uninteresting the modern infatuation: ‘Is there a God?’ The Bible’s chief interest is, ‘What kind of God is there?'” Due to the pervasive nature of sin, the answer constantly surprises us. The Good News is that in the Bible we find a real God, not some projection of our egos. The ultimate test and the ultimate proof that Jesus will have nothing to do with any attempt to make Him over into our image of who and what He should be came later. With words devilishly similar to these temptations, someone yelled: “If you are the Son of God, save yourself! Come down from the cross.”
At first glance, Jesus’ temptations seem rather innocent or innocuous. To make bread when you are hungry–whether by baking it or transforming rocks, if you are capable of the latter, is a perfectly normal and even natural activity. To gain power and popularity by political activity is not, in and of itself evil, and “so what” if you have to give the Devil his due to get it? Finally, a show of miraculous splendor and power was not beyond Jesus’ ability or His ethics.
With the exception of worshiping Satan, Jesus eventually did things very similar to those toward which He was tempted here. He changed water into wine and He transformed five loaves and two fish into enough food for an army. He healed the sick and raised the dead to the amazement of crowds who started making plans for His coronation!
The best, or is it worst temptations are precisely those that look innocent and innocuous! In his book, The Ascent of Mind, W.H. Calvin wrote: “Hummingbirds haven’t yet made an evolutionary adaptation to the false alarms caused by the bright jackets favored by hikers, and visually come over to inspect the big flower. Bees make the same mistake; to keep them from stirring around my head, I once had to take off a bright scarf and throw it aside. They followed it. It makes me worry that we humans have such senseless attractions too, following things for reasons we don’t understand. And following to excess some of the ‘natural’ attractors we do not understand, such as sugars and fats.”
Jesus once said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” I guess that’s why St. Paul was never very concerned about the attractions of sugars and fats, but warned clearly about “natural” attractors like greed, envy, malice, lust and deceit. These are just a few of the “big flowers” that cause humans to buzz around.
One of the greatest temptations is to follow the lead of those who originally turned the Ten Commandments into a religion. So often, the same kinds of things are done with Christianity. Just as Jesus was tempted to use His power and authority for personal gain–even if it was only a loaf of bread–so people are urged to follow Jesus so that they gain popularity, fame, fortune, escape from hell or whatever. Others invite us to believe, not because something is true, but for some other reason–social justice, cessation of war, increase of peace.
The better or more innocent the gain looks, the more the temptation is clearly diabolical. Coleridge wrote, “We are the only creatures who both laugh and weep because we can see the difference between the way things are and the way they might be.” The 40 days of Lent put us in training so that we can strengthen our spiritual muscles. Part of that training includes an awareness of the vast, even if subtle, difference between the way things are and the way God enables them to be. Nothing is higher on my own repentance list than those things I do that delay a God-enriched future.
Unlike Coleridge, I am not sure we are the only creatures who laugh and weep. Additionally, I think we are often totally ignorant of the disparity between the way things are and might be. Half of the job in Lent is to discover what is out of sync with God, so that we can repent it and replace it. That takes some concentrated attention on our parts, which is why many Lutheran congregations have weekday services as well as their regular services on the weekend. In fact, Sundays (little Easters) should actually be excluded from the penitential portion of the season. They are excluded in the count of 40 days.
Jesus turned to the Word when He resisted the devil’s luring Him away from the way of the cross. We need to turn to God’s Word in order to know His way for us, and how it differs from the way the enemy would have us go. The more attractive or innocuous way is often the most dangerous to us. For Jesus, the most dangerous way was the way He went for us. The way of the cross was filled with torture, tragedy and death. Someone has said that we paved the path for Jesus. Only One who loves greater than we can even imagine would have chosen to walk it.
I noted before that the tempter’s taunting of Jesus continued on Mount Ugly at the crucifixion. According to Luke, “The rulers even sneered at Him. They said, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.’ The soldiers also came up and mocked Him. They offered Him wine vinegar and said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.'”
In Lent we remember clearly that He could have saved Himself. He is the Christ of God and it was certainly within His power. He didn’t. He saved us.