March 5, 2017 – The First Sunday in Lent
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
When the tempter comes and whispers in your ear, what does he say?
Some of you will remember a story I told a few years ago about the time I was supposed to read this morning’s gospel lesson at St. John’s College in Cambridge, England, where I went to seminary. I was a first-year student, and the church where I did the practical part of my training was another St. John’s, a formal, even stuffy, sort of place where every word, every note, and every gesture were carefully chosen. In fact, at the main service, the gospel lesson wasn’t even read; it was chanted, and it was going to be my job to sing this text in front of everyone.
When word got out that I was the one who would chant the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, students started coming up to me to tell me how I was supposed to sing it. They weren’t worried that I might get the words or even the notes wrong. And they weren’t even worried about my accent—that my southern drawl would give away my American origins. Instead, they wanted to be sure that I sang it the way that it had always been sung in that place—or at least the way that it had been sung for as long as anyone could remember. Before it was my turn, the Dean had always chanted the part of the tempter with a “malevolent tone.” That was the term that a half of a dozen concerned students invariably used—“malevolent”—to describe the way that I was supposed to sing the devil’s words.
But I didn’t want to sing it like that. I was nervous enough about singing anything in front of the entire congregation, and I certainly didn’t want to worry about the tone with which I conveyed the devil’s evil personality. I spent days thinking about this lesson in ways that I had never before thought about a passage from the bible. “What does the devil sound like?” I asked myself. “When he comes and speaks to me, what sort of voice does he use?” Well, I didn’t use a malevolent tone to sing the part of the tempter. Instead, I broke off in mid-chant and used a husky stage whisper to convey what I thought temptation itself sounds like. Initially, I was pleased with my decision, but, before I could even finish the devil’s first line, a titter broke out among the choristers. Soon, snorts and chortles began to ripple through the choir, and, by the end of the lesson, full-on laughter had spread to other members of the congregation. I was red-faced with embarrassment and swore I would never do anything like that again.
But I can still hear the devil when he whispers to me, and he sounds a lot like my own voice. It’s the voice that stays inside my head all the time, trying to convince me that what I know is wrong isn’t actually wrong at all. And that’s the toughest thing about temptation: it feels so good, so right, that we allow ourselves to forget that there is a difference between right and wrong. After all, when you think about it, we aren’t tempted by bad things but by good things that are out of place or out of proportion. And that’s the truth we meet in this wilderness encounter between Jesus and the great tempter.
After forty days of fasting, Jesus understandably is famished. And what does the tempter say to him? “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Where’s the harm in that? What’s wrong with a hungry man eating some bread? If you had the power to transform a lump of stone into a loaf of bread, wouldn’t you do it? I would. You could feed the whole world like that. What’s wrong with making sure that hungry people get enough food? Well, the problem, of course, is with the one who is asking. The devil isn’t interested in satisfying Jesus’ hunger pains but in getting the Son of God to use his power in a misdirected way. “If you are the Son of God…” the devil says. If? If you really are, then do it; prove it; show me. There’s nothing wrong with having enough bread to eat, but there’s something dangerously wrong with identifying the source of that bread as something other than God.
“If you are the Son of God,” the devil says a second time, “throw yourself down [from the pinnacle of the temple,] for it is written that God will command his angels to bear you up so that you will not even dash your foot against a stone.” The bible really does say that. In Psalm 91 it says that God will command angels to catch the one who trusts in the Lord and bear him up so that not even his foot will strike a stone. Isn’t trusting in God a good thing? Wouldn’t we—shouldn’t we—all want the kind of faith that would lead us to trust in God enough to commit our whole selves to him—even in the literal sense to put our lives in his hands? But, like Jesus, we can see the problem with this scenario. It isn’t that we aren’t supposed to trust God with our very lives but that we aren’t supposed to define that trust—that faith—in such a narrow, shallow way as to throw ourselves off a bridge and demand that God catch us. That isn’t a show of faith. It’s a show of selfishness. And Jesus reminds us of the importance of recognizing the difference.
By the time the devil gets to his third temptation, we all know what’s going on. This time he shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and offers them to him if he will simply fall down and worship him. I wish that temptation were always that easy to spot, but the devil never really shows up and offers us wealth or power or fame quite like that. The tempter is far more subtle and crafty. He hides the strings by tempting a hungry man to steal a loaf of bread or a desperate woman to jump off a bridge or a CEO to cut corners to get that bonus and pay for his kid’s college tuition while making his shareholders happy. But don’t we fall down to worship Satan when we convince ourselves that we deserve that good thing at any cost? Aren’t we accepting the same offer when we allow the good things in this life like money and food and happiness to become the end to which we aspire through any means?
We are sinners, the bible teaches us, but what does that mean? It means that we cannot be trusted to see the truth when it matters. We are too easily deceived by our own voice—our own desire. Try convincing an alcoholic that the pain of sobriety is better than the pain of drunkenness. Try convincing an adulterer that the happiness he seeks will never be found until he goes home and confronts what is missing in his marriage. The truth is easy to see until we become vulnerable to our own rationalization. That’s when the devil shows up and convinces us that the good we seek is more important than the path we take to get there. And the devil sounds a lot like us.
But thanks be to God that Jesus goes into the wilderness not only to withstand temptation but to confront the tempter on our behalf. He is not only the Son of God. He is also the son of Mary. He is fully human and, thus, fully susceptible to the tempter’s schemes, yet the divinity within him wins the battle that we cannot win. Because he is God himself, Jesus does what we cannot do, yet he does not reserve that victory for himself. He shares it freely with anyone who comes to him for help. When we come and acknowledge our need for his help, which is to say when we confess our sin, Jesus gives us that which we cannot achieve on our own. He makes us good. He makes us strong. Little by little, day by day, our susceptibilities are changed into strengths. And he gives us the Holy Spirit so that we might be reminded continually of our need for his help.
This Lenten journey into the wilderness is not merely forty days during which we try to resist temptation and confess to God when we fail. They are not forty days of trial but forty days of renewal. We are renewed in them because we do not head out into the wilderness on our own. We are not alone; Jesus is with us. As we walk beside him on this journey to the cross, his strength becomes our strength. We cling not to our own abilities but to his. Lent is a time when we head out into the wilderness to be reminded that we cannot succeed on our own and, just as importantly, to remember that, because of Jesus, we do not have to.