March 9, 2014, Lent 1 – The One Who Knows Us
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There are two kinds of people in the world: people who spend a lot of time and energy every day worrying about their weight, and people who don’t have to worry about it. The first group of people fight a continual battle with the temptation to eat too much, or to eat the “wrong” kinds of foods. They feel like the world around them is watching – and judging. They worry all the time about how they look; they worry about eating in front of other people because they are sure that people are thinking that they of all people should have ordered a salad instead of French fries. They feel like that small order of French fries somehow magically added two inches to their waist the moment they finished eating them. They spend a lot of energy resisting their natural desires, and they spend a lot of energy feeling guilty every time they give in to temptation.
And the second group of people lives an easy, carefree existence, because they don’t have to worry about any of that.
Of course, that is all complete nonsense. The world doesn’t divide up neatly into two categories – any two categories – for one thing. And for another thing, there are as many kinds of temptations as there are people in the world, and not one of us is free from the battle against our selfish and self-destructive natures. Nobody lives an easy, carefree existence.
But what is true is that we usually get very little comfort from another person if they have never had to struggle with the thing we are struggling with. It’s the reason a reformed alcoholic is so good at counseling a fellow addict – because he knows what it is to struggle against the temptation to drink. He has met that very demon, and even though he has been successful at last in fighting him off, the pain and suffering of that battle will always be fresh in his mind. He can counsel another alcoholic with real empathy, and with the wisdom that comes from experience. And the person who is coming for help can share his struggles without feeling judged or condemned, even when he fails again and again, because his counselor knows from his own life that that is all part of winning the battle.
It is a very important thing for us, that after our Lord Jesus was baptized, and was about to begin his years of public ministry, the very first thing he did was to go out into the desert to face temptation. Matthew tells us that he fasted for forty days and forty nights and at the end of that time he was hungry, which seems like a huge understatement. His physical body would have been at the point of actual starvation at that point; he would have been in a very weakened condition. And it was then that Satan chose to begin putting him to the test.
It doesn’t really matter if we imagine this testing like the painting on the cover of the bulletin, where the devil is a visible creature, with black skin and wings and a tail, who spoke to Jesus in an audible voice and who brought Jesus bodily to the top of the Temple, and up onto the high mountain, or whether we imagine the testing as a purely inner battle that Jesus faced, being tormented from within by the fears and desires of his human nature. I don’t think there is really a difference. Our struggle is against the principalities and powers of evil in this world, and for the most part we fight that battle in the desert of our own hearts and minds, and whether or not there was a physical creature there with Jesus in the desert, his battle was the same as ours.
And that is exactly the point. It was the pain of that interior war against sinful desires and fears that Jesus chose to know; and not just to know about, but to know from within, by experiencing it fully and really, in the flesh. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews explains that Jesus is the very one, the only one, who can be trusted as our great high priest, greater than Moses, greater than any man who has ever existed, not merely because he is the Son of God – but because he also knows what it is to suffer the weakness of human temptation. “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” And then he says, “So, let us draw near to the throne of grace with confidence, that we might find mercy and grace to help in time of need.” As we struggle with our addiction to sin, whatever form that takes in each of our lives, Jesus is the one counselor we can turn to who understands completely, and knows how to help us without condemnation.
I am struck first of all by the way Satan tries to shake Jesus’s certainty of who he is. The very first temptation is to give in to the fear that everything Jesus knows about himself, the love of his Father, and his purpose in coming into the world: those are all a delusion. Satan says, twice, “IF you are the Son of God…” And you can hear that testing of doubt, the sharp edge of fear cutting through the weakness of his flesh. I have felt that, and I am willing to bet most, if not all, of you have felt that same pain. Maybe God doesn’t really love me. Maybe he’s finally fed up with all my failures and sick and tired of putting up with me. Maybe I’m not really a Christian; maybe I’ve been fooling myself. We all hear that voice at one time or another, don’t we? And it is a lie, just like that voice that an alcoholic hears telling him that he might as well give up and give in is a lie, telling him he’s not worth the struggle, and he’s never going to make it to real sobriety anyway.
It is so important for us to realize that Jesus wasn’t just sitting on a rock spouting Bible comebacks with a superior smile on his face. This time in the desert was the first step of his passion, and it was a time of real suffering, just as real as the pain of the whip and the thorns and the nails in his hands. If it were easy for him to turn away the temptations of Satan, then this would be no comfort for us at all; it would just be a story of how cool and powerful Jesus is. Instead, it is the fact of his intense suffering, and his real battle against fear and against his human longings and desires, that make his experience something we can cling to like a life raft when we feel like we are being shipwrecked in the testing of our own lives. Because Jesus made it through, because he was tested in every way as we are, yet without sin, we can come to him for mercy and grace to find help in our time of need.
Sometimes the books and movies about the devil and about demons make them sound like they are all-knowing in the same way that God is all-knowing, and that is hogwash. But evil has its own kind of cleverness, and it isn’t surprising that the first temptation that Jesus faced was about food, because remember, he was starving, literally starving. His body needed food, desperately. So it made sense, if you were able to cook up some bread from rocks, you should do just that. But Jesus understood what the test was. He must not let his physical hunger become more important in his mind and heart than the nourishment of his relationship with his Father. “It isn’t bread that gives me real life,” he answered – and whether he answered a literal demon or the pangs of his hunger doesn’t really matter – “It is the word of God that sustains my life, not a full belly.”
Of course, the world would beg to differ, because in our world, bowing down to our appetites is the name of the game. If we deny our appetites, and especially our sexual appetites, we are living dishonestly and probably doing psychological damage to ourselves. We are welcome to deny our appetite for food, as long as it is in the context of indulging the appetite of our vanity or our self-fulfillment. If we denied our appetites the whole system of advertising would collapse. The world can’t comprehend the idea of denying ourselves what is perfectly good and even necessary for us, in order to draw closer to God. That is just kind of crazy, kind of unhealthy, really kind of stupid. But our counselor Jesus can tell us, it is the only wisdom, because he walked that way before us.
When Satan had failed to make Jesus bow to his physical cravings, he preyed upon a most basic and human fear. “God promised that he would protect you no matter what. Do you really believe him?” And you notice how evil mis-uses what is good, the word of God, in order to trap us? In the garden of Eden, Satan, the old Serpent, tricked Eve by quoting God, and then telling her that God was not being honest with her. He wasn’t really looking out for her best interest in forbidding them to eat the fruit; he was holding out on her. And Satan cast the same kind of dark shadow over God’s promises as he sat in the desert with Jesus. “God said he would send his angels to protect you no matter what. Would he really? Why don’t you try it out? Go on – if you really believe him.”
To overcome the temptation of fear, we need to trust that God is really on our side, that we can really rely on him to keep on loving us and doing what is best for us. That is sometimes a terribly hard thing to do, because fear gets in the way of our faith and our trust. Did God really promise to take care of us? Did he mean it? Do we deserve it? It is so easy to get sucked down into the trap of fear and un-faith. Jesus felt the same pull that we do. Alone and hungry in the wilderness, the howlings of fear in his mind must have been fierce, but he resisted by refusing to take the bait. Faith believes without seeing. Faith is a choice, and he chose to have faith in the Father who loved him. “I won’t put God to the test,” he answered, “I choose to trust.”
When all else had failed, Satan offered Jesus something that already belonged to him. It seems a very odd, almost a silly thing for the devil to take the Son of God up on a high mountain to tempt him with the very world he himself had created, and the world on which Jesus knew he would one day sit in judgment. But I think the temptation was something more subtle than just tempting Jesus with riches. Because what Satan was really offering Jesus was a short cut. He was offering him a way to finish his work the easy way. Jesus was at the very outset of his ministry, and as he looked ahead he had years of hard work and weariness, and at the end betrayal and pain and sorrow and death.
So many of our temptations are ways of taking the easy way out: we might be tempted to run away from a situation to avoid the pain of working things out, or maybe to stay in a harmful situation to avoid the fear of heading into the unknown. It takes a lot of faith sometimes to choose to follow the way God is leading us when all of our human fears and tiredness and selfishness are screaming at us to do it the easy way. And generally the world is ready to chime right in and agree with our temptations. Jesus faced that, but he chose faith and the long hard way, because that was the only way he could serve God and love us and bring healing to the world. And because he chose the way of love instead of the easy way, we can go to him for mercy and grace every time we come face to face with the demons in our own lives.
Remember how three years later in the garden of Gethsemane, just before Jesus was arrested, he prayed with bitter tears, and sweat drops of blood, that there might be some other way, any other way, than the suffering of the cross. Even at the last the way ahead filled him with terror, though his love overcame his fear. But at the very beginning there already lay the temptation to desire the easy way out. All it takes, Satan coaxed, is to serve me instead of God, and things will be so much easier. Clearly life lived for God isn’t the easy way. Thanks be to God, Jesus was not deceived, though everything human within him must have been clawing at him to give in. But to love God and to obey him only, that was the first and the greatest commandment, and he held onto it for dear life, because it was truly a matter of life and death – and not only for him, but for us too, because his obedience was our salvation.
In the end, Jesus commanded the devil to go away, and he ran, just like James wrote, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” And the victory of Jesus over all his temptations means we can always come to him with confidence, and always find mercy and grace in our times of need. Jesus always hears our struggles with the deep compassion of one who has fought the very same demons we have, who won the battle, and who has pledged his life to make sure we make it through as well. In a few minutes we’ll kneel in prayer and make our confession to God as we do every week. Today, remember that there is nothing you bring to him that he does not understand fully. He sympathizes with all your weaknesses, and even better, he is able to strengthen and heal you because by overcoming his temptations he chose everlasting life for us all.