February 22, 2015, Lent 1 – Resistance Is Not Futile
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It is a very important and awesome thing to contemplate the full meaning of the Incarnation – what it really means to us that God had skin and bones and blood, that he ate and drank, that he got tired and had to sleep, that he got sad and wept real salt tears just like we do, that he felt pain, that he felt happy, that he laughed and sang and held little children in his arms. It is the greatest mystery in the universe. If Jesus had not become a man, a real solid human being, his Passion and his death and Resurrection and Ascension, none of those things would belong to us as human beings. It is because he was true man; it was only because he took on mortal human life, that his human death offers eternal life to all of us. It is a great mystery, and our greatest joy and hope.
But I think one of the hardest thing for us to grasp about Jesus being really human is that he experienced temptation. Mark tell us that right after Jesus was baptized, the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness, and that he was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. And we know first hand what it means to be tempted by Satan. It means that Jesus Christ, the perfect sinless Son of God, had to battle within himself the desire to do and think things that are hateful to God. It is almost unthinkable, almost impossible for us to imagine, except that the Gospel writers tell us that it is true. Matthew and Luke record three specific temptations. First of all, Jesus was tempted to doubt that God would provide what he needed when he was hungry. When his body was weak and suffering severe hunger pangs, because he had been fasting for 40 days, the temptation came – and whether it was a visible Satan sitting there like we see in pictures, or that voice of our fallen humanity that tries to draw us out of the freedom we were created for, and into the slavery of sin, Jesus was tempted, he felt the pull, to take things into his own hands and provide for himself rather than to wait on God for what he needed. He could take those stones and made a nice loaf of bread; God knows he was genuinely hungry. And how long was God going to ask him to wait, when was God going to provide? Was God going to provide?
We’ve all been there, teetering on the brink of despair. And haven’t we all noticed that God seems to answer us at what seems to us the last minute, when we have all but given up hoping that he heard our cry for help, when we have all but given up hope that he will be faithful – or sometimes when we have given up hope. But Jesus held on to his faith, by remembering that everything that sustained his life came from his Father. It’s not that it was easy for him – if it was easy, we could never say that Jesus understands our sufferings – but he fought the battle, and he won. For us, who are not without sin, we have all lost that battle at one time or another. We have all given in to the temptation of fear and un-faith at some time in our lives; at some point we have all yielded to the urge to take things into our own hands – and of course, generally we have made a complete mess of things. Maybe it was in a time of unemployment or uncertainty in our lives. Maybe it was a relationship. Whatever it was, in that moment we just got tired of waiting for God’s direction.
I can remember a very terrible experience in a church some years ago, where the leadership lost patience with a member who was making trouble. They prayed, and they discussed the problem, but eventually they became exasperated and finally made the choice to excommunicate this person. It wounded a lot of people, and I truly believe, looking back, that it was a failure on our part to wait for God to provide. We gave in to the temptation to take matters into our own hands and to end our own suffering in our own way. And evil had a little victory that day.
Of course temptation doesn’t give up that easily, and Satan has more than one trick up his sleeve. And I think it’s important to realize that temptation is very creative. The things mankind are tempted with are myriad, and it all depends on the situation in which we find ourselves. Jesus was first tempted to make the stones into bread because he was literally starving; his physical body needed food, and it was only natural that his temptation use his hunger and his need to draw him away from trusting the Father. But he had also just been anointed by the Holy Spirit for ministry, this task that to a human being – and Jesus was truly human, though he was God – to a man, it had to have been overwhelmingly huge – to bring the life of the kingdom of heaven into this dying creation. And so the second temptation attacked in that place of overwhelmed-ness. God says he’s got your back, it said. God promises if you throw yourself off a cliff, his angels will catch you so you don’t even get a scratch. Better try it out; what if it’s not true? So Jesus was tempted to do a little test run, to see if God was really to be trusted.
And again, we have all been there – or at least I’m assuming we all have, because I certainly have. Suddenly that fear comes upon us: what if God really isn’t going to show up when I need him? What if he’s not really big enough? Or more often, I think, we wonder: what if he doesn’t really notice me or care enough about me? What if I, and my little problems, just aren’t on his radar after all? And so we devise little tests sometimes, don’t we? We do the Bible bingo thing, where we pop our Bibles open and close our eyes and point at a random passage, and we tell ourselves if God is really listening he will give us a sign. The amazing thing is that our Father is humble and patient enough with us, and he loves us enough, that sometimes he actually does speak to us when we put him to the test. If you are like me, there are a lot of ways we put God to the test, so many ways we give in to this temptation of fear and mistrust.
And then there was the third big temptation, where Satan showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and said: if you worship me, I’ll give you all this. I tend to think this one is very custom-designed for Jesus as the Son of God, because we are not really tempted to think we will rule the world. Or are we? I think this temptation is about compromises. To get what you really want, temptation whispered in Jesus’ ear, just bow down to me. And how many compromises have we made in our lives to get what we want. We know what God would have us do. We know the standards of his kingdom. But if we just stretch it a little bit, we can accomplish what we really, really want to accomplish, or we can accomplish it faster or easier, or we can have that thing we would just love to have. And before we know it, we are bowing down to someone who is certainly not our Father in heaven. Haven’t we all been there? Haven’t we all given in at some point?
We have all failed in fighting temptation in the past; we will almost certainly all fail again in the future, because we are weak and fallible creatures. We live our lives in constant dependence upon the grace and forgiveness of God through the cross of Jesus Christ. That is certain. But it is really important for us to understand what the temptation of Jesus has to say to us, because if we don’t we are so much less prepared for the battle. It is important for us to really understand that Jesus himself was tempted. He didn’t sit there in the desert and sneer at Satan and just rattle off his proof-texts like a televangelist without even breaking a sweat. He sweated, and he struggled, and he suffered the very real human pangs of hunger and fear and doubt and desire, just like we do. And it was out of that pain and struggling that he chose not to sin.
The writer to the Hebrews said a most amazing thing. Jesus, he says, by whom and for whom everything exists, was made perfect through suffering. And how can that even be, because we know that Jesus was perfect from all eternity to all eternity. But perfect doesn’t just mean morally pure or righteous; perfect means whole, complete. And Jesus, in emptying himself to be a human being, just like you and me, had to suffer, had to fight temptation, had to feel the full range of human weakness, in order to be fully and completely and perfectly the Son of God who was also the son of Mary. It boggles the mind. But it is the truth. And it is our glory and our comfort and our healing and our life.
Because when he fought and won that battle against temptation in the desert Jesus was laying down footprints for us to follow, just like a father might walk through deep snow in front of his little boy so the child can step in his footprints. When we are tempted, we are not helpless and powerless and alone. We have someone to follow who has gone that way before us. One thing that we can know for sure is that we are not evil because we are tempted – our Lord himself was tempted in all things, just as we are. Because we doubt, because we fear, because we desire something, because a little compromise really entices us, that doesn’t mean we have failed; it doesn’t mean we are bad people. It just means we are people. We are not defeated just by being tempted. Being tempted just means we are in the battle, just as our Lord was in the battle. And he showed us that we can have the victory. Temptation is not something we should ever seek, but when – not if – when – we are tempted, we have the resources in Jesus Christ to fight it, and he gives us grace to overcome. And when we fail, as we will do sometimes, we have the forgiveness and mercy of the one who understands our struggles perfectly. He knows what it is to be tempted; and he will never condemn us. He is by our side in our every battle. And he calls us to persevere, to fight the good fight – not as a superior who looks down on us and barks orders, but as our fellow soldier, who has gone before us.
The writer to the Hebrews wrote this: we don’t have a high priest who can’t sympathize with our weaknesses, we have one who has been tempted in every way, just like us, but without giving in to sin. We can draw near to the throne of grace with complete confidence, because there we can be sure to be welcomed with mercy and to find grace to help us in our every battle against sin.