March 1, 2020, Can God Be Tempted? Matthew 4:1-11 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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This past Saturday, an International organization called L’Arche announced the results of an investigation it commissioned last year into its founder, Jean Vanier, who died in 2019. Vanier was a Catholic priest and has been admired for many years as a wise and holy man. But this investigation revealed that that Vanier has been accused of manipulative sexual relationships and emotional abuse between 1970 and 2005. These relationships were “described as emotionally abusive and characterized by significant imbalances of power,” according to the report, and occurred in the context of spiritual direction. Not only that, but the report establishes that Jean Vanier knew about ongoing emotional and sexual abuse perpetrated by his mentor, Father Thomas Philippe, and that he may have enabled further abuse by his silence, by his continued relationship with Phillipe, and by allowing Phillips access to the L’Arche community for decades.
What makes this news all the more horrifying is that L’Arche, which is French for the Ark, like Noah’s Ark, is a network of Christian communities specifically for people with intellectual disabilities. Vanier has been considered a role model for countless people, including Henri Nouwen, in founding these communities for men and women who had no other place to fit in. In other words, L’Arche existed to provide a safe and nurturing home for some of the most vulnerable people in our societies. Add to that the context that these men, Vanier and Phillipe, were entrusted with the spiritual care and guidance of those people they used and abused, and it all becomes dismayingly tragic. A Jesuit priest, James Martin, wrote: “A devastating and lifelong tragedy for those who were abused. A time of heartbreak for L’Arche. A grave disappointment for all who admired him, and considered him a saint, as I once did.”
Maybe the most tragic thing of all is that these revelations come out in a world that is already so super-saturated with such things that many people won’t even be surprised. The Roman Catholic Church has been much in the news for decades of suppressing accusations of abusive clergy, sweeping its dirt under the rug and turning a blind eye to the suffering of generations of victims. But the Catholic Church is hardly alone. Everywhere there are people in positions of power, in churches, in corporations, in athletics, in universities – anywhere and everywhere there are people in power, we are finding that there are people who abuse that power. And where the abuse has been uncovered we find people who have been suffering in silence for year upon year upon year. Only very recently are we beginning to see a reckoning with the coming of the “me too” movement. Just this week there was something of a victory for the victims of abuse in the conviction of the movie producer Harvey Weinstein.
And no matter what you think of the “me too” movement, we all should be asking the question: why do these things happen? What brings a human being to a place where they feel justified in using and abusing their fellow creatures – and not only rich, powerful, corrupt Hollywood people like Weinstein, but even men of God, men whose lives were supposedly dedicated to serving and protecting those who are the most precious and beloved of our Lord Jesus Christ?
The answer is in the gospel passage today. In a word, it’s a matter of temptation. Every person who has ever lived, every one of us here in this room, is tested and tried when we come face to face with our fears, with our desires, with our pride, with our resentment. And not one of us can say that we have come through unscathed. There are those who find themselves in positions of power over others who are tempted in ways that we might not be able to understand. My heart breaks for men like Vanier, who gave in to temptations in ways that hurt so many people, so that it casts a shadow over even the real good he accomplished in his life.
But we have all of us given in, time and time again, to things we knew were wrong, to things that were hurtful to others and displeasing to God. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, wrote Paul, and it is as true today as it ever was. David wrote, “The Lord looks down from heaven at us humans to see if there are any who are wise, any who worship him. But they have all gone wrong; they are all equally bad. Not one of them does what is right, not a single one.” We might fool ourselves into thinking our little sins aren’t so bad if we measure ourselves against one of those really big sinners we hear about in the news, but if we are honest we know how much we need the grace and forgiveness of God day in and day out.
Our hope is in this: that Jesus knows what we’re up against. The writer to the Hebrews says something almost unthinkable, that Jesus was tested in everything, just like we are. We know that Jesus was fully human as well as fully God. And that meant that he knew what it was to feel pain, to be sad, to get sick – even to die. But I think one of the hardest things for us to grasp is that Jesus experienced temptation; that he was tested, as we are. He never gave in to sin, we know, but that doesn’t mean that the testing was not terrible and painful for him, just as it so often is for us. We get to see in the gospel reading today one of the most private and personal experiences in the life of Christ, as he does battle with his own very real, very human fears and needs and desires.
The Holy Spirit led Jesus out into the desert to have this time of testing, so we know that for the whole 40 days there was no one else there. There were no witnesses to Jesus’s encounter with Satan. Jesus must have told the story of his testing in the desert to his disciples himself, wanting them to understand what happened, wanting them to know that just like us, he knew the pain of temptation. Because aren’t we tempted to think that it must have been easy for him? Of course, we give in to the temptation to lie about something or share a juicy bit of gossip about our neighbor, because we’re only human. But Jesus, we think, would never feel a desire to do anything wrong.
But again, the writer to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus learned obedience through his suffering, as unthinkable as that seems to us. God though he was and is, he had truly emptied himself of his divine privilege so that he might take on our full humanity, born in the likeness of man who is subject to sin and death. And so today we read what Jesus remembered so vividly of his time in the desert, when his physical body was weakened by long fasting, and the voice of the evil one spoke into his fears and his weariness and to desires that could only belong to him – because temptation is insidiously clever, and adapts itself to our most personal weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
It is important for us to really understand – Jesus himself wants us to understand – that he was tempted. He didn’t sit there calmly in the desert like one of those inscrutable yoga masters; he didn’t 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 pains of hunger and fear and doubt and desire, just like we do. And it was only out of his pain and struggling that he won the battle and chose not to give in 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 we wonder 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. 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.
It is all those things 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 so his son can walk behind him in his footprints and not be overwhelmed. 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. We aren’t guilty because we are tempted. Being tempted just means we are in the battle, just as our Lord was in the battle.
But 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. Jesus 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.
John wrote to the church: “If we claim that we never give in to sin, we’re calling God a liar. Anyone who says they have no sin is just fooling themselves, and there’s no truth in them.” That’s the bad news. But there’s good news – the best news: “If we confess our sins to God, he will keep his promise and do what is right: he will forgive us all our sins and he will wash us clean from all our filth and failure.” We come together every week to make our confession to God. And time and time again we come to God in the privacy of our own hearts to confess our failings, to admit our lost battles. We come to him with our frustration, our shame, our discouragement. But confession for the people of Jesus Christ is always a place of hope. Jesus told the story of his temptation in the desert so that we can draw near to the throne of his grace with complete confidence, because there we can be sure to be welcomed with understanding as well as mercy. And there we can find grace to help us in our own battle against sin.