Lent I March 6 2022 – “The Struggle is Real” Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

This episode in the desert happens right after Jesus has been baptized by John. Like the glorious moment on the mountaintop we read about last week, at his baptism, Jesus’s divinity was on full display. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of people there along the banks of the Jordan River on that day. They all came to John, they all stepped into the river, they all felt the strong arm of John lowering them into the flowing waters, they all came up from the waters dripping wet, and touched by God in some powerful way. But it was only when Jesus came up out of the water that the heavens were torn open. And the spirit came down upon Jesus in the form of a white bird. And the voice of God the Father proclaimed for all to hear, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

There were many times in Jesus’s earthly life when people looked on him as nothing more than a rough peasant from a backwater village, son of a carpenter, uneducated – in a word, common. But not on the day of his baptism. On that day Jesus’s divine credentials were abundantly clear. And then, the Holy Spirit whisked Jesus away, out of the public eye and into the wilderness where there was nothing but rocks and dust and wild beasts. And the Devil. And it is very easy, I think, to read the story of Jesus’s testing in the wilderness as more “God” stuff. It is easy to see this desert battle between Jesus and the Devil as something like the last fight in Star Wars between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, where the light sabers are flashing and making that weird humming sound, and everybody is standing back out of the way to see who will be victorious – though we know, of course, that it will be Luke, because he is the good guy.

We never read the story of the testing in the wilderness with any sense of doubt or uncertainty about the outcome of the battle, do we? Jesus is God. Of course he wins. Jesus would never do any of those things the Devil is tempting him to do, we know that. Jesus has all the right Bible verses on the tip of his tongue. Clearly, the Devil is doomed before he even gets started. But in order to really understand what’s going on in this strange story about Jesus and the Devil out in the desert, we look to the letter to the Hebrews. The writer says plainly, speaking of Jesus, “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.” It turns out, as strange as it may seems to us, that this event in the Judean wilderness was not just a God moment; for Jesus, it was also very much a human moment. It turns out that this battle is much less a clever verbal sparring contest, or show of divine power, and much, much more an agonized wrestling of the heart. Because, as it turns out, Jesus was actually tempted, as we are.

There is some difference of opinion on the identity of the Devil here. Some people picture the scene as you might see it in Sunday School lessons or cartoons – Jesus and the Devil as two physical entities standing face to face, Jesus in his white robe and sandals, and the Devil with horns and hoofs, with red skin and maybe a pitchfork. Others imagine that the presence of the Devil was of a more spiritual nature, rather than physical. The truth is, it doesn’t make any difference which way we picture it in our mind’s eye, because the real battle was the struggle going on inside of Jesus.

And what were the temptations? First of all, Jesus had been fasting for a long, long time, and his body was very weak. He needed food desperately. And the temptation arose – whether in his mind or from outside doesn’t really matter – the temptation presented itself to Jesus to use his divine powers to relieve his own suffering. There’s no doubt whatsoever that Jesus felt, acutely, the desire to take one of the many rocks in that bleak, inhospitable landscape, and to turn it into a soft, hot, fragrant loaf of bread. He could do it. But he knew that he must not. If we don’t recognize the gnawing pain in his gut, his tongue so thick and parched he couldn’t even swallow: unless we picture the physical torment of that moment, then we don’t understand that Jesus knows what it is to be tempted.

Another part of Jesus’s temptation was mental and emotional, rather than physical. He had come out into the desert fresh from his baptism. He and everyone else had seen and heard the miraculous sign of his Father’s love and approval. But now, here he was, day after day, in endless silence and solitude. The only living beings for miles and miles were wild beasts. The desert days were scorching hot and the nights were cold, and the loneliness must have been at least as painful as his hunger. And in his true humanity, Jesus began to feel the voice of doubt. We know that voice. “If you are the Son of God,” it whispered in his isolation and insecurity. “If you are…” If we don’t recognize the torment of that suggestion that everything that was most precious and solid and real might be no more than a figment of his imagination, then we don’t understand that Jesus knows what it is to be tempted.

A third temptation that Jesus faced was the temptation to take a short cut to glory. He was about to embark on the long, painful road to the cross. Beyond all the disgrace and discomfort and weariness and suffering that lay ahead of him glimmered the glory and honor that was rightfully his, like a mirage in the desert. How could Jesus not be tempted by a longing to bypass his suffering and claim what was his? We know that this temptation came to him again on the night before his Passion and death, when Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” And his sweat fell like drops of blood on the ground. On that night Jesus conquered his temptation with humility, “Not my will, but yours, be done.” But it was out in the desert that Jesus faced it for the first time: the dread of that long road, the terror of the pain and darkness and loneliness. If we don’t recognize the lure of comfort, and the fear of death that Jesus faced as a human man, then we don’t understand that Jesus knows what it is to be tempted.

But the truth is that Jesus did face temptation in every bit as real a way as you or I do – except that he did not sin. And that is a great comfort for us. For one thing, that means that there is no shame or guilt for us in the mere fact of being tempted. Temptation, in and of itself, is not sin. To be tempted is merely human. We never need to feel ashamed for being tempted. On the other hand, sin doesn’t only consist of our outward acts; Jesus made that very clear. To murder someone is sin, but so is despising them, so is allowing ourselves to hate them. To commit adultery is sin, yes, but so is allowing ourselves to look on another person to satisfy our sexual appetites. And what that means is that the battle Jesus fought in his heart out in the Judean wilderness is the same battle that we wage in our hearts. The battle is won or lost before we take any outward action. The battle is won or lost whether or not we do anything at all. Because the battle is won by holding on to the truth of who we are, by choosing what is right over what is easy, by choosing God’s will over our own. And Jesus understands that battle from the inside, because he was tempted in every respect, just as we are – yet without sin.

We don’t talk a lot about sin in the Episcopal Church. For the most part, I choose to talk about God’s great love for us. I choose to talk about the way of grace, which is entirely opposed to the way of this world. I choose to talk about our identity as children of God, beloved children in whom he takes delight. But the truth is that we face a daily battle with temptation, just the same as our Lord himself did. To pick up our cross and to follow him is an act of the heart, and inevitably it involves facing that battle against our fears and our desires and our insecurities and our doubts. There is always that struggle to lay down our own will and say, “Not my will, but yours, be done.”

Temptation is part of being human. But thanks be to our God, he shared our full humanity, including the sordid struggle against temptation. And because of that, the battle belongs to the Lord. He will see us through because he came to share the struggle with us. We don’t talk about sin very much here. But the journey of Lent calls us to wake up and focus our attention on the spiritual battle going on in our hearts. The word “repentance” means changing direction, turning away from the temptations and voices and habits that deceive and misdirect us, and turning the intentions of our hearts back into the way of love and justice and mercy and trust. And that is what we’re going to be doing together over these next forty days, as we travel together through Jesus’s trials in the desert, through the suffering of his Passion, and finally, into the glorious joy of his Resurrection. +

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